National Merit Scholarship: Exploring Eligibility Requirements & Criteria 2023/24

Discover the pinnacle of academic recognition with the National Merit Scholarship. Recognizing excellence in high school students nationwide, this prestigious award not only celebrates exceptional scholastic achievement but also provides substantial financial support. Explore how this coveted scholarship program fosters future leaders and rewards outstanding dedication to academic excellence.

The National Merit Scholarship stands as an esteemed symbol of academic excellence and achievement within the landscape of high school education in the United States. It represents not just a prestigious honor but a significant opportunity, recognizing and rewarding exceptional students who exhibit outstanding scholastic abilities, leadership potential, and a commitment to excellence. 

With a rigorous selection process and a legacy of nurturing the brightest minds, this scholarship program not only provides financial support but also serves as a launchpad for the promising futures of its recipients. In this introduction, we’ll delve into the essence of the National Merit Scholarship, exploring its history, significance, and the impact it has on the academic journeys of aspiring scholars across the nation.

National Merit Scholarship
National Merit Scholarship

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What is the National Merit Scholarship?

Let’s begin with the foundation: The National Merit Scholarship stands as a prestigious program accessible to U.S. high school students, encompassing those within the United States, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, and American citizens attending high school abroad. Homeschooled students are also eligible to participate. This distinguished scholarship comprises four main categories, each detailed below:

  1. National Merit $2500 Scholarships
  2. National Merit Special Scholarships
  3. Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards
  4. College-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards

Eligibility for these scholarships hinges upon demonstrating exceptional academic performance, embodying the “merit” aspect.

Sponsored annually by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, this program aims to honor students achieving remarkable scores on their PSATs. Scholarships may originate from the National Scholarship Corporation itself, other organizations and corporations, or select colleges and universities.

What is a National Merit Scholar?

The title of “National Merit Scholar” undoubtedly carries weight and prestige, and rightfully so!

Securing a high score on the PSAT marks only the initial phase. National Merit Scholars undergo a rigorous application journey—from being Commended Students to Semifinalists, culminating in being designated as Finalists and ultimately achieving the coveted status of Scholars.

Attaining the title of National Merit Scholar stands as the ultimate aspiration for those who navigate this process, signifying exceptional academic achievement.

However, it’s essential to remember that pursuing the National Merit Scholarship is optional. While excelling on the PSAT can set you on this trajectory, deciding to apply for any scholarship is a choice that you and your family should make based on your individual circumstances.

Consider whether you truly require financial assistance. If you meet the criteria for the scholarship, it might be worth pursuing!

Furthermore, evaluate your current stress level regarding the impending college application process. If the thought of adding one more thing to your plate feels overwhelming, it’s crucial to weigh if pursuing a National Merit Scholarship aligns with your mental wellbeing and energy reserves.

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How do you qualify for a National Merit Scholarship?

To qualify for a National Merit Scholarship, the initial step involves taking the PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary Student Aptitude Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test). It’s crucial to distinguish this from the PSAT 10, so ensure you verify before registering since the PSAT/NMSQT is the sole PSAT test that serves as a qualification for the National Merit Scholarship.

Apart from taking the PSAT/NMSQT (commonly taken in 11th grade by most students), there are specific requirements:

  1. The test must be taken before 12th grade (although the majority opt for it in 11th grade).
  2. Full-time enrollment in high school.
  3. Maintaining good academic standing, indicating consistent progress toward meeting graduation requirements without being on academic warning or probation, and reflecting strong academic performance in grades.
  4. Intent to attend college in the fall semester following high school graduation (no gap year).
  5. Attaining a PSAT/NMSQT score within the top 1% of their state. This necessitates achieving a minimum score that varies based on the state; however, the average score across all states typically hovers around 218.

Psat selection index

When discussing PSAT/NMSQT scores concerning National Merit Scholarships, we’re referring to a score known as the Selection Index, ranging from 48 to 228. This score determines the weighted value of your component scores by doubling the total of your Reading, Writing and Language, and Math test scores.

Suppose you achieve a Reading score of 33, a Writing and Language score of 33, and a Math score of 35. Combine these scores, then multiply the sum by 2 to derive your Index score.

For instance:

33 (Reading) + 33 (Writing and Language) + 35 (Math) = 101

101 x 2 = 202

Hence, 202 is your Index score!

Qualifying scores for the PSAT/NMSQT vary annually based on the scores attained by all students taking the test in that specific year. Consequently, it’s challenging to specify the exact Index score to target. However, aiming for a score around 207 generally positions you favorably for qualification as a Commended student or a Semifinalist.

Types of National Merit Scholarships

Yes, there are different categories of National Merit Scholarships! This might seem like a lot to take in, but understanding these distinctions is crucial as it highlights various avenues through which you could secure additional financial aid for your college expenses. Don’t worry; we’ll guide you through this intricate process.

The National Merit Scholarship program offers four types of scholarships, totaling 8,500 awards annually:

  1. National Merit $2,500 Scholarships: Onetime awards bestowed by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation to outstanding students fulfilling all eligibility criteria.
  2. National Merit Special Scholarships: Onetime or extendable scholarships granted by private corporations and businesses to exceptional students who do not attain Finalist status for the $2,500 Scholarship.
  3. Corporate-sponsored National Merit Scholarships: These are also one-time or extendable scholarships provided by private corporations and businesses. Typically earmarked for employees’ children, so encourage your parents to explore whether their workplace offers these scholarships!
  4. College-sponsored National Merit Scholarships: Multiyear or renewable scholarships awarded by colleges and universities to students committed to attending their institution.

How do you become a National Merit Finalist ?

The fundamental steps to attain National Merit Semifinalist status involve:

  1. Taking the PSAT/NMSQT.
  2. Achieving a score ranking in the top 1% within your state.

Among the top 50,000 students taking the PSAT/NMSQT, a subset receives recognition as either Commended Students or Semifinalists, with approximately 16,000 students advancing to the Semifinalist stage from that pool.

Scoring in the top 1% of your state is undoubtedly a challenging feat, not a task to be taken lightly (at least not if it’s a cake we’d want to taste).

The status of the Semifinalist is determined at the state level (while Commended students are identified at the national level). Thus, one determinant of achieving Semifinalist status is your state’s total number of high school students, a factor beyond your control. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation approximates the number of Semifinalists per state, and a selection committee then chooses the corresponding students to proceed to the Semifinalist stage.

National Merit Scholarship
National Merit Scholarship

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How do you Apply for a National Merit Scholarship?

After completing the PSAT/NMSQT, you’ve successfully tackled the initial step (hooray)!

While that achievement is worth celebrating, the journey isn’t over yet. Let’s delve into the remaining steps ahead.


You participate in the PSAT/NMSQT.


34,000 students earn recognition as Commended students, while 16,000 students secure positions as Semifinalists. Although Commended students do not progress to the Semifinalist stage, they are honored with a commendation letter, ensuring their efforts are acknowledged.


This marks the beginning of the journey for Semifinalists. Apart from providing high school transcripts and a letter of recommendation, usually from the school principal or a school dean, Semifinalists are required to craft an essay. Typically centered around a significant personal experience or challenge, this essay serves as excellent practice for future college essays.

Additionally, Semifinalists need to submit SAT scores (thus, the PSAT acts as the initial step in the process).

These steps underscore that acquiring a National Merit Scholarship involves more than a stellar PSAT score. The selection committee seeks well rounded individuals who exhibit strong academic prowess beyond test taking abilities.


Around 15,000 students earn the title of Finalists. The educational institutions these students attend are informed of this achievement (hopefully prompting a proud celebration), and each Finalist is awarded a Certificate of Merit.


This marks the moment when the recipients of the National Merit Scholarship are ultimately announced (yes, it’s quite an extensive process)!

Students and their respective schools receive notification of their attainment of the National Merit Scholarship, initiating joyful celebrations and, undoubtedly, a few happy dances.

How Many Students Get a National Merit Scholarship?

Here’s the breakdown of the numbers:

Roughly 1.5 million high school students sit for the PSAT.

34,000 earn recognition as Commended students.

16,000 advance to Semifinalist status.

15,000 progress to become Finalists.

8,500 students ultimately secure National Merit Scholarships.

Let’s face it—these figures might seem overwhelming. However, attaining a National Merit Scholarship is within reach!

The National Merit Scholarship requirements are stringent, and the process isn’t designed to be effortless. Yet, every year, 8,500 students successfully navigate this journey, proving it’s achievable.

Once you clear the initial hurdles of taking the PSAT/NMSQT, achieving a qualifying score, and deliberating on continuing the application process, dedicate yourself to the task. The potential rewards far outweigh the investment (aside from time, a valuable commodity).

Remember, someone will be part of that coveted 8,500, and it could very well be you!

National Merit Scholarship
National Merit Scholarship

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Conclusion on National Merit Scholarships

National Merit Scholarships stand as a pinnacle of recognition, celebrating exceptional dedication and prowess among high school students. This rigorous journey, from the PSAT through various stages to the ultimate achievement of being named a National Merit Scholar, represents not just a financial reward but a testament to resilience, hard work, and intellectual excellence.

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The path to securing these scholarships might be arduous, with numerous milestones and stiff competition, but for those who persevere, the rewards are monumental. These scholarships not only offer financial aid but also symbolize a distinguished accomplishment, setting the stage for promising futures and academic pursuits.

While the numbers may seem daunting, every year, thousands of students successfully navigate this intricate process, proving that with determination and dedication, achieving a National Merit Scholarship is indeed attainable. So, for those embarking on this challenging yet rewarding journey, remember—beyond the numbers and complexities lies the potential to join the esteemed ranks of National Merit Scholars, where hard work and excellence are duly celebrated and rewarded.

FAQs on National Merit Scholarship

Absolutely, National Merit Scholarships often come with various inquiries. Here are some frequently asked questions and their answers:

  1. What is a National Merit Scholarship?

    Answer: It’s a prestigious scholarship program recognizing high school students’ academic excellence and potential, providing financial assistance for college.

  1. How do you qualify for a National Merit Scholarship?

    Answer: Qualification involves taking the PSAT/NMSQT, achieving a high score (top 1% in your state), and progressing through subsequent stages of recognition.

  1. What are the different types of National Merit Scholarships?

    Answer: There are various types, including $2,500 Scholarships, Special Scholarships, CorporateSponsored Scholarships, and CollegeSponsored Scholarships.

  1. What is the PSAT/NMSQT, and how does it relate to the scholarship?

    Answer: The PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) serves as the initial step. A top score is the gateway to consideration.

  1. How many students become National Merit Scholars each year?

    Answer: Roughly 8,500 students secure National Merit Scholarships annually.

  1. What’s the process after becoming a Semifinalist or Finalist?

    Answer: It involves submitting transcripts, recommendation letters, essays, and SAT scores.

  1. Can homeschooled students qualify for National Merit Scholarships?

    Answer: Yes, homeschooled students can participate by meeting specific eligibility criteria.

  1. Is the National Merit Scholarship renewable?

    Answer: It depends on the type of scholarship. Some are one-time awards, while others can be renewed yearly.

  1. Do you have to attend a specific college to receive the scholarship?

    Answer: Certain scholarships are tied to particular colleges, while others are more flexible and can be used at various institutions.

  1. Are Commended students eligible for the National Merit Scholarship?

    Answer: While Commended students receive commendation, they don’t automatically proceed to the Finalist stage but can still qualify for other scholarships.


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