What Is a National Merit Scholar?

As students reach high school, they begin looking toward college. That means planning their PSAT and SAT, researching colleges that suit their goals, and keeping their eye out for scholarship opportunities. 

Every year, a select few high school students nationwide become National Merit Scholars. This honorable distinction is designed to help with college tuition while also recognizing standout students for their academic efforts. These awards are given by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.

What Are the Qualifications?

Not everyone is eligible to become a National Merit Scholar. Every student interested in joining the program is required to meet three major qualifications. 

First, the student must have taken the PSAT or NMSQT no later than their third year of high school. Most students complete this in the first semester of junior year.

Second, the individual must be a full-time high school student on a traditional campus or a homeschool program. They must also be in good standing academically and plan to attend college in the fall after graduating high school.

Third, the student must be enrolled in high school in the United States, a U.S. territory, or the District of Columbia. U.S. citizens attending high school abroad are also eligible to apply.

Due to these qualifications, most students apply for National Merit Scholarship during the latter half of their junior year.

Become a Commended Student, Semifinalist, Finalist, or Scholar

Based on a student’s PSAT scores submitted to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, they can fall into the Commended Student or Semifinalist category.

The highest 2–3% of scorers in the PSAT typically become Commended Students. While this is an honorable accomplishment, Commended Students are not eligible for National Merit Scholarship.

Students with scores in the PSAT’s top 1% achieve Semifinalist status. This status allows them to submit an additional application to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation to become a Finalist. Each student must include their transcripts, a letter of recommendation, and a personal essay in their application. 

From the pool of student finalists, roughly 7,500 nationwide are selected as Scholars. These are the students who are awarded financial aid for their college admission. 

3 Types of National Merit Scholarship

Each National Merit Scholarship winner is awarded one of the three types of scholarships within the corporation. 

  1. A one-time scholarship of $2,500
  2. A corporate-sponsored award
  3. A college-sponsored award

The first type is always a one-time award. However, while the corporate-sponsored and college-sponsored awards can also be awarded only once, they are sometimes renewable each year of college. 

Ways to Become a National Merit Scholar

Once you achieve the status of Semifinalist, you will need a strong letter of recommendation as well as a gripping and well-written personal essay. However, before you can get to that point, an incredible score on the PSAT is crucial. That’s why students considering National Merit Scholarship should heavily prioritize PSAT prep.

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