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How to Win a National Merit Scholarship

Posted by Rebecca Safier | Feb 2, 2015 4:40:00 PM

PSAT Info and Strategies, College Admissions

 

 

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Being named a Finalist is the highest academic recognition you can achieve from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC). It is a national distinction that places you at the pinnacle of academic achievement.

Not all Finalists are chosen to receive scholarships, however.  Only about 8,000 of 15,000 students gain this award. In this article we’ll talk about what scholarships are available through NMSC and what you need to do to get one.

 

The Path to This Point

First, 1.5 million high school juniors take the PSAT/NMSQT. Only 16,000 students are named Finalists, and, after an extensive application process, only 15,000 of these students achieve Finalist status.

If you haven’t read our detailed articles yet on the steps to take to become a Semifinalist and Finalist, check them out here: National Merit Semifinalist and National Merit Finalist.

Now that you know what it takes to get to this point, read on to learn about the three scholarships available, how much money they give, and how Finalists qualify for scholarship awards.

 

1. National Merit Scholarships

Every Finalist is given consideration for a National Merit Scholarship. Finalists are named Scholars (in other words, receive the scholarship) based on the strength of their applications. Scholars have outstanding applications that demonstrate academic commitment, extracurricular and community involvement, passion, and drive.

Your first choice college is not a factor under consideration for National Merit Scholarships. In fact, the NMSC committee members do not even see this information.

These scholarships are awarded to only 2,500 Finalists, or about 1 in 6 Finalists. They are a one-time award of $2,500 and are not renewable throughout your years of college.

To sum up: Every Finalist is given consideration for the National Merit Scholarship based on their applications.

 

2. Corporate-Sponsored Scholarships

The second type of scholarship offered by NMSC is a corporate-sponsored scholarship. Finalists are also automatically given consideration for these scholarships based on their applications and the information they provide about parental employment, intended majors, and career plans.

Most corporate sponsors give awards to students whose parents or guardians work for them. A small number award non-employee children if they indicate an interest in a major or career choice that the corporation wants to support. As this changes year to year, you should check with your corporation of interest to learn about their award criteria. Sponsor corporations include UPS, Boeing, Macy’s, BP, Southwest Airlines, and the General Mills Foundation (see the full list here).

About 1,000 students receive corporate-sponsored awards, and they range greatly in amount. They are usual renewable, or awarded annually, and tend to be transferable to any four-year accredited college.

To sum up: Finalists are automatically given consideration for corporate-sponsored awards based on their applications and the parent employment information they indicate therein (or occasionally, major and career interest).

 

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3. College-Sponsored Scholarships

Finalists who do not receive either the National Merit Scholarships or a Corporate-Sponsored Scholarships are considered for College-Sponsored scholarships. Check the list of college sponsors to see which schools are eligible.

Some popular sponsor colleges include Boston University, Boston College, Tufts, Bowdoin, Colby, University of Chicago, University of Southern California, and Pomona. Some colleges who do NOT sponsor include Harvard and the other Ivy Leagues, MIT, Williams, and Middlebury.

Students must indicate one of the sponsor colleges as their First Choice college on their applications. Students who put “Undecided” will not be considered. So, even if you’re not sure, you should still put one of the sponsoring colleges as your first choice or add one to your application ASAP.

Students can log into their NMSC applications and change their first choice college up until May 31st, UNLESS they have already received an award offer from the college they indicated. NMSC sends rosters of Finalists to sponsoring colleges in March. Scholarship offers start in early May and continue for the next few months.

Page 3 of the application goes over the College-Sponsored Scholarships process in detail. If you have any questions about it, definitely clarify by calling NMSC Scholarship administration at 1-847-866-5100.

About 4,100 students receive college-sponsored scholarships in an amount between $500 and $2,000. Colleges may award even more merit-based awards--if that’s the case, NMSC will cover up to $2,000, and the rest of the award will come from the college or other sources. Since every school differs, students should contact the school directly to discuss their merit-based financial awards. College-sponsored scholarships are renewable annually and non-transferable.

To sum up: You must put a sponsor college as your first choice in your NMSC application to be considered for a college-sponsored scholarship. Since college awards and policies differ, you should contact the school of interest itself to learn how much merit-based scholarship money you might be eligible to receive.

 

What Do You Need to Do to Maximize Your Chances?

Put together an outstanding application. Review instructions for Semifinalists here: http://nationalmerit.org/Merit_R&I_Leaflet.pdf. What story do your extracurricular activities and community service tell? Do they show a progression to a position of leadership? Do they show “depth over breadth”?
    • Besides having flawless grammar and spelling, does your personal essay show that you are thoughtful, reflective, and draw meaning from your experiences?
    • How strong is your recommendation? Give your teacher a “brag sheet” of the qualities, accomplishments, and even adjectives you would like them to include to make your recommendation stand out as one of the best.
    • If you were on the committee choosing which Finalists become Scholars, what criteria would you use? What would impress you about a candidate and make you want to award him/her a scholarship?

Research sponsor corporations and be aware of your parents’ employment. Make sure to include any relevant information on your application so you will be considered for a corporate-sponsored scholarship.

Indicate a sponsor college as your first choice on your application. Make any changes by May 31st. Page 3 of your application explains this process in greater detail. 

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Put Your Best Foot Forward - A Timeline

Maximize your chances of getting a scholarship by following these steps and meeting all the deadlines.

  1. Prep for the PSAT in sophomore year. Make sure you're scoring above the score cutoff for your state, or else you won't qualify as a Semifinalist.
  2. Take the PSAT in the fall of your junior year and qualify for Semifinalist by scoring in the top 1%.
  3. Study for the SATs in the spring and summer and take them in the fall of your senior year. Get a high score that shows NMSC that your PSAT scores weren’t just a fluke.
  4. Submit your NMSC application in early October of senior year. If for some reason your school received late notification of Semifinalists, just let NMSC know. In this instance, they won’t penalize you for having a late application.
  5. Receive word that you made Finalist in early February of senior year.
  6. Receive word that you won a scholarship starting in early May of senior year.

 

Preparation Is Everything

Start preparing as early as possible to become a National Merit Finalist and Scholar. This doesn’t just mean studying for the PSATs and SATs. It also means joining clubs, gaining a leadership position, and cultivating good relationships with your teachers. All of this preparation will not only help you succeed on the PSAT and SAT, but will set you up for success in your future academic and professional careers.

 

What's Next?

Make sure you read about our National Merit Semifinalist and Finalist articles to have the best chance of qualifying for each stage of the competition.

The National Merit Scholarship uses the PSAT, but the SAT is far more important for college admissions.

What's a good SAT score? Learn what a good target score is, based on your college goals.

Aiming for a perfect score on the SAT? Read our guide to getting a perfect SAT score, written by one of our perfect scorers. 

 

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Rebecca Safier
About the Author

Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.



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