Many students take the PSAT in the fall of their junior year. What a lot of students may not notice is the full name of the test is PSAT/NMSQT, or Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Thus, the PSAT is not just good practice for your SATs. It’s also the first step in becoming a National Merit Finalist and hopefully, earning a $2,500 scholarship from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC).
In this article, we’ll discuss what steps you need to take to become a National Merit Finalist and compete for a scholarship. We'll also give you advice on how to write a strong application and maximize your chances of becoming a National Merit Scholar.
Here’s how the numbers break down:
About 1.5 million students take the PSAT. Of these juniors, about 16,000 gain scores that qualify them as Semifinalists (that's a little more than 1%). This group is narrowed down to 15,000, who become Finalists. Of this group, about 8,000 are awarded scholarships. You can maximize your chances at each stage to win a National Merit Scholarship. Here's how.
Step 1: Meet the Entry Requirements
The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) requires you to have a few qualifications to even be considered for the scholarship:
You must be enrolled as a high school student, progressing normally toward graduation.
You must plan to enroll full time in college starting the fall following high school graduation.
You must be a U.S. citizen or U.S. lawful permanent resident planning to become a U.S. citizen.
These requirements will be checked with a few questions at the beginning of the PSAT.
Step 2: Score in the Top 1% of the PSAT
Becoming a National Merit Finalist is competitive and requires a top score on the PSAT. Although it varies from state to state, most students must score above 1400 (out of 1520) to qualify as a Semifinalist, which means they can compete to move on to Finalist standing.
How can you achieve a top 1% score on the PSAT? Prepare with high quality materials. Identify your weak points and work to improve them. If Reading confuses you, spend the majority of your time practicing those sections. If math isn’t your thing, commit yourself to drilling PSAT math problems. The National Merit competition uses a Selection Index that is based on your Reading, Math, and Writing test scores, so mastering all three sections is key.
Take control of your learning and study with practice questions and sample tests. This practice will also pay off later when you take the SATs in the spring of your junior year and fall of senior year.
For more info, check out our detailed guide to attaining National Merit Semifinalist status.
Step 3: Submit an Excellent Application
Complete the NMSC application requirements by fall of your senior year (usually early October). This application allows 15,000 of the 16,000 Semifinalists to move on to Finalist standing.
If you don't become a finalist or don't qualify, you may still get word that you're a Commended Student or remain as a Semifinalist, which are great distinctions that will stand out on college applications. However, only Finalists are eligible for National Merit Scholarship awards.
The online NMSC application (link to: https://osa.nationalmerit.org/) is the same as your college application in some ways and different in other ways.
You must submit the following:
- Your academic record (transcript)
- SAT scores*
- Information about your activities and leadership roles
- A personal essay
*You have to take the SATs on approved dates, usually in the fall of your senior year, and make sure to send along your score report to NMSC. They need to receive your scores by December 31st of your senior year. While there is no strict cutoff for SAT scores, they must be competitive like your PSAT scores (usually around 1950 or above) so they know your PSAT wasn't a fluke.
You must submit the following:
- A recommendation from your high school principal, or someone the principal designates as a school official
- Information about your school’s curricula and grading system
Let's dig into each component to maximize your chance of building a strong application to win the National Merit Scholar title.
Academic Record and SAT Scores
The National Merit Corporation is first and foremost looking to award academic achievement. There is no strict cutoff, but a competitive GPA (3.5 and above) and high SAT scores (approximately 1950 and above) are recommended. Your academic record should also show that you challenged yourself with honors and AP classes. When you're a high school junior, there isn't much you can do about this, other than continue to excel in your classes.
Extracurricular Activities and Community Service
NMC is also looking at the skills and accomplishments shown in your application. Demonstrated leadership goes a long way--for example, leading in Student Council or other student organizations.
Your activities should reveal your passions and interests--it is usually better to show “depth over breadth.” In other words, get deeply involved in a few activities you’re passionate about rather than showing minor participation in every club, team, and organization your school has to offer. Almost all activities are valuable if they show your commitment, leadership potential, and ability to work with and help others.
Recommendations go a long way. Cultivate good relationships with your teachers, counselor, and principal and provide a “brag sheet” for them with the qualities and accomplishments you would like them to include in your recommendation.
Your brag sheet may include the following:
- What six adjectives best describe you?
- What do you consider your greatest accomplishment(s)?
- What are your strongest goals for the next five years?
- What is a meaningful experience you have had during high school?
These anecdotes will make writing a lot easier, and they'll thank you for this.
Make sure to ask for your recommendation at least three weeks in advance of the deadline, and follow up with your writer to make sure it'll be submitted on time. The earlier you notify them, the more ahead you'll be of your classmates, most of whom will need college application letters.
The personal essay adds your voice to your application materials. Your essay is the place where you can share your unique story and perspective and make your application materials come to life.
Here is last year’s National Merit essay question:
To help the reviewers get to know you, describe an experience you have had, a person who has influenced you, or an obstacle you have overcome. Explain why this is meaningful to you. Use your own words and limit your response to the space provided.
The space allows for about 500 - 600 words.
You should focus on two important components of the essay. First, NMC wants to see that you can express yourself clearly and powerfully through writing. Make sure to proofread, edit, and revise for any spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, or weaknesses in syntax and diction.
Second, your essay reveals how you think about yourself, your accomplishments, and your goals. What do your experiences mean to you? What do they reveal about your identity? Spend some time brainstorming before you decide what aspects of your identity are most important to share with the NMC readers.
For example, did a group science fair project show you the power of collaboration in making new discoveries? Did a Student Council debate reveal the complexity of perspectives on a single issue? Did Lisa Simpson teach you the importance of sticking to your principles, even if your family may not always agree?
The topics are endless, and there is no best answer, but whatever you choose should reveal something significant about who you are and is meaningful and influential in your life. Once you have your first draft, ask a friend, family member, counselor, or English teacher for feedback on what worked and what didn’t. It’s a short essay, so make sure every sentence is there for a reason and important for telling your story.
Staying motivated and committing yourself to all these goals will put you in the best position toward becoming a National Merit Finalist. Remember, only 15,000 students (1%) are chosen as Finalists, and of those, only about 8,000 students receive scholarships. On a percentage basis, it's even more competitive than getting into the Ivy League, so even with all your hard work, you’ll still need a certain amount of luck!
NSMC notifies students if they have become finalists in February of their senior year. Scholarship notifications go out in March. By that time, most of your college applications will be done and submitted.
Now you just have to try to relax and wait for the decisions to come! If you complete all the steps mentioned above, you can be confident that you’ve done all you can – now hopefully the National Merit Scholarship Corporation will recognize all your hard work.
Want to get a perfect SAT score? Read our detailed guide by our resident SAT full scorer.
Aiming for a top school? Read our article: What's a good SAT score for the Ivy League?
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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.