How to Win a National Merit Scholarship


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

To become a Scholar, you need to first become a Finalist. But not all Finalists win scholarships: only about 8,000 of 15,000 students win this award. In this article, we'll talk about what scholarships are available through the NMSC and what you need to do to get one.


What Are National Merit Scholarships? 3 Types

Around 1.6 million high school juniors take the PSAT/NMSQT each year. Only 16,000 students are named Semifinalists, and, after an extensive application process, just 15,000 win Finalist status.

If you haven't yet read our guides on the steps needed to become a Semifinalist or Finalist, check them out here: National Merit Semifinalist and National Merit Finalist.

Now that you know what it takes to win a National Merit scholarship, let's go over the three types of scholarships available, how much money they each give, and how Finalists can qualify for these scholarship awards and become National Merit Scholars.


#1: National Merit Scholarships

Every Finalist in the National Merit Scholarship Program is considered for a National Merit Scholarship. Finalists are named Scholars (what the contest calls the scholarship winners) based on the strength of their applications.

National Merit Scholars typically have outstanding applications that demonstrate their 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 don't even see this information.

National Merit Scholarships are awarded to only 2,500 Finalists, or about one in six Finalists. They're a one-time award of $2,500 and are not renewable throughout college.


#2: Corporate-Sponsored Merit Scholarships and Special Scholarships

The second type of scholarship offered by the NMSC is a corporate-sponsored scholarship. There are two types of corporate-sponsored scholarships that are available to students who enter the NMSC: corporate-sponsored merit scholarships, and corporate-sponsored special scholarships.

As is the case with National Merit Scholarships, Finalists are given automatic consideration for corporate-sponsored 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/guardians work for them. A small number award non-employee children scholarships if they indicate an interest in a major or career choice that the corporation wants to support.

Corporate-sponsored special scholarships are available to high-performing NMSC participants who do not reach Finalist status; Finalists are not eligible for these scholarships.

Recipients of corporate-sponsored special scholarships are also chosen based on parental employment, intended major, and career plans. Preference is given to students whose parents/guardians are employed by corporate sponsors. Students who intend to pursue a major or career that a corporate sponsor wants to support are eligible as well.

As these awards change year to year, you should check with your corporation of interest to learn about their award criteria. Sponsor corporations include UPS, Boeing, Johnson & Johnson, Sony, and GEICO (see the full list here).

Around 1,000 Finalists and 1,000 high-performing NMSC participants receive corporate-sponsored merit scholarships and special scholarships each year, and they range a lot in amount. They are usually renewable, or awarded annually, and tend to be transferable to any four-year accredited college.




#3: College-Sponsored Merit Scholarships

Finalists who receive neither a National Merit Scholarship nor a corporate-sponsored scholarship are considered for college-sponsored scholarships.

Check the list of college sponsors (starting on page 3) to see participating schools.

Some popular college sponsors include the following:

  • Auburn University
  • Boston University
  • Bowdoin College
  • Colby College
  • Pomona College
  • Tufts University
  • University of Oregon
  • Vanderbilt University

Some colleges that do NOT sponsor scholarships for National Merit students include Harvard and other Ivy League schools, Middlebury College, MIT, Stanford, and Williams College.

You must choose one of the sponsor colleges as your first-choice school on your application to be considered for a scholarship. If you put down "Undecided," you will not be considered. Even if you're not too sure what your top choice is, you should still put one of the sponsor colleges down or add one to your application ASAP.

Students can log into their NMSC applications and change their first-choice college up until May 31 unless they've already received an award offer from the college they indicated. The NMSC sends rosters of Finalists to sponsor colleges in March; scholarship offers start in early May and continue on for the next few months.

If you have any questions about the college-sponsored scholarship process, you can call the NMSC Scholarship administration at 847-866-5161.

About 4,000 students every year receive college-sponsored scholarships between $500 and $2,000 in value. Colleges may award even more merit-based awards. If that's the case, the 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.



How to Maximize Your Chances of Winning a National Merit Scholarship

There are a few steps you can take in order to maximize your chances of winning a National Merit Scholarship.

First, put together an outstanding application. You can review the instructions for Semifinalists on the NMSC website. The application is similar to college apps in that you must supply your GPA, a letter of recommendation (usually from your high school principal), and a personal essay.

For your application, think about what story your extracurricular activities and community service tell. Do they show a progression to a position of leadership? Do they show depth over breadth?

As for the essay, besides having flawless grammar and spelling, does the statement prove you're thoughtful and reflective, and can draw meaning from your experiences?

Next, consider your letter of recommendation. How strong is it? Give your principal or teacher a "brag sheet" of the specific qualities, accomplishments, and even adjectives you'd like them to include in the letter to make your recommendation stand out as one of the best.

In addition to putting together a stellar application, you should research sponsor corporations and be aware of your parents' employment. Include on your application relevant information so you can be considered for a corporate-sponsored scholarship.

Also, don't forget to indicate a sponsor college as your first choice. You can make changes until May 31. Your application will explain this process in greater detail.




How to Win the National Merit Scholarship: A Timeline

You can really maximize your chances of winning a National Merit Scholarship by following these steps and meeting all the deadlines:

  1. Prep for the PSAT your sophomore year. Use our expert guide for tips on how to study for the PSAT. Take official PSAT practice tests to get a feel for the test and to see what you need to focus on. Make sure you're scoring above the PSAT score cutoff for your state, or else you won't qualify as a Semifinalist once you take it your junior year.

  2. Take the PSAT in the fall of your junior year and qualify for Semifinalist status by scoring in the top 1% of all test takers in your state. (Note that you won't know whether you've qualified until September the following year, when you're a senior.)

  3. Study for the SAT and take it once or twice during your junior year. Get a high score that proves to the NMSC that your PSAT scores weren't just a fluke.

  4. Submit your NMSC application in early October your senior year. If for some reason your school received late notification of Semifinalists, just let the NMSC know what's happening; in this case, they shouldn't penalize you for having a late application.

  5. Receive word that you made Finalist in February of your senior year.

  6. Receive word that you won a scholarship starting in March of your senior year!

As you can see, if you're hoping to win a scholarship, it'll benefit you significantly to start preparing as early as possible for the National Merit Scholarship Competition.

This doesn't just mean studying for the PSAT and SAT, though—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 also set you up for lots of success in your future academic and professional careers.




What's Next?

Make sure you read our expert guides to becoming a National Merit Semifinalist and Finalist so you can have the best chance of qualifying at each stage of the competition.

While the National Merit Scholarship Competition uses the PSAT, the SAT is far more important for college admission. What's a good and a bad SAT score? Learn how to set a target score based on the colleges you're applying to.

Aiming for a perfect SAT score? Then read our guide to getting a full 1600 on the SAT, written by one of our resident perfect scorers!



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About the Author
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Rebecca Safier

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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