National Merit Scholarship: A Comprehensive Guide


The National Merit Scholarship Program is one of the most prestigious academic competitions in the United States. Established in 1955, this program recognizes and rewards academically talented high school students, providing them with scholarships and other opportunities to pursue higher education. Each year, approximately 1.5 million high school students enter the competition, with only a small fraction ultimately receiving the coveted National Merit Scholarship. This article will delve into the history, process, and significance of this esteemed program, offering valuable insights for students, parents, and educators alike.

History of the National Merit Scholarship Program

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) was founded in 1955, during a time when the United States was placing increased emphasis on academic excellence, particularly in science and technology. The program was established as a response to concerns about the quality of American education and the need to identify and nurture exceptional talent.

Initially funded by the Ford Foundation and a group of corporate sponsors, the NMSC aimed to create a nationwide competition that would encourage academic achievement and provide financial support for promising students. Over the decades, the program has evolved, but its core mission remains the same: to recognize and honor academically talented U.S. high school students, and to provide scholarships to support their pursuit of higher education.

National Merit Scholarship Image

National Merit Scholarship

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Eligibility Requirements

To be eligible for the National Merit Scholarship Program, students must meet several criteria:

  1. Be enrolled as a high school student, progressing normally toward graduation or completion of high school.
  2. Plan to enroll full-time in college no later than the fall following high school completion.
  3. Be a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident planning to become a U.S. citizen.
  4. Take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) during the specified year of their high school program, usually as juniors.

It’s important to note that students attending high school outside the United States may be eligible if they meet certain additional requirements.

The Selection Process

The National Merit Scholarship selection process is rigorous and multi-staged, designed to identify the most academically talented students in the country.


The journey begins with the PSAT/NMSQT, typically taken in October of a student’s junior year. This standardized test assesses critical reading, math problem-solving, and writing skills. The PSAT/NMSQT serves as the initial screening for the National Merit Scholarship Program.

Semifinalist Status

Of the 1.5 million entrants, approximately 16,000 students with the highest PSAT/NMSQT Selection Index scores (calculated by doubling the sum of the Reading, Writing and Language, and Math Test scores) qualify as Semifinalists. These students represent less than 1% of each state’s high school seniors.

 Finalist Status

To advance to Finalist standing, Semifinalists must submit a detailed scholarship application. This application includes:

  • Academic record
  • SAT or ACT scores
  • Extracurricular activities and leadership roles
  • An essay
  • A recommendation from a high school official

About 15,000 Semifinalists advance to Finalist standing. From this group, winners are selected based on their abilities, skills, and accomplishments.

Types of National Merit Scholarships

There are three types of National Merit Scholarships awarded through the program:

National Merit $2500 Scholarships

These one-time scholarships of $2,500 are awarded on a state-representational basis. Every Finalist competes for these scholarships, which are awarded without consideration of family financial circumstances, college choice, or major and career plans.

 Corporate-Sponsored Merit Scholarship Awards

These scholarships are provided by approximately 220 corporations and business organizations. They may either be one-time awards or renewable for up to four years of undergraduate study. Most are designated for Finalists who are children of the sponsor’s employees, residents of communities where sponsor plants or offices are located, or Finalists planning to pursue college majors or careers the sponsor wishes to encourage.

 College-Sponsored Merit Scholarship Awards

About 180 colleges and universities sponsor Merit Scholarship awards for Finalists who plan to attend their institution. These scholarships are renewable for up to four years of undergraduate study.

Benefits of Winning a National Merit Scholarship

The benefits of being named a National Merit Scholar extend far beyond the monetary value of the scholarship:

  1. Prestige: The title of National Merit Scholar is highly respected and recognized by colleges, employers, and the general public.
  2. College Admissions Advantage: Many top universities view National Merit Scholars favorably in the admissions process.
  3. Additional Scholarships: Some colleges offer significant scholarships to National Merit Finalists and Scholars, sometimes covering full tuition.
  4. Networking Opportunities: Winners join an elite group of academically talented individuals, which can lead to valuable connections in the future.
  5. Personal Growth: The rigorous selection process helps students develop important skills in test-taking, essay writing, and self-presentation.
  6. Preparing for the National Merit Scholarship Competition

While there’s no guaranteed formula for success, students can take several steps to improve their chances:

  1. Focus on academic excellence throughout high school.
  2. Take challenging courses, including honors and Advanced Placement classes when available.
  3. Read widely to improve vocabulary and comprehension skills.
  4. Practice with PSAT/NMSQT study materials and take practice tests.
  5. Develop strong writing skills for the application essay.
  6. Participate in extracurricular activities and seek leadership roles.
  7. Prepare thoroughly for the SAT or ACT.
  8. Criticisms and Controversies

Despite its prestige, the National Merit Scholarship Program has faced some criticisms:

  1. Over-reliance on standardized testing: Critics argue that the heavy emphasis on PSAT scores may not fully capture a student’s potential or achievements.
  2. Socioeconomic bias: There are concerns that the program may favor students from more affluent backgrounds who have access to better educational resources and test preparation.
  3. Geographic disparities: The state-by-state allocation of Semifinalist spots means that students in some states face stiffer competition than others.
  4. Stress on students: The high-stakes nature of the competition can place undue pressure on high-achieving students.
  5. Success Stories and Notable Winners

Many National Merit Scholars have gone on to achieve great success in various fields. Notable winners include:

  • Jeff Bezos: Founder of Amazon
  • M. Night Shyamalan: Film director and screenwriter
  • Elena Kagan: Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
  • Ben Silbermann: Co-founder and CEO of Pinterest
  • Lisa Randall: Theoretical physicist and author

These success stories highlight the program’s ability to identify and nurture exceptional talent across diverse fields.


The National Merit Scholarship Program continues to play a significant role in recognizing and supporting academic excellence in the United States. While it’s not without its critics, the program offers substantial benefits to participants, from financial support for college to prestigious recognition that can open doors throughout their careers. For students aspiring to participate, the key is to focus on overall academic excellence, develop strong test-taking skills, and cultivate a well-rounded set of extracurricular activities and leadership experiences. Whether or not a student ultimately wins a scholarship, the process of striving for this achievement can be valuable in itself, fostering skills and habits that will serve them well in their future academic and professional endeavors.