What Is a National Merit Scholarship? Should Your Student Try?

national merit scholarship

What Is a National Merit Scholarship? Should Your Student Try?

Published October 1, 2019 | Last Updated December 26th, 2023 at 01:27 pm

national merit scholarship

Of course you’ve heard of the PSAT, but did you know that the PSAT is more than just a prep test for the SAT?

It’s also the exam that can qualify your student as a National Merit Scholarship winner.

To win the National Merit Scholarship, your student must do extremely well on the PSAT during their junior year.

The PSAT can be taken in 9th and 10th grade too, but only the 11th-grade test matters for National Merit.

Winning a National Merit Scholarship is difficult but very prestigious and can lead to a lot of merit aid from schools.

Here’s what you should know about the scholarship.

Who Becomes a National Merit Scholarship Semifinalist?

To be a National Merit Semifinalist, your student has to score within the top 1% of PSAT test-takers.

Not necessarily an easy feat!

The specific score breakdown varies by state – you can find the 2023 cutoff numbers here.

Before you decide to invest a lot of resources into PSAT prep, consider having your student self-study for the PSAT and take it in 9th or 10th grade.

Their results will let you know if investing in serious prep for the scholarship is worthwhile.

Many students who qualify for National Merit status have studied for the PSAT.

Some who don’t study miss the cutoff by only a few points – which can be very frustrating!

If you think your student could win, it pays to put effort into test prep.

What Qualifies You to Become a National Merit Scholar?

To win a National Merit Scholarship, your student needs to take three steps.

Before they begin, they have to meet the criteria:

  • Enrolled as a high school student, progressing normally toward graduation.
  • Planning to enroll full time in college starting the fall following high school graduation.
  • A U.S. citizen or U.S. lawful permanent resident planning to become a U.S. citizen.

The first step is making the PSAT score cutoff to become a semifinalist.

This is considered by many to be the hardest step.

Some states are harder to qualify in than others.

But before you start planning a road trip, keep in mind that PSAT registration is done by the school you attend, not by where you take the test.

There are 16,000 semifinalists.

Next, your student will need to submit an application to become a National Merit Finalist.

Your student will need to submit an academic transcript, SAT scores when taken, and information about their leadership and other activities.

They will also need to write a personal essay and a recommendation from the high school principal, along with some information about the school’s curricula and grading system.

There are 15,000 finalists.

Finally, about half of the finalists will be selected by the National Merit Scholarship group to receive a financial award of $2,500, which is renewable each year for four years.

Each step makes a big difference not only to your student but to the schools they apply to.

One parent in our Paying For College 101 Facebook group shared this:

“The foundation only gives $2,500 to some of the National Merit Finalists.

But some individual companies give scholarships to children of employees who are NMFs (usually also $2,500) and individual colleges and universities give scholarships or automatic admission.

My friend’s son just started attending the University of Rochester where he earned a large scholarship for being a National Merit Finalist.”

What Does National Merit Scholar Get You?

You might be looking at that listed $2,500 award and think, “That’s a lot of work for not much money!”

What you may not realize is that having a National Merit award has a major impact on what schools will offer your student in terms of merit aid.

Another parent in our Facebook group shared this story.

“A friend told me that her daughter had just barely missed being a National Merit Finalist because she did no test prep whatsoever.

She advised me to pay for prep which probably I didn’t need to do because my kid is great at test taking (made a 33 on the ACT in 8th grade!), but we did anyway.

My son did become a National Merit Finalist but it didn’t get him any money for college because he chose Brown.

I do think however, that the label helped with the huge outside scholarship he got ($10,000 a year renewable for 4 years.)”

Being a semifinalist is prestigious, and will cause a lot of schools to recruit your student and offer additional aid.

Almost all semifinalists go on to become finalists, which is even more exciting.

There are many schools that will offer a full-tuition scholarship to National Merit Finalists.

Choosing the Best School for Your Student

Many families don’t realize that the biggest source of academic aid is the colleges themselves.

And being a National Merit Semifinalist or Finalist can make a big difference when it comes to institutional aid.

Even if your student doesn’t qualify, however, you can choose a generous school from a larger pool of very good schools.

Find more schools that can offer your student money by grabbing our R2C Insights tool today

It can provide you with a list of schools that will be more generous with their merit money based on your student’s stats and preferences.


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

10 Reasons to Consider Smaller Schools with High Acceptance Rates

How to Secure College Merit Aid: 9 Steps to Take Junior and Senior Year of High School

The Best College Advice I’ve Received So Far




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