One of the highest-profile scholarships an American student can earn while in high school, National Merit Scholarships can give you a huge advantage both when paying for and getting into college. The crux of the competition also falls on standardized tests, so if you’ve found those to be a personal strength I would heavily encourage you to apply.
The competition is administered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) every year and begins with the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) typically taken during your junior year of high school. You can’t sign up as an individual; you need to talk to your guidance counselor or other school administrator about how to sign up through your school. Many schools require the test and automatically sign up all their students as juniors, so you might not have to do anything to get started! If you aren’t sure, ask your school administrators about it.
To be absolutely clear, the PSAT is not a college admissions test like the ACT or SAT. It is the qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship Competition, although it has very similar questions and structure to the SAT.
If you will be taking the PSAT soon familiarize yourself with the test structure and types of questions so you’ll feel prepared on test day. Like the SAT, the PSAT doesn’t test a lot of high-level content. It instead focuses on basic mathematical skills, reading comprehension, and reasoning.
If you do well enough on the test, your school will be notified of your competition status during Fall of your senior year. According to the NMSC website (as of 2019), about 50,000 students are designated as “high-scorers,” with the lower two thirds of this bracket receiving letters of commendation and the upper third progressing to the next stage of the competition. Student scores are also compared against scores from their state, rather than at the national level. This means that moving to the next round might require a higher score in some states than in others.
If you are in the lucky upper third of the “high-scorers,” then you’ll be named a semifinalist and given application materials to become a finalist. As part of this application you’ll need to send in SAT or ACT scores, as well as pick a “first choice college” that you plan to attend. This choice can be very important for getting scholarships sponsored by your school!
Most semifinalists advance to finalist standing and are given another (more involved) application to complete. You will have to explain your student activities and leadership roles, write an essay, and get a letter of recommendation from a school official.
After all of this, about 7,500 finalists are selected as scholarship winners! You will be given a National Merit Scholarship of $2,500 (as of 2019), as well as the title of National Merit Scholar to bolster your college admissions prospects. There are also some corporate-sponsored awards based on the competition that may be available to you if the company operates in your area or employs one of your parents. These may or may not require a separate application. The big money often comes from school-sponsored scholarships, which are usually awarded to students attaining winner or finalist status who listed the given school as their first choice on the finalist application. Many large universities will award tens of thousands of dollars for these awards, so do your research and think carefully about which school to choose on the application!
The National Merit Scholarship Competition can seem intimidating, but I recommend that every student take the PSAT and give it their best! If you prepare and are a good enough test-taker, you may just earn yourself a lot of money for college.
I have no affiliation with Khan Academy and have received no compensation from them. I link to their site here because it explains the structure of the PSAT and offers free practice tests. There are a multitude of paid test prep services that can be found with a quick web search. I neither encourage nor discourage the use of these services in general, or of any service in particular.
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