Scholarships •

December 20, 2021

What is the National Merit Scholarship, and How Do I Apply?

Learn about what the national merit scholarship is, who qualifies for it, and how you can apply.

National Merit Scholarship

The rising cost of education can be scary—the average cost of college is $35,720 per student per year! So, you might be worried about how to come up with the money to cover your education expenses.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of financial aid out there to help you offset those rising costs.

There are about 5 million scholarships available to college students each year—that’s a total of $24 billion in free financial aid!

One of those scholarships is the national merit scholarship. This competition gives you a chance to receive scholarships from the federal government, colleges, and corporations.

In this article, we’ll tell you what the national merit scholarship is, the types of awards it provides, and how to apply for this type of merit scholarship.

What is the national merit scholarship? 

Created in 1955, the national merit scholarship is a yearly academic competition that provides scholarships and recognition to US high schoolers.

Definition of National Merit Scholarship

The name ‘national merit scholarship’ refers to 2 facts:

  • National: The competition is available to eligible high school students across the United States.

  • Merit scholarship: To receive an award, applicants must show outstanding academic achievement and other special skill sets (e.g., essay writing).

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) administers the national merit scholarship. 

The NMSC is a non-profit organization that receives no government assistance. Receiving an award from the NMSC is one of the highest academic achievements for high school students.

The NMSC partners with colleges and corporations to give additional scholarships to students who become finalists in the competition. 

Who's eligible for a national merit scholarship?

American high school students can enter the national merit scholarship by taking the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT). 

Typically, students take the PSAT/NMSQT in their junior year of high school—2 years before they graduate. 

About 1.5 million high school students take the PSAT/NMSQT every year.

US high school students in the District of Columbia, all US commonwealths and territories, and those living outside the US are also eligible for the national merit scholarship.

Homeschooled high school students can also apply. 

What is the PSAT/NMSQT?

The Preliminary SAT (PSAT) is a practice version of the Student Aptitude Test (SAT).

Keep in mind that there are 2 other versions of the PSAT: the PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9. Those versions of the PSAT aren’t qualifying entries for the national merit scholarship.

Only a test score from the PSAT/NMSQT counts as a qualifying entry.

Most students take the PSAT/NMSQT in October, 2 years before they graduate. For example, the Class of 2023 will take the exam in October 2021.

What are the types of national merit scholarships?

The national merit scholarship competition awards a total of 8,500 scholarships. The total combined value of all scholarships amounts to about $39 million!

There are 4 types of national merit scholarships:

  • National merit $2,500 scholarships

  • National merit special scholarships

  • Corporate-sponsored national merit scholarships

  • College-sponsored national merit scholarships

Types of Merit Scholarships

Let’s break down these different types.

National merit $2,500 scholarships

These scholarships are one of the ultimate academic achievements for a high schooler. The NMSC refers to a winner of this award as a national merit scholar.

Who's eligible? 

Finalists of the national merit scholarship competition compete for the national merit $2,500 scholarships. The finalists have an extremely high PSAT/NMSQT score, receive a recommendation from their high school, and demonstrate additional skill sets. 

How many scholarships are available?

A total of 2,500 of these types of scholarships are available. 

How much do winners get? 

The national merit $2,500 scholarship is a one-time scholarship of $2,500 (hence its name).

Who selects the winners? 

The selection committee is a mix of college admissions officers and high school counselors.

What’s the selection process? 

The selection committee chooses a finalist for each state and other selection units. There's a wide range of selection units, including US territories and regions of US boarding schools that enroll a large number of students. 

Each winner holds one of the highest PSAT/NMSQT scores for its state or selection unit. 

Additional selection criteria include the student’s academic record, essay, and extracurricular activities. The selection committee also considers the school's recommendation for the finalist.

When do winners find out? 

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) begins sending scholarship offers in late March.

National merit special scholarships

National merit special scholarships are one of the 2 types of corporate-sponsored national merit scholarships. These scholarships are also known as corporate-sponsored special scholarships.

Who's eligible? 

Applicants in the national merit scholarship competition who aren’t finalists but meet the sponsors’ criteria are eligible for this scholarship. The sponsors are about 220 corporations and business organizations.

Sponsor criteria include being children of employees working for those organizations, residents of specific communities, or participants with a specific major or career plan. 

How many scholarships are available?

About 1,000 national merit special scholarships are available. 

How much do winners get? 

The actual amount is different depending on the sponsor. A one-time award is often between $2,500–$5,000. Renewable awards run from $1,000–$10,000 per year.

Who selects the winners? 

The selection committee is a panel of professional staff from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC).

What’s the selection process? 

Corporations and organizations contact those who are eligible for these special scholarships and provide the students with the entry forms.

The NMSC processes the entry forms and selects the winners for each national merit scholarship.

When do winners find out? 

The NMSC begins sending scholarship offers in early March.

Corporate-sponsored national merit scholarships

Corporate-sponsored merit special scholarships are another of the 2 types of corporate-sponsored national merit scholarships.

These scholarships are also known as corporate-sponsored merit scholarships.

Who's eligible? 

Winners are chosen from a pool of about 16,000 finalists from the national merit scholarship competition who also meet the criteria of the scholarships’ sponsors. 

The sponsors are about 220 corporations and business organizations. The sponsor’s criteria for this scholarship are similar to that for the national merit special scholarship.

How many scholarships are available?

About 1,000 of these types of scholarships are available. 

How much do winners get? 

The actual amount varies by corporate sponsor. A one-time award often ranges from $2,500–$5,000. Renewable awards run from $1,000–$10,000 per year.

Who selects the winners? 

The selection committee is a panel of professional staff from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC).

What’s the selection process? 

The NMSC selects recipients from the pool of 16,000 eligible finalists who meet the sponsor’s criteria. The committee evaluates finalists based on their accomplishments, abilities, and skills.

When do winners find out? 

The NMSC begins sending scholarship offers in early March.

College-sponsored national merit scholarships

In addition to corporations, colleges also sponsor national merit scholarships. These scholarships are known as college-sponsored merit scholarships. 

Who's eligible? 

Finalists from the national merit scholarship competition can select a college sponsoring a scholarship as their first choice. 

Currently, about 180 colleges sponsor a national merit scholarship. To get the award, the student has to actually attend the sponsoring college.

How many scholarships are available?

A total of 4,000 college-sponsored national merit scholarships are available in the 2023 competition. 

How much do winners get? 

The actual amount varies by sponsor institution. Awards are typically renewable for up to four years of study and range from $500–$2,000 per year.

Who selects the winners? 

The selection committee is a panel of officials of the sponsoring college.

What’s the selection process? 

The college officials select from a pool of competition finalists who inform the NMSC that the college is their first choice. The committee evaluates finalists based on the college’s criteria for the scholarship.

When do winners find out? 

The NMSC begins sending scholarship offers in early May.

What is the selection process for the national merit scholarship competition? 

Typically, high school students take the qualifying test in the October of their junior year—2 years before they graduate. 

For example, a student in the Class of 2023 will take their Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) in October 2021.

Selection Process for National Merit Scholarship

Using the Class of 2023, let’s look at the timeline of the selection process of the national merit scholarship competition.

October 2021: 1.5 million high school students take the PSAT/NMSQT

Eligible juniors need to be on track to graduate within 2 years and plan to attend college after graduation. 

The NMSC uses a selection index to select 50,000 high-scoring participants out of the 1.5 million students who will take the test. 

The index score is double the sum of the reading, writing, and math scores from the PSAT/NMSQT.

April 2022: 50,000 high scorers

Several months after students take the test, the NMSC will select 50,000 high scorers. Then, the NMSC will request that high school principals verify the results and eligibility of students.

September 2022: 16,000 semifinalists and 34,000 commended students 

The NMSC will then split the 50,000 high scorers into 16,000 national merit semifinalists and 34,000 commended students.

16,000 semifinalists

In early September 2022, the 16,000 highest-scoring students from each state and selection unit will be in the race for the national merit $2,500 scholarships, corporate-sponsored national merit scholarships, and college-sponsored scholarships.

The NMSC will provide semifinalists with necessary application materials and requirements in order to move forward in the competition.

34,000 commended students

In late September 2022, each of the 34,000 commended students will receive a Letter of Commendation for their high score.

The commended students won’t make it to the next rounds of the national merit competition.

Some high scorers may be eligible for a corporate-sponsored special merit scholarship. 

Corporations and organizations contact eligible participants for these special scholarships and provide the students with the entry forms.

February 2023: 15,000 finalists

Over a year after the students have taken the test, the NMSC will announce the 15,000 finalists of the national merit scholarship competition. Each national merit finalist will receive a Certificate of Merit as evidence of their academic achievement.

The selection committees will evaluate each student using the student’s academic record, essay, and extracurricular activities. The selection committee will also consider the school's recommendation for the national merit finalist.

March 2023: 8,500 national merit scholarship recipients

Beginning in March 2023, students will start being notified whether or not they won an award.

1,000 special scholarship recipients

The corporations choose recipients from the pool of 34,000 commended students who submitted an entry form and are eligible for the award.

7,500 national merit scholarship winners

There are 3 types of scholarship winners:

  • 2,500 winners of national merit $2,500 scholarships 

  • 4,000 winners of college-sponsored national merit scholarships

  • 1,000 winners of corporate-sponsored national merit scholarships

The Steps of the National Merit Scholarship Competition

What are the deadlines for the national merit scholarship competition?

There are a few important deadlines to remember. Let’s again use the Class of 2023 as an example.

Deadlines for the 2023 Merit Scholarship Competition

Deadline to take the PSAT/NMSQT

Typically, high school students take the PSAT/NMSQT in grade 11 (junior year) in October. The Class of 2023 will take the PSAT/NMSQT on October 16, 2021.

Deadline to select a first-choice school

You don’t have to select a first-choice school when you take the PSAT/NMSQT.

However, if you’re eligible for a college-sponsored national merit scholarship, you have to select a first-choice school by May 31, 2022.

Deadline to submit a national merit semifinalist application

A semifinalist must submit a national merit semifinalist application to the NMSC by October 6, 2022. This application is a requirement to remain eligible for the national merit scholar award.

Deadline to take the SAT

To be eligible for the national merit $2,500 scholarship, a semifinalist will need to confirm their PSAT score by taking the SAT by December 31, 2022.

To be eligible for all other types of national merit scholarships, high-scoring students will need to take the SAT by January 31, 2023.

How do I apply for a national merit scholarship?

With 8,500 scholarships available, the national merit scholarship competition is a worthwhile investment to help you pay for college.

Here are the steps to apply for a national merit scholarship.

How do I apply for a National Merit Scholarship?

1. Prep for PSAT/NMSQT during your sophomore year

Since this is an academic achievement competition, you’ll need to achieve a competitive score. So, the earlier that you can start studying for the PSAT/NMSQT, the better. 

Take a diagnostic exam to find out your starting point. This type of practice test can help you learn what areas you need to spend extra time studying in. Also, ask your high school counselor what’s a competitive score for your state’s high school system.

Depending on your score, you can decide whether you can prep on your own or need extra help.

2. Take the PSAT/NMSQT during your junior year

Make sure that you take the right exam. 

The PSAT 8/9 and the PSAT 10 aren’t eligible exams for the national merit scholarship competition—only the PSAT/NMSQT is.

3. Research your first-choice schools and sponsors

This is an important step to make yourself eligible for college-sponsored and corporate-sponsored national merit scholarships.

Review the list of scholarship sponsors. Find out if you meet the criteria for corporations and business organizations. This way, you’ll be ready in case you receive an entry form for a corporate-sponsored national merit special scholarship.

Also, find out which one of your target colleges awards scholarships through this competition. You have to select a first-choice school by May 31, 2022, if you’re in the Class of 2023.

4. Submit your NMSC application in early October of your senior year

The NMSC application is similar to college applications. You’ll need to provide your GPA, a letter of recommendation (usually from your high school principal), and a personal essay.

5. Study for the SAT and get a high score

To remain eligible for a national merit scholarship, you’ll need to confirm your PSAT/NMSQT high score by taking the SAT. Your goal is to achieve a high score that’s close to your PSAT/NMSQT score. 

Remember that the deadline to submit your SAT score depends on your target scholarship:

  • National merit $2,500 scholarship: A semifinalist needs to confirm their PSAT score by taking the SAT by December 31, 2022.

  • All other types of national merit scholarships: High-scoring students must take the SAT by January 31, 2023.

Can I apply for a national merit scholarship if I live outside the United States? 

Yes, you can apply for a national merit scholarship if you’re a US citizen or an eligible foreign national living outside the US.

The PSAT/NMSQT is available at some testing facilities overseas. However, the number of testing facilities may be limited. 

Find out if your city has a testing center that offers the PSAT/NMSQT. If not, you’ll need to travel to a city with a testing center.

Since score reporting may take longer when you're abroad, plan to complete the necessary steps well in advance of the deadlines.

Keep in mind that to keep the scholarship, you'll need to return to the US and attend the school offering you the scholarship.

Conclusion 

The national merit scholarship is a great opportunity to get free financial aid from the federal government, colleges, and corporations. 

You can start the application process as early as your junior year of high school, but there are additional ways to qualify.

There are about 5 million scholarships out there. Some merit-based scholarships consider non-academic skills like athletics, music, and everything in between. 

Plus, not all scholarships are merit-based, and some consider your financial situation as the main criteria.

Mos makes it easy to find the best financial aid and scholarship opportunities for you! Sign up today to get started.

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