National Merit Scholarship Requirements: The Complete Guide

What are the National Merit Scholarship Requirements?
Updated:
March 25, 2024
4 min read
Contents

”Mary

Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 3/25/24

With tuition prices seemingly rising yearly, students can seek out scholarships to help ease the financial burden of attending college. To learn more about the National Merit Scholarship, read on!

Scholarships are an excellent type of financial aid to cut tuition costs and make your college experience more affordable. And the best part? There are tons of different scholarships out there designed to fit various backgrounds, interests, and academic achievements. 

This guide will teach you everything you need to know about the National Merit Scholarship requirements, how to win, and what scores you'll need to have a fighting chance. Read on to learn how to get the National Merit Scholarship and cut your tuition costs! 

What Is the National Merit Scholarship? 

The National Merit Scholarship is a prize and recognition awarded through the National Merit Scholarship Program. The program began in 1955, and approximately 1.5 million high school students enter annually. 

Students who achieve exceptional scores on the PSAT/ NMSQT are typically notified in early September that they qualify as semifinalists for the National Merit Scholarship. National merit qualifying scores are based on “Selection Index scores (calculated by doubling the sum of the Reading, Writing and Language, and Math Test scores).” 

In February, approximately 15,000 were informed they were finalists. From March to mid-June, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) will decide which finalists (approximately 7,500) will receive a Merit Scholarship. There are three types: 

  • National Merit $2,500 Scholarships
  • Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards 
  • College-sponsored Merit Scholarship Awards 

National Merit Scholarships are single-paid scholarships awarded to high-achieving test-takers on a state-representational basis. Though it’s not a full-ride scholarship, it can significantly contribute to your college expenses. 

National Merit Scholarship Requirements

You’ll be asked questions on PSAT/NMSQT test day to gauge your eligibility for the program by making sure you adhere to the following requirements: 

  • Take the PSAT/NMSQT “in the specified year of the high school program” and no later than your third year in grades 9 through 11 (your junior year). 
  • Must be enrolled in high school (traditional or homeschooled) and be making good progress toward graduation 
  • You plan to go to college right after high school
  • You attend school in the U.S., the District of Columbia, or a U.S. commonwealth/territory

If you do not meet the last National Merit Scholarship requirement and attend school outside of the U.S., you may still be eligible if you’re: 

  • A U.S. citizen 
  • Lawful resident 
  • Applied for permanent residence and haven’t been denied 
  • Intend to become a U.S. citizen as soon as possible

To understand the National Merit qualifications, make sure to read the eligibility requirements on the National Merit Scholarship website before applying to ensure you have met each standard. 

How to Get the National Merit Scholarship

If you’re wondering how to get the National Merit Scholarship, these steps can help you become a finalist and a winner. 

Ace the PSAT/NMSQT

The first step to winning the National Merit Scholarship is acing the PSAT/NMSQT. Taking the PSAT 8/9 or the PSAT 10 will not make you eligible; it must be the PSAT/NMSQT. 

An excellent PSAT score can help you become one of the approximately 50,000 students selected from over a million test-takers to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. PSAT scores are your first step. 

Score Highly on the SAT or ACT

If you’ve been named a semifinalist, you must take the SAT or ACT to become eligible to be a finalist. Your scores from either test are used to confirm your performance on the PSAT/NMSQT. These scores can help you become a finalist but won't be used to determine whether you're a National Merit Scholarship winner. 

Remember to request your scores from the College Board or ACT be reported to the National Merit Scholarship Program. The NMSC will calculate your Selection Index score based on your performance. You can see how this is done through your Online Scholarship Application (OSA). 

Maintain Good Academic Standing

Good academic standing is key to becoming a National Merit Scholar. To be eligible, you must have a consistently impressive academic record from grades 9 through 12. Remember, your work isn't finished, even after submitting your ACT or SAT scores. 

Your school will supply your transcripts to the program, and they are required to report any decline in your academic performance to the NMSC. 

Have a Strong Application

A strong OSA includes: 

  • A high GPA
  • High SAT or ACT scores 
  • An endorsement for your standing as a finalist by your school’s principal or a principal-designated school official
  • A well-written essay 

Once you’ve finished, your principal or school official will fill in school-specific information. The National Merit Scholarship essay prompt can change annually. One past prompt is: 

Describe an experience you have had, a person who has influenced you, or an obstacle you have overcome. Explain why this is meaningful to you.

While prompts can change yearly, general steps to writing a good essay include: 

  • Brainstorming relevant anecdotes, people, and places relevant to the prompt. 
  • Maintain your writer’s voice, but be professional and avoid slang. 
  • Don’t just state the what: state the why and how. How did an event make you feel? How did it change you? Ensure your essay shows the depth of your reflection. 
  • Edit, edit, and edit again: you don’t want grammar and spelling mistakes to distract your reader! 

If you’re wondering, there’s no need to partake in an interview to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship. These scholarships are primarily based on your academic performance and academic achievements. 

Criteria By Which National Merit Scholarship is Selected

To qualify for the National Merit Scholarship, students need to complete an application, maintain a consistently high academic record, write an essay, get endorsed and recommended by a school official, and achieve a strong score on either the SAT or ACT that confirms their performance on the PSAT/NMSQT. These criteria are used to select students who demonstrate exceptional academic ability and potential.

What Score Do You Need for the National Merit Scholarship? 

You'll need to achieve a high PSAT score for the National Merit Scholarship. Approximately 1% of the top test-takers are named semifinalists. The NSMC compiles your scores from each section (8-38) and multiples the sum by 2 to get your Selection Index score. 

Unlike the international Fulbright Scholarship, the National Merit Scholarship is specifically geared towards recognizing exceptional American high school students on their path to pursuing undergraduate education in the United States, District of Columbia, or U.S. commonwealths and territories. 

Take a look at the National Merit cutoff by state range from 207 to 224, based on the Recent Selection Index: 

State Selection Index
Alabama 212
Alaska 212
Arizona 217
Arkansas 212
California 221
Colorado 217
Connecticut 221
Delaware 220
D.C. 223
Florida 216
Georgia 219
Hawaii 217
Idaho 214
Illinois 219
Indiana 216
Iowa 213
Kansas 215
Kentucky 214

State Selection Index
Louisiana 214
Maine 214
Maryland 222
Massachusetts 222
Michigan 217
Minnesota 218
Mississippi 211
Missouri 215
Montana 210
Nebraska 213
Nevada 214
New Hampshire 215
New Jersey 223
New Mexico 211
New York 220
North Carolina 218
North Dakota 209
Ohio 216

State Selection Index
Oklahoma 211
Oregon 217
Pennsylvania 219
Rhode Island 216
South Carolina 213
South Dakota 211
Tennessee 216
Texas 220
Utah 212
Vermont 213
Virginia 221
Washington 220
West Virginia 209
Wisconsin 214
Wyoming 209

When Does National Merit Finalist Come Out?

Finalists will get a letter in the mail at their home addresses in early February. Or, they can check their Finalist letter on their Online Scholarship Application account. You can find more details about the National Merit Scholarship Competition in the information provided.

Schools that Provide Free or Reduced Tuition Fees to National Merit Scholarship Winners 

School What is Provided? Conditions
Faulkner University Full tuition, room and board, and mandatory fees for National Merit Finalists; Free tuition for National Merit Semifinalists First-choice school with National Merit Scholarship Corporation required
Florida A&M University Total cost of attendance for in-state National Merit Finalists through Benacquisto Scholarship Program Must be in-state National Merit Finalist
Florida Atlantic University Up to full cost of attendance for in-state National Merit Finalists through Benacquisto Scholarship Program Must maintain 3.0 GPA and enroll for 12 credit hours per semester
Florida International University Tuition, fees, housing, meal plan, stipend for books, and laptop for National Merit Finalists Must choose FIU as first-choice university with National Merit Scholarship Corporation
Liberty University Full tuition, room and board for National Merit Semifinalists; Free tuition for National Merit Semifinalists Must matriculate into Liberty University’s Honors Program
Louisiana Tech University Tuition, on-campus housing, and meals for four years for National Merit Finalists Must list Louisiana Tech University as first choice with National Merit Scholarship Corporation
Murray State University Four-year free tuition, on-campus housing, and meal plans for National Merit Finalists Must maintain 3.2 GPA, enroll full-time, and participate in University’s Honors College
New College of Florida Full cost of attendance for National Merit Finalists who are residents of Florida through Benacquisto Scholarship Program Must register New College of Florida as first choice with National Merit Scholarship Corporation
Oklahoma Christian University Full tuition, mandatory fees, housing, and meal plan for up to eight semesters for National Merit Scholars at OC Must list OC as first-choice university with National Merit Scholarship Corporation
Texas Tech University Full cost of attendance for four years for National Merit Finalists Must enroll in 30 hours per academic year and maintain minimum 3.5 GPA

School What is Provided? Conditions
University of Alabama Free tuition and housing, supplemental scholarship, allowance for summer research or international study, and book allowance Must be National Merit Finalist
University of Central Florida Total cost of attendance for in-state students; waiver for out-of-state students to pay in-state tuition rate, UCF Merit Scholarship Must be National Merit Finalist
University of Idaho Tuition, fees, room and board for first semester, and direct admission to University Honors Program for National Merit Finalists Must enroll at University of Idaho for first semester of undergraduate studies
University of Maine Free tuition, room and board for up to 15 credits per semester for Maine residents who are National Merit Semifinalists Must maintain full-time status
University of Mississippi Cost of tuition, housing, and non-resident fees for National Merit Finalists with minimum 3.0 GPA Must maintain minimum 3.0 GPA and be National Merit Finalist
University of New Mexico Free tuition, fees, and housing for in-state National Merit Finalists Must maintain minimum 3.3 GPA and complete 15 credit hours per semester
University of North Texas Total cost of attendance for both residents and non-residents of Texas Must maintain minimum GPA and enrollment requirements
University of South Florida Full cost of attendance, $2,000 scholarship for study abroad for National Merit Finalists Must be National Merit Finalist
University of Texas at Arlington Tuition, fees, on-campus housing, stipends for books, supplies, research, and study abroad for National Merit Finalists Must be National Merit Finalist
University of Tulsa Free tuition, fees, room and board, books, membership in Leadership TU, and monetary gift for National Merit Finalists Must designate TU as first-choice school with National Merit Scholarship Corporation

School What is Provided? Conditions
University of West Florida Free tuition, fees, housing, meal plan, stipends for books and research or study abroad for National Merit Finalists Must attend UWF first semester in college
Virginia Commonwealth University Full tuition, fees, room and board for National Merit Finalists Must be National Merit Finalist
Harding University Free tuition and $2,000 annual stipend for National Merit Finalists Must select Harding University as first-choice school with National Merit Scholarship Corporation
Iowa State University Free tuition for in-state National Merit Finalists Must maintain full-time status and minimum 3.0 GPA
Mississippi State University Free tuition and housing for National Merit Finalists Must be National Merit Finalist
New Jersey Institute of Technology Full tuition for four years for National Merit Finalists Must maintain full-time status and minimum 3.0 GPA
Oklahoma State University Five-year tuition waiver for National Merit Finalists Must maintain full-time status
University of Oklahoma Tuition waiver and stipends for room and board, books, technology, fees, study abroad, and research for National Merit Finalists Must maintain full-time status
University of Houston Tuition and fees covered for National Merit Finalists Must be National Merit Finalist
University of Texas at Dallas Full tuition for up to eight semesters, stipends for books, supplies, housing, study abroad, admission into Honors program for National Merit Finalists Must be National Merit Finalist
University of West Virginia Free tuition and stipend for study abroad for National Merit Finalists Must have minimum high school GPA of 3.5 and be National Merit Finalist

If you’re interested in learning about more merit-based scholarships, check out our Merit-Based Scholarship Directory for a list of opportunities based on your academic achievements.

How Much Money Could You Get if You Win National Merit Scholarship?

If you win a National Merit Scholarship, you would receive a one-time payment of $2,500. This funding from the National Merit Scholarship goes toward your educational expenses, providing support for tuition, books, and other academic needs.

Other types of scholarships within the National Merit Scholarship program, like Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarships and College-sponsored Merit Scholarships, offer different amounts ranging from $2,500 to $10,000, depending on the sponsor's criteria.

It's important to consider scholarship displacement, which means that receiving a National Merit Scholarship could impact other financial aid you receive from your chosen college or university.

National Merit Scholarship: FAQs 

If you still have questions about how to get a National Merit Scholarship, these FAQs can help. 

1. What Qualifies You to Be a National Merit Scholar?

National Merit Scholarship winners are chosen out of finalists based on: 

  • Academic performance 
  • Information about the school's curriculum and grading system
  • PSAT/NMSQT Selection Index score
  • Written recommendation from the principal or school official 
  • Information about the student's activities and leadership
  • A personal essay

2. What PSAT score do you need to be a National Merit Scholar?

National Merit Scholars are in the top 1% of all PSAT test-takers. This means your PSAT score needed for National Merit should average about 36-37 on each section for your best chance of becoming a National Merit Scholar. This converts to a total PSAT/NMSQT score of about 1460 to 1520. 

3. Does a 1400 PSAT Qualify for National Merit?

Based on the scores of real grade 11 students who took the PSAT, a score of 1400 puts you in the 97th percentile. You may not qualify for the National Merit Scholarship with this score: it also depends on the cut-off scores of your state. 

4. How Many Finalists Win a Scholarship? 

Approximately half of all finalists (7,500) win a scholarship, and 1,000 students who weren’t named finalists may be eligible for Special Scholarships through the NMSC. 

5. What Are the National Merit Scholarship’s Commended Students? 

Commended students represent more than two-thirds of the 50,000 top-scoring students. These students receive a Letter of Commendation but typically don't have a high enough score to be considered a semifinalist. 

Final Thoughts

If you’re already studying hard for the PSAT/NMSQT, your hard work could help you get a National Merit Scholarship. Remember that becoming a National Merit Scholar requires strong PSAT and SAT or ACT scores. If you become a semifinalist, you must submit your OSA for your chance at becoming a winner. 

Good luck on your quest to become a National Merit Scholar! 

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