National Merit Scholarship: What You Need to Know

Student at graduation ceremony
August 28, 2023


Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 5/4/22

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. 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. Students are chosen based on their “Selection Index scores (calculated by doubling the sum of the Reading, Writing and Language, and Math Test scores).” 

In February, approximately 15,000 are informed they are 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.

National Merit Scholarship Requirements

You’ll be asked questions on PSAT/NMSQT test day to gauge your eligibility for the program. National Merit Scholarship requirements include: 

  • 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 homeschool) 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 a permanent residence and haven’t been denied 
  • Intend to become a U.S. citizen as soon as possible

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. 


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!

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. 

Recent Selection Index cut-offs by state range from 207 to 224:

State and selection index table 1
State and selection index table 2
State and selection index table 3

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 on each section should average about 36-37 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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