PSAT and National Merit Scholarship Program

PSAT & National Merit Scholarship Program

The National Merit Scholarship Program is an academic competition started in 1955. It is a chance for United States high school students in their 11th grade year of high school to win special recognition and college scholarships. In other words, qualifying as a National Merit Scholar can boost your academic resume, impress college admission officers, and give you a chance to earn money for college!

This blog below will walk you through the most essential information you need to know about this scholarship program and how to qualify.

#1. Participating in National Merit Scholarship Program

In order to participate in the National Merit Scholarship Program you must meet the following requirements (note: there are exceptions, but these are the requirements that apply to your typical high school student):

  1. Take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying test (the PSAT/NMSQT) in October of your 11th grade year
  2. Be enrolled as a high school student (traditional or homeschooled) 
  3. Attend a high school in the United States, District of Columbia, or U.S. commonwealths and territories (or meet citizenship requirements for students attending high school outside of the U.S.)

Basically, you need to be a U.S. student currently attending high school who takes the PSAT in their junior year.

#2. Qualifying as a National Merit Scholar

Recognition as a National Merit Scholar has several levels:

  • Commended
  • Semifinalist
  • Finalist
  • Winner

Here is a breakdown of each level and the timeline in which they are announced:

Understanding Your PSAT Scores

In order to qualify for National Merit Scholar on the Commended or Semifinalist level, you must reach a certain score. The PSAT is scored on a 320 to 1520 score, and this is the score that most students remember. However, your qualification for the National Merit Scholarship Program is based on your Selection Index score, a secondary score given on your PSAT score report. It is from 8 – 38 and based upon your score in each section. 


Qualification Index Score for National Merit Scholarship


Your Selection Index score is the sum of your Reading, Writing, and Math test scores. For instance, in the above example, this student has a 23 Reading score, 20 Writing Score, and 26.5 Math score, so there Selection Index score is (23+20+26.5) x2 = 139. 

This score will be given on your PSAT Score report, but you can calculate it yourself as well. For example, in the above example, this student scored a 430 on the Evidence-Based Reading & Writing section, and a 530 on the Math section. To calculate the Selection Index score, simple ignore the final zero of each score, double the ERW score and then add it to the Math score: (43×2) + 53 = 139. 

This is the score that matters for National Merit Scholarships.

Qualifying for National Merit Scholar – Commended

The Selection Index Score needed to qualify for recognition on the Commended level varies from year to year. NMSC takes the top 50,000 scorers from that year, and designates 2/3 of them (approximately 34,000 students) as Commended Students. This is out of approximately 1.5 million juniors who take the PSAT every year. 

In 2020, students needed approximately a 207 index score to be recognized as a Commended Student.

Students who reach the Commended level typically have lower scores than the 16,000 students who are designated as Semifinalists. Commended Students do not continue in the competition for National Merit Scholarships. 

Qualifying for National Merit Scholar – Semifinalist

Out of the 50,000 highest scoring student, NMSC then selects 16,000 students to be recognized as Semifinalists, which is less than 1% of graduating high school seniors. These Semifinalists are selected based on their Selection Index score. The cutoff score to become a Semifinalist varies from year to year and from state to state.

In 2020, students in New Jersey needed a 222 index score to be recognized as a Semifinalist. And New York students had to score a 220 to qualify as a Semifinalist.

Qualifying for National Merit Scholar – Finalist

Once, you reach Semifinalist status, you must fulfill additional requirements to advance to the Finalist level of the competition. Here are the requirements:

  1. Must continue to be a U.S. student attending high school (traditional or homeschooled)
  2. Be enrolled in the last year of high school and planning to enroll full time in college the following fall
  3. Be fully endorsed for Finalist standing and recommended for National Merit Scholarship by the high school principal
  4. Your high school must submit a record of your grades and courses to NMSC, and you must have maintained a high GPA
  5. Complete the National Merit Scholarship Application with all information requested, which includes writing an essay
  6. Take the SAT or ACT and earn scores that confirm your PSAT/NMSQT performance
  7. Provide any other documentation and information that NMSC requests

Approximately 15,000 students qualify for Finalist level every year.

Qualifying for National Merit Scholarships

Once you have reach the Finalist level, in March of your senior year, NMSC will announce who has been awarded scholarships. Approximately 7,500 of the Finalist are awarded National Merit Scholarships from either NMSC or sponsoring colleges. Furthermore, 1,000 additional students are awarded Special Scholarships from corporate sponsors. You can learn more about the NMSC actual scholarships here. 

What to do with your PSAT Scores

If you just received your official PSAT scores, send them to MEK Review, and based on your scores, we’ll recommend which of our SAT Prep programs is best for you! We offer differentiated class levels, so that every student can learn to succeed on the test based on their current skill level. Get started today by contacting us here or calling 855-346-1410. Also, explore our SAT Prep programs here.

Plus, 9th and 10th graders, get ready to ace the PSAT by joining our SAT Core Reading & Writing and SAT Core Math courses, specifically designed to help younger high school students get a huge head start on SAT/PSAT preparation!


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