National Merit. School counselors talk about it. School districts publicize it. However, many parents and students aren’t really sure what it is beyond some sort of academic honor that smart kids pursue.
It all hinges on the Junior year PSAT
The PSAT serves two main purposes. It gives students a feel for the SAT and provides a threshold score for National Merit Scholarships. National Merit awards are primarily 2 types: Commended and Scholar.
National Merit Commended recognizes the top 3% of students who take the PSAT during their Junior year. About 1.7 million juniors took the PSAT in 2019. In theory, it’s a simple enough process. Look at what the 51,000th student scored and everyone who got that score and above receives Commended.
National Merit Scholars are a little more complicated. Theoretically, it’s about the top 1/3 of Commended recipients, or about 16,000 students. Those 16,000 spots are spread to each state in a formula based on the percentage of high school graduates that state produces, so you’ll need to know the score for your state.
Just to make the process a little more confusing, the awards are based on your National Merit Selection Index (NMSI) rather than your composite score. You can find the score on the score report you receive from College Board. You can also determine it for yourself. Multiply your Reading and Writing score by 2, add it to your Math score, and drop the zero. For example, if you scored a 1090 with a 540 in Reading and Writing and a 550 in Math, your NMSI would be 163 (540 x 2 = 1080, 1080 + 550 = 1630, drop the zero).
Semifinalist is the hard part
Over 90% of Semifinalists will qualify as Finalists. You can look at the requirements to see that the requirements are mostly procedural. They need the endorsement of their principal, and they need to “[h]ave a record of consistently very high academic performance.” Out of the hundreds of National Merit Semifinalists we’ve worked with, only 1 has not been named a Finalist. In that situation, the student couldn’t demonstrate “high academic performance”.
Once a student is designated Semifinalist, school counselors and principals are highly motivated to make sure the students meet the rest of the deadlines. They have too much good press at stake to let it slip by a student missing a deadline.
National Merit is separate from College Board
While National Merit scholarships are connected to PSAT scores, they are administered by a separate corporation logically named the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC). This is where things get a little complicated. Not in some nefarious way, but definitely in a confusing one.
On its sponsorship page, NMSC says that in 2019 it awarded “more than $40 million to over 8600 qualified students.” About 1/4 of those awards come directly from NMSC in the form of its one-time $2500 awards. The rest came from corporation or university sponsorship.
That’s the complicated part. Some companies use National Merit recognition as employee incentives. If the student of an employee achieves Finalist, they’ll often qualify for a scholarship from that company as well. The exact requirements will vary by company. In other instances, companies sponsor scholarships to target specific communities. To qualify for these awards, the student and parents may need to do some research on their own.
In the case of university sponsorships, those can have equally unique requirements. Some are automatic. If the student is a National Merit Finalist and applies to that university, they will automatically qualify. In other cases, some universities have a “first-choice required” policy. In these policies, the university requires that the student designate that school as their first choice when they fill out their report to the NMSC. Those scholarships can have a few other requirements and range in value from a $500 (Purdue and Northwestern) to full cost of attendance (Texas Tech and Alabama).
Not everyone gets a scholarship
As mentioned earlier, only a little more than half of the students achieving Semifinalist will receive a scholarship. Besides the 1000 or so students who don’t qualify for Finalist, many Finalists won’t apply to schools who offer National Merit-specific scholarships. Only a little over 2000 receive the $2500 scholarship directly from NMSC.
What’s the value of National Merit
In most cases, National Merit can have a definite Return on Investment. A student can measure the value of the scholarship they could receive against the cost of preparation they would have to put in. Just using the $2500 scholarship award, it seems like many test prep programs could pay for themselves IF the student is able to qualify for Semifinalist and IF the student wins an award. Additional awards a student might qualify for can be more difficult to predict.
In other cases, most of especially selective schools, the Ivy-plus so-to-speak, won’t offer scholarships related to National Merit. In those cases, achieving Semifinalist has more to do with giving the student an academic award as a part of their academic profile. Like so many things in college admissions, it all depends on where you want to go to college.
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