If you’ve heard of the National Merit Scholarship Competition and how it works, chances are you’d want to be a part of it. But how do you go about it? What steps are involved, and how can you increase your chances of going all the way?
The National Merit Scholarship Competition is a national academic competition for high school students to provide the financial aid they need to attend college. If you’re like most people, your first reaction to the potential of earning a scholarship will be cool. Who doesn’t want to have a significant part of the school fees chopped off?
Here’s an article explaining everything you should know about the competition, including the stages involved and how to qualify for nationally recognized scholar status.
What Does it Mean to Be a Nationally Recognized Scholar?
Put simply, a nationally recognized scholar is a student that has entered the National Merit Scholarship Program and has advanced to the finals. Therefore to fully understand who a nationally recognized scholar is, we must explain what the National Merit Scholarship is.
The National Merit Program is an academic competition for high-achieving U.S. high school students. The program, which is designed to provide financial aid for college students, is administered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC). It features a unique structure where finalists and semifinalists receive special recognition for their academic excellence and scholarships to fund their college education.
Entering and qualifying for the award involves a fairly easy process as long as you’re a high-performing student intrinsically motivated to pursue excellence. Students will likely take the PSAT during their junior year of high school. However, note that a student’s high school graduation timeline will definitely affect the time they’ll take the PSAT, which is the first qualifying exam for the National Merit program.
The body in charge of the program will evaluate students’ scores and select scholars, finalists, and semifinalists based on scores, academic records, skills, and other accomplishments.
Students selected as semifinalists can advance to the finals by maintaining excellent academic records, completing their scholarship applications, and writing an essay that requires endorsement from their school officials. The winners are selected from the finalists and conferred with the National Scholar Status. Students that do not get to this level will still receive recognition for their achievements as finalists and semifinalists.
Three main factors combine to make students eligible for the National Merit Scholarship:
- Students must apply for and take the PSAT/NMSQT in the specified year of their high school program. The general rule of thumb is that students take the test during the fall of junior high school.
- To be eligible, students must be enrolled as full-time high school students, have impeccable characters, and have plans to accept college admissions during the fall following their completion of high school education.
- Finally, students must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents or attend high school in U.S. or U.S. commonwealth territory to be eligible to apply. You can check the National Merit website for further information on eligibility requirements and how to apply.
Different Types of National Merit Scholars
Now that you know some nationally recognized scholar benefits, you’re probably wondering what your chances are. What if we also tell you that there are different types of national merit scholars?
Yes, you read that rightly, there are different types of national merit scholarships, and it’s important that you understand all of them and how relevant they can be to your personal goals. That said, here are four types of the award:
National Merit $2,500 Scholarship
This one’s probably the most popular type of scholarship in its category. It’s a one-time scholarship awarded by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation to students that have performed exceptionally well in their academic work and have met all necessary eligibility requirements. The board awards $2,500 to help receiving students offset a huge chunk of their college expenditures.
National Merit Special Scholarship
Here’s another popular option on the list. However, in this case, the scholarship is awarded to students by businesses and private organizations in recognition of their efforts throughout the duration of the scholarship program. This means that it’s awarded based on the effort you’ve put in throughout the process, and you don’t have to become a finalist to qualify for the award. In this case, the scholarship can either be given at once or expanded into multiple months, depending on the decision of the sponsoring organization.
Corporate-sponsored National Merit Scholarships
Here’s another scholarship in the category that’s sponsored by businesses and private organizations. However, this one is slightly different from the National Merit Special Scholarship, considering it’s only reserved for children of employees. Therefore, participating children must push their parents to fund out whether they work in organizations that award these scholarships. Again, it can be given as a one-time award or expanded into many months.
College-Sponsored National Merit
The last type of National Merit Scholarship is awarded by colleges and universities to outstanding students willing to attend their school. In this case, the scholarship is typically expanded into multiple years and offered to only a few percent of students.
How Does the National Merit Scholarship Competition Work?
As you’ve seen so far, the nationally recognized scholar application can be easy or difficult, depending on the amount of information you have before applying. The body receives about 1.6 million nationally recognized school applicants annually. However, out of this number, only about 50,000 entries with the highest PSAT/NMSQT scores qualify for the recognition stage. Note that the selection index for the recognition stage may vary by state. Qualifying students will be notified of their status as semifinalists or commended students.
Commended students won’t advance to the next stage of the competition. However, some students in this category may still qualify for special scholarships sponsored by businesses and corporations.
Out of the semifinalists, the panel will select the highest-scoring entrants from each state to advance to the finals. Such students must meet all the important requirements for this stage, including high academic standards and excelling in their SAT exams.
In February 2022, following the shortlisting of semifinalists, the board announced approximately 15,000 students as Finalists. Out of these Finalists, the panel awards national merit scholarships. The scholarship is awarded to 7,500 people annually.
How Rare Is a National Merit Scholar?
By now, you can already see that this Program is very competitive. But the question is, how competitive can it be? Out of about 1.5 million students that meet the eligibility criteria, only 50,000 best scorers are identified annually for scholarships or commendations. This represents just 3% of the test-takers around the country. Below 1% of the figure will go on to receive the scholarship. This means you must be among the top 1% scorers with all the requirements to qualify for the scholarship. So, one pertinent question is how you can set yourself apart in such a way that it improves your chances. We’ll find out in the next section.
How to Become a Nationally Recognized Scholar: 3 Tips
It’s one thing to enter this competition, but another thing to go all the way. Nobody enters the competition to be eliminated in the first round, and that’s why you must learn specific tips on how to qualify as a nationally recognized scholar before starting the process.
That said, here are a few tips you should keep in mind if you intend to go all the way to the competition to become a Nationally Recognized Scholar.
Get a great PSAT score!
Of course, this is the first step of the process. It’s also the most important step, as you won’t even qualify for the scholarship without it in the first place. You also need to pass the PSAT/NMSQT at the right time (as a junior student). Different states have different qualifying scores that students must meet or surpass to qualify for the next stage.
Most times, students need a score that puts them among the top 1% in their states to beat the state’s cut-off point. In Georgia, for example, candidates would need a selection index of 219 to qualify, while test-takers in Montana can qualify with a score as low as 207. This means a state’s cut-off may be influenced by how well or poorly its students perform in the PSAT.
Depending on how impressive your PSAT scores are, you may be named a semifinalist or a commended student. Both are impressive markers that can improve the quality of your college application, but we recommend working hard to become a semifinalist.
Write a strong application
If you’ve been named a national merit semifinalist – congratulations! Now’s the time to work for even bigger recognitions (qualifying to become a finalist). Of course, it begins with applying to become a finalist. Remember that only a few semifinalists will make it to the finalist standing.
Therefore, it makes sense to put everything you can into this application. Ask for help where possible. One helpful tip is to approach a former finalist from your state and ask them for guidance. Many useful guides are also available online to help you see how to write a strong application.
Aim for a great SAT score
There’s still more test-taking to do after the PSAT. You must also score high on your SAT to advance to the National Merit Finalist stage. Remember that you’ll need to submit your official SAT scores while applying for the scholarship.
Fortunately, the College Board and NMSC do not suggest any cut-off score for the SAT. However, you’ll need to score high enough to validate your performance in the PSAT/NMSQT. We usually advise candidates to aim for an SAT score of between 1200 and 1600. This means that beyond scoring excellently on the PSAT. You must also study well and score well on the SAT. A good SAT score puts you in a favorable position when applying to become a finalist.
Wrapping Things Up: What is a Nationally Recognized Scholar?
Let’s be honest; everybody fancies the idea of having their tuition fee and any other fees chopped off as they go through college. But the percentage of people that qualify for this annually can be scary. But it doesn’t make it impossible. In fact, approximately 8,500 students successfully navigate the process annually! So, it’s doable, despite all the hurdles.
It becomes easier once you’ve passed through the first few steps of the National Merit Scholarship Competition. You just need to commit to the work and have experienced people who can offer advice and recommendations. There’s so much to gain and very little to lose, so commit yourself to work and try going all the way to the finals.