The National Merit Finalist Competition: How Important it is for College Admissions and Scholarships

How important is being a National Merit Finalist or your PSAT scores to colleges? This is a very popular question for many people interested in working with our organization. I get asked this frequently in our initial consultations where students and parents alike want to know what this process might look like and how they go after this prestigious title. Most people have heard of it but don’t know what the process is or how to obtain such a high honor. I’m hoping to break down what the National Merit Scholarship Program is and the road to finalist status. Make sure you read this entire article to find actionable steps for high scorers if this is something you are looking to obtain.

What is the National Merit Scholarship Program, What Are the Eligibility Requirements, and What Does the Application Process Look Like?

The National Merit Competition is a scholarship competition (not an academic competition), created but the College Board organization, for eligible (MUST be a U.S. citizen) high school students. . It consists of two rounds: National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT) and National Merit Scholarship Program (NMS). Let’s start out by explaining the first step which is taking the PSAT fall of your junior year. You can take the PSAT your freshman and sophomore year as well but those tests are truly just practice tests. Those test scores will not count towards the National Merit Scholarship Program but can still be used as great practice or a baseline score. Your junior year of high school however is taken for record and used as a qualifier for the National Merit Competition. It is taken in October and is based on a minimum score set by the organization. Whoever scores at or higher than the set minimum will move on to the next steps. Anyone who falls short, will not be considered in the competition. To give perspective, about 1.5 million students take the test annually. Of those 1.5 million high school juniors, only 50,000 students make it to the next stage of the competition. As you can see, this is a highly competitive program and greatly sought out by students and higher education institutions alike.

The second stage of the process, where those 50,000 students fall, are broken into 2 categories: commended students and semifinalists.

Commended students:

The National Merit Scholarship Program is broken into a variety of divisions. One of the divisions includes students who are commended and awarded for their outstanding academic performance in one or multiple subjects. Although Commended Students do not continue on in the competition for National Merit Scholarships, some students become candidates for scholarships sponsored by corporations and local businesses to the University they choose. Roughly about two-thirds of the 50,000 students make it to this level.

National Merit Semifinalist Students:

In September of the student’s senior year, the remaining one-third of the students are notified that they have made it to the semifinalist competition. The organization makes a strong effort to qualify students in a national capacity so at this point of the process, the competition becomes regional. Let me explain, semifinalists will be the top scorers based on the state they reside in. If you are in a state that is highly competitive, it might be harder to get to that semifinalist position. If you are in a state that has a lower index number, your chances might be better to get that top position.

StateSelection Index
New Hampshire214
New Jersey222
New Mexico210
New York220
North Carolina218
North Dakota207
Rhode Island213
South Carolina213
South Dakota210
West Virginia207

Next Steps:

Finalist Students:

In order to have finalist standing, a student must fulfill the requirements which they will receive from the organization when they find out they are a semifinalist and also have the highest scores in their region. Here is a copy of the requirements so you can view everything directly. In February of the student’s senior year, of the 16,000 semifinalists chosen, there is one more narrowing down the process to 15,000 students and those are the students that are recognized as finalists. The high school seniors and their high school principal will be notified that they made it to the final stages of the competition which is called the winner selection.

Winner Selection:

This is it, this is the final step of the competition and usually takes place around March of the senior year of high school. Students from the finalist category are narrowed down by a committee to about 7600 students who are deemed with the prestigious honor of being a national merit finalist award winners. Now, the title is WAY more important to students than the prizes themselves. Students are awarded only a nominal scholarship of $2500 from the organization which doesn’t sound like a lot in the grand scheme of things. Let’s face it, the scholarship money is only the cherry on top of the already lucrative cake! With our students, we are able to leverage the honor and title alone for millions of dollars in scholarships from colleges across the country. There is a whole strategy, one that so many students don’t know about. If you are one of the lucky finalists chosen and don’t know how to effectively use this for college admissions or funding, please contact our organization for a free consultation. There are so many wonderful opportunities that aren’t well known that you might be passing up.

College Scholarship for National Merit Finalists:

Let’s go over one of the schools that you might not know about that gives incredible merit scholarship awards for national merit finalists ONLY. The University of Oklahoma often boasts that they have the highest number of National Merit Finalists attending their university. Although I don’t know the exact statistics, I’m sure they are telling the truth. I will give you a little secret as to why they have so many attend their university……. THEY BUY THEM. Here is a breakdown of what you get if you choose to go to the University of OK as a National Merit Finalist:

This is why we stress the importance of the PSAT and the National Merit Competition. The nominal $2500 assistance (there is no scholarship application for these one-time awards) isn’t THE BIG financial aid opportunity. It is the $100,000+ in full-ride scholarships and Ivy league admissions for incoming freshmen offered at different universities around the country that makes all the preparation and hard work worth it! People often ask if training and practicing for the National Merit Finalist spot is worth it and our short answer is YES. We also stress that it isn’t everything when it comes to college opportunities so students need to put everything in perspective. It is worth preparing but if you don’t get one of the final spots, it is definitely not the end of the road for you either. Many students put so much emphasis on this recognition and they often let their grades and SAT/ACT scores suffer because of it. This is also not a good strategy. It is all about balance and a proper strategy.

Professional Advice on PSAT/NMSQT Scores:

  • Test takers- start early with your preparation. If you can, begin taking the PSAT your Freshman and Sophomore year for practice.
  • Get enrolled in a structured prep course (it doesn’t have to be specific to just PSAT, it can cover ALL 3 tests for timing sake) and take a few SATs for record to get familiar with the questions. As most of you know, PSAT and SAT have the same test writers so you can get a good understanding of their writing styles and practice.
  • Don’t stress. This competition is not the deciding factor on whether you will get into college, be awarded scholarships, nor is it an indicator of the kind of college students you will become. It increases opportunities and special scholarships but it is not the only way into college.
  • Look at the requirements early to make sure you are going to be an ideal candidate for the committee.
  • Make sure if you are chosen as a semifinalist to seek proper help and advice. You can always contact our organization, someone else in your area that specializes in the process, or go to your school counselor. Have them look into the process if they aren’t familiar or contact the organization directly. The last thing you want to do is be chosen but not be able to capitalize on all the goodness that comes with the honor!

Like this article?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkdin
Share on Pinterest


We would love to have you join our tribe and be the first to know what's happening in the world of college! We offer a monthly newsletter along with bonuses, special prices, and FREE webinars.

Leave a comment