College Scholarships: The National Merit Scholarship

By Peterson's Staff updated on Thursday, April 10, 2014

If you take the PSAT/NMSQT in October of your junior year, you'll know by the following April if you stand apart from the pack. As a top scorer, you may qualify as a Semifinalist for a National Merit Scholarship, and you'll be asked to pick two schools to which the National Merit Scholarship Corporation will refer you.

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Initial qualification for this college scholarship

Approximately 34,000 students, or two thirds of the 50,000 top scorers, receive Letters of Commendation every September acknowledging their outstanding academic achievement and potential. However, if you receive one of these letters, it also serves as notice that you won’t be progressing further in the college scholarship competition.

Commended Students may not receive NMSC-sponsored Merit scholarships, but you may be eligible for awards sponsored by corporations and business organizations. To be considered for one of these scholarships, you need to have filed an entry form directly with a sponsor organization. On their behalf, the NMSC makes a determination about your eligibility and may invite you to submit formal application materials.

The NMSC evaluates your application, abilities, skills, and accomplishments, and concludes if you are a winner. These awards are great opportunities as they are sometimes actually larger than the amount of the National Merit Scholarships and may be renewable for up to four years. (See below for more information on Corporate-Sponsored Merit Scholarships.)

Becoming a semifinalist in the contest for college scholarships

If you’re not selected as a Commended Student, you may be in the ranks of 16,000 Semifinalists who also receive notification of their status in September. Each of the 50 states is represented by Semifinalists who are the highest scoring students from their states. If you're in this group, you’ll receive student scholarships application materials so you can be considered as a possible Finalist for a National Merit Scholarship. These materials explain the academic standards and any other requirements you need to meet to be selected as a Finalist.

Through this process, you could be one of 15,000 students selected as a Finalist for the National Merit Scholarship. Your principal will be notified as well, and provided with a certificate to present to you as recognition of this achievement.

Types of college scholarships awarded

From the group of Finalists, approximately 8,200 are selected as winners of Merit Scholarship awards, based on their abilities, skills, and accomplishments. Your status will be determined through a rigorous assessment of your academic record, information about your school's curriculum and grading system, two sets of test scores, a school official's written recommendation, information about your activities and leadership, and an essay that you will be required to submit. If you win, you’ll be notified sometime between March and mid-June. At that time, you’ll also find out which of these three types of National Merit Scholarships you have won:

A National Merit $2,500 Scholarship
This is the award you’re competing for, one of the great college scholarships! If you win, you will represent your home state as one of the highest academic achievers from your state. These are merit undergraduate scholarships so it doesn’t matter what your family’s income is, what school you want to attend, or what you’re planning to study. A National Merit Scholarship is considered to be a great achievement and recognition of your academic abilities.

Corporate-Sponsored Merit Scholarship awards
More than 500 companies sponsor corporate Merit Scholarships. They are designated for children of employees or members of the companies, residents living in a community where a company has operations, or students whose career plans a sponsor wishes to encourage. Sponsor organizations include corporations and businesses, company foundations, and professional associations. These student scholarships may be renewable for four years of undergraduate study or they may be one-time awards.

Make sure you research your parent’s employee-benefit programs to see whether or not you may be able to submit a National Merit Scholarship entry form to your mom or dad’s employer -- or to both of them! (A list of corporate organizations that sponsor Merit Scholarship awards and/or Special Scholarships is given in the PSAT/NMSQT Student Bulletin.)

College-Sponsored Merit Scholarship awards
If you’ve been accepted for admission by either of the two colleges to which you chose to send your scores, those colleges may select you as a winner of a Merit Scholarship. These university scholarships may be renewable for up to four years. Make sure you check with your first-choice schools to see if they sponsor Merit scholarships, because not all schools do.

Winning a National Merit Scholarship is an outstanding accomplishment. Be proud of yourself! If you’re able to achieve getting such a reward, your future looks very bright indeed.

About the Author

Peterson's has more than 40 years of experience in higher education, and the expert staff members here are all ready to leverage their considerable knowledge and experience to help you succeed on your educational journey. We have the information, the know-how, and the tools -- now all we need is you!

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