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US Scholarship: The National Merit Scholarship Program

 The National Merit Scholarship Program, which began in 1955, is a United States (US) academic scholarship competition conducted every year, by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC), a privately funded, not-for-profit organization based in Evanston, Illinois. The program is aimed at recognizing students and giving scholarships for their outstanding performance.

The National Merit Scholarship Program of the NMSC is open to all high school students who meet entry requirements. The preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) is the only qualifying test for a student’s entry to a particular year’s competition. Approximately 1.5 million high school students enter the program annually, through the PSAT/NMSQT. It serves as a screening process, measuring critical reading ability, mathematics problem-solving ability, and writing ability, rather than existing knowledge.

The top-performing students in the National Merit Scholarship Program are referred to as National Merit Scholars. Finalists and semi-finalists are also recognized for their academic and extracurricular achievements. Outstanding students are named based on a nationally applied selection index score, which may vary from year to year and is typically below the level required for participants to be named semifinalists in their respective states.

Things to Consider For a National Merit Scholarship, semifinalists must meet the qualifications to advance to the position of the finalist. Each semifinalist submits a detailed scholarship application that includes essays and information on extracurricular achievements, awards, and leadership positions.

Semifinalists must also have an excellent academic record, be endorsed and recommended by a high school official, and have SAT scores proving their performance on the qualifying test. From the semi-finalist pool, a certain number of students, which varies from year to year, advance to the finalist position based on the above criteria. At the conclusion of the competition, a select group of finalists is chosen to receive prestigious National Merit Scholarships. The winners are

finalists who demonstrate the strongest combination of academic ability and achievement, extracurricular achievement, and potential for success in a rigorous college study.


  • A US citizen in high school
  • Students attending high school abroad: If attending high school outside the US, you must be a US citizen or be a US lawful permanent resident (or have applied for permanent residence and have not been denied) and intends to become a U.S. citizen at the earliest legal date.


Registration for the test is per high school, not per student. Interested students should see their counselor early in the school year to make arrangements to take the PSAT/NMSQT at school in the fall. Students intending to enter the National Merit Scholarship Program must take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT®) at the time specified in the high school curriculum, usually as juniors. Each year’s PSAT/NMSQT is the qualifying test intended for entry into the competition for a particular year. For example, the PSAT/NMSQT 2020 is the eligibility test for entering the competition for scholarships that will be awarded in 2022.

Note: PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9 will not be considered for acceptance to the National Merit Scholarship Program.


On the day of the exam, students will be asked a few questions to determine admission to the National Merit Scholarship Program. To be eligible for the National Merit Scholarship Program, a student must:

  1. pass the PSAT/NMSQT in the indicated high school year of the program and no later than the third year in grades 9 through 12, regardless of grade level or educational pattern;
  • Be enrolled as a high school student (traditional or homeschooled), usually in the direction of  graduation or completion of high school, and intends to accept admission to the university no later than in the autumn after high school; and
  • Attending a high school in the United States, the District of Columbia, or the United States community and territory; or meeting citizenship requirements for students attending high school outside the United States.


Generally, the expected year in which the test will be taken is the junior year of high school. NMSC uses the PSAT/NMSQT Student Selection Index score obtained in the student’s junior year of Grades 9-12 to determine the expected level of recognition. To be recognized in the fifth (senior) year of high school, the student must repeat the PSAT/NMSQT in the fourth year and achieve a qualifying selection index score at or above the level achieved on the junior year exam. The level of recognition a student receives cannot exceed the level achieved on the proficiency test taken during the student’s junior year in Grades 9-12, the year in which all other participants are considered.

  • Students who plan to spend the usual four years in high school (grades 9-12) before entering college full-time should take the PSAT /NMSQT in their junior year (grade 11, third year). They enter the competition, which ends when the awards are presented in the spring of their senior year of high school (Grade 12, Senior), the same year they graduate from high school and go to college. Although some schools encourage their sophomores to take the PSAT/NMSQT for guidance purposes, sophomores must retake the test as juniors to enter the National Merit Scholarship Program if they complete the usual four years of study in Grades 9 – 12 pass>
  • Students who wish to leave high school a year (or more) early to enroll full-time in college are generally eligible to enroll in the National Merit Scholarship Program if they complete secondary school before leaving the PSAT/NMSQT. These students must take the PSAT/NMSQT in either their junior or senior year of high school matriculation.
    • Those who take the PSAT/NMSQT Juniors will join the competition for
      prizes awarded upon completion of their senior year of high school.
    • Those who take the PSAT/NMSQT in their senior year of high school enter a competition for prizes that will be offered upon completion of their first year of college.
  • Students enrolled in both high school and college must complete the PSAT /NMSQT in their junior year of high school (grade 11, junior year) to enter the National Merit Scholarship Program. The high school determines whether a student is dual enrolled and confirms the student’s status as a high school student.
  • Students planning to study for five years in grades 9-12 before attending college

full-time You can participate in the National Merit Scholarship Program if you complete the PSAT/NMSQT in your junior year of high school and again in your senior year. Such students’ selection index scores will not be accepted into the program until NMSC approves a written application to enter the competition®. The application must include the student’s name, the name, and location of the high school, the year the student began high school, the year the student will graduate from High School and a brief explanation of the educational pattern of the student.

HOW NMSC assesses students’ PSAT/NMSQT

As a co-sponsor of the test, NMSC receives all PSAT/NMSQT scores and certain information that students provide on their answer sheets. Score reports provided to test-takers and their schools show a student’s selection index score (calculated by doubling the sum of test scores in reading, writing, language, and math) and whether the student meets the requirements for admission to the NMSC program. An asterisk (*) next to the selection index score means that the student’s score will not be used for participation. A School official or the student must promptly notify the NMSC of any error or change in the reported information that could affect attendance. The selection index scores of students who meet the admission requirements are used to determine high scores for recognition.


Program Recognition

Of the 1.5 million participants, approximately 50,000 with the highest PSAT/NMSQT® Selection Index scores (calculated by doubling the sum of reading, writing and Language and math test scores) qualify for recognition in the National Merit Scholarship Program. In September, schools will notify these high scorers that they have qualified as Commended students or Semifinalists.

Commended Students

By the end of September, more than two-thirds (approx. 34,000) of the 50,000 PSAT/NMSQT high scorers will receive letters of recognition for their outstanding academic promise. Commended students are named based on a nationally applied selection index score, which may vary on annual basis and is typically below the level required for contestants to be named semifinalists in their respective states. Although Commended students do not continue to apply for National Merit Scholarships, some of these students become candidates for special scholarships sponsored by businesses and corporations.


In early September, approximately 16,000 students, or approximately one-third of the 50,000 high scorers, will receive notification that they have qualified as semi-finalists. To ensure that academically bright young people from across the United States are included in this talent pool, semifinalists are determined based on state representation. The semi-finalists are the participants with the highest number of points in each state. Qualifying results vary from state to state and year to year, but the scores of the semifinalists are extremely high. NMSC will provide semi-finalists with scholarship application materials through their high schools. To be considered for a National Merit Scholarship, semifinalists must advance to the finalist position in the competition by meeting high academic standards and all other requirements outlined in the information provided to each semifinalist.

View the Requirements and Instructions for Semifinalists in the 2022 National Merit Scholarship Program for more information about what Semifinalists must do. (Adobe Acrobat Reader is required.)


In February, approximately 15,000 semi-finalists will be notified that they have reached the finalist position. Principals will also be notified and given a certificate of merit to present to each finalist.

Winner Selection

All Merit Scholarship Award winners (designated by Merit Scholar®) are selected from the pool of finalists based on their ability, skill, and achievement, without regard to gender, race, ethnicity, or religious preference. A variety of data is available to the NMSC for review: the finalist’s transcript, information about the school’s curriculum and grading system, PSAT/NMSQT Selection Index score, a written recommendation from the school’s official high school, information about activities, and leadership and the finalist’s own essay.

Types of Merit Scholarships

From March through mid-June, NMSC will notify approximately 7,500 finalists who have been selected to receive a Scholarship Award® Merit Scholarship. There are three types of merit scholarships:

2,500 $ National Merit® Scholarships

Each finalist applies for these single-payment scholarships, which are awarded on a representative basis from states. Winners are picked by a committee of college admissions officers and high school counselors without regard to family financial circumstances, college choice, or academic and career plans. The Winners of National Merit Scholarship recipients $2,500 each are finalists in each State and are recognized as having the strongest combination of achievement, ability, and potential for success in a rigorous College course.

Corporate Sponsored Merit Scholarship Awards

Corporate sponsors award their scholarships to the children of their employees or Members, to residents of a community where a business operates, or to finalists with career plans that the sponsor wishes to advance. These scholarships are renewable for four-year university studies or individual awards.

University-sponsored Merit Scholarships Awards

Officials at each sponsoring university will select their awardees from among the finalists who have been accepted for admission and reported to the NMSC before the deadlines published by the sponsoring university is your first choice. These scholarships are renewable for up to four years of undergraduate study. Merit scholarships are supported by approximately 400 independent sponsors and NMSC’s own funding. Sponsoring organizations include corporations and corporations, corporate foundations, professional associations, and colleges and universities.

What happens if I’m not a finalist?

Special Scholarships: Each year, approximately 1,000 National Merit Program participants who are honorees but are not finalists receive special scholarships from companies and trade associations. To be considered for a special scholarship, students must meet the sponsor’s criteria and the eligibility requirements of the National Merit Scholarship Program. You must also submit a registration form to the sponsor organization. NMSC then contacts a pool of high-scoring candidates through their respective high schools. These students and their school officials submit detailed grant applications. NMSC professionals evaluate information about candidates’ abilities, skills, and achievements and select recipients of sponsor’s special grants. These scholarships are renewable for four years of college or one-time awards. A list of corporate organizations that sponsor National Merit Scholarships and/or Special Scholarships is given in the PSAT/NMSQT® Student Guide.

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