The National Merit Scholarship is a program that awards scholarship money to students entering college based on high performance in the PSAT/NMSQT along with a few other qualifying requirements that are revealed as entrants advance further in the competition. The PSAT/NMQST, also known as the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, may be viewed as a rehearsal for the regular SAT and is administered once a year in October. Students seeking to qualify for any National Merit scholarships typically take the PSAT as 10th and 11th graders although only the scores from 11th grade will be considered for the National Merit initial screening phase.

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Qualifying for the National Merit Competition

Students vying for inclusion in the National Merit competition must take the PSAT according to the schedule set by the board. This means junior year for most high school students, including those who are dual enrolled in college classes. Students who are slated to finish high school in less than four years must take the PSAT in the second to the last year before high school graduation.

The initial screening typically consists of 1.6 million entrants taking the PSAT. To be considered for the next phase of the competition, students must score in the top 1 percent of entrants based on a cutoff threshold called the Selection Index score.

By spring, 50,000 students nationwide will be advised that they qualify for National Merit recognition. About 34,000 will be recognized as Commended Students but will not qualify for the next phase of the search. Commended Students may still qualify for scholarships from corporate sponsors.

About 16,000 National Merit semifinalists will advance to the next phase of the competition. These students are the top-scoring entrants from each state and will be asked to submit other qualifying information to enter the finalists’ phase. About 15,000 will advance to Finalist standing, and 7,500 will be Merit Scholarship winners.

Defining High Performance in the PSAT/NMSQT

According to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation , the Selection Index score, SI, is calculated by doubling the scores earned for reading, math, writin, and language. The qualifying SI score varies from state to state and from year to year. In the PSAT/NMQST, each section is scored on a scale of 8 to 38 increasing in one-point increments. These test scores are used to calculate the section scores, scaled from 160 to 760 using 10-point increments, which will sum up to 1520, the highest possible PSAT score. The National Merit Scholarship Committee uses the test scores to create a grading curve to determine the group of students who qualify for the next screening phase.

The PSAT score is not used in the college admission process, but it is considered a reliable indicator of how students will perform in the SAT, which many colleges require for college admission applications. The NMSC has started considering ACT scores for National Merit scholarship qualification starting in 2018.

The SI cutoff scores for each state changes from year to year. For 2019 entrants, the highest cutoff score is 223 for students applying from the states of Massachusetts, Maryland, California, New Jersey and Washington DC. Rhode Island’s cutoff score showed the highest jump, changing from 216 to 220. The cutoff score in 21 states remain unchanged from 2018 levels while other states showed a change of one or two points.

•Alabama – 216

•Alaska – 215

•Arizona – 220

•Arkansas – 214

•California – 223

•Colorado – 221

•Connecticut – 222

•Delaware – 222

•District of Columbia – 223

•Florida – 219

•Georgia – 220

•Hawaii – 220

•Idaho – 214

•Illinois – 221

•Indiana – 219

•Iowa – 216

•Kansas – 218

•Kentucky – 218

•Louisiana – 217

•Maine – 217

•Maryland – 223

•Massachusetts – 223

•Michigan – 219

•Minnesota – 220

•Mississippi – 215

•Missouri – 217

•Montana – 214

•Nebraska – 216

•Nevada – 218

•New Hampshire – 219

•New Jersey – 223

•New Mexico – 215

•New York – 221

•North Carolina – 220

•North Dakota – 212

•Ohio – 219

•Oklahoma – 215

•Oregon – 221

•Pennsylvania – 220

•Rhode Island – 220

•South Carolina – 216

•South Dakota – 215

•Tennessee – 219

•Texas – 221

•Utah – 215

•Vermont – 216

•Virginia – 222

•Washington – 222

•West Virginia – 212

•Wisconsin – 216

•Wyoming – 212

•U.S. Territories – 212

•U.S. Citizens Studying Abroad – 223

Types of National Merit Awards

There are three types of National Merit scholarships that will be awarded to about 7,500 students. The National Merit $2500 scholarship winners are direct awards that will be given to the highest qualifiers based on academic achievements, outstanding performance in other activities as verified by school officials and an essay submission. The scholarships will be given to student-awardees wherever they plan to attend college, and they may be used in conjunction with other scholarships. This is a need-blind award given out as a one-time payment.

Corporate-sponsored Merit scholarships are awarded to finalists who meet the requirements established by the sponsor. The criteria may specify that awardees live in a certain community or dependents of the company’s employees. Some corporate sponsors may limit the awards to certain course majors. The awards may consist of a one-time payment or a renewable offer subject to academic performance thresholds. Corporate-sponsored special scholarships are awarded to non-finalists who meet the sponsor’s criteria, which are typically the same as outlined above. These scholarships open up when the sponsor company has a greater number of awards than the candidate pool.

College-sponsored Merit scholarships are awarded to finalists who choose one of the various sponsor colleges as their first choice. Winner selection is solely the purview of the college and awards are typically four-year payments ranging from $500 to $2,000 per school year. Some colleges offer National Merit finalists full scholarships granted outside the National Merit program, giving due consideration to financial need along with academic achievement and a record of community engagement.

NMSC sends out letters of commendation to about 34,000 of the semifinalists who meet the Selection Index qualifying score, which is applied nationally. Currently, the SI score for Commended Students is set at 212. This number changes annually.

Recognition under any of the levels of the National Merit Scholarship program is a feather in the cap of college-bound high school seniors. In most cases, earning even a Commended Student status opens up other scholarship opportunities. National Merit Finalist is a recognition that could strengthen a student’s resume for the highly competitive college admission process.

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