Without a doubt, the National Merit Scholarship is one of the most sought-after scholarships achievable by high school students. As a result, receiving it requires students to be ambitious and extremely competitive.

Millions of students apply for the National Merit Scholarship during their junior year, but only a fraction wins this prestigious college scholarship.

That said, there’s no reason to believe you can’t be one of the winners. In this neat little guide, we’re going to cover everything you need to do to win the National Merit Scholarship in 2021. We’ll also break down what the college scholarship provides students and how to know if you’re eligible.

What Is the National Merit Scholarship?

The National Merit Scholarship program is an academic competition established by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC), a private non-profit company based out of Illinois. Since 1955, the program has helped countless students studying in the United States and US citizens abroad acquire financial support and recognition when applying to colleges.

The program is available for all students who meet the eligibility requirements (see below). Students are essentially ranked based on their placement. For example, top-tier students become recognized as National Merit Scholars. Finalists and semifinalists also receive recognition for their accomplishments and achievements during the program.

Students wanting to participate in the scholarship need to score high on their PSATs and National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT), but we’ll cover more about why you need to take the PSAT/NMSQT below.

What Does the National Merit Scholarship Provide?

The scholarship is broken down into three separate awards:

  1. National Merit Scholarship — All students awarded this level receive $2,500 for their first year at college. What’s more, is that colleges view winning a National Merit Scholarship as a high honor. As a result, students could have a much easier college admissions process.
  2. College-Sponsered Merit Scholarship — Students receive financial support between $500 and $2,500 on an annual basis for 4-years. However, this award only applies if the student attends a college that’s partnered with the program.
  3. Corporate-Sponsored Merit Scholarship — Students receive financial support ranging from $500 to $10,000 per year. Companies that sponsor this scholarship can set their own qualification guidelines.

How To Know if You’re Eligible for the National Merit Scholarship

Since the program accepts over 1 million students every year, you have a good shot at being eligible for a college scholarship. However, there are a few preliminary requirements you need to check off your list before applying.

Here are the National Merit Scholarship eligibility requirements directly from the scholarship program:

  • You need to take the PSAT/NMSQT during your junior year. When taking your PSAT test, there will be a few questions about why you want to apply for the program.
  • You need to be a high school student (homeschoolers can also apply). You must also be doing all of your standard courses and electives that move you towards graduation. Students are also required to be seeking admission to a college before the following fall after senior year graduation.
  • You must be attending a US-based high school or any high school in a US territory. If you’re a US citizen studying abroad, you can still participate in the program.

Application Steps for the National Merit Scholarship

To apply for the National Merit Scholarship awards, you need to fill out the application with the NMSC. You can find the forms online. The first step towards your journey of becoming a National Merit Scholar start when you take the PSAT/NMSQT. After students finish their PSAT and test scores are calculated, the NMSC will choose from 50,000 students with the highest rankings.

From there, the students are broken up into three categories: commended students, semifinalists, finalists.

Commended Students

Commended students make up a vast majority of applications. Students in this bracket are highly recognized for their outstanding PSAT scores, but won’t be able to compete further in the program. That said, making it this far is still quite impressive, and your favorite university’s college board will recognize your academic promise


The next tier up is semifinalists. The institution selects students in this category based on the state they live in. For example, if you have higher PSAT scores than most other students in your state, you’ll likely land in this bracket. Therefore, students should look at their state’s average test scores and aim to blow them out of the water if they want to become semifinalists.


Finalists are among the top students in the country. To become a finalist, not only do you have to score extremely high on your tests, but you also need to meet a few additional requirements:

  • Provide proof of permanent residency in the United States
  • Be endorsed by your high school principal for the finalist standing position
  • Be attending high school in the United States or a US territory
  • Have spectacular academic performance throughout grade 9 to 12
  • Submit your NMS application to your high school office
  • Planning to enroll full-time in college before the fall after graduation

The NMS scholarship application is similar to applying to a college. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Your high school transcripts
  • SAT scores
  • An essay about yourself and why you should be a National Merit Scholar
  • Information about your extracurricular activities and leadership roles
  • A letter from your principal
  • Details about your high school’s grading system

The National Merit Scholarship Annual Timeline

Here’s a breakdown of the annual timeline for the National Merit Scholarship process:


September is when the NMSC notifies all commended students and semifinalists. This is when both brackets can submit their status and receive their financial support for college.


During January and February, the NMSC selects all finalists.


March and April are when the NMSC selects its winners.


The NMSC validates student’s college enrollment.


The NMSC sends checks to the respective university’s college board in the student’s name.

Tips and Strategies To Help You Win the National Merit Scholarship

As you can see from the information above, getting a National Merit Scholarship isn’t easy. Only the most ambitious students will have a shot if they want to make it into the program, let alone win. However, there are a few things you can do to help increase your chances of becoming a National Merit Scholar. Here’s what you can do:

Focus on Scoring High on Your PSAT Test

Scoring high on your PSATs is one of the most vital aspects of being accepted into the program. Therefore, you should focus a significant amount of your time and energy on getting the highest score possible. To help increase your chances of scoring higher than the competition, be sure to take advantage of several resources, especially practice tests.

Taking a practice PSAT test will help you get comfortable with the type of questions that will be on the real thing. It will also ensure you know the format and structure of the PSAT.

When you take the PSAT practice test, be sure to thoroughly look at the questions you answer incorrectly. With that, you can develop stronger strategies to get the answer during the real PSAT test. If you’re struggling to master the PSAT practice test questions, you can always hire a tutor.

Beef Up Your Application

Since everyone needs to submit an application to potentially participate in the program, doing the bare minimum won’t cover it. If you don’t want to be just another face in the crowd, make sure yours is stellar. For starters, ensure your GPA is higher than 3.5. This means do the best you can in all of your classes to get the best grades possible.

Next, try and score higher than 1400 on your SATs. You can use the PSAT tips above to make sure you score as high as possible.

As a high school senior year student, you’re probably tired of everyone telling you the importance of extracurricular activities. However, they can’t be ignored if you plan to be a National Merit Scholar. Students should also form a good relationship with their principal and other faculty members to increase their chances of getting an endorsement. When it comes time to ask for your recommendation letter, try and reach out at least 4 weeks in advance.

Write a Killer Essay

The program requires an essay of at least 500 to 600 words for every student application. There are numerous topics you can choose from, but the institution is mostly looking to learn about your unique qualities and your personality. You can use your college application essay as a good reference point as they are extremely similar.

Take the time to sit and think about yourself and what makes you different from the other million applications. You also want to make sure that the tone and voice you’re writing in are yours. Don’t be afraid to open up, be honest, and even a little vulnerable. Once you draft up your essay, be sure to proofread and make necessary edits. It also couldn’t hurt to let a friend or family member take a look, especially if they are/were National Merit Scholars.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Which Schools Offer Free-Ride Scholarships to National Merit Scholars?

The six colleges that currently offer tuition-free scholarship awards to National Merit Scholars are:

  • Baylor University
  • University of Oklahoma
  • University of Arizona
  • University of Tulsa
  • Texas A&M
  • Auburn University

How Reputable Is a National Merit Scholarship?

Becoming a finalist or even semifinals in the National Merit Scholarship program is an incredible academic achievement. Whether you’re looking to get into a good school or land one of your dream jobs, being a National Merit Scholar looks excellent on your record and college application.

Do All National Merit Finalists Get a Scholarship?

No, not all finalists will get a scholarship award. Out of the roughly 15,000 finalists, typically around 8,000 receive a scholarship from the program. However, all finalists are considered for a college scholarship.

Final Thoughts

There’s no doubt that putting in the work during your junior year to become a National Merit Scholar finalist or semifinalist is worth the effort. With any recognition from the program, you can expect to have a much easier college admission process senior year. It will help put you ahead of other applicants since it shows your determination and academic practice.

That said, the National Merit Scholarship isn’t the only form of financial aid students can get when applying for college. Here at Minorities To Majorities, we help connect underrepresented students with a wide range of financial aid institutions to help them acquire the capital they need to attend school. If you’re looking for advice on how to obtain scholarships, student loans, grants, and more, reach out to the GrantEd team today.

Our financial aid calculator, created by our founder, Jasmine Chigbu, creates a tailored vision of your necessities. Jasmine is an expert on scholarships — that’s how she paid for all four years of medical school. Trust the people that know scholarships and reach out to GrantEd today.

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