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Frequently Asked Questions about the PSAT and National Merit Scholarships


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Every October, high school students across the country take the PSAT to practice for the SAT, which they will take their junior. What many students and parents don’t know is that the PSAT also can qualify students for National Merit Scholarships. National Merit Scholarships can provide students with anywhere from a few thousand dollars to full tuition at the college of their choice.

Next week I’ll discuss the PSAT as it relates to the typical student, but today’s article will focus on those amazing test takers who have the potential to qualify as National Merit Scholars.

How do students participate in the National Merit Scholarship program?

Students are automatically considered for National Merit Scholarships when they take the PSAT; no additional registration is required. Junior year is the only time PSAT results can qualify a student for the National Merit program, so freshmen or sophomores taking the PSAT will not be considered for National Merit recognition.

PSAT registration is done through high schools. Check with the guidance counselor at your local school for PSAT registration information. Homeschool students can contact any high school in their area to test.

Who can participate in the National Merit Scholarship program?

To participate in the National Merit Scholarship program, students need to take the PSAT their third year in high school. Participants must be citizens of the United States or be a lawful permanent resident with the intent to become a citizen at the earliest possible opportunity.

All students are welcome to take the PSAT, so don’t worry if your child doesn’t meet the above criteria. However, not all students who take the PSAT will be considered for the scholarships, even if they earn perfect scores.

What PSAT score do I need to qualify as a National Merit Scholar?

This is the big question and I wish I could give you a simple answer. The fact is, the qualifying score changes year to year and from state to state. (Confusing, I know!)

National Merit recognizes Commended Scholars and Semi-finalists based on junior year PSAT scores. The top 3 percent of students in each state receive recognition, but because the qualifying score is based on a percentage of total test-takers, the cutoff score is different in each state and changes from year to year.

Since the new format PSAT was given in October 2015 there has been a lot of speculation on what scores will be high enough. Guesses include Selection Index results from 195-205 and above. These numbers are just guesses. It will take another year before the qualifying scores from the 2015 PSAT are released to the public.

If you know a National Merit Semi-Finalist, you could ask what they scored. That may be seen as tacky— a bit like asking someone what they weigh— but sometimes high-scoring students don’t mind the opportunity to brag a little.

Here is the list of National Merit Semi-Finalists in my state, Texas. Check your local media outlets for lists in other states. (These results were released on Wednesday.)

How are National Merit scholarship winners determined?

Students who meet PSAT score qualifications will be notified by their high schools, and homeschool students will be notified at their home address. Unfortunately, some schools are less organized and may not notify you immediately which is why it helps to check the released list of finalists. (see here for Texas)

To proceed in the program and possibly receive scholarship money, students must submit academic records, a letter of recommendation, a personal essay, and the completed application. The National Merit Corporation reviews all applications and determines finalists and award winners.

The most common reason students do not advance from semi-finalists to finalists is a failure to apply on time. Other reasons applications are denied include grades in school which do not merit recognition (think lots of C’s, or some D’s and F’s), incomplete applications, poor character references (not just bland, but BAD), or the failure to provide an SAT score to substantiate a student’s PSAT performance.

What types of awards does the National Merit program give?

National Merit awards three types of scholarships: National Merit Scholarships, corporate-sponsored scholarships, and college-sponsored scholarships.

The National Merit Scholarships are worth $2,500. Corporation-sponsored awards range from one-time payments of $2,500 to renewable awards up to $10,000 per year of college.

College-sponsored scholarships can be worth anywhere from a few thousand dollars up to full-tuition awards with housing and living expenses included. This is where the National Merit designation really pays off.

However, like many merit scholarships, institutional awards are based on supply and demand. Schools in high demand (Harvard, UT Austin, Stanford, etc.) don’t need to use scholarships as a “carrot” to attract highly qualified students. These schools are already in high demand. Look for National Merit awards at schools with stellar academic reputations, but less prestigious names or exciting locations. These are often the schools willing to offer full tuition and housing scholarships.

What if I missed the PSAT?

Students who meet participation requirements but miss the PSAT due to illness, emergency, or other extenuating circumstances may still participate in the National Merit Scholarship program. They will need to send a letter documenting their circumstance to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation as soon as possible. In most cases students will be given an opportunity to test for the program.

Famous Scholars

Famous National Merit Scholarship winners include John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s; Jeffrey Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com; Mitchell Daniels, Jr., governor of Indiana; Stephenie (Morgan) Meyer, author of the “Twilight” books; and Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal.

The National Merit Scholarship program offers 9,600 scholarships every year. Being a National Merit Scholar is an honor, and the potential for scholarship money is good if you have qualifying PSAT scores and are selected as a finalist. If you have additional questions about the program, check with your high school guidance counselor or visit the National Merit website: http://www.nationalmerit.org/

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