National Merit Scholarships

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Established in 1955, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) is an independent, not-for-profit organization that conducts the National Merit Scholarship Program. NMSC was initially funded by a $20 million Ford Foundation grant and a $500,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The National Merit Scholarship Program's purpose is to recognize academic achievement and grant undergraduate college scholarships to able high school students, based on their performance on the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT). Students take the PSAT/NMSQT for guidance purposes, to practice for the SAT, and to enter the competition for National Merit Scholarships. Though some sophomore students take the exam, typically only students in their third year of high school are eligible for the National Merit Scholarship competition. Additional eligibility requirements for the competition include full-time enrollment as a high school student with plans to enter college no later than the fall following completion of high school and one of the following: U.S. citizenship, permanent U.S. resident status, or current involvement in the U.S. citizenship-qualification process.

Recognition and Awards Program

NMSC recognizes students who earn high scores on the PSAT/NMSQT through press releases to the news media and by sharing their information with colleges and universities to assist with recruiting academically able students. Students who meet rigorous scholarship criteria are also recognized by receiving monetary scholarships. The National Merit Scholarship program offers several different types and levels of recognition and scholarships, including commended students, semifinalists, finalists, and Merit scholars. In addition, students compete for corporate- and university-sponsored Special Scholarships and the National Achievement Scholarship program.

Because there is a lengthy screening process throughout the scholarship competition (approximately eighteen months), high school juniors who took the PSAT/NMSQT in October 2000 would not receive scholarships until spring 2002, the student's senior year. Of the 2.9 million students who took the test in 2000 (an estimated 45% of the projected 2002 high school graduates), 1.2 million were eligible to enter the competition for scholarships. From this smaller group, approximately 50,000 of the highest-scoring students qualified for merit-program recognition. Of the 50,000 highest scorers, approximately 34,000 students received letters of commendation to recognize their academic potential. Though they were no longer eligible for the Merit Scholarship, some students in this group were eligible for Special or National Achievement Scholarships.

The remaining 16,000 students were notified that they qualified as semifinalists, which allowed them to remain eligible to be Merit scholars. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation then sent scholarship applications to the semifinalists to compete for finalist standing. About 90 percent of semifinalists who met academic and all other requirements then progressed to finalist standing. As finalists, students were then eligible for approximately 7,900 Merit Scholarships, which include the following three types of awards: National Merit Scholarships (one-time $2,500 awards), corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarships, and college-sponsored Merit Scholarships. Corporate- and college-sponsored scholarship awards vary in amount and duration, depending on the sponsors.

In addition to granting 7,900 National Merit Scholarships, the National Merit Scholarship Program awards approximately 1,700 Special Scholarships to high-scoring applicants who did not qualify to be Merit scholars but met specific criteria designated by scholarship sponsors, such as businesses or corporations. For example, a company might fund a fixed number of scholarships for its employees' children who achieved a high score on the PSAT/NMSQT. The NMSC reviews the eligible students' applications and selects the recipients.

The third type of scholarship program coordinated by NMSC is the National Achievement Scholarship program. Established in the early 1960s as the National Achievement Scholarship Program for Outstanding Negro Students, the Achievement Scholarship competition seeks to honor outstanding African-American students and improve their opportunities for higher education. Thus far, awards worth about $70 million have been offered to student participants. Though it is run simultaneously with the National Merit Scholarship program, and the two programs appear parallel in design, the National Achievement Scholarship is operated and funded independently. The participation requirements for the Achievement Scholarship are the same as those for the National Merit Scholarship awards, with one addition: African-American students must request entry into the Achievement Scholarship program when they fill out the PSAT/NMSQT answer sheet.

Approximately 110,000 students enter the National Achievement Scholarship program each year, and about 1,500 of the top-scoring students (represented regionally) are designated as semifinalists. Semifinalists complete an Achievement Scholarship application, and more than 1,200 then advance to finalist standing. From this group, Achievement Scholarship recipients are selected.

NMSC, professional organizations, corporations, and college sponsors fund more than 700 Achievement Scholarships each year. The three types of Achievement Scholarship awards are: National Achievement Scholarship ($2,500), corporate-sponsored Achievement Scholarships, and college-sponsored Achievement Scholarships. Students can compete in the competitions for both the National Merit Scholarships and the National Achievement Scholarships in the same year, but they can only receive one monetary reward.

The Test

Cosponsored by NMSC and the College Board, the PSAT/NMSQT comprises five sections: two verbal, two mathematical, and one writing-skills section. The verbal sections include sentence completions, analogies, and critical-reading questions. The mathematical sections include multiple choice questions, quantitative comparisons, and student-produced responses. Finally, the writing portion includes identifying sentence errors, improving sentences, and improving paragraph items.

The PSAT/NMSQT is administered in October, and the score reports are usually sent to high school principals by Thanksgiving. The range of scores for each section of the PSAT/NMSQT is 20 to 80. The scores for the PSAT/NMSQT can be compared to an estimated SAT score by multiplying the PSAT/NMSQT score by 10. For example, if a student's combined score for the verbal section was 48, the corresponding SAT score would be 480. Based on the PSAT/NMSQT results, the individual's test report provides estimates for SAT scores.

In 1999 the average PSAT/NMSQT results for juniors were 48.3 (verbal), 49.2 (mathematics), and 49.2 (writing skills), for a Selection Index of about 147 (the sum of the verbal, mathematics, and writing scores). The Selection Index ranges from 60 to 240, and those students with the highest Selection Index scores are eligible for recognition and scholarships coordinated by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.

See also: Advanced Placement Courses/Exams; College Admissions; College Admissions Tests; College Financial Aid; College Search and Selection.


National Merit Scholarship Corporation. 2000. 2000 PSAT/NMSQT Student Bulletin. Evanston, IL: National Merit Scholarship Corporation.

internet resources

College Board. 2001. "What's on the PSAT/NMSQT?" <>.

National Merit Scholarship Corporation. 2001. <>.

Amy Hirschy

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