National Merit Scholarship Program: Meritocracy in Action

Are you thinking about college but concerned about expenses? The National Merit Scholarship Program (NMSP) might be the answer.

This renowned competition in the U.S. honors outstanding high school students with scholarships for further education. Let’s look into its history, who’s eligible, and the benefits it offers ambitious students like you. 

national merit

National Merit Scholarship Program

The high cost of college can be overwhelming, but the National Merit Scholarship Program (NMSP) provides hope for academically talented students.

Since 1955, this prestigious competition has rewarded top-performing high school students with scholarships for undergraduate studies at accredited U.S. colleges and universities.

Let’s dive into the NMSP, covering eligibility, applying, benefits, and the essence of “merit” it values.

Eligibility of National Merit Scholarship Program

The NMSP welcomes all U.S. citizens or permanent residents enrolled as high school students, including homeschooled students, who intend to start full-time undergraduate studies the fall after graduation.
While there’s no set minimum GPA needed, scoring well on the PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) during junior year is essential.

The PSAT/NMSQT is the only test you need to qualify for the NMSP. It tests reading, math, and writing skills, showing how ready you are for college.

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) sets a qualifying selection index each year based on test scores. This index changes a bit by state, making sure top-scoring students from every state have a chance.

Funders of National Merit Scholarship

The NMSC, a private nonprofit organization, manages the NMSP. Funding for the program comes from:

  1. Corporate sponsorships: Many companies donate money to support the program and invest in talented students.
  2. College-sponsored scholarships: Colleges offer their own merit scholarships to NMSC Semifinalists and Finalists, attracting top students and providing more financial aid options.
  3. NMSC endowment: Generous donations over time have built up a substantial endowment for NMSC, ensuring a stable funding source for scholarships.

Speculating for Qualification

The NMSC defines “merit” as a combination of exceptional academic performance, as demonstrated by the PSAT/NMSQT score, and potential for future success.

While a high score on the qualifying test is essential, the NMSC also considers a student’s academic record, leadership qualities, and potential contribution to society.

  • Commended Students: Approximately 50,000 high-scoring students on the PSAT/NMSQT receive Letters of Commendation in recognition of their academic promise. While commendable, this distinction doesn’t qualify them for NMSP scholarships.
  • Semifinalists: About 16,000 of the highest-scoring students from each state become Semifinalists. This is a significant achievement, acknowledging them among the top 1% of high school seniors nationally.
  • Finalists: Approximately half of the Semifinalists advance to Finalist status based on their academic record, a recommendation letter from their high school principal, and an essay written by the student.
  • Scholarship Winners: From the pool of Finalists, around 7,500 students receive college-sponsored scholarships or corporate-sponsored scholarships. These scholarships can vary in amount, ranging from partial tuition coverage to full rides

Admission Process of National Merit Scholarship Program

Taking the PSAT/NMSQT in your junior year automatically enters you into the NMSP. However, to move past the Semifinalist stage, Finalists must submit a detailed application. This application includes:

  • The detailed application for NMSP includes:
    1. Academic record: This covers your high school transcripts, GPA, and course difficulty.
    2. Recommendation letter: Your high school principal writes a letter about your academic achievements, leadership skills, and potential.
    3. Essay: You write an essay demonstrating your writing abilities, academic interests, and goals.

Terms of Merit

Renewal requirements (continued):

  • Some scholarships may require maintaining a specific GPA throughout your undergraduate studies to continue receiving the award each year.
  • Satisfactory academic progress is generally a standard requirement for scholarship renewal.

Types of Scholarships

College-sponsored scholarships: These scholarships are from colleges and universities in the NMSP. They usually require you to attend that specific college to get the award.

Corporate-sponsored scholarships: These scholarships are funded by companies. They’re more flexible and can often be used at many accredited colleges and universities in the US.


Financial need doesn’t matter: The NMSP only looks at academic merit, so students of any financial background can join the competition.

No limit to scholarships: You can get multiple awards from different sponsors, which could cover a lot of your college expenses. But, all the money you get can’t be more than what your college costs.

 The Prestige Factor

Being a National Merit Scholar is more than just about money. It shows you’re excellent academically and have great potential for the future.

This can boost your college applications and chances for scholarships from other places. It proves your commitment to school and makes you stand out.


The National Merit Scholarship Program is a great chance for high-achieving high schoolers to get financial support for their education. Knowing the rules, how to apply, and what “merit” means can help students succeed.

It’s not just about money; it’s about being recognized for your academic skills and starting a promising future.

Take the PSAT/NMSQT, show what you can do, and open the door to a great college experience with the National Merit Scholarship Program.