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National Merit Scholarship Application Steps and Guidelines

Several steps are involved in the National Merit Scholarship application process. The first step is to take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT).

Who can take the PSAT/NMSQT?

To take the qualifying test, a student must be enrolled in high school and planning to enter college full-time after completing high school. The student must be a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident (or have applied for permanent residency and not been denied) who intends to become a U.S. citizen as soon as is legally possible.

When can a student take the PSAT/NMSQT?

The test is given once per year in October. Students who spend four years in high school (grades 9 through 12) must take the test when they are high school juniors (11th grade). Four-year students who take the test when they are sophomores must retake the test when they are juniors to be eligible to compete for a Merit Scholarship.

Students who leave high school early to go to college full time, however, can take the test in either their last year or in their next-to-last year. Scholarship winners will receive the scholarship college money at the end of their first year in college or the end of their last year in high school, depending on when they took the exam.

How can a student apply to take the PSAT/NMSQT?

Students do not apply directly to the testing company. Instead, they should make arrangements with their high school guidance counselors at the beginning of the school year to take the exam.

What happens after students take the PSAT/NMSQT?

After students take the test in October, their scores are sent to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC). Approximately 50,000 students (out of the 1.5 million who take the test) qualify for National Merit Scholarship Program recognition, based on their high scores.

In April, the high-scoring students can name two colleges or universities that they wish to be referred to by the NMSC.

In September, the 50,000 high-scoring students find out if they are Semifinalists or Commended Students.

What are Semifinalists and Commended Students?

Approximately 16,000 of the 50,000 students are recognized nationally for their high scores and become Semifinalists. They are the highest-scoring students in their states. Semifinalists can take the next step and apply to be Finalists. Only Finalists are eligible to receive scholarships.

The other 34,000 high-scoring students receive Letters of Commendation. They are not eligible to receive Merit Scholarships. However, some may qualify for Special Scholarships offered by businesses.

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How do Semifinalists apply to become Finalists?

The NMSC will send application materials to Semifinalists through their high schools.

Semifinalists must apply online, using the NMSC Online Scholarship Application (OSA). They should submit their completed applications to their high schools. Officials at the high schools will then fill out the schools portion of the applications. High schools must submit the applications to the NMSC by October 10.

In order to become Finalists, Semifinalists must fulfill certain requirements. In addition to submitting the application on time, students must maintain a very high level of academic performance throughout their high school careers and in any college courses they take. High schools must send lists of courses taken and grades received to the NMSC and they must notify the NMSC if a student’s academic performance declines.

To advance to become a Finalists, Semifinalists must also continue to meet all program entry requirements, receive recommendations for the scholarships from their principals or other school officials designated by their principals, and get good scores on their SATs.

Approximately 15,000 Semifinalists become Finalists. Finalists are notified by mail sent to their homes in February.

How many Finalists receive National Merit Scholarship Awards?

Out of the 15,000 Finalists, approximately 8,300 receive scholarship awards. Scholarship winners are notified via mail from March to mid-June.

What types of scholarships do the winners receive?

Scholarship award winners may receive any of three types of scholarships: $2,500 National Merit Scholarships, corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship Awards, and college-sponsored Merit Scholarship Awards. The first is a one-time payment, the second may be a one-time payment or renewable for four years of college study, and the third is renewable for up to four years.

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