Leadership Insights

Do Colleges Pay Attention to National Merit Winners?

By The Room 241 Team November 8, 2012

When students are in high school, and sometimes before they get there, they begin to consider their options for college, and ultimately for a career. While students may change their minds frequently when it comes to their life path, many do realize that it is in their best interest to take advantage of whatever opportunities come their way in order to gain a competitive edge. One highly coveted advantage is The National Merit Scholarship. Winners of this scholarship not only get college money from the scholarship itself, but often colleges and universities have school-based scholarships available and will invite winners and finalists of the National Merit Scholarship to apply.

Making the grade

Before a student worries too much about how a National Merit Scholarship will look on their college applications, they will first need to make sure they have the “merit” to either get the scholarship, or be a finalist. This starts by taking the Preliminary Scholastic Achievement Test (PSAT) when they are in 11th grade. Taking the test earlier serves as practice, but does not put a student into consideration for the scholarship. To be considered for the National Merit Scholarship, a student must score among the top 50,000 test takers. In 2008, more than 3 million students took the PSAT. Out of those 50,000, only 16,000 became semi-finalists, evenly distributed across all states.

With the high standards of the National Merit Program, becoming a semifinalist is an honor. Those who want to continue this consideration need to complement their good PSAT score with good grades in high school, a biographical letter, and letters of recommendation. After all these provisions are made, 8,000 students are declared a finalist and can potentially be named National Merit Scholarship winners. In the end, 700 students become National Merit Scholarship winners and are provided $2500 in college money. An additional 100 students receive corporate sponsored achievement awards. Individual high schools may choose to recognize students in their own way.

A ticket to a dream school?

For most students, any help with college money is more than welcome, however tuition costs and other school related fees are not the only thing on the mind of a college-bound student. Many have a very specific idea as to where they want to attend college. While winning a National Merit Scholarship can’t guarantee a spot at a student’s dream school, it can’t hurt either. At the least, National Merit Scholarship winners and even finalists and semi-finalists demonstrate a certain level of fortitude and a strong commitment to their own future. These things are certain to go in the “pro” column as admission departments are looking at applications. However, if students expect to be a shoo-in, especially at Ivy League or other prestigious schools, they may get an unpleasant surprise. On the upside, those who do not land a place on the National Merit hierarchy are not necessarily doomed to admission at only lesser schools.

There are critics of the National Merit program who claim that the test has not evolved much with the times. An article in the Washington Post notes that the winners and finalists of these scholarships normally go to students whose families have higher incomes. For this reason, it criticizes public announcement of those recognized.

What really gets a student in

Obviously, a student does not have to be a National Merit Scholar in order to get into college. Test scores on various college preparatory tests often play a role in the admission process. Other academic indicators such as class rank , grade point average, and the rigor of coursework are also considered important.

Some colleges will look more at personality traits, such as a student’s participation in clubs, activities, sports, and volunteer and paid work experience. These are indications that students cope well with various responsibilities and are able to step into leadership roles as needed. Tests and grades are often good indicators of potential, but actions demonstrate to schools what can be expected and what kind of student the school will get if they do decide to offer admission.

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