The National Merit Scholarship Program is a United States academic scholarship competition for recognition and university scholarships administered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC), a privately funded, not-for-profit organization based in Evanston, Illinois. The program began in 1955.
NMSC conducts two annual competitions for recognition and scholarships: the National Merit Scholarship Program, which is open to all students who meet entry requirements, and (until 2015) the National Achievement Scholarship Program (est. 1964) reserved for African-American students. The highest-achieving students in the National Merit Scholarship Program are designated as National Merit Scholars. Finalists and semi-finalists are also given recognition for their academic and extracurricular achievements. Commended Students are named on the basis of a nationally applied Selection Index score, which may vary from year to year and is typically below the level required for participants to be named Semi-finalists in their respective states. Each year's Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT®) is the qualifying test for a student's entry to a particular year's competitions.
About 1.6 million students in some 22,000 high schools enter the National Merit Scholarship competition annually when they take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT®). This serves to screen program entrants, measuring critical reading ability, mathematics problem-solving ability, and writing ability, rather than existing knowledge. Semifinalists are designated on a state representational basis, contingent on the total number of entrants and in proportion to each state’s percentage of the nation’s high school graduating seniors. Semifinalists are the highest-scoring program entrants in each state and represent the top 0.5% percent of the state’s senior students.
To be considered for a National Merit Scholarship, Semifinalists have to fulfill requirements to advance to Finalist standing. Each Semifinalist submits a detailed scholarship application, which includes essays and information about extracurricular achievements, awards, and leadership positions. Semifinalists also have to have an outstanding academic record, be endorsed and recommended by a school official, and earn SAT scores that confirm their qualifying test performance. From the Semifinalist group, a certain number of students, varying from year to year, advance to Finalist standing depending on the above criteria. By the conclusion of the competition, a select group of Finalists are chosen to receive prestigious National Merit Scholarships totaling nearly $35 million. Winners are the Finalist candidates judged to have the strongest combination of academic skills and achievements, extracurricular accomplishments, and potential for success in rigorous university studies. Scholarship winners represent fewer than 1% of the initial pool of student entrants, based on official statistics released by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.
To enter the competition, a student must
The NMSC uses the PSAT/NMSQT as the initial screen of over 1.5 million program entrants. In the spring of the junior year, NMSC determines a national Selection Index qualifying score (critical reading + math + writing skills scores) for "Commended" recognition, which is calculated each year to yield students at about the 96th percentile (top 50,000 highest scorers). Up until 2016 (when the College Board changed the format and style of the PSAT), scores in the 200s (out of 240) often qualified for recognition; however, with the New SAT and PSAT format and grading system, which is out of 228 (not 240, which is what it was on the old PSAT), qualifying scores for commendation are about 207, but qualifying levels change annually depending on how the top approximately 50,000 high scorers fared. Qualification levels also vary by state, and qualifying levels are higher in competitive states such as New Jersey and Massachusetts. For the 2009/2010 school year, a score of 217 was required in California to qualify. Notification is mailed to school principals in April regarding students who scored at or above this level. The principals then notify their students of their status. These students are given the opportunity to identify two colleges or universities to which they would like NMSC to send their scores.
Early the next September (beginning of the senior year, almost a year after the PSAT/NMSQT was taken), NMSC determines Selection Index qualifying scores for further recognition by state (including three other areas: DC, US Territories and Commonwealths, and students enrolled in schools outside the US) and US boarding schools (by geographic region). About 16,000 of the 50,000 are recognized as National Merit Semifinalists in this process. The Selection Index qualifying scores for Semifinalist standing vary from state to state and from year to year. Each state is allocated a percentage of Semifinalists based on the percentage of that state's graduating seniors out of the nation's total. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation does not release to the public the minimum qualifying score required per state. In August after the PSAT was taken, high school principals are mailed notification about their Semifinalists. Principals communicate these results to their students, though some misread the NMSC materials and do not release them until the NMSC press release, which comes in mid-September. Those not making Semifinalist are "Commended", and receive a Letter of Commendation; they do not continue in the competition for Merit Scholarship awards.
Semifinalists must fulfill additional requirements and advance to the Finalist level of the competition to be considered for a scholarship. Approximately 15,000 of the 16,000 Semifinalists advance to Finalist standing by submitting SAT scores that confirm the earlier PSAT/NMSQT performance, having an outstanding academic record, and being endorsed and recommended by a high school official. They must also submit an application that includes high school courses and grades, extracurricular and volunteer activities, and a self-descriptive essay. The information that is collected about each Semifinalist is used later in the process to choose scholarship winners. All Finalists receive a Certificate of Merit in recognition of their outstanding performance in the competition.
Of the 15,000 Finalists, about 8,000 receive Merit Scholarship awards. All Finalists are considered for one of the 2,500 National Merit $2,500 Scholarships. National Merit $2,500 Scholarship winners are the Finalists in each state judged to have the strongest combination of accomplishments, skills, and potential for success in rigorous college studies. The number of winners named in each state is proportional to the state’s percentage of the nation’s graduating high school seniors. These Scholars were selected by a committee of college admissions officers and high school counselors, who appraised a substantial amount of information submitted by both the Finalists and their high schools: the academic record, including difficulty level of subjects studied and grades earned; scores from two standardized tests; contributions and leadership in school and community activities; an essay written by the Finalist; and a recommendation written by a high school official. NMSC's own funds support the majority of these awards but corporate sponsors help underwrite these awards with grants they provide to NMSC in lieu of paying administrative fees. About 1,100 Merit Scholarship awards are provided by corporate sponsors for Finalists who meet criteria specified by the sponsor. Most of these awards are for children of the sponsor's employees, for Finalists living in a particular geographic area, or for Finalists who have career plans the sponsor wishes to encourage. These two types of awards can be used at any regionally accredited college or university in the United States. There are also approximately 4,600 college-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards for Finalists who plan to attend a sponsor college. Finalists report to NMSC their first choice college (College-Sponsored Merit Awards). In addition, about 1,500 program participants who are below the Finalist level receive Special Scholarships provided by corporate sponsors.
To receive a scholarship payment, a Merit Scholarship winner must (a) notify NMSC of plans to enroll in a college or university in the United States that holds accredited status with a regional accrediting commission on higher education, and (b) plan to enroll full-time in an undergraduate course of study leading to a traditional baccalaureate degree. NMSC scholarship stipends are not payable for attendance at service academies, distance learning programs, and certain institutions that are limited in their purposes or training. A number of National Merit Scholars do not receive a monetary award because their educational plans or other awards preclude receipt of a monetary scholarship; however, these students may be honored as Honorary Merit Scholars, a designation that acknowledges achievement without providing any financial assistance.
The National Achievement® Scholarship Program was established in 1964, contemporaneously with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, specifically to encourage Black American youth to continue their education.
In its half century of existence, more than four million African-Americans have entered the program. Approximately 228,000 have received program recognition, and more than 34,000 of the most outstanding participants were chosen to receive Achievement Scholarship® awards.
Prior to 2016, black students who met entry requirements and requested consideration when they took the PSAT/NMSQT could enter both the National Achievement Scholarship Program and the National Merit Program. The two programs were conducted concurrently; however, a student's standing in each program was determined independently. Black students could qualify for recognition, become candidates for awards, and be honored as Scholars in both competitions, but they could receive only one monetary award from NMSC. Students who were chosen as both National Achievement and National Merit Scholars received the monetary award that was most advantageous to them and were recognized as Honorary Scholars in the other program.
With the conclusion of the 2015 program, the National Achievement Scholarship Program transitioned to the United Negro College Fund, which will use program funds to honor and award financial assistance to high-achieving, underrepresented college graduates through the newly designed Achievement Capstone Program.
Because Achievement Scholarship funds are being redirected to awards for college graduates, Black American high school students no longer have the opportunity to compete for Achievement Scholarship awards. However, they may still enter the National Merit® Scholarship competition, and they may be eligible to receive awards from the United Negro College Fund after college graduation.
The following is a list of notable National Merit Scholarship Program honorees, many of whom are listed on the "Scholars You May Know" page on the National Merit Scholarship Corporation website.
Under the umbrella of their professional organization, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), college and university admissions officers have strongly criticized the National Merit Scholarship Corporation's use of only one measure—the PSAT/NMSQT—to pre-screen students for National Merit recognition.
The NACAC's position was emphasized in a July 2009 announcement, which stated the following: "Implementing the recommendations of its blue-ribbon Testing Commission, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) has called on the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) and the College Board to stop using PSAT scores as the initial screen for the country’s most prestigious academic awards."
In public letters to the test’s co-sponsors, NACAC charged that eliminating 99% of test-takers from the National Merit Scholarship competition solely on the basis of a multiple-choice, standardized exam was “at odds with best practices in the use of admissions test scores.” To be eligible for scholarships, high school juniors must score among the top 1% of test-takers in their home state. The PSAT serves as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT), and measures critical reading ability, mathematics problem solving ability and writing ability, rather than existing knowledge. These criticisms were challenged by both the College Board and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.
FairTest (National Center for Fair and Open Testing) has also voiced concerns about the level of transparency in the National Merit Scholarship Corporation's selection process. In February 2010, it issued an announcement stating the following: "The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC), which runs the country’s most prestigious tuition aid competition, is trying to block internet posting of state-by-state test score requirements for its awards." FairTest, however, has been criticized for its lack of credentials, unnamed sources of funding, and generalized claims associated with standardized exams. Additional criticism exists in that the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) does not publish information regarding scholarship winners by year by state.
A number of universities reserve or guarantee additional merit-based funding for students who are National Merit Scholars, finalists or semifinalists. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation releases annual reports displaying the number of award winners enrolled at specific universities, which some believe encourage competition to attract students in this select group. Secondary schools may also publish information related to their students, in order to augment perception on teaching quality.