How to Win National Merit Scholarship

Securing a National Merit Scholarship is a dream for many high school students across the United States.


With its prestige and financial rewards, this scholarship can pave the way for academic and professional success. But how exactly can you become one of the fortunate recipients?

Fear not! We’ve crafted an in-depth guide that covers everything you need to know about winning the National Merit Scholarship. Let’s dive in!

Understanding the National Merit Scholarship Program

The National Merit Scholarship Program is a prestigious academic competition in the United States that recognizes and awards high-achieving high school students.


Sponsored by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC), the program aims to identify and honor students who demonstrate exceptional academic potential.

Importance and Benefits of National Merit Scholarship

Winning the National Merit Scholarship is not only a significant academic achievement but also comes with substantial benefits. Scholars receive financial support for their college education, recognition from colleges and universities, and a boost to their academic and professional resumes.

Eligibility Criteria

To be eligible for the National Merit Scholarship, students must meet the following criteria:

Be a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident

Be a high school student planning to enroll in college full-time upon graduation

Take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) during the specified year of high school

Key Deadlines

Meeting deadlines is crucial in the National Merit Scholarship process. Important dates include registering for the PSAT/NMSQT, submitting application materials, and completing the final application steps in the senior year. Missing a deadline can disqualify even the most promising candidates.

The Selection Process

The selection process for the National Merit Scholarship involves several stages, including:

  1. PSAT/NMSQT Performance: Students must achieve a high score on the PSAT/NMSQT to qualify as Semifinalists.
  2. Semifinalist Selection: The top-scoring students in each state are designated as Semifinalists.
  3. Finalist Application: Semifinalists must submit a detailed application, including an essay, recommendation letters, and academic records, to advance to the Finalist stage.
  4. Finalist Selection: Approximately 15,000 Finalists are chosen based on their academic achievements, extracurricular activities, and leadership qualities.
  5. Scholarship Awards: Around 7,600 Finalists receive scholarships, including National Merit $2,500 Scholarships, corporate-sponsored scholarships, and college-sponsored scholarships.


The PSAT/NMSQT serves as the qualifying exam for the prestigious National Merit Scholarship, evaluating students’ proficiency in three core subjects: reading comprehension, writing skills, and mathematical reasoning. The scores from this test determine whether students advance in the scholarship competition.

Preparing for the PSAT/NMSQT

Study Strategies and Resources

Achieving a top score on the PSAT/NMSQT is crucial for advancing in the National Merit Scholarship competition. Check out these helpful learning techniques and tools to enhance your studying:

Practice Tests: Take full-length practice tests to familiarize yourself with the exam format and identify areas for improvement.

Study Guides: Utilize reputable study guides, such as those from The College Board or Kaplan, to review key concepts and practice questions.


Tutoring: Consider hiring a tutor or joining a study group for personalized instruction and support.

Online Resources: Websites like Khan Academy offer free, comprehensive PSAT prep materials, including video lessons and practice questions.

Test-Taking Tips

On test day, keep these tips in mind to maximize your performance:

Get Plenty of Rest: Ensure you have a good night’s sleep before the exam to stay alert and focused.

Eat a Healthy Breakfast: Fuel your brain with a nutritious meal to maintain energy levels throughout the test.

Pace Yourself: Manage your time wisely, ensuring you answer all questions within the allotted time.

Read Carefully: Pay close attention to instructions and questions to avoid careless mistakes.

Stay Calm: Maintain a positive attitude and stay calm, even if you encounter challenging questions.

Crafting a Stellar Finalist Application

Writing a Compelling Essay

The essay plays a vital role in the Finalist application process, and its quality can significantly impact the outcome. To craft a compelling essay, follow these guidelines:

Be Authentic: Share your unique story and experiences in a genuine and engaging manner.

Showcase Your Strengths: Highlight your academic achievements, leadership roles, and community involvement.

Stay Focused: Stick to the prompt and ensure your essay is well-organized and coherent.

Proofread: Carefully proofread your essay for grammar and spelling errors, and consider seeking feedback from teachers or mentors.

Securing Strong Recommendations

Who to Ask Choose recommenders who know you well and can speak to your academic abilities and character. Ideal candidates include teachers, counselors, and mentors.

How to Request a Recommendation When asking for a recommendation, provide your recommender with sufficient time and all necessary information about the scholarship.

How to Get Strong Recommendation Letters

Recommendation letters provide insight into your character and accomplishments. To secure strong letters:

Choose Wisely: Select teachers, counselors, or mentors who know you well and can speak to your strengths.

Provide Context: Share your achievements, goals, and experiences with your recommenders to help them write detailed and personalized letters.

Give Ample Time: Request recommendation letters well in advance to allow your recommenders sufficient time to write thoughtful and thorough letters.

Highlighting Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular activities demonstrate your commitment to personal growth and community involvement. When detailing your activities:

Be Specific: Clearly describe your roles, responsibilities, and achievements in each activity.

Show Impact: Highlight how your involvement has positively impacted your school or community.

Demonstrate Leadership: Emphasize any leadership roles or initiatives you have undertaken.

Winning the National Merit Scholarship is no small feat, but with dedication, preparation, and a strategic approach, you can increase your chances of success. By excelling on the PSAT/NMSQT, crafting a compelling Finalist application, and showcasing your leadership and extracurricular involvement, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a National Merit Scholar.

Additional Tips for Success

Stay Organized

Create a Timeline: Develop a timeline for test preparation, application deadlines, and recommendation requests.

Use Checklists: Maintain checklists to track your progress and ensure all application components are completed.

Seek Support

Join Study Groups: Collaborate with peers to share study tips and resources.

Consult Counselors: Seek guidance from school counselors to navigate the application process and identify additional scholarship opportunities.

Stay Motivated

Set Goals: Establish clear, achievable goals to stay focused and motivated throughout the process.

Reward Yourself: Celebrate your achievements and milestones to maintain a positive attitude.

National Merit Scholarship

By following these strategies and tips, you can confidently navigate the path to winning a National Merit Scholarship and achieve your academic and career goals.


What is the PSAT/NMSQT, and why is it important?

The PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) is a standardized test that serves as a practice for the SAT and a qualifier for the National Merit Scholarship Program. Scoring well on the PSAT/NMSQT is crucial for advancing in the scholarship competition.

How can I improve my PSAT/NMSQT score?

To improve your PSAT/NMSQT score, use practice tests, study guides, tutoring, and online resources to review key concepts and practice questions. Consistent study and preparation are key to success.

What should I include in my Finalist application essay?

In your essay, share your unique story and experiences, highlight your academic achievements and extracurricular involvement, and stay focused on the prompt. Be sure to proofread your essay for errors and seek feedback from teachers or mentors.

What is the significance of recommendation letters in the application process?

Recommendation letters are crucial as they provide insight into your character and accomplishments. Choose recommenders who know you well and can write detailed, personalized letters that highlight your strengths.

What types of extracurricular activities should I include in my application?

Include activities that demonstrate your commitment to personal growth, community involvement, and leadership. Be specific about your roles, responsibilities, and achievements in each activity.

How are National Merit Scholarship winners selected?

Winners are selected based on their PSAT/NMSQT scores, Finalist application materials (including essays, recommendation letters, and academic records), and demonstrated leadership and extracurricular involvement.

What categories of National Merit Scholarships are available?

The three main types of National Merit Scholarships are National Merit $2,500 Scholarships, corporate-sponsored scholarships, and college-sponsored scholarships. Each type has specific eligibility criteria and award amounts.

Can international students apply for the National Merit Scholarship?

No, only U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents are eligible for the National Merit Scholarship Program.

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