National Merit Scholarship: Everything You Need to Know



Every year, about 1.6 million high school juniors across the United States take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT). For most test-takers, this exam serves as a trial run for the SAT. But for the top one percent of test-takers, this exam presents a chance to win a National Merit Scholarship, a prestigious national scholarship worth $2,500 and a shot at larger awards directly from colleges and universities.

In this article, we will cover everything you need to know about the National Merit Scholarship, including information on state cutoff scores, the application process, important dates, and more.

What is the National Merit Scholarship?

The National Merit Scholarship is an annual award granted to approximately 8,000 graduating high school seniors each year. To qualify for a National Merit Scholarship, students must score in the 99th percentile of their state on the PSAT and complete a multi-step application process. 

Of the 1.6 million high school juniors who take the PSAT/NMSQT every year, approximately 50,000 qualify for recognition from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC). Of these, some 34,000 receive letters of commendation that can be listed in college applications. The 16,000 students who rank in the top 1 percent of test-takers in their state are designated National Merit Semifinalists and are given an opportunity to submit an application for a National Merit Scholarship. To be named a National Merit Semifinalist, students must score at or above their state’s Selection Index cutoff score (more on this below). 

How many students are awarded a National Merit Scholarship?

A National Merit Scholarship is awarded to 8,700 students from the pool of semifinalists. 

And 2,500 of the scholarships awarded are worth $2,500. 

Other scholarships include corporate-sponsored scholarships and college-sponsored merit scholarships, which are available to students who plan to attend a partner college or university.

What are the state cutoff scores?

Students are named National Merit Semifinalists if they finish at or above their state’s cutoff score, which is set at the 99th percentile of scores for tests taken by students in that state in that year. As a result, cutoff scores vary by state and by year.

Cutoff scores are determined based on Selection Index scores. The Selection Index score is unique to the PSAT and differs from your scaled official PSAT score, which ranges from 320-1520.

Selection Index scores are calculated by adding together the PSAT section scores for Math, Reading, and Writing and Language, and multiplying the total score by two. Individual section scores range from 8 to 38 and Selection Index scores range from 48 to 228. 

Cutoff scores vary by year based on the difficulty of the test. It’s not unusual to see years with low cutoff scores followed by years with high cutoff scores, and vice versa. 

In 2019 (i.e., for the class of 2021), the last year for which state cutoff scores are currently available, the lowest state cutoff score was 209 (North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wyoming), and the highest state cutoff score was 222 (Massachusetts, New Jersey, Washington D.C.). 

For context, these were considered relatively low scores. In 2018 (i.e., for the class of 2020), the lowest state cutoff score was 212 (North Dakota, West Virginia, Wyoming), and the highest state cutoff score was 223 (Massachusetts, New Jersey, Washington D.C.). 

StateClass of 2021Class of 2020Class of 2019Class of 2018
District of Columbia222223223223
New Hampshire215218219217
New Jersey222223223223
New Mexico211213215215
New York220221221221
North Carolina217219220219
North Dakota209212212211
Rhode Island216218220216
South Carolina212215216217
South Dakota209214215215
West Virginia209212212211
Outside US222223223223

Test scores for 2020 (i.e., the class of 2022) are still coming in, so cutoff scores are not yet available. 

In general, if a student wants to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship, you should aim for a score at least 4-5 points higher than your state’s average cutoff score. The higher your score, the better your chances of winning a scholarship after the Semifinalist round will be.

Alternate Entry

Students who miss the PSAT/NMSQT due to a legitimate reason such as illness, emergency, or other extenuating circumstances, may still apply for the National Merit Scholarship through a process called Alternate Entry

Through this process, students are able to enter the National Merit Scholarship by completing the following steps:

  • Take the official SAT
  • Request that the College Board send an official report of your SAT scores to NMSC
  • Complete and return the Alternate Entry Form

Note: Due to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, NMSC has opened Alternate Entry to all students in the class of 2022.

When do I find out if I qualify for National Merit Program recognition?

Students whose scores rank in the top 50,000 of test-takers in their class will be notified by NMSC in September of the year following the PSAT/NMSQT. For example, students in the class of 2023 will take the PSAT/NMSQT in October 2021 and will be notified of their recognition in September 2022.

There are two types of recognition that students may receive.

Commended Students

Of the 50,000 who earn recognition, 34,000 will be named commended students. Commended students will receive a Letter of Commendation that indicates outstanding performance, but will not be invited to participate in the competition for National Merit Scholarships. However, some commended students will be eligible for additional scholarships offered through corporate sponsors. Commended students will be notified of their recognition and receive their Letter of Commendation in late September, one year after they took the PSAT/NMSQT.


The remaining 16,000 students are named Semifinalists and are invited to participate in the competition for the National Merit Scholarship. Semifinalists are notified of their recognition through their schools in early September, one year after they took the PSAT/NMSQT. Students who are named Semifinalists will receive scholarship application materials for the contest through their schools.

I was named a Semifinalist. What next?

Students who are named semifinalists will receive an application for the National Merit Scholarship competition. 

In order to participate in the competition, students selected as semifinalists must fulfill several requirements, which they will receive with their application materials. These requirements are also listed in the official PSAT/NMSQT Student Guide. Applicants must submit an essay, a transcript, and an endorsement from an official at their school, among other materials.

Applications should be submitted online through the NMSC Online Scholarship Application (OSA) to your representative school official. Your school official will complete the school’s sections for the application and submit it to the NMSC. 

Of 16,000 semifinalist applicants, approximately 15,000 will be named finalists.

When do I find out if I’ve been named a finalist?

Students who are named finalists are notified of their status in early February. Each finalist receives a Certificate of Merit that recognizes their accomplishment.

Finalists who have been selected for scholarships are notified between March and May of their award year.


Finalists are eligible to win one of three types of scholarships: National Merit $2,500 Scholarships, corporate-sponsored scholarships, and college-sponsored Merit scholarships.

National Merit $2,500 Scholarships

All finalists are eligible to compete to win the National Merit $2,500 Scholarships. These awards provide a one-time grant worth $2,500 and are awarded to 2,500 finalists each year. Recipients are notified in late March of their award year.

Corporate-Sponsored Scholarships

Corporate-sponsored scholarships are offered in partnership with corporations, company foundations, and businesses. These scholarships are open to finalists who meet a set of criteria specified by a corporate sponsor. Common eligibility criteria include: children of employees; residents of specific states, localities and communities; and finalists studying certain majors or career plans. 

Corporate-sponsored scholarship awards vary in amount by sponsor. Available awards include one-time grants worth $2,500-$5,000 as well as renewable scholarships worth $1,000 to $10,000. Over 2,100 corporate-sponsored scholarships are given out each year. Recipients are notified in early March of their award year.

A list of corporate sponsors is available in the official PSAT/NMSQT Student Guide.

College-Sponsored Merit Scholarships

College-sponsored merit scholarships are available to finalists who plan to attend a partner college. In order to receive the award, applicants must notify NMSC that the sponsor college is their first choice. 

The award size varies by sponsor school and may be anywhere from $500 to $2,000 per year. All scholarships are renewable for up to four years of study. An estimated 4,100 applicants will receive college-sponsored awards in 2020. Recipients are notified in early May of their award year.

A list of partner schools is included in the official PSAT/NMSQT Student Guide.


The National Merit Scholarship awards approximately 8,700 scholarships to qualifying students each year. Take the PSAT to qualify for a chance to win!

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