National Merit Scholarships
Key Steps

National merit scholarships - girls studying

Winners of National Merit Scholarships (NMS) have managed to achieve a sense of distinctive recognition since it's inception in 1955. Compared to the notoriety associated with winning the financial awards are actually fairly modest even for finalist winners ($2,500).

However, free money for college from private sources is sometimes worth pursuing - when it makes sense. If you are a strong test taker and usually do very well than NMS is usually worth pursing. Because it comes out of the practice for the SAT's there's really no down side to at least trying. You need to be a high school junior. Their is only one pre-screening measure that qualifies you:

The Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT)

Because it is merit based this is a popular program since it is not tied to family income.

The marketing geniuses at The College Board and National Merit Scholarship Corporation co-sponsor the program. By selling their proprietary reports the colleges can eventually gain access to your score results, personal interests, demographics and contact information.

National Merit Scholarships - college admissions officer

If you were a college admissions officer and wanted to spend your marketing budget attracting the top students how would you know who to pursue? NMS is happy to help by selling their program and contact information to the colleges.

First here's how the numbers and key steps break down:

  1. About 1.5 million high school students take the PSAT's October of their junior year.
  2. About 50,000 high schoolers from every state are selected as High Scorers.
  3. In April of their junior year these students are invited to identify two colleges they would like the kind folks at National Merit Scholarship Corporation to refer them.
  4. In September of their senior year, 34,000 Commended Students (about 2/3) receive a Letter of Commendation of their acadamic promise. That's a nice way of saying they are no longer being considered for National Merit Scholarship competition. However these students are encouraged to pursue corporate and community sponsored competitions.
  5. Also in September, the remaining 16,000 students (about 1/3) are notified they have qualified as semi-finalist winners. Interested students have some further work to complete their application such as a personal essay and letters of recommendation.
  6. In March of their senior year winners are announced from the various sponsors:
    • Coporate sponsored scholarships
    • College sponsored scholarships
    • National merit scholarships

National Merit Scholarships -college debt ball and chain

More Lucrative Merit Scholarships
To Avoid Burdensome College Debt

While the National Merit Scholarship gets all the headlines, there is a much more lucrative source of merit scholarships for most students. Find out what the four largest buckets of free money including merit are, where they are at and how you can best access it.

Dennis's Free Webinar

National Merit Scholarships - careers by students

Marketing 101

Here's how the marketing bonannza works for the colleges with the PSAT/NMSC acting as a middle man:

  • You the student pay NMSC to take their (and The College Board's) exam. This generates about $20 million a year of revenue!
  • NMSC takes your score and personal information and sorts it different ways. Their largest customers are the colleges who pay them (more revenue) for the personal iformation of the students that are most likely going to be attractive to their school.
  • At some point NMSC realized they were creating too many losers from their competition. To their credit they went out and got those colleges and corporations interested to fund their own scholarship program. These sponsoring partners have minimal work to support it and generate positive PR since they use the NMSC screening techniques as the primary critera.
  • One of the biggest misperceptions is that even though it is called National Merit Scholarships it really is determined by the scores from each state. The cut-off scores can vary widely each year. To see a current article on this somewhat controversial and secretive screening step check out this national merit scholarships article.
  • Of course once you have a captive audience who takes the practice test, there are millions of dollars generated as students take the SAT test a short time later. Many take it a second time as I recommend. As you learned in my webinar, the number one influence for free scholarship money is improved SAT and ACT scores.

National Merit Scholarships - empty wallet

Maximize Your Merit and You will Find the Money

For almost all students taking the PSAT's makes perfect sense. How you score and what choices you make to leverage that into more opportunities is all up to you.

Be sure you check with your local guidance office for PSAT dates and register. Also, ask your parents to check their employers for scholarship related programs.

By far, as you learned in my webinar the best place to find merit scholarships is at the schools themselves. Some may publicly call it out as merit or national merit scholarship programs. Most may not and don't disclose either the sources or amounts of merit or need blind (income doesn't matter) monies until they know their school is a top choice of your college selection decision process.

National Merit Scholarships- girl with laptop

Recommended Links

More on National Merit Scholarships
Further insights on PSAT

Go to Scholarships by Major
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parents talking

What Clients Are Saying



“…without your involvement, we never would have thought to approach the college directly…. We got the documentation together to obtain residency, created letters to send and were granted residency which translated to $20,000 in savings.

THEN we went back and said, 'don’t take away her out-of-state scholarship just because she is now a resident' and got OSU to maintain the $7,000 scholarship".

"We would like to express our appreciation for the service that our daughter received.

She is our first child to go through the college application process, and it was very intimidating for our whole family. You were able to create a clear, understandable path for our daughter.

As a result of all of this hard work, our daughter was offered three presidential scholarships at various colleges, including a full tuition scholarship to a private college.

Thanks again, and we look forward to working with you on our son's upcoming college search."

"HWS presented an above average financial aid award, however, it included some work study. With your guidance, I went back and asked that the work study be converted to either grant or scholarship to relieve the financial burden while allowing my daughter to focus on academics.

They came back with the conversion AND continued to keep her eligible for an equal amount of money through work study."