How to Become a National Merit Scholarship Finalist

Winning a National Merit Scholarship can mean thousands of dollars each year of college, which can make a big dent in tuition. There are a few steps for qualifying, and you have to meet certain criteria.

What is the National Merit Scholarship?

The National Merit Scholarship is offered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. Each year, almost 10,000 students receive scholarships based on their PSAT scores and other accomplishments. There are three main types of National Merit Scholarships: National Merit $2500 scholarships, corporate-sponsored scholarships, and college-sponsored merit scholarships.

How do you enter the National Merit Scholarship competition?

The first step is to take the PSAT no later than your junior year of high school. You must also be a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident intending to become a citizen as soon as you can. Your scores are automatically sent to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, the National Hispanic Recognition Program, the National Scholarship Service, and the Telluride Seminar Scholarships.

In addition, College Board, which creates and administers the PSAT, partners with groups such as the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, the Cobell Scholarship (awarded by Indigenous Education, Inc.), and The Jackie Robinson Foundation to connect test takers with scholarships based on their test scores. You can find more information about these programs on College Board’s website.

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How do you get a National Merit Scholarship?

If you think you might make it to Semifinalist status, congrats. There are a few more steps you will need to go through to become a Finalist. First, National Merit Scholarship Corporation will contact you if you make it that far. In order to become a Finalist, you must then:

  • complete the National Merit Scholarship Application, which includes writing an essay
  • have a record of very high academic performance in all of grades 9 through 12 and in any college course work taken
  • be fully endorsed for Finalist standing and recommended for a National Merit Scholarship by your high school principal
  • take the SAT or ACT and earn scores comparable to your semifinalist PSAT score
  • provide any other documentation and information that the National Merit Scholarship Corporation requests

Scholarship winners are usually announced and notified between March and mid-June of their senior year.

Each year, the top 50,000 scorers on the PSAT get commendation letters from the National Merit program, and 16,000 of those students qualify as Semifinalists. The cutoff score for Semifinalists varies by state and by year. Semifinalists are invited to complete the National Merit Scholarship Application, which includes writing an essay.

Of the 16,000 Semifinalists, about 15,000 will be considered Finalists. About half of the Finalists will eventually be chosen as Merit Scholarship winners. According to the National Merit Scholarship Program, “scholarship recipients are the candidates judged to have the greatest potential for success in rigorous college studies and beyond.”

What score do you need to become a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist?

This depends on the state you live in. Each state has a preset number of Semifinalists, and once scores come in for students that determines the cutoff score for that year in that state. For example, if you live in California and took the PSAT in October 2017, you would need to have a Selection Index score of 223 in order to qualify as a Semifinalist. If you lived in West Virginia, you would have to score a 212.

The Selection Index score is calculated by doubling the sum of your Reading, Writing and Language, and Math Test scores. In addition to varying by state, this number can vary by year. Regardless of the exact cutoff for your state, all of the students who qualify earn high scores—less than the top 1% of high school students advance to become Semifinalists.

Take a look at your score report if you have it. To calculate your Selection Index, add your 3 test scores together and double it. The College Board also includes this on your report if you’re eligible.

Class of 2019 National Merit Semifinalist Cutoff Scores by State

  • Alabama: 216
  • Alaska: 215
  • Arizona: 220
  • Arkansas: 214
  • California: 223
  • Colorado: 221
  • Connecticut: 222
  • Delaware: 222
  • D.C.: 223
  • Florida: 219
  • Georgia: 220
  • Hawaii: 220
  • Idaho: 214
  • Illinois: 221
  • Indiana 219
  • Iowa: 216
  • Kansas: 218
  • Kentucky: 218
  • Louisiana: 217
  • Maine: 217
  • Maryland: 223
  • Massachussetts: 223
  • Michigan: 219
  • Minnesota: 220
  • Mississippi: 215
  • Missouri: 217
  • Montana: 214
  • Nebraska: 216
  • Nevada: 218
  • New Hampshire: 219
  • New Jersey: 223
  • New Mexico: 215
  • New York: 221
  • North Carolina: 220
  • North Dakota: 212
  • Ohio: 219
  • Oklahoma: 215
  • Oregon: 221
  • Pennsylvania: 220
  • Rhode Island: 220
  • South Carolina: 216
  • South Dakota: 215
  • Tennessee: 219
  • Texas: 221
  • Utah: 215
  • Vermont: 216
  • Virginia: 222
  • Washington: 222
  • West Virginia: 212
  • Wisconsin: 216
  • Wyoming: 212
    • U.S. citizens studying abroad: 212
    • U.S. territories: 212
    • Commended student (national score): 212

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