National Merit Scholarships

Every year, you might hear about the local National Merit Scholarship winners in your community from your school or newspapers. Besides sounding like a prestigious honor, what exactly does it mean to be a National Merit Scholar? 

In general, it’s a $2,500 award for high school kids who get top scores on the PSATs. Kids usually take the PSATs in October of their third year in high school to enter the National Merit Scholarship competition. This school year is an exception because the College Board has offered an additional January 2021 date for kids to take the PSAT due to the pandemic. 

PSAT: What Is It?

The PSAT test is sponsored by the College Board, which is the same organization that administers the SAT. PSAT tests are just practice for the SATs. Practice always helps anything you do, whether it’s playing sports, practicing a musical instrument or working out a problem set before a test. 

The PSAT not only helps kids get a shot at National Merit Scholarships but it can also qualify students for other scholarships at the colleges they eventually attend. It’s definitely worth taking, even if you think your student isn’t great at taking standardized tests. 

The score doesn’t have a direct impact on college applications. However, if the student does well, they can add National Merit Scholar to their college application. 

Recently, some colleges, like the University of California school system, have said they will not consider the SATs in the admissions process, but it remains to be seen if that will still be the case when your student applies for college. Many colleges have instigated a test-optional admissions policy, which is also controversial because some students will still take the tests. If they do well, their scores can only help their applications.

Usually, only one PSAT test score will be used to enter the National Merit Scholarship competition. If kids want to take the actual PSATs before their third year, they can do so. They can register for the PSATs and the test won’t count for the competition. Students can also take the PSAT 10 (for tenth graders) and the PSAT 8/9 (for eighth and ninth graders) since the content will be geared toward their grade level. If your school doesn’t offer the tests you’re interested in, you can contact the College Board for alternative testing locations. 

The PSAT test is comprised of three components, totaling 165 minutes or 2 hours and 45 minutes. Students will get brief breaks in between each section.

  • Reading: 60 minutes; 47 questions 
  • Writing and Language: 35 minutes; 44 questions
  • Math: 70 minutes; 48 questions

As students take the test, keep in mind that they should maintain a steady pace so they should try not to spend too much time on a problem they might be stuck on. A good way to tackle all standardized tests is to divide the number of questions by the time you have allotted to take the test so you know how much time to spend on each question. For example, when students are taking the Reading section, students have a little over a minute for each question. For Writing and Language, students have less than a minute on average. For Math, students have more than a minute to spend on each question. 

Scholarships

Each year, there are approximately 1,500,000 entrants for the scholarship, and 50,000 are recognized for doing well on the test. That equates to about 3% of the high schoolers who take the PSATs. The teenagers are notified in September of the following year after they take the PSATs.

Within that group of 50,000 students, there are three tiers of recognition.  

  1. Commended Students – There are 34,000 students who receive a Letter of Commendation. They cannot continue to compete for National Merit Scholarships, but they may qualify for Special Scholarships, i.e. scholarships sponsored by corporations if you have a parent or grandparent who works for those companies. The College Board provides a list of businesses that participate so you can check if you may qualify.
  1. National Merit Semifinalist – There are 16,000 students who receive this award. They are the highest-scoring entrants of each state so it matters where you live.
  1. National Merit Finalist – Of the National Merit Semifinalists, they fill out applications to compete to become a finalist. There are 15,000 finalists who qualify based on abilities, skills and accomplishments. Many of these finalists will receive the National Merit $2,500 Scholarships, corporate-sponsored scholarships and college-sponsored scholarships. The college-sponsored scholarships are provided by the school that the student enrolls in. 

Who Qualifies:

Any high school student, whether in a traditional or homeschool environment, can enter the scholarship competition. If students are attending high school outside the United States and they can take the PSATs, they are qualified to enter if they are a U.S. citizen, a permanent resident or applying for permanent residence. 

Cost of the Test and Fee Waivers

In 2020, the cost for the test is $17. Some schools even cover the cost of the PSATs so be sure to check with the school.

PSAT fee waivers are available and requested by the school, not the student. If the student qualifies for free or discounted lunches, they can qualify for a fee waiver.  

More information can be found here on how to request fee waivers.

Practice Tests

Don’t let standardized tests be intimidating. One way to be ready and fight off the fear of standardized tests is to practice, research and prepare.

To that end, there are many free practice PSATs online if you do a Google search. You can also find free practice tests on the following websites:

Helen Hwang
Helen I. Hwang is a freelance journalist, author and mechanical engineer. Her works have appeared in People Magazine, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia City Paper, [email protected] (Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania's online business journal), Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel Magazine, TravelSavvy.com, Jade Magazine, Hyphen Magazine, Next American City Magazine, and other publications.