The National Merit Scholarship Program is an annual academic competition for recognition and college undergraduate scholarships. According to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, which was established in 1955, over 1.5 million students in about 21,000 high schools enter the National Merit Scholarship Program each year, with about 50,000 entrants qualifying for program recognition, and approximately 8,050 outstanding students receiving scholarships valued collectively at over $35 million for college undergraduate study.
The primary way students enter the National Merit Program by taking the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT), almost always in 11th grade. For many students, a shot at scholarship recognition may be the only good reason to sit for the PSAT. After all, the PSAT is not relevant in college admissions, is not exactly a practice SAT, and doesn’t provide test scores early enough in junior year for many students to act on.
That said, there are plenty of good reasons to prepare for and take the PSAT, especially if a student has a shot at some level of National Merit Scholarship recognition. So how do you know if you are a contender?
STEP 1: BE HONEST ABOUT YOUR SCORES
Competition for National Merit Scholarship is steep. In most states, students need to score in the 99th percentile to be considered. So, before we even start crunching numbers, consider whether you have a credible path to score in the top one or two percent of your statewide peers.
STEP 2: UNDERSTAND THE SELECTION INDEX
The PSAT/NMSQT Selection Index differs substantially from the standard PSAT score in one specific way: verbal ability counts for more. The Selection Index adds a student’s PSAT Math score to twice the Evidence-based Reading and Writing (EBRW) score. For easy math, ignore the final zero in your scores, then double your EBRW score and add your Math score. For example, if you earn a PSAT EBRW score of 710 and a Math score of 680, your Selection Index would be (71 x 2) + 68 = 210.
STEP 3: CHECK YOUR STATE’S HISTORIC INDEX
The Selection Index varies by state, with qualification coming much easier in some states than others. Those of us in the northeastern United States tend to face fierce competition. In New York, for example, the National Merit Semifinalist and Commended cutoff for the class of 2023 was 219, a worthy challenge for even the strongest student.
STEP 4: PRACTICE AND PREPARE
If you feel, based on a long history of academic excellence, that you could contend for any level of National Merit Scholarship recognition, take steps to improve your odds! College Board offers two free PSAT exams (download and print since your PSAT/NMSQT will be on paper) for you to take. Take your tests under strict simulated test conditions, and see how you score. Then, review your test on your own, with friends, or with an expert tutor—we can help!
STEP 5: DON’T STOP AT THE PSAT
If you are a legitimate contender to meet or exceed your state’s Selection Index, you are ready to take the SAT. Don’t think you have to wait until your PSAT scores come back. Aim for the October or November SAT dates for a chance to complete all of your testing earlier in junior year. The only thing better than nailing down National Merit Scholarship recognition is doing so knowing you’ve already earned your best SAT scores for college admissions!