What is the National Merit Scholarship Program?
The National Merit Scholarship Program was started in 1955 ostensibly for identifying and encouraging meritorious scholars in the United States of America. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation, an Illinois based private no-profit organization, administers this program. Since the program chooses the creamy layer of the achievers in the nationwide academic competition - a multi-layered process - it inculcates a culture of academic excellence among young high school students. This stands them in good stead for the rest of their lives - whatever profession they may choose to pursue later.
What are the essential requirements for entering National Merit Scholarship Program?
In order to qualify for the NMSP the scholars have to fulfill certain preliminary requirements. These are:
- They should be US citizens or permanent residents
- They should be enrolled in a high school
- They should have taken the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test or the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT)
How tough is the competition?
Frankly, it all depends upon how one prepares for the tests. To have an idea, it is estimated that every year about 1.6 million students from 22,000 schools enter the PSAT/NMSQT to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship competition. Since these tests are essentially for screening the entrants, the question papers assess such basic skills as critical reading ability, ability to solve math problems, and writing ability. These tests are by no means a cakewalk but are far less complicated than the main competition.
Students should prepare with the intent to win right from the word go. They will realize later in the competition how preparation for the PSAT/NMSQT braces them for facing the far more intense SAT which can make them eligible for bigger scholarships.
The Selection Process for National Merit Scholarship
The entire process takes about a year to complete. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation collects and collates the PSAT/NMSQT results for preparing the Annual Selection Index Scores. About 50,000 students with the highest Selection Index Scores qualify for recognition and the National Merit Scholarship Program. The 50,000 students are then categorized into two groups, viz., Commended Students and Semi-finalists. About two-thirds of the 50,000 entrants are rated as Commended Students. By late September, they’re chosen on the basis of their national Selection Index Score. Commended Students score lower than the score needed to be a Semifinalist and are no more eligible to continue in the competition for National Merit Scholarships. However, they are given letters of commendation in recognition of their academic promise.
It is important to note that the Semi-finalists are designated on the basis of state representation, depending on the total number of entrants and in proportion to each state’s percentage of the nation’s high school graduating seniors. Only the highest scoring entrants in each state qualify as Semi-finalists. They normally represent the 0.5% of the state’s senior students.
The Finalists have to take the official Scholastic Assessment Test. The SAT results will confirm their performances in the PSAT/NMSQT. This will be the official report to be sent to the NMSC.
Cut-off Scores & the qualifying entrants
There are no fixed cut-off scores for qualifying as Semi-finalists. These scores vary from year to year. In early September, about one-third of the 50,000 high scorers qualify as Semifinalists. They are chosen to represent the state they live in. In February, about 15,000 Semifinalists advance to the Finalist stage. Within the Finalist group, winners are chosen for the Merit Scholarship based on their abilities, skills, and accomplishments. About 7,500 finalists are selected to receive a Merit Scholarship in between the beginning the March and mid-June.
Types of National Merit Scholarship Awards
There are three types of NMS awards:
- First, there is an award of $2500. This is a single payment scholarship award given by the state.
- Then, there are the Corporate-Sponsored Merit Scholarship awards, which can be renewed for four years of undergraduate study or awarded just one time. They are given to children of the Finalists with career plans related to the company. The amounts of awards vary.
- Finally, the College-Sponsored Merit Scholarship awards, which are renewable for up to four years of undergraduate study at the Finalist’s chosen college or university. The sponsoring college or university chooses the winners. These awards also vary in what they’re worth.
Other Benefits of participating in the National Merit Scholarship
However, the story does not end here. Since the idea is to encourage academic excellence among as many students as possible, there are awards for those who could not make it to the finals. Special scholarships are awarded to about 1200 academically outstanding students. These students have participated in the National Merit Scholarship Program but have been unable to qualify for the finals. In addition, there are some colleges and universities which award their own scholarships based on NMSQT scores.
Tips for winning the National Merit Scholarships
Apart from meeting the three essential requirements mentioned above in this article, the following should help you in realizing your dream of winning the NMS:
Get a recommendation from the principal of your high school or from someone designated for the purpose by the principal
You need to maintain an excellent record of academic performance throughout your high school education
Your application for the scholarship should be complete in all respects
How to prepare for the PSAT
As soldiers go to the battlefield after getting training and armed with necessary weapons and equipment, so should students take tests after fully preparing themselves. Knowledge and skills are their most potent weapons.
Here are some tips for making preparations for the test:
- Get familiar with the PSAT format
This is the fundamental first step. The most important way to prepare for the PSAT is to learn the format of the test. There are different time-spans for different tests like Reading, Writing & Language, Math etc. There is no essay component.
- Try to better the PSAT cut-off score
A PSAT score during your practice tests can help you determine the score you should aim at on the day of the test. Try to go higher than your state's cut-off score, or you should around 1480 to brighten your qualifying chances for the National Merit Scholarship Program.
- Go for PSAT practice tests
This is one of the best ways to prepare for PSAT. The practice tests provide you with invaluable resource and experience. Go to the College Board website and download as many full-length tests as you want to. These are free.
- Analyze and correct your mistakes
It would be unrealistic to expect flawless performance in the practice tests. Mistakes will happen. Analyze the mistakes and learn how to correct these. You may need to pay special attention to the subjects you have not been too comfortable with. This will make you better prepared for the real test.
- Try out SAT tests for extra practice
SAT is any day tougher than PSAT. So, use SAT questions and tests for practice. This will not only boost your knowledge and confidence for PSAT but also give you a genuine foretaste of what is awaiting you in the SAT, whenever you have a go at it.