How to Become a National Merit Scholar

Group of high school students discussing on how to become a national merit scholar

Paying for college can be a challenge. Many students look for financial aid in the form of scholarships, grants, and loans. Funding your education is a lot easier with money that doesn’t have to be paid back. The National Merit® Scholarship Program awards approximately 7,500 scholarships each year to qualified high school students. Here’s how you can become a National Merit Scholar.

Meet the Basic Qualifications

To be eligible for the National Merit Scholarship Program, students must be enrolled in a four-year high school program and take the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) by October of their junior year. Both traditional and homeschooled students may qualify as long as they go to school in the District of Columbia, the US commonwealth, or one of its territories. If you attend school outside the United States, you must be a US citizen or legal permanent resident.

Earn a Winning PSAT Score

During the 2016-2017 school year, nearly 4.3 million students took the PSAT. National Merit Scholars typically score in the 99th percentile and each year, only about 16,000 students—or less than 1% of graduating seniors—are selected as semifinalists. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) looks at test scores state by state to ensure that students across the country have equal opportunity to compete. If you’re wondering what the cutoff score is to qualify, it’s different every year. Contact the NMSC to learn more about score requirements for your state.

Craft an Outstanding Application

You should receive your PSAT score report about two months after taking the test. The next step to qualify for a merit-based scholarship involves putting together an application that stands out. You have almost a year between taking the PSAT and submitting your application. Using this time to focus on your academics will give you an advantage when applying for a scholarship. If you are selected as a finalist in the National Merit Scholars Program, you will be notified in September of your senior year. As a semifinalist, you will need to submit an academic transcript and a letter of recommendation from your high school principal.

Earn a Top SAT Score

To be considered as a finalist, you also have to take the SAT. For the 2018 National Merit Scholars Program, applicants had to submit scores by December 31, 2017. It’s a good idea to take the test at least a month before the deadline. If you’re planning to use your scores on college applications, you will probably want to take the test even earlier, since many application deadlines are in the fall.

What’s the Difference between the PSAT and the SAT?

Students can take a form of the PSAT as early as eighth or ninth grade (PSAT 8/9). High school sophomores take the PSAT 10, while tenth and eleventh graders take the PSAT/NMSQT. The SAT is reserved for juniors and seniors.

There are many similarities between the PSAT and the SAT. Both cover math, reading, and writing and language. The PSAT/NMSQT follows the same format as the SAT. Besides being the initial qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship Program, the PSAT serves as practice for the SAT college admissions test and gives you an idea of how well you will score. When you take either test, you can choose to be entered into the Student Search Service®, which allows you to receive communication directly from colleges.

The PSAT/NMSQT and SAT are administered nationally, on the same dates, seven times a year in August, October, November, December, March, May, and June. Schools can also set aside days in the fall and spring to administer the test. You can take the SAT as many times as you want, but you can only take the PSAT/NMSQT once per school year.

The PSAT 10 and PSAT/NMSQT are somewhat shorter than the SAT. These “pre-tests” include a 60-minute reading test, a 35-minute writing and language test, a 25-minute math test on which you’re not allowed to use a calculator, and a 45-minute section on which you can. With breaks, each of these PSAT-related assessments takes 2 hours and 55 minutes.

The SAT is composed of a 65-minute reading test and other sections (writing/language and non-calculator math) that are the same time lengths as the PSAT sections. The SAT math portion on which calculators are permitted is 55 minutes long. If you opt to take the essay portion, that adds an extra 50 minutes to the total testing time. With breaks and no essay, the SAT takes 3 hours and 15 minutes to complete. With the additional writing section, it takes 4 hours and 7 minutes.

How to Prepare for the College Board Tests

To do your best on the PSAT/NMSQT and SAT, practice, practice, practice! Take sample tests under actual testing conditions. For instance, when you take practice math tests, use a calculator only when you are allowed to do so. Set a timer to discipline yourself to stay within the given time limits. Don’t try to look up answers in the middle of the test.

Figure out what types of questions you are good at, and identify areas where you need a little more help. The PSAT and SAT measure the skills you’re learning in high school that will help you succeed in college. Concentrate on classwork that corresponds to what’s on the test; your textbooks and class notes are resources you can also use to study.

As you work through sample tests, keep distractions to a minimum. Turn off social media notifications. Put your phone on silent. Establish a study schedule, and let your family and friends know so they can help you stay on task.

Keeping a positive mindset as you prepare for the SAT increases the likelihood that you will achieve your target score.

UWorld provides comprehensive test prep so you know what to study and why. If you’re planning to take the PSAT or SAT, visit our website to learn more about our online study resources. It’s never too early to start achieving your goals.

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