20 Things You Need to Know About National Merit Scholarships

on August 16, 2017

The National Merit Scholarship competition has been around for more than 60 years, but it remains confusing to many families and dogged by misconceptions concerning the ultimate prizes.


You can stop wondering about what the National Merit Scholarship program is all about. Here are 20 things that you need to know about this contest:


1. Among many ambitious families, pursuing a National Merit Scholarship award is considered akin to winning the college jackpot. Capturing this award, many people believe, will make college practically free. The National Merit Scholarship Corp. (NMSC) itself, however, only issues a relatively small number of modest awards.


2. The scholarships from the NMSC are $2,500 one-time-only awards and most students who win the program’s top designation do not receive one.  


3. Two other sources of money exist for this scholarship program. Colleges and universities can sponsor their own National Merit Scholarships. Companies also can give out these awards.


4. The college-sponsored awards range from $500 to $2,000 for up to four years.


5. The awards that companies sponsor typically go to children of their employees. Some are designated for winners who live in the employer community or are interested in majors/careers that the sponsor wishes to encourage. The corporate-sponsored scholarship ranges from $500 to $10,000 a year or a single award ranging from $2,500 to $5,000.


6. Roughly .005 percent of students who take the initial qualifying test ultimately receive a program scholarship from the NMSC or a sponsoring college or corporation.


6. According to the latest NMSC annual report, here are the universities that sponsor the most program scholarships:

  • University of Oklahoma                       236
  • University of Southern California        189
  • University of Chicago                          185
  • Vanderbilt University                           166
  • University of Alabama                         135
  • Northwestern University                      125
  • University of Florida                             119
  • University of Minnesota                       115
  • Purdue University                                 98
  • Texas A&M University                          92                               
  • Arizona State University                       89
  • University of Kentucky                          88
  • Baylor University                                  70
  • Case Western Reserve University       53

Not all finalists receive an award from the institutions they attend. Of the almost 15,000 National Merit finalists who will be starting college this fall, about 4,100 received scholarships from their colleges.


7. Most colleges and universities do not sponsor these awards. This year, just 182 institutions (79 public and 103 private colleges) out of about 2,300 four-year private and public institutions offered these prizes.


8. Among those not participating in the National Merit Scholarship program are some of the most selective colleges and universities. Here are some highly ranked institutions that don’t provide National Merit Scholarships:


  • Amherst College
  • Brown University
  • California Institute of Technology
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • Cornell University
  • Dartmouth College
  • Harvard University
  • MIT
  • New York University
  • Princeton University
  • Stanford University
  • Swarthmore College
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Williams College
  • Yale University


9. Many prominent public flagships also do not participate in the National Merit Scholarship competition, including:


  • University of California campuses
  • University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  • University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  • University of Virginia, Charlottesville
  • University of Washington, Seattle
  • University of Texas, Austin


10. Elite universities such as Harvard and Stanford don’t need to give scholarships to National Merit Scholarship finalists because many of these students will eagerly attend these prestigious campuses without any financial carrot. These universities award financial aid based on financial need, not merit.


11. Another reason why your favorite universities might have abandoned this program is because many institutions consider the competition unfair.


Here’s why: the PSAT alone eliminates vast numbers of potential winners. Roughly 99 percent of juniors who take the PSAT are eliminated from consideration solely on the basis of their scores on the multiple-choice test.


The University of California campuses pulled out years ago after expressing concern about the huge importance that the test scores played. The administration and faculty also believed the test was unfair to many students because scores are highly correlated with income.


12. Eight years ago, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which is an influential association representing colleges and professionals who advise students, urged the NMSC to stop using the PSAT as an initial screen for winners. Both the College Board, which created and oversees the PSAT, and the NMSC ignored the request.


13. Elite institutions that do participate are more likely to stick with modest awards. Universities that tend to be less selective or are striving for higher U.S. News & World Report college rankings are more likely to provide additional generous merit scholarships to the competition’s finalists and semifinalists. Universities that provide generous scholarships include:


  • Arizona State University
  • Baylor University
  • Iowa State University
  • Northeastern University
  • University of Alabama
  • University of Central Florida
  • University of Minnesota
  • University of Mississippi
  • University of Nevada
  • University of Oklahoma
  • Texas Tech University
  • Wichita State University


14. The scholarship competition spans about 18 months. It starts in October, when about 1.5 million high school juniors take the PSAT at roughly 22,000 high schools. The competition concludes when winners of scholarships are notified in the spring of their senior year.


15. Out of the pool of test-takers, more than 50,000 students earn scores that qualify them for recognition either as commended students or semifinalists. About a third of the high scorers are designated as semifinalists. The number of semifinalists is determined on a state representational basis.


In the most recent annual report, for instance, 2,102 students were semifinalists in California and 961 in New York versus 24 in Wyoming and 35 in Vermont.


16. To win an official National Merit Scholarship from a college, a student must be a finalist in the competition. Out of the 1.5 million who take the test, roughly 15,000 end up as finalists.


17. Finalists must notify the NMSC of plans to attend a sponsoring college to be eligible. The finalist will be considered if they designate the college as their No. 1 choice. The college can decide to offer a Merit Scholarship to every finalist that it admits or it could limit the number.


18. One of the more confusing aspects of the program is that the criteria for becoming a finalist vary by state and year. With a finite number of these scholarships available, students living in states with more highly educated, affluent households, such as New Jersey, Massachusetts and California, must earn a higher score than students in poorer states such as Alabama, Louisiana and New Mexico.


19. To make the leap from semifinalist to finalist, here is what a student must do:


  • Complete the National Merit Scholarship Application
  • Succeed academically in high school
  • Receive a recommendation from the high school principal
  • Receive a high score on the SAT


20. Most students shouldn’t bother studying for the PSAT just to win a scholarship. The chances of winning an official merit scholarship are slim and the amounts are small.


An exception to this advice could be high-achieving students who are interested in attending less selective universities that offer large awards for National Merit finalists.


Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on Amazon.com.

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