The National Merit Scholarship Program ​& the PSAT

How to Become a National Merit Scholarship Finalist

Earning a top PSAT/NMSQT score and winning a National Merit® Scholarship can mean thousands of dollars each year of college, which can make a big dent in tuition. There are a few steps to qualify to become a National Merit Scholarship finalist, and you must meet certain criteria. In this article, we break down everything you need to know about the annual National Merit Scholarship competition. Find out how to enter as well as what PSAT score you need to become a National Merit Scholarship finalist.  

What is the National Merit Scholarship?

The National Merit Scholarship is offered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. Almost 10,000 students receive scholarships each year based on their PSAT scores and other accomplishments. The NMSC notifies winners of the scholarships beginning in March and continuing into mid-June.

What are the different types of National Merit Scholarships?

There are three types of National Merit Scholarships: 

  • National Merit $2,500 Scholarships: All National Merit Scholarship finalists compete for these single-payment $2,500 scholarships. They are awarded on a state-representational basis and without consideration of financial circumstances, college choice, major, or career plans. There are 2,500 National Merit Scholarships offered each year.
  • Corporate-sponsored Scholarships: Corporate sponsors offer scholarships to children of their employees, residents of a community where the corporation has operations, or to National Merit Scholarship Finalists with career plans the sponsor wants to encourage. Each year, sponsors announce their programs, determine eligibility, and pay scholarship costs. The number of scholarships a business or foundation offers ranges from one to more than a hundred. These scholarships can be one-time awards or renewable for four years of undergraduate study.
  • College-sponsored Merit Scholarships: Winners of college-sponsored merit scholarships are National Merit Scholarship Finalists who have been admitted to the college or university and have informed NMSC that the sponsor college is their first choice by the deadlines. These scholarships are renewable for up to four years of undergraduate study. Each year, colleges and universities offer about 3,800 Merit Scholarships to eligible Finalists.

Requirements for the National Merit Scholarship Competition

The first step is to take the PSAT no later than your junior year of high school. You must also be a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident intending to become a citizen as soon as you can. Your scores are automatically sent to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, the National Hispanic Recognition Program, the National Scholarship Service, and the Telluride Seminar Scholarships.

In addition, College Board, which creates and administers the PSAT, partners with groups such as the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, the Cobell Scholarship (awarded by Indigenous Education, Inc.), and The Jackie Robinson Foundation to connect test takers with scholarships based on their test scores. You can find more information about these programs on College Board’s website.

[ RELATED: What is the PSAT? ]

How do you get a National Merit Scholarship?

If you think you might make it to Semifinalist status, congrats. There are a few more steps you will need to go through to become a Finalist. First, National Merit Scholarship Corporation will contact you if you make it that far. In order to become a Finalist, you must then:

  • complete the National Merit Scholarship Application, which includes writing an essay
  • have a record of very high academic performance in all of grades 9 through 12 and in any college course work taken
  • be fully endorsed for Finalist standing and recommended for a National Merit Scholarship by your high school principal
  • take the SAT or ACT and earn scores comparable to your semifinalist PSAT score
  • provide any other documentation and information that the National Merit Scholarship Corporation requests

Each year, the top 50,000 PSAT get commendation letters from the National Merit program, and 16,000 of those students qualify as Semifinalists. The cutoff score for Semifinalists varies by state and by year. Semifinalists are invited to complete the National Merit Scholarship Application, which includes writing an essay.

Of the 16,000 Semifinalists, about 15,000 will be considered Finalists. About half of the Finalists will eventually be chosen as Merit Scholarship winners. According to the National Merit Scholarship Program, “scholarship recipients are the candidates judged to have the greatest potential for success in rigorous college studies and beyond.”

What score do you need to become a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist?

What score you need to become a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist depends on the state you live in. Each state has a preset number of Semifinalists, and once scores come in for students that determines the cutoff score for that year in that state. For example, if you live in California, you would need to have a Selection Index score of 220 in order to qualify as a Semifinalist. If you live in West Virginia, you would have to score a 207.

The Selection Index score is calculated by using your section scores and this formula: 2RW+M ÷ 10. In addition to varying by state, this number can vary by year. Regardless of the exact cutoff for your state, all of the students who qualify earn high scores—less than the top 1% of high school students advance to become Semifinalists.

The College Board includes this on your PSAT score report if you’re eligible.

2023 National Merit Semifinalist Cutoff Scores by State

Review the 2023 National Merit Semifinalist cutoff scores by state to help you set your PSAT score goals:

  • Alabama: 212
  • Alaska: 210
  • Arizona: 214
  • Arkansas: 210
  • California: 220
  • Colorado: 217
  • Connecticut: 221
  • Delaware: 218
  • D.C.: 223
  • Florida: 216
  • Georgia: 218
  • Hawaii: 215
  • Idaho: 215
  • Illinois: 219
  • Indiana 214
  • Iowa: 212
  • Kansas: 214
  • Kentucky: 212
  • Louisiana: 213
  • Maine: 215
  • Maryland: 222
  • Massachusetts: 220
  • Michigan: 218
  • Minnesota: 216
  • Mississippi: 210
  • Missouri: 213
  • Montana: 207
  • Nebraska: 212
  • Nevada: 210
  • New Hampshire: 213
  • New Jersey: 223
  • New Mexico: 208
  • New York: 219
  • North Carolina: 217
  • North Dakota: 209
  • Ohio: 216
  • Oklahoma: 211
  • Oregon: 216
  • Pennsylvania: 218
  • Rhode Island: 216
  • South Carolina: 213
  • South Dakota: 212
  • Tennessee: 215
  • Texas: 219
  • Utah: 211
  • Vermont: 213
  • Virginia: 221
  • Washington: 220
  • West Virginia: 207
  • Wisconsin: 213
  • Wyoming: 207

Other cutoff scores:

  • U.S. citizens studying abroad: 223
  • U.S. territories: 207
  • Commended student (national score): 207

[ NEXT: What’s a Good PSAT score? ]