How to Win a National Merit Scholarship


Being named a Scholar is the

highest academic recognition you can achieve from the

National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC)

. It is a national distinction that puts you at the pinnacle of academic achievement.

To become a Scholar, you need to first become a Finalist. But not all Finalists win scholarships: only about 8,000 of 15,000 students win this award. In this article, we’ll talk about what scholarships are available through the NMSC and what you need to do to get one.

What Are National Merit Scholarships? 3 Types

Around 1.6 million high school juniors take the


each year. Only 16,000 students are named Semifinalists, and, after an extensive application process,

just 15,000 win Finalist status


If you haven’t yet read our guides on the steps needed to become a Semifinalist or Finalist, check them out here:

National Merit Semifinalist


National Merit Finalist


Now that you know what it takes to win a National Merit scholarship, let’s go over the

three types of scholarships available, how much money they each give, and how Finalists can qualify

for these scholarship awards and become National Merit Scholars.

#1: National Merit Scholarships

Every Finalist in the National Merit Scholarship Program is considered for a National Merit Scholarship.

Finalists are named Scholars (what the contest calls the scholarship winners) based on the strength of their applications.

National Merit Scholars typically have outstanding applications that demonstrate their academic commitment, extracurricular and community involvement, passion, and drive.

Your first-choice college is


a factor

under consideration for National Merit Scholarships. In fact, the NMSC committee members don’t even see this information.

National Merit Scholarships are

awarded to only 2,500 Finalists, or about one in six Finalists

. They’re a one-time award of $2,500 and are not renewable throughout college.

#2: Corporate-Sponsored Merit Scholarships

The second type of scholarship offered by the NMSC is a corporate-sponsored scholarship.

As is the case with National Merit Scholarships, Finalists are

given automatic consideration

for these scholarships based on their applications and the information they provide about

parental employment, intended majors, and career plans


Most corporate sponsors

give awards to

students whose parents/guardians work for them

. A small number award non-employee children scholarships if they indicate an interest in a major or career choice that the corporation wants to support.

As these awards change year to year, you should check with your corporation of interest to learn about their award criteria. Sponsor corporations include UPS, Boeing, Macy’s, Southwest Airlines, and GEICO (

see the full list here



Around 1,000 Finalists receive corporate-sponsored awards each year

, and they range a lot in amount. They are usually renewable, or awarded annually, and tend to be transferable to any four-year accredited college.


#3: College-Sponsored Merit Scholarships

Finalists who receive neither a National Merit Scholarship nor a corporate-sponsored scholarship are considered for

college-sponsored scholarships


Check the

list of college sponsors

(starting on page 3) to see participating schools.

Some popular college sponsors include the following:

  • Boston College
  • Boston University
  • Bowdoin College
  • Colby College
  • Pomona College
  • Tufts University
  • University of Chicago
  • University of Southern California

Some colleges that do NOT sponsor scholarships for National Merit students include Harvard and other

Ivy League schools

, Middlebury College, MIT, Stanford, and Williams College.

You must choose one of the sponsor colleges as your first-choice school on your application to be considered for a scholarship. If you put down “Undecided,” you will not be considered.

Even if you’re not too sure what your top choice is, you should still put one of the sponsor colleges down or add one to your application ASAP.

Students can

log into their NMSC applications


change their first-choice college up until May 31

unless they’ve already received an award offer from the college they indicated. The NMSC sends rosters of Finalists to sponsor colleges in March; scholarship offers start in

early May

and continue on for the next few months.

If you have any questions about the college-sponsored scholarship process, you can call the NMSC Scholarship administration at 847-866-5161.

About 4,000 students every year receive college-sponsored scholarships between $500 and $2,000 in value.

Colleges may award even more merit-based awards. If that’s the case, the NMSC will cover up to $2,000, and the rest of the award will come from the college or other sources.

Since every school differs, students should contact the school directly to discuss their merit-based financial awards. College-sponsored scholarships are renewable annually and non-transferable.

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How to Maximize Your Chances of Winning a National Merit Scholarship

There are a few steps you can take in order to maximize your chances of winning a National Merit Scholarship.


put together an outstanding application

. You can

review the instructions for Semifinalists on the NMSC website

. The application is similar to college apps in that you must supply your GPA, a letter of recommendation (usually from your high school principal), and a personal essay.

For your application, think about what story your extracurricular activities and community service tell. Do they show a progression to a position of leadership? Do they show depth over breadth?

As for the essay, besides having flawless grammar and spelling, does the statement prove you’re thoughtful and reflective, and can draw meaning from your experiences?

Next, consider your letter of recommendation. How strong is it?

Give your principal or teacher a “brag sheet” of the specific qualities, accomplishments, and even adjectives you’d like them to include in the letter

to make your recommendation stand out as one of the best.

In addition to putting together a stellar application, you should

research sponsor corporations

and be aware of your parents’ employment. Include on your application relevant information so you can be considered for a corporate-sponsored scholarship.


don’t forget to indicate a sponsor college as your first choice

. You can make changes by May 31. Your application will explain this process in greater detail.


How to Win the National Merit Scholarship: A Timeline

You can really maximize your chances of winning a National Merit Scholarship by following these steps and meeting all the deadlines:

  1. Prep for the PSAT your sophomore year.

    Use our expert guide

    for tips on how to study for the PSAT. Take

    official PSAT practice tests

    to get a feel for the test and to see what you need to focus on. Make sure you’re scoring

    above the PSAT score cutoff

    for your state, or else you won’t qualify as a Semifinalist once you take it your junior year.

  2. Take the PSAT in the fall of your junior year

    and qualify for Semifinalist status by scoring in the top 1% of all test takers in your state. (Note that you won’t know whether you’ve qualified until September the following year, when you’re a senior.)

  3. Study for the SAT


    take it once or twice

    during your junior year.


    a high score

    that proves to the NMSC that your PSAT scores weren’t just a fluke.

  4. Submit your

    NMSC application

    in early October your senior year.

    If for some reason your school received late notification of Semifinalists, just let the NMSC know what’s happening; in this case, they shouldn’t penalize you for having a late application.

  5. Receive word that you made Finalist in February of your senior year.

  6. Receive word that you won a scholarship starting in March of your senior year!

As you can see, if you’re hoping to win a scholarship, it’ll benefit you significantly to start preparing as early as possible for the National Merit Scholarship Competition.

This doesn’t just mean studying for the PSAT and SAT, though—it also means joining clubs, gaining a leadership position, and cultivating good relationships with your teachers. All of this preparation will not only help you succeed on the PSAT and SAT, but will also

set you up for lots of success in your future academic and professional careers



What’s Next?

Make sure you read our expert guides to becoming a

National Merit Semifinalist



so you can have the best chance of qualifying at each stage of the competition.

While the National Merit Scholarship Competition uses the PSAT, the SAT is far more important for college admission.

What’s a good and a bad SAT score?

Learn how to set a target score based on the colleges you’re applying to.

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