ACTACT GeneralCollege AdmissionsSATSAT General

5 Steps to Become a National Merit Scholar: Everything You Need to Know

The National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test requires ample prep and dedication.

You may be wondering: What the heck is the NMSQT acronym that’s often tied to the PSAT? What does it mean to be a National Merit Scholarship Finalist? Is that the same thing as qualifying? Are you going to get scholarship money from being a semifinalist? Don’t worry, we’ll go over what all the different NMSP levels are, as well as how to qualify in this post.

Typically, high school Sophomores and Juniors take the PSAT. From that sample of students, the scores are split into Commended Students, Semifinalists, Finalists, and Winners. Where you fall on the scale completely depends on your score in comparison to your peers. The specific numbers may vary year by year.

Commended Students

Commended Students’ scores account for roughly two-thirds of the high scores on the PSAT/NMSQT. While these scores do not qualify students to move on to the next round of consideration, it does qualify students for plenty of other scholarships offered by third parties. You’ll know if you fall into this category if you receive a letter of recognition after you take the PSAT.


Semifinalists account for the last third of high scores. They are made up of the highest scoring students from each state, to ensure diversity from all over the country. The specific scores in this category vary from year to year as well. For these students to advance to the Finalist stage, they must meet other academic standards. If you fall into this category, NMSC will tell you what benchmarks you need to meet in order to advance.


If all requirements are met, the students will advance into the Finalist category. Only around 15,000 students nationwide make it to this point. Each student who makes it to the Finalist stage is presented with a Certificate of Merit by their school principal. Being a National Merit Finalist is a huge honor for high school students and it could open endless doors to scholarships and other resources, even if you aren’t selected as a winner. It’s a big deal to make it this far!

National Merit Scholarship Winners

Finally, the winners of the National Merit Scholarship awards are chosen without consideration of their gender, race, religion, or ethnicity. They are chosen strictly based on their accomplishments and abilities. These hard-working smarties are chosen based on their PSAT/NMSQT scores (of course), their academic record, school curriculum, written recommendations from high school administration, extracurriculars, and an essay written by the student.

How to Qualify for The National Merit Scholarship in 5 Easy Steps:

Falling into any of these NMSC categories qualifies you for a whole collection of scholarships, so its really important to do your absolute best on the PSAT/NMSQT! Aim for the sky, so that’s why I’m going to break down exactly what you need to qualify (rhyme unintended, but we’re going with it).

Study groups and tutoring can help you prepare for the National Merit Scholar Qualifying Test (NMSQT).

1. Be a High School Student

The first step to qualifying for the National Merit Scholarship: you must be a high school student. If you’re enrolled in private school, public school, or even homeschooled, that’s fine! The first requirement is that you are currently enrolled in a high school program of some sort. Easy! What’s next?

2. Attend High School in the United States, or Be a U.S. Citizen

If you attend school outside of the U.S. or its territories, you may still be eligible. You must be a U.S. citizen or in the process of becoming one as soon as legally possible to qualify for the NMSP. Say your parents are in the military and your whole family is stationed overseas. This won’t disqualify you from being eligible for the NMSP. Granted, it may be harder for you to obtain access to the test, but your scores on the PSAT/NMSQT will automatically be considered due to your citizenship.

3. Take the PSAT/NMSQT as a Junior (or Sooner)

The PSAT, or preliminary SAT is the same test as the NMSQT (National Merit Scholar Qualifying Test). Your score on this test determines where you stand among your peers. Registration is done by school, so if you’d like to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship ask your school how you can take the test.

If you’re one of those super smart kids that is planning to graduate high school early to enroll in college, you’re still eligible for the NMSP. You’ll need to take the test by the next-to-last year of high school for the scholarship to be awarded at the end of high school. If you choose to do it during your last year of high school instead, the awards will be offered after your first year of college. Keep in mind that any National Merit awards are on a bit of a delay, so its best to get it done during your Junior (or second-to-last) year.

Kickstart Your SAT Prep with Test Geek’s Free SAT Study Guide.

Some students are enrolled in college courses as a high school student. If this is the case for you, You are still eligible for the National Merit Scholar Program. Your school will confirm your dual enrollment and status as a current high school student. Many advanced students are dual enrolled in high school and college courses, so they should definitely get a shot to show off what they have on the NMSQT. If you are dual enrolled, you must take the PSAT/NMSQT your Junior year.

If your circumstances are more complex, like you plan to take five years to graduate high school, or you’re unsure of when you should take the PSAT/NMSQT because of illness, injury, or other complications, you can contact the NMSC for clarification on your specific situation.

4. Get Good Grades in School

Finalists and winners are chosen based on the whole package, not just your PSAT/NMSQT scores. This means you need to be academically rounded, including your GPA and extracurriculars. You may make it to the Semifinalist stage on your scores alone, but to go any farther, you’ll have to study for your normal classes too.

5. Follow Directions Sent to You by the NMSC

So you made it to the Semifinalist or Finalist point! When you are awarded your certificate, the National Merit Scholarship organization will include further instructions to advance. This could include a recommendation letter from your school and an admission essay highlighting who you are, for example. In order to advance and take that winner spot you need to complete all requirements, including extracurricular leadership opportunities, activities, excellent grades, letters and essays. If you have all of that, you’re golden!

Wrapping It Up

It may seem like a lot to go through for a scholarship, but I assure you, it is the highest honor a high school student can achieve. Not only will you have your choice of scholarships and college acceptances, you’ll also have lifelong bragging rights! It looks great on resumes, can open endless doors, and it could even get you a tutoring job at Test Geek! The most important thing to take away from this post is to do your very best on the PSAT/NMSQT and to be intentional about when you take it. A high score on that test could set you up for success in college!

Kirsten Mann
Kirsten is the Operations Coordinator at Test Geek. She has a 35 on the ACT Reading Test and enjoys sarcasm and pop culture references.

Your SAT Question and Answer Service questions, answered

Previous article

SAT Practice Tests: How to Boost Your Score

Next article

You may also like


Comments are closed.

More in ACT