For most people, the PSAT is a practice exam in preparation for the SAT. However, some students may qualify for the National Merit Scholarship, which is based on junior-year PSAT scores. The National Merit Scholarship is one of the most prestigious scholarships in the United States, and can open doors to many college opportunities. However, the whole National Merit process can be a little confusing. To help clarify the process, let’s follow Sammy Scholar as he eventually gets National Merit Winner:
October, Junior Year: Sammy along with approximately 1.5 million students will take the PSAT.
December, Junior Year: Sammy receives his scores from the PSAT. He finds his scores and national percentile ranking in a box labeled “Selection Index.” Candidates for National Merit must be in the 99th percentile in their state, so where Sammy lives determines the cut-off score for National Merit. If his national percentile is between 96th and 99th, he is likely put in the pool for the National Merit Scholarship. For the sake of argument, let’s say Sammy lives in Texas, and scored a 225 which qualifies him for National Merit. Texas’ cut-off for 2013 was 219.
April, Junior Year: Sammy is one of approximately 50,000 students who receives a National Merit recognition letter. Sammy must choose two universities for the National Merit Scholarship Corporation to send referral letters.
September, Senior Year: Approximately 34,000 students have been awarded COMMENDED, and are removed from the competition.
Sammy was not removed from competition, so he and approximately 16,000 students will receive a letter awarding them SEMIFINALIST, which is given to the highest scores in the students’ home states. At this point, National Merit consideration is based on application materials. The Semifinalists must submit an application containing: high school transcripts, SAT scores, letters of recommendation, letter of support from the principal, list of extra-curricular activities, and an essay.
February, Senior Year: Approximately 1,000 students are removed from the competition. Sammy submitted a great application and made the cut. He and approximately 15,000 students will be awarded FINALIST.
March (or as late as June, in some cases), Senior Year: Approximately 6,700 students are removed from competition. Sammy and approximately 8,300 students are awarded WINNER of the National Merit Scholarship.
An important thing to note here is if Sammy was cut from the competition as some point, all is not lost. Being able to put “National Merit Commended” or “National Merit Semifinalist” on his applications and resume is still a good thing. This may help college admissions in their decisions, and it may mean Sammy can receive third-party scholarships.
Note: Statistics are from the 2012 Juniors from the College Board web site: research.collegeboard.org/programs/psat/data/cb-jr