National Merit: What You Need to Know and Why You Shouldn't Care
Updated: Dec 28, 2019
In 1955, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) created an academic testing competition to "identify and honor scholastically talented American youth." The NMSC is an independent, non-governmental, not-for-profit organization headquartered in Evanston, Illinois.
What is the National Merit Scholarship Competition?
The National Merit Scholarship competition is a multi-step academic merit-based award program based primarily on how well a student scores on the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT). Specifically, students sit for the PSAT during the fall of their third (junior) year of high school, receive the results of this test in December, and will be notified of their National Merit status (see below for more on this) in September of their senior year. While the PSAT is a national test, the scholarship competition is local, with state-based cutoffs established by the NMSC each year.
Students who score above these cutoffs in their state are identified as National Merit Semifinalists (roughly the top 1% of test takers) or Commended Scholars (roughly the top 3-4% of test takers). Semifinalists proceed in the competition and vie to be National Merit Finalists. From there, these Finalists apply to be National Merit Scholars. This step requires Finalists to submit additional academic information and test scores to be reviewed by a panel of admissions representatives and college counselors.
Below is a breakdown of test-takers through Scholars. Again, it's important to note that the 2019 PSAT scores that students receive in their mailboxes in December 2019 don't identify National Merit Semifinalists. Students can look at previous scores, thresholds, and cutoffs from previous years; but again, the 2019 PSAT numbers and Finalists 2020 numbers won't be released until September 2020. Let's look at last year's test:
National Fall 2018 PSAT takers: 1.6 Million
2019 National Merit Commended Scholars: 34,000
2019 National Merit Semifinalists: 16,000
2019 National Merit Finalists: 15,000
2019 National Merit Scholars: 7,500
What are the actual financial awards associated with National Merit?
There are three types of college scholarships associated with the National Merit Scholarship competition.
1) National Merit Scholarships: Awarded centrally from NMSC to National Merit Scholars. This is a non-renewable $2,500 scholarship.
2) Corporate Sponsored Scholarships for National Merit Finalists: These range in award amounts, are almost always awarded to children of employees, and often have additional company-based criteria.
3) College sponsored scholarships for National Merit Commended, Semifinalists, and Finalists, and Scholars: These also range in award amounts and often require the student to list the college as a top choice in their National Merit profiles.
Why National Merit is Largely an Eye-roll
Let us say right up front that any financial grant (i.e, scholarship you don't have to pay back) is a good thing. If your student is a good enough test-taker to be named a semifinalist, congratulations. You have much to be proud of and we're most certainly not trying to steal your joy. Most likely, your student has succeeded in other realms as well.
That said, if your student did not make the cut, please know that like a lot of things created by testing organizations, there's a lot of hype, smoke, mirrors, and "meh" going on here. Here's why:
The award amounts are often laughable tiny: Out of the nearly 4,200 4-year colleges and universities in the U.S., we can find evidence of only 27 that publicize full-tuition scholarships for National Merit Finalist status. Most corporate or college-based awards are between $500-2,000 a year. Certainly nothing to sneeze at, but considering that the average cost of attendance for a 4-year college now sits just north of $41,000/year, the awards are often underwhelming.
In many cases, semifinalists and finalists already qualify for scholarships that make their NMSC status financially irrelevant. Keep in mind this is a scholarship that awards good test-takers. Good test takers usually see bigger scholarships. #analysis
A lot of notable colleges DO NOT participate in awarding scholarships based on National Merit status. The University of California system, Duke, and the University Notre Dame are among hundreds of colleges that do not offer scholarships based on national merit standing. You can see a full list of scholarship partners here.
National Merit Scholarships and corporate-based scholarships are often considered outside third party scholarships and as such, can actually reduce your overall financial aid package from the college.
Just so we're all clear on this, your student's PSAT is NOT used in the admissions process. You will not submit it to a college for admission consideration. Ever.
There are long-established bodies of evidence documenting considerable test bias with both the SAT and PSAT along gender lines, among low-income groups, and student of color populations, making recognition in the National Merit competition potentially more difficult for some groups.
Recall that the sole criteria to be a National Merit Semifinalist is how a student scored, on a singular test that measures a fistful of academic subjects and skills. Generations of psychologists, educators, philosophers, and plain old common sense have noted the dozens of additional factors necessary for success in life, let alone schooling. The cultural importance placed on National Merit, with this myopic view of achievement, is largely out of step with most of what we know about what really matters in preparing well-adjusted and successful adults. College presents a multitude of challenges to students, only a portion of which, and a relatively small one at that, are accounted for by the scholastic focus of the PSAT/SAT. The research is VERY clear that how a student engages with the intellectual and social aspects of collegiate life is significantly more predictive of future life success, and most importantly, happiness.
Again, if you're excited about being a National Merit Scholar or you just received a high score on the 2019 PSAT, congratulations! If not, don't despair and focus on the bigger picture.
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