The Road to Becoming a National Merit Scholar

The Road to Becoming a National Merit Scholar

What is “National Merit” and how do I enter?

The National Merit Scholarship Program is administered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) in cooperation with the College Board to recognize high achieving high school seniors. Entry into the competition is based on junior-year (only) PSAT/NMSQT scores. The NMSC awards approximately $50 million in scholarships each year, and some colleges provide additional scholarships to recognized students, multiplying the net impact of National Merit many times.  For example, Texas A&M offers over $40,000 per student in scholarships, and UT Dallas offers scholarships that cover all tuition, fees, and up to $50,000 of other expenses!

To enter, you must take the PSAT/NMSQT as a high school junior and either attend high school in the United States or U.S. Territories or be a U.S. student studying abroad. Entry into the program is based on your Selection Index; you can find your selection index on your PSAT score report.  To calculate it, take the sum of your reading + writing + math section scores (two-digit numbers) and multiply by two.

Note to Current Sophomores on the New Digital Adaptive PSAT

Current sophomores (class of 2025) will be taking their PSAT on paper in the fall. However, in the Fall of 2023, the new Digital Adaptive PSAT only will be offered, meaning that the usual “warm up” for junior year won’t be the same for this year’s sophomores.   College Board has indicated that they will release four SAT practice tests in mid-October in the new testing platform.  One has already been released! In the meantime, focus on core skills (the skills tested on the digital PSAT will remain the same as those on the current paper test), and then prep for the digital PSAT during summer 2023.

The Road to Becoming a National Merit Scholar

If you’re interested in becoming a National Merit Scholar,  let’s look at the timeline on how to make this dream a reality. Also check out our upcoming National Merit Scholar Seminar!

(Junior Year)
The road officially begins your junior year in October, when millions of students take their PSAT and are entered into the National Merit Scholarship Program.
(Junior Year)
NMSC will ask high school principals to identify any errors or changes in the reported eligibility of students whose scores will qualify them for recognition in the fall of 2023. At this point, the Commended cutoff score becomes widely, although unofficially, known.
(Senior Year)
Semifinalists are recognized in early September.  Semifinalists are allocated proportionally by state, i.e. the more graduating students a state has, the more Semifinalists that state will have. Therefore, some states have higher cutoffs for their scores than others. Traditionally, students in Texas need to have a Selection Index score between 218 and 221. The Texas Semifinalist cutoff for the class of 2023 is 219.  Semifinalists advance in the competition.  Commended students are recognized in late September.  While Commended students don’t advance in the competition, it looks great on college applications and some colleges even award scholarships based on Commended status.  The cutoff for the class of 2023 is 207.
(Senior Year)
National Merit Semifinalists must complete an application, which includes submitting an essay and a recommendation from your school. The application also allows you to choose your “first choice” school, which is an important step: whatever school you choose is the only school you can receive scholarships from. You can always change your choice later. Semifinalists must also have a “confirming score:” an SAT or ACT score that confirms your PSAT performance.  This score must be completed by December.
(Senior Year)
Finalists are notified. Approximately 95% of Semi-Finalists are named National Merit Finalists.
(Senior Year)
Scholarships based on the school you listed as “first choice” on your application begin to be awarded. Many schools offer a National Merit scholarship of $500-$2500 per year. 

So What Should I Do?

Current Juniors

The time for test prep begins during the summer between your sophomore and junior year. If you think you have what it takes to be a National Merit Scholar, sign up for our Goal 1600 class during the summer or one-on-one tutoring.  All our classes provide individualized attention, tailored assignments, and focused feedback in a small group setting.  They  are both fun and effective, helping students achieve their testing goals. Our Goal 1600 class is specifically designed for students aiming for National Merit Semifinalist scores. This class goes quickly through the regular content and focuses then on strategy and practice for the hard questions. In order to help ensure students are in a class that best suits them, students must meet a minimum SAT score (or equivalent PSAT score) of 1300 to be admitted to the class. To check out our current classes, click here.

If you would prefer to work one-on-one with one of our expert tutors, we offer private tutoring in your home that covers all the material and meets students where they are. To sign up for one-on-one tutoring, click here.

Current Sophomores and Younger

Focus on your core skills of reading comprehension, grammar and rhetorical techniques, and math competence.  Use the results from the PSAT as a guide to what areas need attention.  One specific suggestion is to dramatically increase the amount of challenging non-fiction reading.  The vast majority of the test (even the math section!)  is based on non-fiction reading and most students don’t get enough opportunities.  We’ve developed a great list of free, online resources to work on non-fiction reading comprehension.

Our Difference

Woodlands Test Prep has helped 25 students become National Merit Semifinalists in the last 5 years. We have specialized in the SAT, PSAT, and ACT for 11 years.  We are the experts on these tests. Every one of our tutors has the heart of a teacher and loves what they do. Check out our website at to find out more information about our tutoring services and classes, or give us a call at 713-205-1807 to get a free consultation today.