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National Merit Scholarship Information for Homeschoolers

Every year, homeschoolers can and DO win the National Merit Scholarship.

Have you seen billboards and newspaper articles announcing that a student is a National Merit Scholar? Did you know that those students entered the competition by taking the PSAT/NMSQT®? The National Merit Scholarship is the best-known high school scholarship in the nation, and the only way to win is to start with the PSAT® test. Therefore, the single most important thing you can do to win that scholarship is to make sure your children take the PSAT® in October of 11th grade.

Students are invited to participate in the competition based on their "Selection Index" from the PSAT®. The Selection Index is used to compare high school juniors within each state. Because each state is different, it's impossible to predict exactly how your child will compare. However, generally speaking, if your student's scores are above the 98th percentile on the PSAT®, there is a possibility they may qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. If your student tends to score very high on any standardized test, it makes sense to be aware of the National Merit Scholarship early in high school. With preparation, they may earn scholarships.

Stepping Stone Scholarship

Winners get scholarships from the National Merit Corporation, Corporate-sponsored scholarships, and College-sponsored scholarships. The National Merit Scholarship is a non-renewable, one-time award of up to $2500. Not everyone gets the whole prize amount, and some will get far less. When you compare the award to the cost of colleges, it doesn't seem like much. But the National Merit Scholarship can be a stepping stone to other scholarships.

There are other awards that may also be given. Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards can provide additional money for some students. These scholarships usually provide the most money. Colleges love to publicize how many National Merit Scholars they have on campus. College-sponsored merit scholarships can be very large, even full scholarships. Some colleges will only give their largest monetary award to a student who names that college as their first-choice university, and will provide lesser scholarships to other National Merit Scholars. On the other end of the spectrum are colleges that provide special scholarships to any National Merit participants, not just winners, including commended students and semi-finalists.

National Merit Scholarship Process

The National Merit Scholarship competition is a long, drawn-out process, lasting over a year. It begins with the PSAT/NMSQT® taken in 11th grade, which they use as their initial screening. It includes an SAT® test that must be sent to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. And it concludes with a competition that includes sending course descriptions with your application.

Selection Index

The PSAT® gives two sub scores: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing is the first score, and Math is the second score. It uses those scores to determine the Selection Index, on a scale ranging from 48 to 228. The higher your score, the more likely you are to enter the National Merit Scholarship Program. Although you can clearly see the Selection Index on the PSAT® score report, you can't tell how your student did in comparison to the other students across your state, so you won't immediately know yet whether they will advance in the scholarship competition. Scholarship participants are chosen by state, so students are only compared to other high school juniors within their state.

Although you receive PSAT® test scores during junior year, it's not until the following August or September of senior year that Commended Students are notified. For Commended Students, the competition has ended. Later, some students will be notified they are semi-finalists, and for them the competition continues. Semi-finalists must complete a detailed scholarship application demonstrating the academic rigor of their education. They must provide a recent SAT® test to the National Merit Corporation. Homeschoolers have become National Merit Scholars, and parents must play the role of school administrator, providing documentation of a rigorous education through well-documented record keeping.

Fine print details abound and rules can change over time. The PSAT® only counts toward the National Merit Scholarships Competition during the third year of high school, which is usually junior year. However, the administrators do understand that bright and gifted kids sometimes graduate early, and that others may take a super-senior year. Students can be homeschooled or take dual enrollment classes. There is even a way to enter the competition if a student missed the PSAT® due to an emergency situation.

Planning for Success

If your child tends to score in the 90th percentile or higher on standardized tests, there is the possibility of winning these awards. There are also things that might increase your child's chances of winning. Have your child take the PSAT® in 10th grade for practice, so they are comfortable with the test-taking environment. During 10th grade, have your children study for the PSAT® regularly, teaching the skills of reading, writing, and math in the context of test preparation. Familiarity with the test can increase test scores. Plan to complete geometry before sophomore year or earlier, if possible, to maximize the score on the math section. If students are very advanced in math, provide consistent review of Algebra 1 and geometry in order to maximize their test scores. Carefully notice the deadlines at your testing site to register for the PSAT®, so you don't miss it. Make sure that your homeschool records and course descriptions are up to date, so you can demonstrate academic rigor if your child advances to the semi-finalist stage. To become a Finalist, the Semifinalist must earn SAT® or ACT® scores that confirm their PSAT/NMSQT® performance.


The complete process of winning a National Merit Scholarship can be a bit complicated, so the information here can only provide an overview. If you are notified that your child is a semi-finalist, immediately spend time doing research. For general information on the PSAT®, go to collegeboard.org. For detailed information on the PSAT®, read the PSAT/NMSQT® for Parents and Guardians. For general information on the National Merit Scholarship, go to nationalmerit.org and read their Guide to the National Merit Scholarship Program.

National Merit Scholarship Planning Timeline

10th grade

October 10th grade – take the PSAT® for fun and practice
May of 10th grade - contact school to take the PSAT/NMSQT®

11th grade

May - September 11th grade – register for the PSAT®
October 11th grade – take the PSAT/NMSQT®
December 11th grade – PSAT® scores available
Spring 11th grade – take the SAT® or ACT®

12th grade

September 12th grade – Commended and Semi-Finalists are notified
October 12th grade – parents are "the school" and must complete the application
December 12th grade – SAT® or ACT® scores must be sent to National Merit Corporation
February 12th grade – finalists notified
March 12th grade – Winners notified of National Merit® $2500 Scholarships, Corporate-sponsored scholarships, and College-sponsored scholarships
April - July 12th grade - scholarship awards are announced to the media

Missed PSAT/NMSQT®

According to the National Merit official website"A student who does not take the PSAT/NMSQT® because of illness, an emergency, or other extenuating circumstance (but meets all other requirements for program participation) may still be able to enter the competition. The student or a school official must write to NMSC after the PSAT/NMSQT® administration to request alternate entry procedures. The alternate entry request should include the student's name and home address, the contact information of the person making the request, the name and address of the student's high school, and a brief explanation of why the student missed the test. To be considered, a request should be sent as soon as possible but must be postmarked no later than April 1 following the missed PSAT/NMSQT® administration"

This can only work in case of a serious personal emergency or national crisis. Simply missing the PSAT® test is not enough to enter the competition. If you must request an alternate entry this way, follow their directions very carefully, and be sure to be exceptionally clear and concise.

PSAT/NMSQT® is a registered trademark of the College Board and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. SAT®, AP®, and CLEP® are trademarks owned by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this blog post or The HomeScholar, LLC.

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