by Lee Binz
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? 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, compared to other students within each state. 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, 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.
Monetary Amount Varies
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.
Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards can provide additional money for some students. College-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards 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. PSAT scores are available a month or two after the child takes the test. The competition is based on the Selection Index score of high school juniors. The Selection Index is the sum of all three sections of the test: reading, writing, and math. 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, and for them 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 take the SAT test, which will confirm the validity of their PSAT performance, and their SAT score must be reported 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. The PSAT only counts toward the National Merit Scholarships Competition during the third year of a four-year high school, which is usually junior year. However, the administrators do understand that bright and gifted kids sometimes graduate early. 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. 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 up to date, so you can demonstrate academic rigor if your child advances to the semi-finalist stage.
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 www.collegeboard.com. For detailed information on the PSAT, search www.professionals.collegeboard.com and read the PSAT/NMSQT® Supervisor's Manual. For general information on the National Merit Scholarship, go to their website, www.nationalmerit.org and read their information about entering the competitions.
National Merit Scholarship Planning Timeline
- October 10th grade – take the PSAT for fun and practice
- May - September 11th grade – register for the PSAT
- October 11th grade – take the PSAT for the National Merit Scholarship
- December 11th grade – scores available
- Spring 11th grade – take the SAT
- 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 scores must be sent to National Merit Corporation
- February 12th grade – finalists notified
- March 12th grade –National Merit Scholarship
- April 12th grade - Corporate-sponsored scholarships awarded
- May 12th grade – National Merit Scholars are notified
- Summer after 12th grade – scholarship awards are announced to the media
Missed the PSAT? Sometimes in your heart of hearts, a mom will just know that her child could qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. If that describes you, what do you do when your child misses the PSAT? There is a way to apply for the National Merit Scholarship even if your child has missed the test.
If a Student Misses the PSAT/NMSQT®
A student who does not take the PSAT/NMSQT® because of illness, an emergency, or other extenuating circumstance, but meets all other requirements for NMSC program participation, may still be able to enter the competitions. The student or a school official must write to NMSC as soon as possible after the PSAT/NMSQT® administration to request information about procedures for entry to NMSC competitions by alternate testing. The earlier NMSC receives the written request, the greater the student’s opportunities for meeting alternate entry requirements. To be considered, a request must be postmarked no later than March 1 following the PSAT/NMSQT® administration that was missed. NMSC will provide alternate entry materials including an entry form that requires the signature of a school official.
This can only work in case of serious emergency, though. Simply missing the test is not enough to enter the competition. If you plan to request an alternate entry this way, follow their directions very carefully, and be sure to be exceptionally clear and concise. Good luck!
Lee Binz, The HomeScholar, specializes in helping parents homeschool high school. Get Lee's FREE Resource Guide, "The 5 Biggest Mistakes Parents Make Homeschooling High School." You can find more of her freebies here: www.HomeHighSchoolHelp.com/Freebies
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