The National Merit Journey: What You Need to Know, Part One

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two detailed articles that describe the complex and often confusing process of becoming a National Merit Scholar. If you are already familiar with the PSAT qualifying test itself and the preliminary steps, you can scroll down to where you are in the process. At the end of the article is a discussion of the special terminology used by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. The next installment will focus on the parent’s role in the process.

Author Jane Mueller Fly is an attorney and adjunct professor at the University of Houston-Downtown Campus.

In October of each year, 1.5 million high school juniors will sit for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, or PSAT/NMSQT. For many, the test is just what the name implies: a preliminary SAT. But for others it is the opening bell for two years of anxiety also known as the National Merit Scholarship competition.

The Competition Begins with the PSAT. The PSAT/NMSQT (let’s just call it the PSAT) is the initial hurdle students must clear on the way to becoming National Merit Scholars. Scores are sent in December to the student’s high school. As you will see, notification through the high school is a continuing National Merit theme. The policy at many schools is to wait until after winter break to distribute the scores. So students and parents wait. Update: Students who took the October 2015 test should be able to get their scores on January 7 from the College Board.

The Top 50,000 Scores Nationwide. In April, high school principals are notified which, if any, of their students are among the top scoring 50,000 juniors nationwide. The principals are asked to confirm that those students are eligible for the National Merit Scholarship competition. These 50,000 students will continue in the competition. The remaining 1.45 million juniors are out.

The score required to rank in the top 50,000 fluctuates year to year. For students in the class of 2016, who took the PSAT as juniors in the fall of 2014, a score of 202 placed them in the top 50,000 scorers. Update: Students who took the PSAT in October 2015 will receive two scores, one a total test score ranging from 320 to 152o, and the other a selection index score from 48 to 228. Please see this recent post for qualifying selection index scores for the NMS Class of 2017.

Students in the top 50,000 scorers are guaranteed to be at least Commended Students, but all students are hoping to progress to National Merit Semi-Finalist. At this point in the competition, students and parents alike should hunker down for the long wait, because Semifinalists will not be notified until September of their senior year.

Semifinalists: The Top Scores by State. The lone criterion for progressing to Semifinalist is the PSAT score. Like the score required for Commended Students, the Semifinalist cutoff fluctuates year to year. But unlike the Commended Student cutoff score (209 for the class of 2017), which is the same for all students nationwide, the score required to progress to Semifinalist depends on the state in which the student attends high school. For example, students in the class of 2017 in North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming progressed to Semifinalist with a score of 209, while New Jersey seniors needed a stellar 222.

Perhaps you noticed that the class of 2017 Semifinalist cutoff score in the four lowest scoring states is the same as the nationwide Commended Student cutoff score. This means that there are no Commended Students in the class of 2017 in those four states, but don’t expect complaints from those students, as they have all progressed to Semifinalist.

Approximately 16,000 students will meet or exceed their state’s cutoff score, and will therefore be named Semifinalists. In early September of their senior year, they will be notified by, you guessed it, their high school principals. At this point, of the top scoring 50,000 students, the 34,000 students who are not named Semifinalists are officially National Merit Commended Students. This is of course a great honor, but a disappointment to many students, particularly to students who scored 221 in New Jersey, knowing that they would be Semifinalists in the other 49 states.

While the score required to progress to semifinalist varies from state to state, it is important to note that the NMSC does not publicize the state cutoff scores. This is a cause of great frustration to students eagerly awaiting a congratulatory call to the principal’s office. The letter sent by NMSC to high school principals in early September names the Semifinalists, and provides important login information Semifinalists need in order to complete the online application for Finalist. The letter advises principals the news may be shared only with the students and their families, not anyone else, including media sources, until a later date

Many principals choose to withhold the information from the anxious students, however, until the date the information may be made public. Other principals reasonably but erroneously believe that students have already received the news at their home addresses. Not true, as every Semifinalist knows. In this age of Internet forums and homeschoolers, however, the state-by-state cutoff scores tend to leak out. Homeschool “principals” who received the Semifinalist letters at their homes, and those seniors whose principals already shared the news, post their qualifying scores, or their heartbreaking just-misses, to online forums. A Texas student excitedly posts that she made Semifinalist with her score of 221, but her best friend did not with a score of 219, and later a homeschool parent posts that her son made the cut with a 220. And so it goes, state by state, until a complete state cutoff list materializes.

At this point in the National Merit Competition, it has been eleven months since the students sat for the PSAT exam in the fall of their junior year. Anxiety builds.

Finalists. The next step for the 16,000 Semifinalists is to submit an application to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, or NMSC. The application is done entirely online, and may be accessed only by using the code included in the letter to the high school principal. Students and parents alike agonize over delays in gaining access to the secret code and hence the application. Once the student finally obtains the login details from the high school principal, the application is quite straightforward. The student is required to write a short essay about, perhaps, a person or experience that influenced him or her. The student must also list extracurricular activities, honors, employment, etc.

One additional requirement is that the student submit a “confirming” SAT score. Traditionally, an SAT score of 1960 is sufficient to “confirm” the student’s PSAT score. The confirming score is not the student’s actual SAT score, however. It is based on a unique calculation of the student’s Math subscore plus the Critical Reading subscore plus a Writing Skills score calculated by multiplying the student’s Writing Skills multiple choice score by 10.

Meanwhile, the student’s guidance counselor should be hard at work completing his or her half of the application requiring the principal’s endorsement of the student, a recommendation letter for the student, courses and grades for the first three years of high school, and an evaluation of the student’s course rigor, academic achievement, extracurricular accomplishments and personal character and qualities. The completed applications are due in October.

After the application is submitted, the waiting game begins again. Sometime in February, 1000 students will receive letters at their home addresses advising them that they are not advancing to Finalist. Their high school principal is also notified. Throughout February, checking the mailbox is a stressful ordeal, not only for students whose high school grades leave much to be desired, but also for the 4.0 student who worries that his course load was too light, or wonders if his guidance counselor might have written a not-so-good recommendation. Anxious mailbox stalking continues until good news arrives for the 15,000 students who will become Finalists.

The 1000 who do not advance in the competition are now “Permanent Semifinalists.” Anecdotal evidence from online forums indicates that these 1000 students often had low grades in high school. One D or a couple of Cs, even if those grades were earned freshman year, is enough to knock a student out of the competition. Other students with such grades, however, do progress to Finalist. Perhaps a compelling essay, an unusually rigorous course load, or a convincing recommendation from the guidance counselor, tips the scales.

Naming Your First Choice College. Once the 15,000 Semifinalists have been selected, decisions must be made as to which students will receive official Merit Scholarship awards. Students may log on to the NMSC website and enter the name of their first choice college or may choose “undecided.” By the deadline, however, at the end of May (or earlier for some colleges), students should have named their first choice college. Otherwise, they will not be eligible for a college-sponsored Merit Scholarship award.

National Merit Scholars. Of the 15,000 Finalists, approximately 7,600 will become National Merit Scholars. It is perhaps this moniker that is most confusing, as often the term National Merit Scholar is used for all students earning Commended Student, Semifinalist or Finalist status. In fact, National Merit Scholar is a specific designation reserved for only those Finalists who are awarded an official Merit Scholarship award. The great news, however, is that this recognition is in the hands of the student.

Official Merit Scholarship awards derive from three sources. The first source, the NMSC itself, awards $2500 scholarships. The second source is corporations, which award approximately 1000 scholarships, usually to children of employees. Currently there are about 240 corporate sponsors. The third source, and the one that is in the hands of the students, is colleges and universities. Approximately 200 colleges and universities, eager to enroll National Merit Finalists, offer official Merit Scholarship awards to 4000 students each year.

National Competition? What Do You Think? Each year, as the online forums buzz with news of the PSAT cutoff scores needed to progress to Semifinalist in each state, the National Merit naysayers complain about the broad range of qualifying scores. It does not seem fair that a 202 in Wyoming can become a National Merit Scholar, earning a 4-year full ride to college, while a 224 in New Jersey is out of the competition at the Commended Student level. The competition is not, say the naysayers, “national”.

As a parent myself, in a state with a traditionally high PSAT cutoff score, I understand the frustration. The NMSC, however, is a private non-profit corporation, and is free to set rules as it sees fit. It is, after all, giving away money to lots of students, which is much better than not giving away money, right? The competition is “national” in that each state is awarded a number of Semifinalists based on that state’s share of graduating seniors. The more graduating seniors in a state, the more Semifinalists that state will have. When all PSATs are graded, and listed from highest to lowest scores, a line is drawn at the score that will most nearly result in the correct number of Semifinalists from each individual state. Each state is equally represented on a per capita basis.

Many believe a more fair process would provide one nationwide Semifinalist cutoff score, but that would result in a greater number of Semifinalists from the high-scoring states. New Jersey, California and Massachusetts would be brimming with Semifinalists, and ultimately, therefore, National Merit Scholars, while certain other states would have few. And that, in my mind, would not result in a truly “national” competition.

The Parent’s Role in the National Merit Scholarship Competition. While hand-wringing is an excellent place to start, I have some other ideas. Stay tuned for the next installment.

Vocabulary: Still Confused? If you are gearing up for the National Merit Scholarship competition, you might as well learn the lingo.

NMSC. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation, a private non-profit entity that runs the National Merit Scholarship competition.

College Board. Administers the PSAT/NMSQT. Don’t confuse College Board with NMSC. They are separate entities.

PSAT/NMSQT. The Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Those in the know just call it the PSAT.

Commended Students. Students who score above the national cutoff score for Commended status, but below the state score needed to advance to Semifinalist.

National Merit Semifinalists. 16,000 students who meet the cutoff scores needed in their states to advance in the competition. In other words, the top scoring students in each state..

Permanent Semifinalists. Approximately 1000 Semifinalists who do not progress to Finalist.

National Merit Finalists. 15,000 students who advance from Semifinalist in their senior year.

National Merit Scholar. Any Finalist who receives an official Merit Scholarship award from the NMSC, a corporate sponsor, or a college sponsor.

Merit Scholarship award. One of the three types of official Merit scholarships awarded as part of the National Merit Scholarship competition. The three types are the National Merit $2500 scholarship awarded from the NMSC, corporate-sponsored awards, and college-sponsored awards. These awards should not be confused with the additional scholarship packages offered to National Merit Finalists by many colleges. When a large package is offered by a college or university, it usually consists of a small official Merit Scholarship award, for example $2500 over 4 years, as well as additional scholarship funds available to Finalists.

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