getting accepted to college

If you have a student in eleventh or twelfth grade, chances are you’ve heard of the National Merit Scholarship.  All test takers in their third year of high school are automatically considered for the National Merit Scholarship when they take the Preliminary SAT (PSAT), as the National Merit Scholarship Corporation is a co-sponsor of the exam. This non-profit organization recognizes students with the highestscores on the PSAT each year with a scholarship.  In fact, the alternate name for the PSAT is the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT).

The process for finding out if you are scholarship recipient is lengthy. Each year, roughly 11 months after a student sits for the PSAT/NMSQT, test takers are notified if they have been identified as a National Merit Commended Student or Semifinalist.  Five months after that, Semifinalists will find out if they have been selected as a Finalist. Roughly half of all Finalists each year are deemed National Merit Scholarship recipients, with approximately 7,400 students ultimately awarded the scholarship each year

So how does being a National Merit Scholarship candidate impact a college application? It fits into the process just like any other piece of the applicant’s file.  When I reviewed applications for admission, if the student included that she was a National Merit Commended Student or Semifinalist in her application, I would note it in my review but focus instead on all other aspects of the application.  Because the National Merit Scholarship recognizes students for high testing on a practice exam, and our admission requirements focused on a student’s official standardized testing, the rest of the file was much more important in our application review.

The timeline of the National Merit Scholarship identification process also makes it difficult for it to play a significant role in the college admission process, because it spans the entirety of a student’s final year of high school.  For those colleges that have application deadlines between November 1 and January 1, no student would know by the time that they submitted their application if they had advanced from the Commended Student or Semifinalist stage to the Finalist stage.  Finalist selection occurs in February of a student’s senior year and then, only in the ensuing months, the final scholarship recipients are identified.  It’s highly likely that if your student receives a National Merit Scholarship, it will occur after their college application process has been completed.

With all this in mind, I suggest taking a deep breath and focusing more on all the other aspects of your student’s college application.  At the end of the day, your student has much more control over their grades, involvement, and essays, and those factors will be much more relevant in the admissions process. I would encourage all students to go into the PSAT/NMSQT with an open mind, but understanding that it is just one very small piece in the college admission process.

Relevant Episodes of Getting In: A College Coach Conversation:

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Written by Christine Kenyon
Christine Kenyon is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Prior to joining College Coach, Christine was a senior admissions officer at Babson College and a scholarship reviewer and interviewer at UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University.