one person standing out from the crowd

by Chrissy Foran, former financial aid officer at Washington State University

Almost every high school student has heard of the National Merit Scholarship, a program associated with their Preliminary SAT (PSAT) results. The PSAT is a national exam that students take in their sophomore and/or junior year of high school. For most test takers, the PSAT is considered a practice SAT exam, but for the highest performers, top marks could lead to some college scholarships. It’s important to note that the scholarships awarded through the National Merit program are available only to those students who take the test in their junior year of high school.

Currently, over 1.5 million students enter the National Merit Scholarship Program each year. Around 50,000 entrants qualify for program recognition, but a much smaller number actually receive scholarships. Parents get excited when notified that their student is a National Merit Semi-Finalist or National Merit Finalist. While this title garners prestige and certainly looks great on a college application, often this distinction does not yield any money, leaving many families confused about the process.

How the National Merit process works

When your student takes the PSAT exam and scores in the top 1%, they are notified that they have progressed to semifinalist status. There are about 16,000 high scorers in this category. Semifinalists continue on and compete for a spot as a finalist, an award that goes out to about 7,600 students annually.

Finalists are considered for three types of scholarships: a one-time National Merit Corporation award of $2,500, a corporate sponsored scholarship (typically for children of employees of the corporations), and a college sponsored scholarship. With the college sponsored scholarships, schools have discretion as to the number of scholarships and amounts given. Your student may need to indicate in their finalist application that a school is their first choice in order to receive the money.

While there are some colleges that offer full-tuition scholarships to finalists, many of the more selective institutions only offer a small amount and some don’t offer any money at all. Ivy League schools don’t award any merit scholarships, which includes National Merit Scholarships. These schools have the highest achieving students applying to their institutions and would rather award need-based financial aid to assist the most students in a fair and equitable manner.

The bottom line is that it is important to do your research if your student is a National Merit Finalist. Depending on the schools they are considering, a National Merit Scholarship may not actually lighten college costs as much as you expect. You might find that your student has a better financial outcome targeting a school’s other merit scholarships—academic scholarships offered by the institution based on your student’s admission application—rather than pinning all your hopes on receiving a National Merit Scholarship.

How merit aid works

In determining merit aid, colleges look at your student’s grades, test scores (if applicable), extracurricular activities both in and out of school, as well as the admissions essay(s) and letters of recommendation. If your student is among the top students (typically the top 20-25% of those admitted), they have a good chance of being offered some type of merit scholarship. These scholarships are typically guaranteed for four years of college as long as your student meets certain academic criteria each year. Scholarship amounts vary depending on where your student falls in the applicant pool. Private schools tend to award larger merit scholarships to students since tuition costs more, so your student could potentially earn enough in merit aid at that institution, bringing costs down to that of an in-state public school. As long as your student is applying to colleges where they have an 80% chance or greater of being accepted, you may find they earn more in institutional merit aid than if they received a National Merit Scholarship.

If your student isn’t a strong test taker or has an off-day, don’t despair. While the National Merit Scholarship looks great on an admission application, it may make more sense to focus time and energy on the institutional merit scholarships schools can offer. You may be surprised at the outcome!

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Written by Chrissy Foran
Chrissy Foran is a member of College Coach’s team of college finance experts. Prior to joining College Coach, she worked as a financial aid officer at Washington State University, Carrington College, and Gonzaga University. Visit our website to learn more about Chrissy Foran.