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Student Perspective: Why the National Merit Scholarship Changed My College Decision

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Written by College Coach Guest Authoron October 11th, 2022

Bright Horizons College Coach occasionally features blog posts written by guest authors. You’ll find more information about each guest author in the About the Author section on the blog post.

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Guest post by Madysen Rauch. Madysen is a microbiology major at the University of Alabama, attending on a full-ride National Merit Finalist scholarship. Her hometown is Westfield, Indiana, where her parents, three siblings, and four dogs live. She plans to attend medical school and pursue international aid medicine or wilderness medicine. You can contact her at According to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, their program is, an academic competition for recognition and scholarships that began in 1955. Approximately 1.5 million high school students enter the program each year. I am one of those students. I wanted to share my personal story because many National Merit Finalists (NMFs) go through most, if not all, of their journey unaware of the options presented by their status. This program presented new and affordable pathways for me in my college education, opening up countless opportunities for me in the future. In order to become an NMF, students must take the PSAT/NMSQT test and achieve a score within their state semifinalist selection criteria, as well as complete a scholarship application for finalist status. However, even after a student becomes a finalist, little information is conveyed about what this status means for their college selection. Many families are surprised to learn that not all college and universities participate in NMF scholarship programs. In fact, fewer than 200 schools in the U.S. offer these scholarships, and most highly selective colleges do not provide scholarships for National Merit at all. Since NMFs are high-achieving students who often apply to prestigious colleges, they are unaware of the generous scholarships available from other colleges. In my case, I had not previously considered the University of Alabama, but I decided to apply because of their generous National Merit scholarship package. Alabama provides full tuition for up to five years, four years of on-campus housing, a $3,500 supplemental scholarship for four years, a $2,000 one-time stipend for summer research or international study, and a $500 book scholarship for four years. Meal plans are not covered, but the $3,500 yearly scholarship typically offsets this cost. After reviewing this offer, I applied to the University of Alabama as my financially safe option. By the end of the college admission process, I was considering two schools, the University of Alabama, which offered me a full ride and several other scholarships, and the University of Michigan, which offered programs unique to the field I was interested in and had an exceptional academic reputation. Michigan would have cost approximately $60,000 per year, and the programs of interest to me were mostly graduate programs, so it made the most financial sense for me to attend the University of Alabama. I could receive my undergraduate education on a full scholarship, and reserve my college funds for future graduate education. Although I initially visited the University of Alabama campus with a few doubts, what I saw was a beautiful campus with countless amenities for students and strong research programs. In the end, the quality of the school, along with the substantial financial assistance made my decision, and I committed to the University of Alabama. Advice for National Merit Scholars and their families
  • Apply for all the scholarship opportunities through National Merit, as there are National Merit $2500 scholarships, corporate-sponsored scholarships, and college-sponsored scholarships that can all be applied for through National Merit (this provides additional scholarship on top of National Merit school packages). At Alabama, I was awarded one of the college-sponsored scholarships, meaning I receive an extra $1,000 each year in addition to my National Merit package.
  • Research different offers from schools for NMFs and their respective programs in your field of interest. These are two of the most important factors when deciding on a college, and considering both of them can greatly help you in the selection process.
  • Apply to one financially safe school (such as a full ride National Merit school), because even if you aren’t seriously considering it at the time, the school could turn out to be a viable option that sets you up for future financial success.

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