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Merit Scholarship

The National Merit Scholarship is an academic scholarship competition in the United States. Administered by the National Merit Scholarship Cooperation, a non-profit organization, the program gives recognition to the best and brightest high school students across the country. The Scholarship began in 1955 and holds two competitions every year. The first is open to all participants who meet entry requirements and the second is open to only African American applicants. 1.5 million students enter the competition annually through the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Applicants will then be cut down to the 16,000 students with the highest test scores proportional to each state’s percentage of graduating seniors. From there, finalists are asked to submit essays and information on extra-curricular activities, leadership awards and other relevant information. Winners will have the strongest combination of academics and extra-curricular activities and represent less than 1% of the graduating class.


To qualify for the National Merit Scholarship a student must meet the following criteria: be enrolled as a full time, high-school student seeking graduation and enrollment in college full time in the fall semester of the next year, be an American citizen or a lawful United States permanent resident intending to become a US citizen at the earliest opportunity allowed or have applied for residency with the intention of becoming a US citizen and not been denied, and must take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test in the specified year, usually 11th grade, unless documented reason for missing the test is approved by the NMSC (must contact NMSC no later than March 1). Students completing high school in less than the usual 4 years, must write the test in their last or next to last year of completion.


There are 3 rounds of competition for students participating in the National Merit Scholarship. The first round is the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. The NMSC will determine a national qualifying score which will yield students with scores in the 96th percentile, roughly 50,000 students. Scores in the 200s (out of a possible 240) often qualify but results can vary by year. Scores also vary by state and qualifying scores are higher in more competitive states. Notification of qualification will be mailed in April to the principal who then informs the student. Students who qualify, have the opportunity to inform two colleges or universities of their score from the test. The second round of competition involves only the top 16,000 students from the testing round. These students are awarded semifinalists and the rest of the 50,000 receive a letter of commendation but do not continue in the competition. Semifinalists then submit information to fulfill additional requirements, such as: SAT scores, high-school grades and courses, extra-curricular activities, volunteer work and an essay describing themselves.

From there, 15,000 students will be named as Finalists and will receive a Certificate of Merit. The third round will determine which students will receive scholarships from the NMSC. 8,000 will receive Merit Scholarship Awards, 2,500 will receive $2,500 Scholarships (awarded on a state representational basis), there are 4,600 college sponsored Merit Scholarships for Finalists who plan on attending sponsoring colleges. Before receiving an award, students must notify the NMSC of plans to enroll in an accredited college or university at the full-time level with a course of study leading to a baccalaureate degree.

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National Achievement Scholarship Program

The National Achievement Scholarship Program is similar to the National Merit Scholarship as they run concurrently and have similar rounds of competition. However, the National Achievement Scholarship Program is for African American students only, and is on a smaller scale. On average, there are about 160,000 entrants for the first round of competition. From there, the number is cut down to the top 3,000 with the top 1,600 students designated Semifinalists. The top 1,300 will then be named Finalists and 800 will receive scholarships. African American students who meet requirements for both competitions can compete in both, however, only one monetary reward can be collected and the applicant will receive the reward that is most advantageous to them.