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Making the Leap from PSAT/NMSQT to National Merit Scholarship Finalist

By October 24, 2016December 10th, 2018National Merit, PSAT


What is the PSAT/NMSQT, and How Does a Student Qualify for Preliminary Eligibility?

In October 2018, 3.5 million high school students (juniors and sophomores) took the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT®), and 1.6 million will meet eligibility requirements for the National Merit Scholarship.

According to the Fall 2018 National Merit Scholarship Program Student Guide, a student must meet the following criteria to qualify for preliminary eligibility:

  1. Be enrolled as a high school student progressing normally toward graduation by 2020
  2. Be a citizen of the United States; or be a U.S. lawful permanent resident (or provide documentation that you have applied for permanent residence or citizenship)
  3. Take the PSAT/NMSQT® no later than the third year in grades 9 through 12

On the day of the PSAT/NMSQT, students are asked whether or not they meet each standard for preliminary eligibility, and more than half of students meet these standards. However, if a student does not meet the standards, her PSAT/NMSQT score report will include an asterisk next to the “Selection Index” field. An asterisk means the student is ineligible for the scholarship.

How Many Achieve “Commended” and “Semifinalist” Status?

Of these test takers, 50,000 students will be recognized for their high scores, and in April 2019, the National Merit® Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) will perform an eligibility check with high school principals.

In September 2019, 34,000 students of the original 50,000 high scorers will be named Commended Scholars in recognition of their outstanding academic performance, but they will not move to the next round of the scholarship competition. However, 16,000 of those 50,000 will qualify as Semifinalists, the highest-scoring entrants in each state.

[Read our post about Class of 2020 National Merit Semifinalist cutoff scores]

How Do Semifinalists Qualify for “Finalist” Status?

In February 2020, 15,000 students will advance to Finalist standing. To qualify for potential Finalist status, a Semifinalist must meet the following criteria, according to the Student Guide:

  1. continue to meet the three program entry requirements stated earlier in this post
  2. be enrolled in the final year of high school and planning to attend college full time the following fall semester
  3. complete the National Merit Scholarship Application with all required information and an essay (application materials are provided through by student’s high school)
  4. have a record of very high academic performance throughout high school
  5. be recommended for National Merit Scholarship by the high school principal
  6. take the SAT® or ACT® and earn scores that confirm the PSAT/NMSQT performance
  7. provide any other requested documentation and information

If you’re a high school freshman or sophomore who’s wondering how to prepare for the PSAT/NMSQT®, visit our PSAT test prep page. For a more comprehensive look at the National Merit “funnel,” please visit our FAQ page, and for further questions about National Merit Scholarship eligibility, please visit the National Merit Scholarship Corporation website.

Updated December 10, 2018

Matty Steiner

Prior to joining Compass, Matty obtained their MA from the University of Chicago and a BA from UC Santa Cruz. They have over a decade of experience in the field of test preparation, having worked as an instructor, consultant, and keynote speaker on the topic of admission testing.

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