National Merit Scholarship Tips

In existence since 1971, the National Merit Scholarship Program offers one door to open for scholarship opportunities. The PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test), taken the junior year of high school, qualifies a student for this competition. The National Merit Corporation receives all PSAT scores of juniors (approximately one million last year), and the competition begins.

The PSAT is given the third Tuesday or Saturday in October. Registration must be done through a high school. It is school officials’ prerogative to allow home schoolers to participate at their site.1 (Our public school contact is the guidance counselor.) The tests must be ordered, so you should contact your local school as soon as possible to inquire. We have paid $10.00 for the test, but schools can set their own fee for administering it. Home schoolers have a specific code in each state; the Texas code for PSAT, SAT, and AP is 994499. Assure your school contact that your child’s score will not be calculated with their students’ scores.

Students of all ages may take the PSAT. In our hometown all public school sophomores must take it for practice. I would recommend having your children take it at least once prior to their junior year, if possible. Taking it early acquaints them with the flow of the whole process and may reduce test anxiety when the scores really count. The score report will allow you to gauge areas of needed study and to work on appropriate test-taking techniques.

There are ways to grease the hinges on this door of opportunity. Visit your local high school to register and to get a copy of the PSAT/NMSQT Student Bulletin. In addition to good information, it contains a full-length practice exam. Most large bookstores carry test preparation books. The writing section of the PSAT is different than SAT1 Verbal, and practice is helpful. Computer programs are also available.

The determining factor in qualifying as a semifinalist is the Selection Index score. This score is the sum of the three scores from the Verbal, Math, and Writing sections of the test. Each state varies in its cut-off score. Out of a possible 240 points (80 points x 3 subtests), the qualifying score for semifinalist in the state of Texas for 1999 was 214. The index score must be in approximately the top 2% of the state to continue in the competition.

The National Merit Corporation notifies 16,000 students in late August that they have achieved Semifinalist standing. A list of Semifinalists is sent to four-year U.S. colleges/universities and also to local newspapers for publication in September. Then the paperwork begins, and your mailbox begins to fill with college materials. You will need to have good records of all your child’s accomplishments and some great folks upon whom to rely for a letter of recommendation.

Semifinalists qualify as finalists by completing the Merit Scholarship application, which includes a complete high school transcript, Activities/Awards/Leadership Positions section, school recommendation, and self-descriptive essay. We were fortunate to have an incredible Advanced Placement (AP) English teacher as a source for the school recommendation. A hint for a great letter of recommendation is to give your recommendation writer a brag sheet about your child. This will allow him to comment on specific attributes and contributions your child has made. This letter is very important; the committee wants to see a big picture of your child. I was told that I could write the recommendation myself as a home school educator, but I preferred to choose a more unbiased source.

Check to be sure that the materials have been received. I called the corporation to verify that my son’s materials were in the system because I had learned a hard lesson from another scholarship process. When I called to see if my son had won (after the decisions had been made), I was told he was not in the computer and that his application must have gotten lost in the mail. In the future, I will always make follow-up calls to assure receipt of materials.

Students must also take the SAT1 within certain time parameters and earn scores that confirm the PSAT performance. Our students have always taken the November SAT1 while still primed from the PSAT preparation. At this point, the corporation sends great information specific to home schoolers about how to proceed with completing the paperwork required. If you make it to the semifinalist stage, be sure to meet all the deadlines. A National Merit Corporation vice president told me that it is painful to talk to parents who submitted data late, resulting in the termination of their child from the competition.

From the 16,000 Semifinalists, 15,000 students advance to the Finalist standing. Certificates of Merit are sent to these students in February. From the 15,000 Finalists, 7,900 Merit Scholars are chosen.

There are three types of Merit Scholarship awards: National Merit $2,500 scholarships, corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarships, and college-sponsored Merit Scholarships. All Finalists are considered for the 2,500 National Merit $2,500 awards. The 1,200 corporate-sponsored awards have certain criteria Finalists must meet in order to be considered. There are 4,200 college-sponsored awards for Finalists who plan to attend those institutions.

In late January, a committee of experienced college admissions officers and high school counselors meets to choose the winners of National Merit $2,500 scholarships. Committee members evaluate each Finalist’s academic record (course load and difficulty level, depth and breadth of subjects studied, and grades earned); scores on PSAT and SAT1; the student’s essay about attainments, interests, and goals; demonstrated leadership in significant activities and contributions to the school and community; and the school’s written recommendation and characterization of the Finalist. In March, the corporation notifies students who are chosen as National Merit Scholars and corporate-sponsored scholarship recipients. The college-sponsored winners are notified in April through June.

The PSAT is utilized by the College Board as a conduit for colleges and universities. Through its Student Search Service, the College Board enables colleges to mail information to students who meet certain criteria and who may be interested in the programs and in majors they offer. Students may check the Student Search Service option on the PSAT exam form to take advantage of this service. However, the College Board does not report specific scores to schools; we availed ourselves of this opportunity the junior year of test-taking.

I have two sons who became National Merit Scholars after completing this process. It seems incredible for one test to have such an impact on scholarship opportunities. Many schools promote themselves in their materials by stating how many National Merit Scholars and Finalists are enrolled. Large institutional scholarships are given as a result of this program. This can be a huge opportunity for your family as well. If your children are like mine, they will not rise up and call you blessed in the midst of test preparation. God, however, has bountifully blessed us thus far through this program.

Mary Truitt is a home schooling mother of three in Cleburne. She and her husband, Kris, served on the board of JCLife (Johnson County support group) for six years. They began homeschooling for junior high and high school in 1995.

1 Editor’s note: While the decision about whether to allow home school students to participate is up to the school administrators, the College Board has issued a letter to the school districts strongly encouraging them to allow participation by all students and even suggesting that parents might appeal through channels of authority as high as the elected school board, based on the fact that the parents are taxpayers.