National Merit Scholarship Program: Big Changes Ahead

National Merit Scholarship Program: Big Changes Ahead

The criteria for advancing in the National Merit Scholarship Program is based solely on the PSAT score.

Dr. Mark Fisher
Dr. Mark Fisher

ased on your PSAT score in October 2018 of your junior year in high school, the criteria for advancing in the National Merit Scholarship Program is based solely on the PSAT score. That is it!

Next year, there will be a change for the class of 2020. How will the criteria change?  As of now, the PSAT will still be the test for advancement in the competition for juniors next year. However, once a student advances, there is a “confirmation score” that is needed to get into finalist competition. This confirmation score is based on your SAT score. The purpose is to make sure that the PSAT score wasn’t a fluke. There are also other factors that enter the picture, which will be discussed below. So, what is the change?

Many students want to take the ACT exam rather than the SAT. They may have felt that the ACT test worked out better for them. But they still needed to take the SAT, even though they did better on the ACT. That seemed to put the ACT student at a disadvantage and appeared unfair.

Finally, for the class of 2020, the rules will change. The “confirmation score” will be based on the submitted SAT or ACT score. That is a relief for ACT participants. Progress. But the PSAT score is still the initial entry point for competition.

What is the National Merit Scholarship Program? It recognizes high-achieving high school seniors. About $50 million is given in scholarships every year. Some colleges offer lowered tuition or even free tuition for top students. There are a variety of scholarships possible. It all begins with that PSAT/NMSQT, National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. It is the Selection Index that counts on the PSAT.

Basically, the index is double the sum of the reading, writing and language scores, plus the math score. The PSAT scores are two digits, not to be confused with three-digit SAT scores. An example would be a reading, writing and language score of 65 x 2 = 130, plus a math score of 70, which is a selection index score of 200. In the state of Georgia, the estimated guess for advancing to the “commended student” or semifinalist stage is from 218 to 220. Every state is different because of the number of graduating high school students in that state.

The first step in the competition is becoming commended student. About 30,000 students will be in that category. That is the starting and ending point. But, about 15,000 students will become semifinalists. Some 95 percent of these students will be  finalists. Next year for the class of 2020, the student’s SAT or ACT score counts as the “confirmation score.” Certain academic requirements must be met, and an application completed. There is an essay, and a recommendation from the principal is required. This prevents a brilliant student who tests extremely well, but has a poor academic record, from becoming a National Merit Scholar. That would be embarrassing to the program.

From these 15,000 finalists, about 8,000 will receive scholarships from the National Merit program or sponsoring colleges or companies. What if a student is a finalist but receives no money up front?  There is nothing preventing a student from stating they are a National Merit Scholar on college applications. In fact, that is wonderful.

In late August or September, the National Merit program lets high schools know who has advanced in the competition. National Merit Scholarship Corp. provides information to the high schools, not the student, until he or she is a finalist.

Incidentally, the SAT score used for the “confirmation score” can be taken from the fall of sophomore year to December of senior year. For the class of 2019, you obviously will use your highest score. Sorry, no super scoring.

On pins and needles, when do you find out if you are a finalist? You will have to wait until February of your senior year.

Is there any possibility of obtaining a scholarship if you are not receiving money as a commended student or semifinalist? You may not have scholar status, but a college may be able to offer you a corporate-sponsored award, usually for children of employees. There are also some other possibilities. Students usually find out if they have been awarded money between March and June of their senior year.

Students commonly state that they did not prepare, at all, for the PSAT. They just took the test without any preparation. Perhaps if you are at least a good test taker, wouldn’t it be worth it to prepare for the PSAT? There are ways of preparing.

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