How the PSAT Can Help You Land National Merit Scholarship

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More than just a practice test for high school students, the Preliminary SAT (PSAT) is also what the National Merit Scholarship Program uses to determine student eligibility for college scholarships. While there are other requirements, preparing for the PSAT and improving your reading, language and math skills can help you earn valuable merit scholarships you can use to offset your college costs.

To find out what the PSAT encompasses and what scholarships you may be eligible for after taking the test (including the National Merit award), let’s look at the following topics:

Taking the PSAT to participate in the National Merit Scholarship Program
National Merit Scholarship Program requirements
Types of Merit Scholarship awards
PSAT FAQ: Scores, timelines and more

Take the PSAT to participate in the National Merit Scholarship Program

While the PSAT is normally viewed as a practice version of the SAT, it can serve another purpose: it can help you finance your education. The PSAT is also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT), and it’s a key step in qualifying for a scholarship from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.

Students can take the PSAT when they’re in high school, but to be eligible for the National Merit Scholarship Program, you need to take the test during your junior year. The PSAT/NMSQT you take in your junior year is the qualifying test for a particular year’s round of awards. For example, students who take the PSAT in the fall of 2020 will be considered for scholarships awarded in 2022.

When you take the PSAT/NMSQT, you can also take advantage of the Student Search Service from the College Board. It’s a free program that can connect you to scholarships and financial aid opportunities. To participate, just answer “yes” to the Student Search Service question on the PSAT.

National Merit Scholarship Program requirements

To be eligible for a PSAT scholarship and participate in the National Merit Scholarship Program, students must meet the following requirements:

  • Take the PSAT/NMSQT: Students must take the PSAT/NMSQT no later than their third year of high school — 11th grade for most students.
  • Be enrolled in high school: Students must be enrolled in a traditional high school or be home-schooled and make progress toward completion of school.
  • Plan to accept admission to college: After graduating from high school, students should expect to attend college in the fall.
  • Meet citizenship requirements: To be eligible for scholarships, students must be U.S. citizens or lawful U.S. residents.

Emergency exceptions

The PSAT is only held during select dates in October. If you miss the exam because of an emergency like an illness or family crisis, you may still be able to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program as long as you meet its other eligibility requirements.

As soon as possible, write a letter to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation to request alternative entry into the program. The request must be postmarked no later than April 1 after the PSAT/NMSQT was administered. The letter should include the student’s name, contact information, the student’s high school information and a brief explanation as to why the student missed the exam.

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation will respond with details on what you need to do to enter, and will send you a form that needs to be signed by a high school official.

Types of Merit Scholarship awards

  • National Merit Scholarships: Recipients of the PSAT National Merit Scholarship receive one-time awards of $2,500. Winners are selected by a committee of college admissions professionals and high school counselors. Finalists are chosen solely on merit, and not on financial background or other criteria.
  • Corporate-sponsored scholarships: Companies sponsor scholarships for children of employees, residents of the community where the company operates or for finalists with career aspirations in which the company wants to foster interest. The scholarships may be one-time awards or renewable for four years of undergraduate enrollment.
  • College-sponsored scholarships: With college-sponsored scholarships, sponsoring colleges choose finalists based on those who have been accepted for admission and who have informed the National Merit Scholarship Corporation that the school is their first choice.
  • Special scholarships: Each year, approximately 1,100 participants are selected for special scholarships by corporations and organizations in recognition of their outstanding performance on the PSAT/NMSQT. To be considered for a special scholarship, students must meet the sponsoring organization’s criteria and submit a separate entry form.

PSAT FAQ: Scores, timelines and more

What does NMSQT stand for?

NMSQT is an acronym for National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, another name for the PSAT typically taken by students in the 10th and 11th grade. Each year, the PSAT/NMSQT is used to determine eligibility for merit scholarships, which is why they are sometimes referred to as a PSAT scholarship.

What’s the best way to prepare for the PSAT?

The College Board — the organization that created the PSAT — offers free practice materials. To prepare for the PSAT, use the PSAT Guide to review test rules and guidelines, get tips on the different sections and see examples of the types of questions you’ll be expected to answer.

You can even take a practice test and score your results. It’s a good idea to take at least one practice test so you know what to expect on exam day.

When do you take the PSAT?

Students can take the PSAT/NMSQT in the 10th or 11th grade. But to be eligible for a National Merit Scholarship, they must complete the test during their junior year, typically the 11th grade. The PSAT is held nationally in mid-October. There is usually a primary test day during the week, a Saturday test day and an alternate test day later in the month for students who missed the previous test dates.

How long is the PSAT?

Including breaks, the PSAT/NMSQT is two hours and 55 minutes long. It includes a 60-minute reading test, a 35-minute writing and language test, a 25-minute math test without a calculator, and a 45-minute math test where a calculator is permitted.

How is the PSAT scored?

The highest score you can earn on the PSAT/NMSQT is 1520. There are two main sections — reading and writing and math — which is each worth 760 points.

In addition to the score, you’ll also see a benchmark for each portion of the PSAT. The benchmarks are the scores that indicate readiness for college-level work. If you score at or above the benchmark, you’re on track for college courses. If you’re below the benchmark, you may need to do some additional work in those areas before you start college.

When do PSAT scores come out?

PSAT scores typically come out in early to mid-December. In 2019, The College Board released scores between Dec. 9 and Dec. 11, depending on which state students lived in.

How do you check PSAT scores?

The College Board will send your scores to your school, and your school may send them to your parents. As a co-sponsor of the PSAT, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation also receives your scores.

If you’re wondering how to check your PSAT score yourself, you can view your own scores through the Student Score Portal.

What’s the difference between the PSAT and SAT?

The PSAT is known as the “Preliminary SAT.” It’s what students take as a practice guide for the SAT. Typically, 10th or 11th graders take the PSAT, but only 11th graders are eligible for National Merit Scholarships based on their PSAT scores.

The SAT is an admissions test assessed by colleges and universities. Schools use it to compare students from different high schools across the country and to determine your abilities and readiness for college-level coursework.

Rebecca Safier contributed to this report.

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