How Acing the PSAT Can Lead to Scholarship Money

National merit scholarship

If you’re like most high schoolers, you probably think of the PSAT as a practice run for the SAT. But this test actually has some pretty high stakes of its own.

In fact, its full name is the PSAT/NMSQT, or National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. If you get a top score on the test, you could qualify for a National Merit Scholarship in the amount of $2,500.

Plus, you could be in the running for college-sponsored, corporate-sponsored, or “special” scholarships.

For now, let’s focus on the National Merit Scholarship of $2,500. Here’s what you need to know about winning this scholarship opportunity.

1. Take the PSAT in 11th grade

Before winning a National Merit Scholarship, you’ll need to take the PSAT. Fortunately, you probably don’t have to worry about signing up for the test. Most schools across the country administer the PSAT to students in the fall of their junior year.

That being said, you might ask your school counselor if you can take the PSAT 8/9 or PSAT 10 as a freshman or sophomore. That way, you’ll get a sense of what the test is like and you’ll learn how to perform under testing conditions.

Just keep in mind that only your 11th-grade PSAT scores count toward the National Merit Scholarship. Beyond taking the test as a junior, you also have to meet a few other eligibility requirements set by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC).

These include being a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and progressing normally toward graduation. And of course, you have to be one of the top PSAT scorers in the country.

2. Score in the top 1 percent

To stay in the running for a National Merit Scholarship, you have to do extremely well on the PSAT. In fact, you need to score in the top 1 percent of scorers across the country.

So, what is a good PSAT score for the National Merit Scholarship? That all depends on the state you live in, since NMSC compares scores on a state-by-state basis. Plus, it uses its own scoring system called the Selection Index.

To learn your state’s cutoff from previous years, call NMSC at (847) 866-5100. Keep in mind, though, that state cutoffs can change from year to year. A good PSAT score for the National Merit Scholarship in one year might not qualify the next.

Plus, scoring in the top 1 percent doesn’t guarantee you a scholarship. What it does mean is that you could be named a National Merit Semifinalist, a prestigious distinction in its own right. But you’ll have to wait to move from semifinalist to scholarship winner.

3. Wait for a notification letter

If you’ve got your sights set on a National Merit Scholarship, you’ll have to be patient. That’s because you don’t actually find out if you’re a semifinalist until almost a year after you take the PSAT.

Although you’ll take the PSAT in October of your junior year, you won’t hear from NMSC until September of your senior year.

Of the 1.6 million juniors who take the PSAT, 16,000 get a letter saying they became semifinalists. Of this group, 15,000 are invited to apply for the National Merit Scholarship. If you’re one of the invitees, your next step will be to put together a scholarship application.

4. Craft an outstanding application

Your National Merit Scholarship application is similar to a college application. In addition to your PSAT scores, the scholarship committee will look at your:

  • Academic transcript
  • Extracurricular involvement
  • SAT scores
  • A letter of recommendation from a school official
  • Your response to the National Merit essay prompt

Unlike a college application, your recommendation should come from your high school principal. Spend some time getting to know your principal so you can get a thorough and personal letter of recommendation.

Along similar lines, put effort into your National Merit application essay. According to NMSC, both your recommendation and essay can go a long way toward helping you win the scholarship.

After submitting your materials, you’ll find out in the spring of your senior year whether you won the scholarship. Of the 15,000 students who apply, 2,500 win the $2,500 National Merit Scholarship. Plus, an additional 6,200 students win other types of scholarships.

You could also win college or corporate scholarships

The official National Merit Scholarship isn’t the only prize you could win for your high PSAT scores. There are three other types of scholarship prizes for students who rock the PSAT:

  • Corporate-sponsored scholarships: About 230 businesses, including Macy’s, Pfizer, and UPS, partner with NMSC to give out 1,000 scholarships. Each business sets its own criteria and NMSC helps locate students. NMSC might look for children of employees, community residents, or finalists with career plans the company supports.
  • College-sponsored scholarships: Your college could give you a scholarship if you designated it as your first choice on your NMSC application. About 4,000 students win college-sponsored scholarships.
  • Special scholarships: About 1,200 special scholarships go to students who got high scores on the PSAT but didn’t become finalists. NMSC will notify you about applying to a special scholarship, and you might need to submit a separate entry form to be considered.

For full details on how to apply for each type of scholarship, check out the official NMSC website. Whichever award you’ve got your eye on, you’ll need to ensure you earn a top score on the PSAT.

Don’t put too much pressure on winning the National Merit Scholarship

As you can see, the National Merit Scholarship is extremely selective. Plus, applying for it is a long process that spans a year and a half.

Since there’s no guarantee of winning, make sure you’re applying to other scholarships in the meantime. There are tons of scholarship opportunities across the country that could help you pay for college.

You might get a scholarship for your academic achievements or community service work. Or you could find random prizes that reward you for being left-handed or having an unusual hobby.

Make the most of scholarship search engines, and apply for opportunities far and wide. Instead of placing all your eggs in the National Merit Scholarship basket, seek out alternate sources of funding.

That way, you’ll reduce the amount you have to pay for college and, hopefully, avoid taking on too much student debt.

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