The Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) is a program cosponsored by the College Board and National Merit Scholarship Corporation.  NMSC and College Board are both not-for-profit organizations with no government financial assistance.  The merit scholarship program recognizes top students based on their performance on the PSAT/NMSQT, nationally administered in October every year. Out of the 1.5 million students who sit for the exam, honors are awarded to about 50,000 with the highest combined score on the three sections of critical reading, math and writing.

These recognized students are classified into several categories: commended, semifinalists, finalists, and scholarship winners. Of the 50,000 students initially selected, one-third are “semi-finalists,” based on state cut-offs; and two-thirds are deemed “commended,” based on national cut-offs. For the Class of 2012, the semi-finalist qualifying score was 219 for New York, 223 for New Jersey and 220 for Connecticut.  Scores ranged from a low of 205 for Wyoming to a high of 223 for DC, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Out of the 16,000 national semifinalists, 15,000 become finalists after meeting additional requirements, including high academic grades and an application essay.

Only about .5% of the original pool of test-takers become scholarship winners. The merit scholarships for finalists originate from a variety of sources: National Merit sponsored, corporate-sponsored, or college-sponsored. National Merit Scholarships consist of a single payment of $2500. Some corporations that sponsor scholarships are CBS Corporation, Dow Jones Foundation, FedEx, Macy’s Inc., and Pfizer Inc. Only about 200 colleges participate in the National Merit Scholarship program. Several colleges that are actively involved include Carleton College, Northwestern University, Rice University, University of Chicago, UNC, and Wash U. in St. Louis. (National Merit Student Guide) Colleges in the Ivy League do not participate in NMS, as they do not offer any merit-based financial aid. In addition, every year about 1300 National Merit participants who are not Finalists receive Special Scholarships provided by businesses.

University of Oklahoma is an example of an institution that sees enormous value in attracting National Merit scholars, enrolling about 200 per year. Dean of the Honors College, David Ray, states “Having these kinds of classmates motivates other students, it elevates class discussions, it’s a recruiting tool when we go after new students or faculty.” (NY Times)