Many students take the PSAT in the fall of their junior year. What a lot of students may not notice is the full name of the test is PSAT/NMSQT, or Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Thus, the PSAT is not just good practice for your SATs. It’s also the first step in becoming a National Merit Finalist and hopefully, earning a $2,500 scholarship from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC).
In this article, we’ll discuss what steps you need to take to become a National Merit Finalist and compete for a scholarship. We'll also give you advice on how to write a strong application and maximize your chances of becoming a National Merit Scholar.
Here’s how the numbers break down:
Each year, about 1.6 million students take the PSAT. Of the juniors who take the exam, about 16,000 earn scores that qualify them as Semifinalists (that's around 1%). This group is narrowed down to 15,000, who become Finalists. Of this group, about 7,500 are awarded scholarships of $2,500 a year (that can be renewed each year you're in college).
This article will explain the three key steps you need to follow to win the National Merit scholarship, from meeting the entry requirements, to scoring well on the PSAT, to submitting a standout application.
Step 1: Meet the Entry Requirements
The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) requires you to have a few qualifications to even be considered for the scholarship:
You must be enrolled as a high school student, progressing normally toward graduation.
You must plan to enroll full time in college starting the fall following high school graduation.
You must be a U.S. citizen or U.S. lawful permanent resident planning to become a U.S. citizen.
These requirements will be checked with a few questions at the beginning of the PSAT.
Step 2: Score in the Top 1% of the PSAT
Becoming a National Merit Finalist is competitive and requires a top score on the PSAT. Although it varies from state to state, most students must score above 1400 (out of 1520) to qualify as a Semifinalist, which means they can compete to move on to Finalist standing.
How can you achieve a top 1% score on the PSAT? Prepare with high-quality materials. Identify your weak points and work to improve them. If the Reading section confuses you, spend the majority of your time practicing those sections. If math isn’t your thing, commit yourself to drilling PSAT Math problems. The National Merit competition uses a Selection Index that is based on your Reading, Math, and Writing test scores, so mastering all three sections is key.
Take control of your learning and study with practice questions and sample tests. This practice will also pay off later when you take the SATs in the spring of your junior year and fall of senior year.
For more info, check out our detailed guide to attaining National Merit Semifinalist status.
Step 3: Submit an Excellent Application
Complete the NMSC application requirements by fall of your senior year (usually early October). This application allows 15,000 of the 16,000 Semifinalists to move on to Finalist standing.
If you don't become a Finalist or don't qualify, you may still get word that you're a Commended Student or remain as a Semifinalist, which are great distinctions that will stand out on college applications. However, only Finalists are eligible for National Merit Scholarship awards.
The online NMSC application is the same as your college application in some ways and different in other ways.
You must submit the following:
- Your academic record (transcript)
- SAT scores*
- Information about your activities and leadership roles
- A personal essay
*You have to take the SATs on approved dates, usually in the fall of your senior year, and make sure to send along your score report to NMSC. They need to receive your scores by December 31st of your senior year. While there is no strict cutoff for SAT scores, they must be competitive like your PSAT scores (usually around 1400 or above) so they know your PSAT wasn't a fluke.
You must submit the following:
- A recommendation from your high school principal or someone the principal designates as a school official
- Information about your school’s curricula and grading system
Let's dig into each component to maximize your chance of building a strong application to win the National Merit Scholar title.
Academic Record and SAT Scores
The National Merit Corporation is first and foremost looking to award academic achievement. There is no strict cutoff, but a competitive GPA (3.5 and above) and high SAT scores (approximately 1400 and above) are recommended. Your academic record should also show that you challenged yourself with honors and AP classes. When you're a high school junior, there isn't much you can do about this, other than continue to excel in your classes.
Extracurricular Activities and Community Service
The NMC is also looking at the skills and accomplishments shown in your application. Demonstrated leadership goes a long way--for example, leading in Student Council or other student organizations.
Your activities should reveal your passions and interests--it is usually better to show “depth over breadth.” In other words, get deeply involved in a few activities you’re passionate about rather than showing minor participation in every club, team, and organization your school has to offer. Almost all activities are valuable if they show your commitment, leadership potential, and ability to work with and help others.
Recommendations go a long way. Cultivate good relationships with your teachers, counselor, and principal and provide a “brag sheet” for them with the qualities and accomplishments you would like them to include in your recommendation.
Your brag sheet may include the following:
- What six adjectives best describe you?
- What do you consider your greatest accomplishment(s)?
- What are your strongest goals for the next five years?
- What is a meaningful experience you have had during high school?
These anecdotes will make writing a lot easier, and they'll thank you for this.
Make sure to ask for your recommendation at least three weeks in advance of the deadline, and follow up with your writer to make sure it'll be submitted on time. The earlier you notify them, the more ahead you'll be of your classmates, most of whom will need college application letters.
The personal essay adds your voice to your application materials. Your essay is the place where you can share your unique story and perspective and make your application materials come to life.
Here is an example of a past National Merit essay question:
To help the reviewers get to know you, describe an experience you have had, a person who has influenced you, or an obstacle you have overcome. Explain why this is meaningful to you. Use your own words and limit your response to the space provided.
The space allows for about 500 - 600 words.
You should focus on two important components of the essay. First, the NMC wants to see that you can express yourself clearly and powerfully through writing. Make sure to proofread, edit, and revise for any spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, or weaknesses in syntax and diction.
Second, your essay reveals how you think about yourself, your accomplishments, and your goals. What do your experiences mean to you? What do they reveal about your identity? Spend some time brainstorming before you decide what aspects of your identity are most important to share with the NMC readers.
For example, did a group science fair project show you the power of collaboration in making new discoveries? Did a Student Council debate reveal the complexity of perspectives on a single issue? Did Lisa Simpson teach you the importance of sticking to your principles, even if your family may not always agree?
The topics are endless, and there is no best answer, but whatever you choose should reveal something significant about who you are. Once you have your first draft, ask a friend, family member, counselor, or English teacher for feedback on what worked and what didn’t. It’s a short essay, so make sure every sentence is there for a reason and important for telling your story.
Staying motivated and committing yourself to all these goals will put you in the best position toward becoming a National Merit Finalist. Remember, only 15,000 students (< 1%) are chosen as Finalists, and of those, only about 7,500 students receive scholarships. On a percentage basis, it's even more competitive than getting into the Ivy League, so even with all your hard work, you’ll still need a certain amount of luck!
NSMC notifies students if they have become finalists in February of their senior year. Scholarship notifications go out in March. By that time, most of your college applications will be done and submitted.
Now you just have to try to relax and wait for the decisions to come! If you complete all the steps mentioned above, you can be confident that you’ve done all you can – now hopefully the National Merit Scholarship Corporation will recognize all your hard work.
Want more tips on how to get a top PSAT score? Check out our guide on how to get a perfect PSAT score for all the info you need to know.
Are you striving for perfection on the SAT? Read our detailed guide by our resident SAT full scorer.
Aiming to get into a top-tier school? Check out our article: What's a good SAT score for the Ivy League?
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The National Honor Society (NHS) is an organization dedicated to recognizing and encouraging outstanding high school students in grades 10-12. Founded in 1921 by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, it was the first nationwide honor society and now has chapters in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and many other US territories. The National Honor Society estimates that today, more than one million students participate in their activities.
You are probably wondering what qualifies you as an “outstanding high school student” eligible for membership. And beyond that, you may question what sorts of services and activities are required of and provided to members.
Read on to find out how to get into the National Honor Society, and what you’ll get in return! If you need personalized guidance to strengthen your extracurricular profile, check out CollegeVine’s Mentorship Program for freshmen, sophomores, and juniors.
Why should I become a member?
Being a member of the National Honor Society shows that you are among the best students in your class, not just in terms of academics but also in terms of leadership, service, and character. It shows a commitment to community service projects and provides you the opportunity to network with like-minded peers. College admissions committees like to see anything that sets you apart as a top student, and this is one of them.
Additionally, NHS provides regular opportunities for you to build your leadership skills. Though not required, multiple conferences and events are available to NHS members throughout the year, including:
LEAD Conferences: Open to students in NHS, National Junior Honor Society (NJHS), and the National Association of Student Councils, Leadership Experience and Development (LEAD) conferences are held several times a year on weekends in varying cities across the country. They aim to improve leadership skills and provide networking opportunities for peers from around the country.
National Student Leadership Week: Established in 1972 to promote the value of student leadership, National Student Leadership Week is an open-ended way for schools to celebrate and recognize the importance of student leadership. On their website, NHS provides a list of suggested activities and outreach materials for planning this week.
State Summits: These local events are available only to students in NHS or NJHS, and they provide the opportunity for students to participate in think-tank style sessions with state leaders. They are designed to spark conversation with the goal being tangible solutions to real problems in schools and communities.
Finally, NHS also offers college scholarships. Any high school senior who is a member in good standing of a local NHS chapter is eligible to apply for one of the 400 scholarships awarded annually. The 2017 scholarship application will be available online on November 1, 2016 and due on February 1, 2017. More information is available here.
Who can become a member?
First of all, it is worth noting that membership in the National Honor Society (NHS) is determined at the local level. Before you find out if you can become a member, you’ll need to locate your local chapter of the NHS. This can be done with a quick search on their Chapter Finder online, or by talking with a teacher or guidance counselor.
If your school does not currently have a local NHS chapter, you can talk with your principal or an advisor about founding one. Though students are not allowed to found chapters themselves, it is a simple process and one that most administrators can navigate easily. To apply, your school will need to appoint a faculty adviser and a five-member faculty council, fill out an application form, and pay an annual membership fee of $385. If this fee is financially prohibitive for your school, check out our Guide to Fundraising where you’ll find ideas on how to raise the money yourselves.
All public and accredited private schools are eligible to establish a local NHS chapter, and all students in grades 10-12 who meet the minimum GPA requirements at these schools are welcome to apply. Unfortunately, at this time, homeschooled students are not able to apply, though part-time students may be eligible if permitted by the bylaws of their local chapter.
Is there any reason that a qualified student should not apply?
Like any other extracurricular, the National Honor Society requires time and commitment from all of its members. You will be asked to attend regular meetings, and you must participate in chapter and individual service projects. You should check the obligations of your local chapter before making the commitment if you aren’t sure you will have the time or energy to participate.
How am I evaluated for membership?
Once you have located your local NHS chapter, you will need to review their membership requirements. Each local chapter sets forth their own unique qualification requirements which must be published and available for review. Although the exact requirements for membership vary by local chapter, all are based on the same four pillars of NHS, detailed below:
National guidelines require you to be in grades 10-12 and maintain a cumulative GPA of 85 or higher in order to qualify. This is a B average or a 3.0 on a 4.0 scale. Though this is the national minimum, many local chapters establish higher standards, so you will need to check the requirements of your local chapter to see if your GPA qualifies you.
If your GPA does meet the minimum standard as defined by your local chapter, you will have the opportunity to complete a form detailing your accomplishments in the other three pillars, listed below.
Part of your application will ask you to detail your experiences in volunteer work, or other uncompensated, voluntary contributions to your school or community. Some local chapters will require you to have served a specific number of community service hours in order to qualify. These hours could be spent organizing clothing or food drives, participating in clean up days on campus, or voluntarily tutoring younger students.
Keep in mind, though, that service hours aren’t something you should be rushing through just to accumulate them as quickly as possible. You should choose service activities with value to you. For more on this, check out the advice in “Do I Need Community Service For My College Application?”
You will also be evaluated for your leadership skills. In this area, you should highlight your experiences taking leadership roles in school and community activities. This could include things like being a team captain, organizing a youth group, or being a part of student government. NHS specifically seeks student leaders who are “resourceful, good problem solvers, and idea contributors.
Finally, to gain membership to NHS, you will need to prove that you’re cooperative, responsible, reliable and honest. You should have a clean disciplinary record and show respect and courtesy to those around you.
Some chapters of NHS might require a written recommendation to vouch for your character. If you need a written recommendation, make sure to choose a teacher who has taught you in a core subject and has known you well for an extended period of time. Meet with the teacher ahead of time to discuss your goals for the application and to talk about why you feel you are qualified to become a member.
If you meet the minimum GPA requirements for your local chapter, the faculty council will meet to evaluate your candidacy based on your application. They will review each of the characteristics outlined above, and you may be accepted for membership by a majority vote of the five members.
What happens if I am denied membership?
If you are denied membership, you may appeal the decision at the local level, but the national NHS organization does not review individual appeals. You may also reapply another year. A rejection of your NHS application does not appear on your transcript or any of your college application materials.
What happens if I am accepted?
If you are accepted to the National Honor Society, you will be invited to an induction ceremony with the rest of the newly accepted members of your local NHS chapter. These induction ceremonies are typically public events as the NHS endeavors to inspire others through them. Your parents will be invited, and you can usually invite anyone else who might be interested.
Though the national office does not dictate a specific format or script for local induction ceremonies, they do dictate that such ceremonies must be “appropriate and impressive”. They also offer a number of ideas and sample programs which can reviewed in their handbook available here.
In general, the induction ceremony usually includes:
- A procession or special entrance by inductees
- Invocation or welcome from the adviser, principal, or chapter president
- National Anthem or Pledge of Allegiance
- Guest Speaker
- Review of criteria for membership
- Honor Society Pledge
- Closing remarks
Many ceremonies also include a candle lighting or other symbolic presentation. Even if you have been accepted in NHS, you are not considered an official member until you have been inducted, signed into your local chapter’s registration, and taken the NHS Pledge.
Great, I’m in! Now what?
As a member of the NHS, you’ll need to attend chapter meetings and participate in service projects, both as a group and as an individual. Though it can sometimes be hard initially to come up with new service projects and ideas, the NHS national website maintains a searchable National Student Project Database and a guide to Community Service Idea Starters.
When you begin a new service project, whether as a group or on your own, you should add your project to the database. You never know when others might want to join you, and your ideas could inspire other people, too!
Take as much advantage of your membership in the National Honor Society as you can. Attend conferences and events, organize your own events, and apply for the NHS scholarships your senior year! On your college application, being a member of the NHS is a great indicator of your academic successes and generous spirit. But being an active member is even more convincing, as it drives home your leadership skills and dedication.
For more information about community service, be sure to check out our article, “Community Service, Reimagined: MCC’s Recommendations for High School Service” wherein we summarize some of the main points about service as made by Making Caring Common, a project of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
Or, if you’re curious about how CollegeVine can help you with your college application process, head over to our College Application Guidance Program to see what we’re all about!
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.