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Articles / Applying to College / National Merit Top-Choice Colleges

National Merit Top-Choice Colleges

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | Sept. 3, 2021

How Do I Choose My National Merit First-Choice College?

Question: How should I decide which school to put down for my National Merit first-choice college? Should I name a school where I am guaranteed admission or a more competitive one that may not accept me? I've heard that if you put down a school you'll get into for sure you will increase your scholarship potential. My top choice is UNC Chapel Hill, but I'm not a North Carolina resident, so I may not get in. Should I pick it anyway?

You have until May 31 of your senior year to make final choices about your National Merit first choice college, so you can either put down "Undecided" now or choose a first-choice college and submit a change in the spring, if you wish.

You do not increase your scholarship potential based on the school you select right now. However, in order to qualify for National Merit money from the college you attend, you may have to eventually indicate that this college is your first choice.

But, if you wish, you can wait to see where you are admitted before making a final selection. UNC Chapel Hill offers a non-binding Early Notification program. If you apply by November 1, you will have your verdict by January 31st, but you don't have to commit to UNC until May 1. So you can indicate that UNC is your top choice and then make a change if you aren't accepted.

OR ... you can write "Undecided" for now and then select UNC after Jan. 31, if you do get in.

Keep in mind, however, that the amount of scholarship aid that participating colleges and universities offer to enrolling NMS winners varies dramatically. Some schools give full scholarships while others -including UNC -offer only $1000 (or somewhat more for students with high need).

So if financial aid is important to you and you think you have a good shot at being a NMS winner, you might want to consider one of the institutions that gives a hefty scholarship to NMS enrollees. A list of such places was posted on the College Confidential National Merit discussion forum by one of our thoughtful community, so--like other info from Cyberspace--I can't vouch for it's accuracy, but it should give you a general idea of where to find big payoffs for National Merit winners.

In addition, the Carleton College website has some helpful information on how to pursue a National Merit scholarship.

Hope that helps. Good luck with your scholarship hopes and your college verdicts.

A version of this article first appeared in 2007

2021 Timeline for National Merit College Choices

The following information is directly quoted from the official 2021 Requirement and Instructions for National Merit Semifinalists from the National Merit website.

MARCH 1, 2021

A Finalist who has reported a sponsor college as first choice before March 1 will be included in the first group referred to that institution for scholarship consideration. Only the sponsoring college you have listed as your first choice will be notified.


Periodically NMSC will notify sponsors of additional Finalists who have reported (by May 31) the college or university as their first choice. Only the sponsoring college you list as your first choice will be notified.

MAY 3, 2021

NMSC will begin mailing college-sponsored Merit Scholarship offers.

    • If NMSC receives notification of a change in college choice from a Finalist after mailing a college-sponsored Merit Scholarship offer to that student, the change in college choice will not be processed and the Finalist cannot be offered another college-sponsored Merit Scholarship award. This applies even if the new choice of college is one that also sponsors Merit Scholarship awards.
    • Therefore, a Finalist who has previously reported a sponsor college as first choice but is uncertain about it may change their college choice to “undecided” to prevent being made an offer from a school the Finalist is uncertain about attending; such notification must be submitted online at osa.nationalmerit.org before May 3. The Finalist can subsequently report a firm college choice that NMSC receives by May 31.

MAY 31, 2021

Deadline date for NMSC to receive reports of a sponsor college as first choice. Because it is necessary to treat all Finalists consistently and conclude the annual competition in a timely manner, only college choice reports that NMSC receives by May 31, 2021, will be used to identify the final group of candidates to a college or university that sponsors awards.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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