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Articles / Paying for College / Is Being a National Merit Finalist a Big Deal?

Is Being a National Merit Finalist a Big Deal?

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | Sept. 3, 2021
Is National Merit as Big a Deal as My Parents Say It Is?

Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash

I didn't make the cutoff score to be National Merit finalist. Does it matter?

I just got back my PSAT scores and it appears I didn't meet the National Merit cutoff. My parents want to appeal because National Merit is very important to them. I don't think it's that big of a deal, but they say National Merit makes a huge difference in college applications. Is that true? Should I be concerned that I didn't meet the National Merit cutoff, and if I should, is there a way to appeal?

Your parents — like many others — have greatly inflated the importance of National Merit. Many folks, in fact, believe that being named a National Merit Finalist means that a welcome mat will be rolled out at every college in the country ... and with a full scholarship to go with it! But, in reality, National Merit honors provide only a minimal admissions-odds boost and, often, little or no money.

Being named a National Merit Scholar essentially means that a student has top grades, tests well, and can list accomplishments outside the classroom, too. But of course, if this is true for you — or for any other candidate — then the admission folks will see all of this on your application, and they don't need a National Merit award to confirm it.

Sure, college officials do like to boast about the number of National Merit winners who enroll each year. So that's where the "minimal admissions-odds boost" comes in, but it's certainly not the "huge" one that your parents have described.

Also, many of the colleges that strong students most want to attend — such as the Ivies, Stanford, MIT, Amherst, Williams, and more — don't participate in the National Merit competition at all. And many of the prestigious institutions that do take part don't dole out any really big bucks to National Merit winners. Tufts University, for example, gives $500 per semester for NM finalists; Vanderbilt offers $5,000 per year (or sometimes less if the student has received certain other scholarships). So while these extra bucks are nothing to sneeze at, they certainly aren't the free ride that many high school students (and especially their moms and dads) may fantasize about.

There are, however, some colleges that do give major scholarships to National Merit finalists, so students who don't make the cut will lose out on these. However, they may qualify for other equally good (or even better) opportunities.

Only occasionally will students appeal a National Merit verdict, and only rarely are such appeals successful. If they are, it's typically because a hiccup in a student's GPA is due to extenuating circumstances that need to be explained. In addition, 11th graders who were not able to take the PSAT at all due to COVID cancellations, illness, or other unique situations can request an alternate means of evaluation, but it doesn't sound like this is true for you. And there is also an "escape clause" for test-takers who felt that their PSAT performance was negatively affected by some sort of atypical situation (inept proctoring, a power outage, etc.).

So "The Dean" does not recommend that you launch an appeal to the National Merit Corporation. Instead, I suggest that you appeal to your parents! That is, encourage them to relax and not stress over this. The vast majority of college applicants who get good news from first-choice colleges (even from the hyper-competitive ones) — and who win merit-aid money as well — were never named National Merit Scholars.

A version of this Ask the Dean originally appeared on College Confidential in 2010.

Class of 2022 National Merit Scores

Do your PSAT scores qualify to be a National Merit semifinalist?

Each state has a different cutoff to qualify as a National Merit Scholar, but the qualifying PSAT scores for most states fall somewhere between 209 and 221.

See how your scores compare to other members of the Class of 2022 in the CC forums.

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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