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Is the National Merit Scholarship a Big Deal?

ACT and SAT Test Prep, College Admissions, College Applications, High School, National Merit, Test Anxiety


To be named a National Merit Scholar is a recognition for which students strive – they will earn accolades from their school, their parents and their community.  But is it as big a deal as people make it out to be?  In my humble opinion, being named a National Merit Scholar is not nearly as important as it once was.  Why?

1. You really don’t get that much money.   In the 1960s or 1970s, and even when I went to college in the 1990s, the amount of money that the National Merit Scholarship can provide seemed like quite a bit relative to the cost of a college education.  Now, it is pretty insignificant.  You can expect an award of anywhere to $2000-8000, with many of the awards being a one-time scholarship of $2500.  When a private college education costing in excess of $200,000, this is not enough to make a big dent. 

There are some colleges that may offer full or partial tuition scholarships to National Merit Scholars, and you can find the list of them on pages 18-19 of the National Merit Student Guide found here:

http://www.nationalmerit.org/student_guide.pdf

These opportunities are rare, however, and the vast majority of National Merit recipients aren’t looking at receiving a ton of money as a result of winning. 

There are far more opportunities to win merit-based money through college programs like University Scholars, Presidential Scholars, and so on.  Many schools will give full rides to students who not only perform well on the ACT or SAT, but have strong grades and extracurricular activities.  Put your energy and effort into winning a University-based scholarship because that is where the real aid is. 


2. The PSAT doesn’t go on the Common Application.  Colleges are far more concerned about your performance on the SAT and ACT than they are on the PSAT since there are actually spaces for these score results on the Common Application, and no space for PSAT results.  (You can report National Merit recognition as an academic honor on the common application if applicable.)  It is fascinating to me how much more stress people feel going into the PSAT compared to the PLAN, which is the practice ACT.  Other than the relatively insignificant scholarship dollars at stake, they both serve to give you practice for the SAT or ACT respectively. 


3. Understand that your school wants you to make them look good!  Because of the association that adults have with the National Merit recognition and significant scholarship money and academic quality, high school administrators know that having National Merit winners will help their public relations and reputation.  (Take a look at some private school websites and see how frequently they use this as a marketing tool!  Also, do a search of “national merit” on http://www.google.com/news to see how high schools love to play this up.)  As a result, they may overly emphasize the importance of high performance on this test, making you think it will make or break your entire future.  Know that they have an agenda, and don’t let their worries cause you concern. 


4. As our country has shifted its educational focus, the National Merit Scholarship has become less important.  I was fascinated to learn that the National Merit program began in 1955.  This was right at the beginning of the Cold War, and 2 years before the Sputnik Launch by the U.S.S.R.  The U.S. was paranoid about its competitiveness with respect to the Soviets, and was reforming its educational system to emphasize math, science and to give highly intelligent students the tools they needed to develop technology that would enable the U.S. to be the best.  The National Merit Scholarship enabled students with high scholastic aptitude to attend great universities at much lower cost, empowering them to focus on their academic development and become the scientists, engineers and inventors who would ensure American preeminence.  It is no wonder that people who grew up in this era believe the National Merit program to be of extraordinary importance, because it once truly was. 

With the Cold War over, the shift in American education is towards inclusion and diversity.  As a result, having one test – the PSAT – determine one’s eligibility for a scholarship is deemed by many to be way too exclusive.  In fact, the National Association for College Admission Counseling came out strongly against the use of the PSAT for this purpose: 

http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/09/22/testing

As time goes on and the memories of the cold war fade, I imagine that colleges will continue to move away from emphasizing the PSAT and National Merit process, looking more comprehensively at a student’s academic and personal attributes when making scholarship and admissions decisions.

I hope you found this article helpful!  If you did, please share it with your friends.  Thanks, Brian Stewart   


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