Test Prep

5 FAQs About the PSAT and National Merit Scholar Program

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Think the PSAT is just practice for the SAT? There's actually a lot more to it than that! Getting a great score on the PSAT, specifically the PSAT NMSQT (Preliminary SAT National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test), can lead to partial scholarships or even a full ride to college. Just be sure to take this test in your junior year to be considered for the National Merit Scholar program. Read on to find the answers to some commonly-asked questions about the PSAT and the National Merit Scholar program:

Q: My son got a great score on his PSAT, but we haven't heard anything about him qualifying for National Merit Scholars. When will we be notified?


A: It's not easy, but you'll have to wait until early or mid-September of your child's senior year to hear back from the National Merit Scholarship Committee (NMSC).

Here's what happens: If your child scored well enough to qualify as a Semifinalist, his high school will be notified by early to mid-September. The NSMC will also send application materials to the high school. To be considered for National Merit Finalist status, your son needs to fill out and submit the application materials by early October. Students are notified by early February of their senior year if they qualified as a Finalist. Finalists will be notified by early- to mid-March if they have qualified to be a National Merit Scholar.

Q: I found out that I'm a Finalist in the National Merit Scholar program. Does this mean that I am guaranteed a scholarship somewhere?

A: Congratulations on becoming a Finalist – that's a huge achievement! Out of the 1.6 million students who take the PSAT, only 15,000 from that group are chosen to become Finalists, based on the application process.

However, only 7,500 students from this Finalist group (about half) are chosen to receive the National Merit Scholar title. By March of your senior year, you will find out if you've become a National Merit Scholar, in which case you are guaranteed one of three scholarships: A scholarship of $2,500; a college-sponsored scholarship; or a corporate-sponsored scholarship.

If you are not chosen as a National Merit Scholar, you are still a National Merit Finalist, which can translate into scholarship money at select schools. Colleges know that Finalists have already proven their merit, skills and abilities through the National Merit Scholar Application, which requires an essay, high school transcript, SAT or ACT scores, letter of recommendation and your extracurricular record. Yes, it does feel like you're putting together another college application, but once it's done, the Finalist status can be your ticket to winning other scholarships or grants.

Q: I received a Letter of Commendation. What does that mean?

A: Let's go back to the numbers again: Out of the 1.6 million students who take the PSAT every year, only 50,000 have high enough scores to qualify for “recognition” by the NMSC. Out of this group, about 16,000 achieve the National Merit Semifinalist recognition, which is given to students who achieve PSAT scores that place them in the top 99th percentile of their state. You're getting this letter because you are one of those remaining 44,000 students. Look at it this way: You're being recognized as a “Commended Scholar” because your score was among the top two percent in the whole country.

The NMSC website states that this Letter of Commendation is given in “recognition of their outstanding academic promise. Commended Students are named on the basis of a nationally applied Selection Index score that may vary from year to year and is typically below the level required for participants to be named Semifinalists in their respective states. Although Commended Students do not continue in the competition for National Merit Scholarships, some of these students do become candidates for Special Scholarships sponsored by corporations and businesses.”

That last part about Special Scholarships is referring to at least 1,100 scholarships each year that are given to students who do not make it to the Finalist level. So you just might be one of those lucky students!

Be proud of your Letter of Commendation, and make sure to mention this award on every college and scholarship application you submit.

Q: Can I take the PSAT before my junior year to practice for the PSAT NMSQT?

A: Although the PSAT is offered to students in three different editions (PSAT 8/9, PSAT 10 and PSAT NMSQT), each test is designed for a different grade level, and all of the tests are shorter versions of the SAT.

Only the PSAT NMSQT is designed for juniors and will be the hardest of the three PSATs. Therefore, to study for the PSAT NMSQT, you can sign up to take the official PSAT NMSQT, but know that it will not qualify for the National Merit Scholarship competition until you take it in your junior year. Or you can study by taking full-length practice versions of the PSAT NMSQT and not the practice version of any other test. You could also study by taking SAT practice tests, since the SAT and PSAT NMSQT are very similar, except that the SAT questions do tend to require a bit more analysis.

Q: How does the PSAT NMSQT compare to the SAT?

A: All the time and effort you put into studying for the PSAT NMSQT will show when you take the SAT, and the experience of taking the official PSAT NMSQT is good practice for taking the official SAT. You can see what it feels like to concentrate in a testing room for several hours at a time.

However, the PSAT NMSQT is a little bit shorter (two hours and 45 minutes) than the SAT, which lasts for three hours. This, of course, means that the PSAT NMSQT has fewer questions than the SAT and also does not include an optional essay section, which can add another 50 minutes to the SAT. 

One other major difference is how the tests are scored. While the SAT total score is between 400 and 1600, the PSAT NMSQT total score range is between 320 and 1520.