Paying for College

Choosing National Merit Top-Choice Colleges

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, 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 free ride to NMS enrollees. Here's a list of such places. It was posted on the College Confidential discussion forum by one of our thoughtful readers, 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. Go to

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

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