Test Prep

Is National Merit as Big a Deal as My Parents Say It Is?

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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.

When admission officials see that an applicant has been named a National Merit Scholar, it essentially means that this student tests well, has top grades, 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.) but the deadline for such requests was November 15, so you've missed it.

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.

About the Ask the Dean Column

Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at editorial@collegeconfidential.com.