Debunking the Process of Becoming a National Merit Scholar

by Catherine Gonzalez ’22

Source: Frisco ISD

Published Oct. 20th, 2021

Montgomery High School’s thirty 2021 National Merit Semifinalists were notified a few weeks ago and are currently working on the requirements of becoming Finalists for their October 6th deadline. 

“The biggest hurdle is honestly becoming a semifinalist because you have to get a certain PSAT score to get a semifinalist position,” said Melanie Zhang ‘22, one of this year’s semifinalists.

Juniors who are full-time high school students and U.S. citizens are automatically in the running to become a semifinalist when they take the PSAT exam. They don’t have a specific score to aim for because each state has its own selection index that changes each year, depending upon its academic competitiveness.

The PSAT scores range from 320 to 1520 points, while the selection index score calculations range from 40 to 225 points. According to McElroy Tutoring, New Jersey was tied with Massachusetts and Washington DC for one of the highest selection index cutoffs in 2021, a score of 222 out of a possible 225. This equates to a 1480 on the PSAT scoring scale, putting the thirty MHS qualifiers in the 99th percentile of all PSAT test-takers for 2021.

After the semifinalists are notified, they enter into another, more lengthy process to become a finalist. 

“It’s functionally the same thing as applying for college,” said Melanie. “[Among other things], you have to submit an essay, SAT test scores, and a recommendation from a counselor.”

According to an MHS school counselor, Ms. Ritson, school counselors also have to submit the student’s “entire academic record from 9th grade through 12th grade.” 

Despite this involved process, according to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation website, roughly 90% of the semifinalists ultimately become finalists, only eliminating one in ten.

From the group of finalists, about half are chosen as recipients of the National Merit Scholarship of $2,500. Some are also awarded a separate corporate or college-sponsored scholarship. According to, the prestige of being a finalist alone can also be beneficial.

“It’s an indicator that you are a student that colleges want at their schools,” said Melanie. 

After over 65 years of providing students a chance to display test-taking abilities and assisting them monetarily, the National Merit Scholarship Program is already preparing to continue with this opportunity for this year’s juniors.

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