The Fat Envelope
A Discussion Of All Things College Admissions and Test Prep
It's the eve of the PSAT for many high school juniors.  As I've already covered in a previous post, the PSAT is intended to be practice for taking the SAT.  But for juniors, it's the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship competition.  The words "National Merit Scholar" have become the stuff of legend, but there's a lot of misconceptions out there about it.  But in general, for almost all of the high school juniors taking the PSAT tomorrow, National Merit isn't what it's cracked up to be.  Why?  Read on.

First, it's just about impossible to win one of the scholarships.  The National Merit Scholarship Corporation awards 9,700 scholarships to students annually. That sounds like a lot until you consider that over 1.5 million high school juniors took the PSAT last year.  That means that only 0.006 percent of the students taking it will actually earn the scholarship.  A larger number of students (40,000 in the top 3% of scores) will be recognized as National Merit Commended students, Semi-Finalists or Finalists.  While there is some prestige in this recognition and it looks nice on a college application, there's no money involved. 

Second, the value of being named a National Merit Scholar in the admissions process isn't as much as you might think.  National Merit Scholars self-select themselves into applying to the most selective schools in the country.  I'd bet that just about every one of them has Harvard on the list.  The award just isn't going to distinguish you from other students, unless you're applying to a less selective college.  And from personal experience, they turn down National Merit Scholars all the time!  Excuse me tooting my own horn, but I was waitlisted at Duke (my eventual alma mater), and admissions told me they had waitlisted at least eight other National Merit Scholars.  A lot of good it did me!

Finally, the money just isn't anything to get excited about.  The majority of the scholarships are $2,500 one-time awards from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.  The rest are awarded by corporations or colleges that may offer multiple-year scholarhips in larger amounts.  It's not enough to make or break anyone's college dreams.  And again from personal experience, my college simply deducted the $2,500 award from the grant money they would have given me anyway. 

A National Merit Scholarship is an achievement, but it's actual value doesn't come close to the challenge of winning one!

For another take from Akil Bello of Bell Curves on the good things about the PSAT and National Merit, be sure to check out his blog.
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