Homeschoolers who wish to earn larger merit scholarships should take the PSAT seriously. The PSAT is the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship. While the scholarships awarded by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation are fairly small, a number of colleges offer large scholarship packages to National Merit Finalists who enroll. Colleges that offer awards include state universities, private liberal arts colleges, and Christian colleges. These awards are gaining attention in national media as some top students choose lesser known schools with large awards over some of the nation’s most highly selective colleges. One recent story featured a student who was accepted to Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and Yale but instead chose the Honors College at the University of Alabama for the major merit scholarship.
How the Process Works
Juniors take the PSAT at schools during October of their second to last year in high school, most typically junior year. Homeschoolers may register for the PSAT with local public or private schools. Late August or early September is the time to inquire about registration. Students who score well on the exam will proceed through the National Merit process. Some will receive Commended student status (which typically does not lead to monetary awards). National Merit semifinalist status is announced in the fall of the student’s senior year. Semifinalists will then complete an application including a transcript, recommendation, SAT scores, and essay. This process is open to homeschoolers and many participate each year.
Three Types of National Merit Scholarships
There are three types of National Merit awards – those awarded by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, those awarded by companies – often parent employers, and those awarded by universities. All three categories of awards tend to be fairly small (typically around $2,500) compared to the cost of a college education. The more significant scholarships come from universities who tie additional awards, such as full tuition awards, to National Merit Finalist status. Schools that offer these large merit awards do so in order to attract top caliber students.
Offers vary widely from year to year and school to school. Some schools offer a guaranteed scholarship to all National Merit finalists who select their college as a first choice. Others offer limited awards on a competitive or first come first serve basis. Awards range up to full ride scholarships that include tuition, room and board. Some schools also offer special perks such as technology stipends, books, scholarships for study abroad or undergraduate research, or automatic admissions to Honors programs or dorms. As with any “full” scholarship, students should look carefully at awards and note that often room and board awards will be for “minimum” plans so there may be some out of pocket costs.
The PSAT is a single test taken on a single day. Even top testers can really never be assured how a test will go on a given day so there is an element of luck. Also, National Merit sets different PSAT score cut offs for different states so it is much more difficult to earn the award in some states than in others.
Students should note the larger awards come primarily from more mid-tier colleges and universities. These may not be a good fit for students who are focused on more highly selective colleges. Many of these schools are also located in areas of the country that may not be appealing for some students. Also, it is worth noting that many students who are eligible for these awards may also be successfully admitted to highly selective schools that meet full financial need.
Still, these are opportunities that work out very well for some top scoring homeschooled students. Many of the schools listed below provide additional services and supports for National Merit Scholars. These opportunities can include enrollment in Honors Colleges and programs providing support for undergraduate research. Some even fund an extra fifth year of education allowing a student to make progress toward a Master’s degree. Large scholarships offer the possibility of a quality, affordable, and debt free undergraduate education. Merit awards may be particularly appealing to middle income students who often struggle most with college costs. Middle income homeschoolers may make too much for significant financial aid, but families may not have adequate savings or income to cover their expected family contribution.
Sampling of Awards
Here are some of the available for the 2015-2016 application season. Award amounts and numbers awarded change from year to year and are not always accurately listed on college websites. Students are encouraged to do their own research and keep in touch with admissions offices. This is not a comprehensive list. There are other schools that also offer substantial awards for National Merit Finalists.
Auburn University Full tuition scholarship, in and out of state, stipends covering the full or partial cost of technology, housing, enrichment opportunities.
University of Kentucky Full scholarship including in or out of state tuition, room and board, stipend, iPad, enrichment awards for research or study abroad.
University of Oklahoma Full tuition five year scholarship for in-state and out of state students, cash stipend, credit toward housing, technology and textbook stipend, study abroad stipend.
Andrews University Full tuition scholarship.
University of Alabama Five year full tuition scholarship, in or out of state, one year housing, $2,000 summer research or study abroad stipend, $3,500 stipend, and technology enrichment.
University of Central Florida Full cost of attendance for in state and out of state students. Guaranteed honors housing, perks including laptops and research opportunities.
University of North Texas Full tuition, room and board, and textbook allowance.
University of Idaho Full scholarship including tuition, fees, room, and board
Knox College Up to $22,000 scholarship for finalists, $15,000 for semifinalists
Washington State University, Four year full tuition scholarship, instate and out of state, valued up to $100,000.
Baylor University Regents Gold Scholarship covers full tuition.
Northeastern $30,000 scholarship and Honors College invite, for National Merit, National Achievement, and National Hispanic Scholars.
University of Houston: Scholarship includes tuition, fees, room, board, and study abroad stipend
Hope College National merit finalists who name as their first choice receive $18,000 scholarship
Boston University Competitive award (not every finalist receives it) up to $20,000