NM students testingIn just a couple more weeks, we will find out if our 17-year-old son was able to go from National Merit Scholar semifinalist to finalist. Regardless, we’re so proud of him. It has been a lot of work for both of us actually, but it comes with the possibility of a small scholarship from the National Merit folks and as much as full tuition or a full-ride (tuition plus room and board) from some universities.

The process is pretty involved and took a lot to understand what was needed, and there’s a lot I wish we had known before we started, so I thought I would spend the rest of this post giving a rundown on how the whole thing works so that other homeschoolers can go into it with more knowledge than we had.

I believe it’s safe to say that the National Merit Scholar program is the biggest merit scholarship program in the country. The first step is to take the PSAT as a junior. No, wait. The first step is to study for the PSAT or just study for the SAT as the PSAT is a shorter and somewhat easier version of the SAT. Taking it as just a practice as a sophomore is actually a good idea, especially if standardized tests are not part of your children’s life, but it only “counts” for the scholarship program when it is taken as a junior. The goal of the test is twofold: An opportunity to get a feel for the SAT and the entrance into the National Merit Scholarship contest. If a student does really well–about the top 1% in one’s state–then he gets a letter saying he is being considered for the semifinalist step.

So here are the steps I would suggest for the whole process:

  1. You can sign up to take the PSAT at your local high school. Our high school started the sign-up process in August. Unlike the SAT, you cannot sign up on the College Board website. There’s a $17 fee to take the test. They will give you a study booklet when you sign up.
  2. If your child is taking it as a sophomore just to get a feel for the test, I suggest just using the study booklet.
  3. If your child is taking it as a junior, go ahead and get the College Board’s bluebook here. Rather than studying one thing for the PSAT and another for the SAT, this will give him a jumpstart on studying for the SAT, which he will probably take in the spring anyway. There are lots of other books out there on the SAT, but after trying a couple others like Barron’s and Princeton’s we found that this really was the best one. Be careful, though. As of the spring of 2016, they’re going to change the SAT significantly. I’m not sure when the change to the PSAT will take place or if it will, but if you’re close to that time, see if there’s a newer Bluebook than the 2012 version that goes with the updated test.
  4. I suggest adding a practice test to your child’s list several times a week and just make it a regular part of homeschooling. Now, this is a massive book, but after getting a feel for how the test looks near the beginning of the book, the most important thing your child can do to score well on it is to take practice tests. Have him take a practice test from one section one day, and then the next day he can grade it and find out what happened on the ones he got wrong so that the next time he gets that type of question, he can get it right. Mostly focus on just doing and checking one section a day until a few weeks before the test.
  5. In the weeks preceding the test, have him take a couple complete PSAT tests all at once. I think half the difficulty of the PSAT and the SAT is the marathon of testing all at once for hours on ends. He should recreate the real test as closely as possible, including the breaks between subjects. If I recall correctly, there are 2 sections and then a 5-minute break.
  6. One more thing that might be an issue for homeschoolers–my son said the hardest part of the test for him was filling in all the demographic info at the top! He wasn’t used to the bubble-in stuff, and that took him a long time. I suggest practicing this at the same time as the full test. The Blue book has these at the beginning of the test.Also, make sure he knows the homeschool code to put in place of the high school code everyone else will be putting in the demographic information. He’ll have to memorize it or ask the proctor for it as he can’t have any paper with him.
  7. Also, for the last few days before the test, have him get up at the same time as he will for the test and eat good healthy foods. Salmon tops my list for brain food.
  8. This is just common sense, but have your child pack his backpack with everything he’ll need the day before. Make sure to include extras–an extra calculator, lots of sharp pencils, a water bottle, and some snacks. The calculator should be a scientific calculator or a graphing calculator, but it should be one that your child is very familiar with.
  9. Take the test.
  10. Relax.
  11. A couple months later, he’ll get the results of the test.
  12. If he took it as a junior and if he scored above a certain threshold, then the National Merit folks will let you know to expect further information from them for the next step the following September. This would be a good time to think about who to ask to write a letter of recommendation if your son or daughter does become a semifinalist. It’s actually more than a letter of recommendation. It’s also a statement certifying that he is an overall excellent student from an outsider. Ideally this will be someone who has taught your child other than you.
  13. Another thing to do at this point: If you don’t already have a transcript, start making one. You’ll need it to move from semifinalist to finalist.
  14. Regardless, the information that they send on test results is quite helpful for figuring out what to focus on when studying for the SAT.
  15. The following September, you’ll get a letter to let you know if your student moved on to the semifinalist level. That means he scored in the top 1% of all test takers in your state. The scores for that range from about 212 to 230 depending on the state, and if you add a zero to the end of that, it correlates to an SAT score, so if your son or daughter scored 214 on the PSAT, that’s like getting a 2140 on the SAT.
  16. If your student did become a semifinalist, there’s a lot of work to do. The due date is in early October to fulfill the requirements for becoming a finalist, and that’s where the big rewards are, though being able to say you are a semifinalist is also a big kudo for college applications.
  17. For the application for finalist, your student will have to write an essay similar to the types that are used on the Common App. In fact, depending on the topic, it may be possible to use the same essay for both, and since he’ll be polishing this again and again, that’s well worth it. Our son was able to use variations on the same essay for National Merit as well as for his Common App and for QuestBridge.
  18. He’ll need to list you as the principal of his school, and he’ll need that outside recommender as well. Make sure to get those done as soon as possible so the recommender has enough time and so you do too.
  19. As the “principal,” it will be your job to enter all the classes your student has taken along with the grades for them. Decide ahead of time if you want to include weighted grades or not. I said no and then regretted it. The standard method for weighting grades is to add another 0.5 points for an honors class and another 1 point for college classes. I’ll try to post about transcripts at some point. I definitely recommend starting on this as early as possible. It’s a little confusing (at least it was for me), and there’s a lot to do. The good news is that the folks at the National Merit Scholar office are very helpful and available by phone (but not by email, interestingly enough).
  20. Once all the steps are completed and submitted, there’s just one more–choosing your first-choice college. Whether or not your son or daughter becomes a NMS finalist may change where he goes to college. Interestingly, most of the really elite colleges don’t participate in this scholarship program. That doesn’t mean National Merit Scholars don’t go to those colleges, and it may still be a help in gaining admission to them, but they don’t give scholarship money. Most of them focus their financial dollars on financial aid for students whose parents are not wealthy. Most of the state colleges we have looked at do compete for National Merit Scholars by offering them big scholarships, and my alma mater, University of Dallas, offers a full tuition scholarship for finalists. Some colleges like Oklahoma State University and University of Texas at Dallas offer a full ride. That means that they cover not only tuition but room and board as well. There are lists about the internet that show what universities offer what, but the best way to find out for sure is by going to the university’s websites. The deadline for a first-choice college is March 1st, and this is really important. The university will only give you the scholarship if you listed them as your first choice.

That’s about it. I don’t think I’ve ever made a 20-point list on my blog before, but this should be enough to at least get you started in the right direction. If you have any questions or think I left something out, please let me know, and say a prayer that JP becomes a finalist!