About 1.6 million students in some 22,000 high schools enter the National Merit Scholarship competition annually when they take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT). This serves to screen program entrants, measuring critical reading ability, mathematics problem-solving ability, and writing ability, rather than existing knowledge. Semifinalists are designated on a state representational basis, contingent on the total number of entrants and in proportion to each state's percentage of the nation's high school graduating seniors. Semifinalists are the highest-scoring program entrants in each state and represent the top 0.5 percent of the state's senior students.
To be considered for a National Merit Scholarship, Semifinalists have to fulfill requirements to advance to Finalist standing. Each Semifinalist submits a detailed scholarship application, which includes essays and information about extracurricular achievements, awards, and leadership positions. Semifinalists also have to have an outstanding academic record, be endorsed and recommended by a school official, and earn SAT scores that confirm their qualifying test performance. From the Semifinalist group, a certain number of students, varying from year to year, advance to Finalist standing depending on the above criteria. By the conclusion of the competition, a select group of Finalists are chosen to receive prestigious National Merit Scholarships totaling nearly $35 million. Winners are the Finalist candidates judged to have the strongest combination of academic skills and achievements, extracurricular accomplishments, and potential for success in rigorous university studies. Scholarship winners represent fewer than 1% of the initial pool of student entrants, based on official statistics released by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.