National Merit : A Survivalist's Guide

As a discussion topic, the subject of intelligence and what constitutes it is so often a veritable minefield of uninformed prejudices, unconscious self-aggrandizement, often-confusing research, bad analyses, and shoddy analogies that it is a subject I will gracefully bow out of expressing an opinion about, much less pretending expertise in. Moreover, it is not an area of great interest or academic specialization for me.

Regardless of our varied perceptions of what constitutes intelligence, testing that elusive "something" occurs globally and your performance on such tests can indeed have a great effect upon people, in much the same way that the mysterious sorcery behind owning a piece of paper with a squiggle from the President of a university which proclaims that you have a college degree is able to so cloud men's minds that they are sometimes fooled into employing you.

The primary ritual of indoctrination into the secrets of the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (hereafter referred to as NMSC) is the PSAT/NMSQT. The significance of taking the PSAT is at many schools (such as the institution from which I graduated) a well-kept secret. It is my hope that this little document might enlighten the younger reader who has not yet had the experience, so that he or she might know its true importance.

The process works like this:

  • PSAT/NMSQT is taken in the Junior year of high school.
  • NMSC selects approximately 2/3 of the applicant pool as Commended Students.
    (this award can make a difference in candidacy evaluation for some outside scholarships)
  • NMSC selects approximately 1/3 of the Commended Students as National Merit Semifinalists.
    (This award can mean an outright scholarship offer from many state universities, and will probably lead you to experience a volume of mail you thought only celebrities had to deal with. Do not get inflated ideas of yourself because Harvard/Radcliffe, Reed, MIT, Caltech, Yale, Carleton, Amherst, etc. are now mailing *you*. Also, I would highly recommend against making a show of this, or even mentioning them in polite company. It is simply a matter of an economic game of supply and demand, and in that game you are a valuable commodity.)
  • At this point, you should have received a scholarship package. There is no advance notification that I am aware of - the packet simply arrives at your school, and hopefully you are informed about it promptly by your school.
    Normal things appropriate to scholarship applications will now be expected of you. Additionally, you will be required to take the SAT to confirm that your PSAT scores were not just really lucky guesses or due to some other freak accident of nature. You can also choose to send those scores off to various schools at this time.
  • Off the freshly-inked package goes across the Great Void to the NMSC. Based upon a combination of factors... either you will or will not be selected as a National Merit Finalist. Finalists, the NMSC tells us, represent the top 0.5% of any given year's graduating high school seniors.
  • As I understand it, there is no further "competition". At this point, the NMSC itself, various corporations, or your college of choice may offer you a scholarship on the basis of your Finalist application. According to the NMSC, there are approximately 8000 Finalists who will receive such an award.

So, what does it all mean?

Depending on which side you are on, it could mean nothing or a great deal. In terms of intelligence, a National Merit Semifinalist resides at roughly the 99.5% of the human population, which is commensurate with an SAT score of 1360, and an IQ of around 140. It's important to realize that these numbers become more accurate as you take several tests and obtain corresponding results. The ACT doesn't possess enough granularity to make for a reasonable comparison, so most of the high-IQ societies ignore it.

For comparison,
84.1% College graduate average
91.0% "SUPERIOR"
95.0% Average Ph.D. or M.D.
98.0% Mensa
99.5% NMSC Semifinalist
Source: The Prometheus Society. see link below.

And what doesn't it mean?

A lot! But this is a really a topic more appropriate to a node about IQ or Intelligence. As of this writing, no direct correlation has been established between IQ and socioeconomic status, for one thing. Second, above an IQ of about 130, there is no statistical correlation between creativity and IQ. The Gardnerian theory of multiple intelligences and similiar findings are also changing our conceptions of what truly constitutes that elusive phantom called "intelligence".

The world is far from rational, and its mechanisms go on despite the protestations of millions of people just like you, people to whom its stupidities and superficiality are equally evident and no less bothersome. Outright academic failure, drastic underachievement and self-destructive behavior are also commensurate with extremes of intelligence, as much as are creative work, brilliance and scholarship. Often they even come simultaneously. No one said it was going to be easy.

It's a question of survival!

personal knowledge, and experience of the process in 1997. (The Prometheus Society. I am definitely not qualified.)

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