Schools Enrolling Most 2021 National Merit Scholars

The 2020-2021 National Merit Annual Report is out. As I’ve done in years past, here’s the colleges who enrolled the most Class of 2021 National Merit Scholars — number of 2020 scholars following:

Rk. School 2021 2020
1 University of Florida 382 342
2 University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa 281 223
3 University of Chicago 269 241
4 Texas A&M University 253 195
5 University of Southern California 226 316
6 University of Texas at Dallas 219 197
7 Purdue University 192 127
8 Harvard University 179 183
9 Massachusetts Institute of Technology 158 159
10 Northeastern University 157 130
11 Stanford University 146 172
12 University of Pennsylvania 145 142
13 Vanderbilt University 129 214
14 University of Minnesota Twin Cities 127 112
15 Yale University 120 164
16 Arizona State University 114 99
17 Georgia Institute of Technology 112 95
18 University of Central Florida 107 83
19 University of Maryland, College Park 98 69
20 University of California, Berkeley 95 96
20 University of Michigan 95 65
22 University of Texas at Austin 92 79
23 Duke University 90 121
24 University of Oklahoma 88 91
25 Emory University 86 79

Biggest gains and losses, 2020 to 2021:

Rk School Gain 2021 2020
1 Purdue University +65 192 127
2 University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa +58 281 223
2 Texas A&M University +58 253 195
4 University of Florida +40 382 342
5 University of Michigan +30 95 65
6 University of Maryland, College Park +29 98 69
6 Case Western Reserve University +29 75 46
8 University of Chicago +28 269 241
9 Northeastern University +27 157 130
10 University of Central Florida +24 107 83
Rk. School Loss 2021 2020
1 Northwestern University -158 58 216
2 University of Southern California -90 226 316
3 Vanderbilt University -85 129 214
4 Yale University -44 120 164
5 Duke University -31 90 121
6 University of Notre Dame -30 33 63
7 Princeton University -27 81 108
7 University of Kentucky -27 38 65
9 Stanford University -26 146 172
10 University of Georgia -24 45 69

All this taken from my massive National Merit spreadsheet, for anyone who wants to do a really deep dive.

Biggest gains and losses, 2016 to 2021:

Rk School Gain 2021 2016
1 University of Florida +224 382 158
2 Texas A&M University +131 253 122
3 University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa +126 281 155
4 University of Texas at Dallas +100 219 119
5 Northeastern University +76 157 81
6 Purdue University +67 192 125
7 Georgia Institute of Technology +57 112 55
8 University of South Florida +45 57 12
9 University of Maryland, College Park +43 98 55
10 Florida State University +38 60 22
Rk. School Loss 2021 2016
1 University of Oklahoma -191 88 279
2 Northwestern University -110 58 168
3 Vanderbilt University -91 129 220
4 Baylor University -70 10 80
5 University of California, Berkeley -66 95 161
6 University of Kentucky -61 38 99
7 Harvard University -54 179 233
8 Princeton University -36 81 117
9 Stanford University -33 146 179
10 Yale University -27 120 147

What might also be interesting is most national merit winners as a % of total enrollment, but I am too lazy to do the math.


Me too. But I expect the private elites to be at the top of that list.

Spot-checking the most likely candidates for highest percentage: Looks like UChicago is #1, north of 15%. Pretty confident MIT is #2, with around 14%. Harvard I think is #3, about 10%. Harvey Mudd’s up there, north of 9% (tiny freshman class of ~220 helps). Stanford’s around 8%, as is Cal Tech (another tiny class). Couldn’t find any others north of 7%.

For 2023, I think Tulsa has a good chance of beating out Chicago and MIT for the top spot.


Several schools with fewer National Merit Scholars than I would have expected:

  • Virginia Tech: 4
  • WPI: 3
  • University of Maine: 3 (despite offering a full ride)
  • Reed College: 3
  • Wellesley College: 2
  • UMass: 1
  • UT-Arlington: 1 (despite offering a full ride)
  • George Washington: 0
  • NJIT: 0 (despite offering full tuition)
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very confused about chicago. their publicized NMF scholarships are only 2-4k? That doesn’t seem enough to attract so many kids. Are they quietly giving more $$ to get them?


The school does meet full need for all and uses the FAFSA and a teeny Chicago financial aid form. This definitely benefits some students…especially those with higher income non-custodial parents.

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Schools like UChicago don’t need to provide financial incentives via merit scholarships (Chicago technically does give out a very limited number, but these usually go to local area, highly desirable applicants).


Interesting as always. Because there are essentially 3 categories of schools when it comes to their policies with regard to National Merit scholarships, it is like comparing apples to oranges to bananas, but still very interesting! Fun to track individual schools over time and try to figure out what is driving the trends.

The 3 categories, as I see them, are the following:

  1. Schools that give nothing for NMF status. Therefore the only National Merit Scholars a school like this will have are those who a) became a NMS by receiving one of the ~2500 scholarships directly from NMSC (these are given to the strongest NMFs in each state as determined by a holistic evaluation) or b) became a NMS by receiving one of the ~800* scholarships from a corporation.

These schools may have many more NMFs than NMSs. Perhaps 3-4x as many. These are students who would have become NMSs if only their schools offered school-sponsored National Merit scholarships, but they don’t. I think of them as having “hidden” NMSs. The Ivys, MIT, Caltech, Stanford and Williams are examples of schools in this group.

  1. Schools that give trivial National Merit scholarships ($500-$2,500 per year). This small amount of money is not enough to lure away a NMF from a competitor school, but since it is technically a National Merit scholarship, it converts each of their NMFs into a NMS which can then be announced in press releases.

In these schools, essentially every eligible NMF becomes a NMS, “inflating” their numbers in comparison to schools in the first category. Schools that operate this way include UChicago, Northwestern, Bowdoin, Carleton.

  1. The “Big Merit” schools. These schools give large amounts of money (10K,20K, half tuition, full ride etc) to NMFs who enroll. This accomplishes 2 things: a) Lures NMFs away from competitors b) converts each NMF into a NMS which are then announced in press releases.

Schools in this category include USC, Alabama, UT-Dallas, Fordham. Some of these schools (e.g. USC) would likely still attract a fair number of NMFs without these policies but others (e.g. Fordham) probably would attract very few.

*I used to say there were ~1500 corporate-sponsored National Merit scholarships, but I now realize that wasn’t quite accurate. It is true that corporations sponsor ~1500 scholarships tied to the NMSC, but I just read that only ~800 of these are given to NMFs. The other ~700 are given to other high-scoring students on the PSAT (commended students for example) who have ties to the corporation such as a parent who works there or a headquarters in their hometown.

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Are there no longer scholarships funded directly by whatever organization does the NM process? Decades ago I got $2K as a NMF, but it wasn’t linked to a corporation or college (I went to a school that didn’t sponsor/give money). A friend who went to another school that didn’t sponsor/give money also got a scholarship of about the same amount, but explicitly linked to a company (Coke, if memory serves).

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No these still exist. That organization is called the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC.) As I wrote above:

“one of the ~2500 scholarships directly from NMSC (these are given to the strongest NMFs in each state as determined by a holistic evaluation)”

It sounds like you received one of these scholarships.

And it sounds like your friend received one of the corporate-sponsored scholarships. Probably your friend had some sort of tie to Coke. Examples could be a relative who works for Coca-Cola, being from a hometown that has a Coca-Cola headquarters or factory, or listing a planned major that Coca-Cola cares about (maybe business, food science, engineering etc.)

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But why are their numbers so much higher than all the Ivies?

I believe it’s because UChicago provides NMFs who’ve selected them as their top choice a small scholarship (like $1,000), therefore making them NMSs. The Ivies do not, so they only have NMSs who received awards from NMSC or corporate sponsors.

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I always thought the vast majority of finalists got the NM $2000 scholarship. Is that not the case? What is the % of finalists who get nothing and aren’t represented on the list at all?

Why would Harvards numbers go from the 300s to the 200s in 2013 while Chicago’s started to skyrocket?

I do not consider NMF, NSMF really big thing. It maybe in some states but not in others. In some very competitive states the difference can be 1 point and benefit pretty much 0. For example, DD was 1 point off. She would be finalist in previos year or in many other states… However, she absolutely did not care since she did not apply to schools that gave money for it… I get it, that it may make a huge difference for some families but given TO environment now, it probably will become less relevant in the future.


I think about 50% of finalists get nothing, and are thus not represented on the list.

This percentage used to be lower, when more schools gave merit.

I haven’t looked into the details, so I don’t know. Like @momsearcheng said, NMF/NMS is not that big a deal here in my area of NJ either. Most NMFs end up going to schools that don’t provide an NM award. So I haven’t tracked it.

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