University of South Florida


three students walk on campus

Number of National Merit Scholars at USF grows exponentially

By Donna Smith, University Communications and Marketing

The National Merit Scholarship program is known for its stringent selection process, which awards the distinction to fewer than .05% of graduating high school seniors each year. Scholarship recipients can choose just about any university they like, and more and more of them are choosing USF. Over the past decade, the number of National Merit Scholars studying at USF has grown from five in 2014 to 67 in 2023.

a woman and her daughter shop at the bookstore

Cameron Valdes, a National Merit Scholar from Summit High School in Newark, New Jersey, does some shopping with her mom during some free time at the National Merit Scholar luncheon

Winsome Nisbett, USF’s assistant director of High Ability & Scholarship Programs, attributes the rise in part to the services and scholarships offered at USF, as well as the university’s latest distinction of becoming a member of the Association of American Universities.

“Our national recognition has increased so much,” Nisbett said. “These students are very driven, and I think their passion benefits the entire student body. But they also get a student experience at USF that they wouldn’t get at an Ivy League school. That’s why it's so important to recruit diverse populations. They have a lot to teach each other.”

Each October, more than one million high school juniors across the country take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test – a standardized test administered by the College Board. The top 50,000 students are named finalists, with 7,140 students declared National Merit Scholarship winners. The winners get a one-time award of $2,500 from NMS, but they also have the clout to begin looking at universities that offer scholarships to National Merit scholars. 

two young men give the horns up symbol in front of a bull statue outside the marshall student center

Rishab Talwani (right) gives a "horns up" with Strawberry Crest High School senior Rushik Mangavalli while exploring the Tampa campus during the recent National Merit Scholar luncheon

Rishab Talwani, a Middleton High School senior from Tampa, has his eye on USF’s biomedical sciences program. He says USF stands out in what the university offers National Merit Scholars like himself.

“USF is recognizing potential and providing resources in an environment where I can be successful,” he said.

USF offers the Benacquisto Scholarship, which awards National Merit Scholars from Florida an amount equal to the cost of in-state tuition for all four years, minus the sum of Florida’s Bright Futures scholarship.

USF sets itself apart from many of the other participating universities by also offering a full scholarship to out-of-state National Merit winners. USF senior Matt Stoner, an NMS student from Columbus, Ohio, is finishing up a dual major in computer science and Chinese languages and culture. He says the scholarship was important to him.

“It was so nice to not have to worry about getting a part-time job,” he said. “That gave me a lot more time to study and chase opportunities.”

Most National Merit Scholars choose to enroll in the Judy Genshaft Honors College, which offers perks such as an interdisciplinary honors curriculum, meaningful hands-on learning opportunities and research experiences. The Honors College moved into a new, five-story, 85,000 square-foot state-of-the-art building in May 2023, which includes open-design classrooms, learning lofts and dedicated studio spaces for art, food and culture, music and technology.

Joy, wearing a yellow sweatshirt, holds up a yellow tumbler at the bookstore

Joy Yang looks for USF gear at the Bookstore during the National Merit Scholar luncheon

At a recent luncheon hosted by the USF Office of Admissions for NMS winners from all over the U.S., Joy Yang, a senior from Westshore Christian High School in Shermantown, Pennsylvania, said that though the scholarship is one of several reasons she would like to attend USF, the Judy Genshaft Honors College was also very attractive to her.

“Coming from a small school, I was worried about how big USF is, but the Honors College has so many community events and great advising, and it seems like a close-knit community,” Yang said.

National Merit Scholars who attend USF also receive specialized advising. As USF’s National Merit Scholars coordinator, Audra Santerre is both an advisor and a coach.

“I am passionate about helping National Merit Scholars determine and achieve their goals through individual coaching and advising conversations,” Santerre said. “I help them identify experiences they’d like to have, such as types of internships or research opportunities, and then help them break down the process and make recommendations.”

matt, wearing a maroon tee and standing in front of a group of trees, smiles

USF senior Matt Stoner, a National Merit Scholar, will graduate in May

Santerre also plans several events throughout each semester, such as socials, banquets, academic and professional workshops and a retreat – all to build community, equip them with new tools and to just have some fun and hang out with other students.

“You can learn a lot in classes, but it’s the connections, networking and experiences that you can’t find in a book or online. USF really facilitates that,” Stoner said.

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