National Merit Alternate Entry

By January 18, 2021 January 21st, 2021 National Merit, PSAT, SAT
Participating without a PSAT Score

Only 737,000 of the expected 1.7 million juniors were able to take the October 2020 PSAT. Given the increasing number of January PSAT cancelations, Compass estimates hundreds of thousands of students will miss out on the test that represents the usual entry point to the National Merit Scholarship Program.

The PSAT, though, is not the only way to participate in National Merit. In fact, class of 2022 students can easily enter the National Merit competition as long as they have a recent SAT score or take the SAT this spring. This process is known as Alternate Entry.

[For a full analysis of the ramifications on National Merit cutoffs, please see our detailed post. Students can also visit our National Merit FAQ for an overview of the program.]

  • Juniors unable to take the makeup PSAT on January 26th can still enter the National Merit Scholarship Program via Alternate Entry.
  • Students who have taken a junior year PSAT in October 2020 or January 2021 are automatically entered into the competition and cannot use Alternate Entry.
  • Alternate entrants should fill out National Merit Scholarship Corporation’s short online form even if they have not yet taken the SAT. April 1, 2021 is the application deadline.
  • There is also an NMSC PDF that explains more about the process and requirements for both PSAT and SAT takers.
  • Alternate entrants must later send NMSC (College Board code 0085) an official report from an SAT taken between August 2020 and June 2021. NMSC must receive scores by October 15th.
  • NMSC will use a student’s best Selection Index, but will not superscore. We recommend alternate entrants designate NMSC as one of their 4 free score reports included with SAT registration fees.
  • Students may not receive qualifying SAT scores until after the Alternate Entry deadline. Students hoping to achieve National Merit honors should complete the application and worry about scores later. Compass estimates that this year’s Commended cutoff will be between 206 and 208. Semifinalist cutoffs will be more chaotic than usual because of varying levels in test cancelations from state to state. Compass estimates that they will range from 206 to 223. See Compass’s Semifinalist cutoffs post for more information.
  • An ACT cannot be used to qualify as a Commended Student or Semifinalist. It can be used as a “confirming score” at the Finalist stage.
  • Alternate Entry scores are not considered when calculating cutoffs, so even the expected influx of alternate entrants will not raise cutoffs and will not prevent PSAT takers from reaching Commended or Semifinalist status. Commended Students and Semifinalists will be notified by their schools in September. Alternate entrants who submit SAT scores at the last minute will be notified later.
Art Sawyer

About Art Sawyer

Art graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where he was the top-ranked liberal arts student in his class. Art pioneered the one-on-one approach to test prep in California in 1989 and co-founded Compass Education Group in 2004 in order to bring the best ideas and tutors into students' homes and computers. Although he has attained perfect scores on all flavors of the SAT and ACT, he is routinely beaten in backgammon.


  • Avatar Nick says:

    Hello, Art.
    How would we go about finding the selection index of an SAT? Say, the received SAT score was 1500 (750 EBRW, 750 math), how would we calculate it to match the selection index? And also how would this work considering the SAT is out of 1600 and PSAT is out of 1520? Thanks.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Your score would be a 225 Selection Index — 75×2 + 75. The PSAT sections max out at 760 rather than 800, so when calculating a Selection Index, National Merit effectively caps the score at 760. In your case, the cap has no impact.

      • Avatar Nick says:

        Would that be considered unfair since SAT is out of 1600 and PSAT is out of 1520?

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          The test makers would argue that the SAT is not “out of 1600” it is “up to 1600.” What’s the difference? The analogy that I have tried to use is to a high jump competition on two different fields. Let’s say you and I both clear 6 feet on our respective fields. But you are jumping over a bar that can go to 6′ 6″, while mine only goes to 6′. The fairest solution is for us to call it a tie. You could jump 6′ 6″, but I wouldn’t have the opportunity to match it. That’s why NMSC caps each section score at 760. You can score an 800 on the SAT, but it would be considered a tie with a 760. The analogy only holds if we accept College Board’s scaling of the tests as accurate. It should be just as hard (or as easy) to get a 750 on the SAT as a 750 on the PSAT. I don’t believe that actually is true. I think it can vary with the form code. But NMSC doesn’t have a better option.

  • Avatar Robert says:

    I wish we had known about this sooner, as my HS junior took the January PSAT this week.

    Is it still possible to cancel that test result and then seek alternate entry via SATs? Having more time to prepare properly seems like a much better approach.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Here is information about how students could cancel October scores: https://www.reddit.com/r/SATACTprep/comments/jhjm3p/stepbystep_instructions_on_how_to_cancel_your/

      I provide this in the interest of completeness, but I don’t find myself able to advise it as a plan. It is a path that contains risks. Will you be able to test over that period? Are you likely to do better? Will your school view it as unethical? Just because the rules allow it does not mean that every school will feel the same about it. Alternate Entry was not created with this scenario in mind. While Alternate Entry does not require high school sign-off this year, qualifying as a Finalist does require a HS recommendation.

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