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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.

18 Comments

  • Hisham says:

    College Board made a mistake and did not send my son’s scores even though he requested that they do so. He scored 1520 in the SAT (PSAT was not offered due to the pandemic). Is there anyway to correct this? At the very least can he be added to the list of those considered even though he might not get the scholarship. It is so disappointing to have a mistake like that derail someone’s ambitions.

  • Victoria says:

    My son scored 1220 on PSAT in 2019, which was much lower than we expected, however, he did not prepare at all. He took the SAT three times scoring 1380 in January, 1450 in May and 1520 in August. I was not aware of the alternate entry option. I assume he will not have any chance of any type of National Merit Scholarship? Would his school counselor have applied for him?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Victoria,
      I assuming your son is in the class of 2022. He would have needed to complete an application by last April. PSAT takers are automatically considered, but SAT takers are not.

  • James says:

    My Daughter entered her 1570 SAT score and made it to Semifinalist. Does she still have to confirm her score with an additional SAT or ACT score?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      James,
      It’s hard to imagine NMSC requiring a second test from AE candidates, but I don’t recall seeing this addressed in their materials. I would recommend giving NMSC a call if you want to be 100% certain.

  • James says:

    Art-

    Thank you for all the insights posted online. My daughter is applying to be a National Merit Scholar through alternate entry in Iowa using the SAT, and just received a score of 1500 (750 EBRW, 750 Math). According to what your posts have indicated, it would equate to a 225 Selection Index. She remains nervous about making the cutoff based on chatter at school, and was tentatively considering a retake, as she knows she can score better. Are her fears warranted in your view? Also, if you had any comments to share on the criteria considered in making it from semifinalist to finalist, it would be appreciated. Thanks again.

    James

    • Art Sawyer says:

      James,
      I need to clarify my own posts (doh!) and say that NMSC caps the EBR and W scores independently. So, for example, if your daughter got a 40/35 to reach her 750, then that would be a 38/35 in PSAT terms. This means that her SI could be lower than 225.

      Unless a student is in need of one of the large school-sponsored scholarships, I wouldn’t recommend retesting solely for National Merit. If your daughter is otherwise thinking about boosting her scores for her college applications, then it certainly won’t hurt her NM chances (since NM will look at her best scores).

      NMSC does not assign weights to the components in the Finalist competition, but a student’s academic performance is likely to be the most important factor this year (since Alternative Entry students will have a confirming score by default). We may never know if NMSC decides to put more weight on recommendations this year.

  • Vas S says:

    Hello Art,

    PSAT scores for Jan 2021 came out this morning and I am perplexed.
    My daughter obtained a score of 1390 (720 EBRW, 670 M).
    Report says she is in 99th percentile (99 EBRW, 96 math, 99 for composite)
    Your article previously on January 2021 indicated 3% scored in 1400-1520 in October 2020 and your expectation per that article was that 1400-1520 would place in the top 3 percent. But my kid’s report clearly states that her score is in 99th percentile.

    Secondly, her raw score was 43/48 in math (16/17 in no calculator, 27/31 w/ calculator).
    I am struggling to understand how the scaled score is 670/760 for missing 5 questions in total.

    I am not able to find how raw to scaled score conversion table looks for January 2021.

    Any insights you can provide will be invaluable.

    We assume with a score of 211 (72*2 + 67), she will not qualify for the semi finals (we live in FL) although I am again surprised about the 99th percentile indication.

    Thank you very much for replying to my question.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Vas,
      The percentile that College Board highlights is the National Percentile, which represent a theoretical ranking based on every student in the country — including those who didn’t take the test. There is also a User Percentile based on students who take the test. That percentile uses historical figures from the 2017 – 2019 exams. For User Percentiles, a 1390 would be 96th percentile. Your daughter is likely to be a Commended Student.

      Test scaling is designed so that — in theory — a given scaled score means the same on one version of an exam as it does another. It’s impossible for College Board to build perfectly parallel forms, so it may be easier or harder to get 43 questions right on a given day. Scaling should adjust for that — sort of in the same way that the par of a golf course adjusts for how difficult it is. The Math test your daughter took had relatively easy questions, which means that the scaling was more harsh. Unfortunately, that sort of drop-off is not unprecedented. On the October 2019 exam, we also saw a 43/48 result in a 670 Math.

  • Miranda says:

    Art,

    Thanks for the explanation. Seeking confirmation on this point: “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.”

    Are you saying that NMSC will name as commended the top ~50,000 qualified from the Oct / Jan tests PLUS the tens of thousands of alternate entrants who will manage a 208 selection index via an SAT this year? That would be a huge number. The SAT scores skew higher at the top (3.5% score 1400 on PSAT, 7% score 1400 on SAT). And do we know how many students took the Jan SAT yet? Thank you.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Miranda,
      I hope to find out soon how many January testers there were, but I expect my estimates were not that far off.

      As for the NMSFs: That’s how NMSC’s rules work, yes. NMSC makes the rules, of course, so it could change the rules. An important constraint is that NMSC needs to work with high schools this spring in order to have things lined up for NMSF announcements in September. It can’t simply wait for SAT scores to roll in, because it always validates student information with schools. Alternate Entry even allows students to submit scores until October, well after the NMSF announcement (in other words, it accepts late-comers). One option would be for NMSC to estimate how many Alternate Entry qualifiers it will receive. But what if California goes from having few test takers to a flood of high scorers in May and June as test sites re-open? NMSC would have to be confident in its modeling, or it would end up with too FEW students. If someone knows of a great alternative, I haven’t heard it yet.

      The 7% does include test dates that occur after the June SAT, but I take your point. That’s why it is going to be a whacky year.

  • 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.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Nick,
      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.

      • Nick says:

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

        • Art Sawyer says:

          Nick,
          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.

  • 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.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Robert,
      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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