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National Merit Alternate Entry Explained

By October 18, 2023October 24th, 2023National Merit, PSAT, SAT

The PSAT/NMSQT in junior year is the traditional route to National Merit. However, there is an alternate path via the SAT for students who were unable to take the PSAT in the fall.

Who is eligible for alternate entry?
The wording from NMSC is that alternate entry is for students missing the PSAT “because of illness, an emergency, or other extenuating circumstance (but meets all other requirements for program participation.” Also eligible are students whose PSAT score “cannot be considered for entry to the National Merit Scholarship Program due to a testing irregularity or score cancellation.”

What is the first step in the alternate entry process?
Students in the class of 2025 must apply for alternate entry by April 1, 2024 (postmark deadline). Before students can apply for alternate entry, they must apply for an application! You do not need to have taken the SAT before you apply for alternate entry. Get the process started right away. Your SAT can be taken as late as June.

How do I get an application form for alternate entry?
If you have missed the PSAT and the testing window is closed, you must write (not email or call) NMSC to request alternate entry information. You must include your name, home address, your contact information, the name and address of your high school, and “a brief explanation of why [you] , missed the test.” This request can come from a counselor, student, or parent. We recommend that the student or parent handle the request directly (counselors are busy with so many things). You will, however, need to get the signature of your principal or counselor on the actual alternate entry application.

National Merit Scholarship Corporation
Attn: Scholarship Administration
1560 Sherman Ave, Suite 200
Evanston, IL 60201-4897

If you have questions about the process, you can contact NMSC at (847) 866-5100.

If I was unable to take the PSAT because my school did not offer the PSAT, can I use alternate entry?
NMSC strongly encourages students to attempt to find a spot at another school to take the PSAT/NMSQT. This is often not possible. Many schools will not accept unenrolled students. Students who miss the PSAT for this reason should apply for alternate entry. NMSC is vague about whether students in this situation will automatically approved. Anecdotally, many (most?) are able to use alternate entry.

Alternate entry sounds like a better option than the PSAT. Should I skip the PSAT and just do alternate entry?
The PSAT/NMSQT is the only automatic entry-point for the National Merit Scholarship Program. There is no guarantee that you will be approved for alternate entry, and you will need approval from your school. There are also ethical questions that students must answer for themselves about whether they should actively avoid taking the PSAT in order to enter National Merit.

Is alternate entry available if I took the PSAT?
Not if you took the PSAT/NMSQT in your junior year. If you took the test as a sophomore or took the PSAT 10, those do not impact your eligibility for alternate entry.

What SAT scores will NMSC consider for alternate entry?
NMSC will note on the alternate entry form which test dates will be accepted. Typically, the dates are August of junior year (August 2023 for class of 2025) through June of junior year (June 2024). You can take the test multiple times. NMSC will use your highest score, but it will not superscore. You must send an official score report to NMSC (code 0085). While NMSC may allow scores to be submitted as late as October 15th of senior year, there is no reason not to submit them immediately!

Can I submit an ACT score for alternate entry?
No. ACT scores can be used as “confirming scores” for Semifinalist hoping to become Finalists, but they are not entry points into the National Merit Scholarship Program.

How is my Selection Index calculated from my SAT score?
While your PSAT report comes with a Selection Index, your SAT report does not. The process for calculating a Selection Index is the same for both exams, with one important difference — because the PSAT Reading and Writing (RW) score and Math score only go to 760, SAT section scores are capped at 760.

The RW score is doubled and added to the Math score. That total is divided by 10. Another way to think about it is dropping the rightmost zero in your scores, doubling RW and adding Math. Because of the doubling of RW scores, you cannot calculate a Selection Index from the Total Score. Here are several examples of Selection Index calculations from SAT scores:

  • RW: 720 Math: 700 Total Score: 1420 Selection Index: 214 (72×2 + 70).
  • RW: 700 Math: 720 Total Score: 1420 Selection Index: 212 (70×2 + 72).
  • RW: 740 Math: 800 Total Score: 1540 Selection Index: 224 (74×2 + 76).
  • RW: 740 Math: 760 Total Score: 1500 Selection Index: 224 (74×2 + 76).

Do I need a certain score to qualify for National Merit honors?
Alternate entrants face the same Commended Student and Semifinalist cutoffs as PSAT/NMSQT takers. For more information on scores, see Compass’s post on National Merit cutoffs. You may also want to visit our FAQ on the National Merit process.

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.


  • 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:

      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.

  • 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:

      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:

          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.

  • Miranda says:


    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:

      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.

  • 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:

      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.

  • James says:


    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.


    • Art Sawyer says:

      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.

  • 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:

      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.

  • 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:

      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.

  • 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.

  • Ruth says:

    I know this post is older, but will alternate entry be available for the Class of 2024? We homeschool and in fall 2021 I was unable to find a location for my son to take the PSAT as a sophomore. How hard does NMSC expect homeschool parents to look for a testing location? He plans on taking the SAT in August of 2022. Should I send his scores to NMSC just in case he can’t take the PSAT? Thank you for any advice.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Alternate Entry will exist for the Class of 2024, but NMSC does not provide explicit guidance for students at a school (or homeschool) where the PSAT is not offered. It would fall under “extenuating circumstances,” at the discretion of NMSC. I would reach out to NMSC. You may not get a direct answer, since the October PSAT hasn’t happened yet, so your student hasn’t missed it. Generally applications for Alternate Entry do not open until after the PSAT. There is no rush to send his SAT score, but there is no harm, either.

  • IanDevastation says:

    We are in Lee County, Florida, and will be out of school and without electricity for some time. Can my junior use his August 2022 SAT score for Alternate Entry? How can we apply for it? Thank you!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      What a trying time for Lee County. I hope you are safe. Yes, he can use his August 2022 SAT score. He also has the ability to use a score as late as June 2023 (although I’d recommend getting it done by March). The application deadline for the Alternate Entry form itself is April 1, so there is no immediate rush. I haven’t seen the form online, and it may not be available yet. I would contact National Merit.

  • IanDevastation says:

    I took your advice and contacted NM. I am devastated they said I must use an Oct. 2022-June 2023 SAT. I took the SAT in August and scored 1540 and do not want to take another SAT. With our area devastated and no idea when our home will be livable, my parents’ office usable, or school back in session, this is awful news. Do you have any advice on trying to get NM to understand that Hurricane Ian has actually destroyed several schools in our area and left everything in shambles. I don’t understand why my junior year August 2022 SAT can’t be used.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I am sorry that you are having to go through this on top of all that you are dealing with. First, I would contact NM again. They do a good job of answering questions, but that’s not to say that they never make mistakes. While it’s 2-year old, this application shows that NM used to accept August scores. https://www.milton.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Alternate-Entry-2022-NMSP.pdf

      You might try to enlist the help of your counselor or principal.

      Finally, while it’s not what you want to hear, you should consider scheduling an SAT. Bureaucracies aren’t always sensible. I’m hoping that NM just needs some time to get the memo about a major hurricane and adjust its policy. But if that doesn’t happen, you’ll want to have a date lined up. The devastation will mean cancelled locations and fewer dates, so it’s best to arrange one now. You may get the good news that your 1540 will be accepted, but it’s best to have a backup plan. Some of this is contingent on how much NM matters to you. If the scholarships represent an important opportunity for you, they are worth retaking the SAT. Let me try to put a positive spin on it. If you were able to score a 1540, you should have no trouble scoring high enough to qualify for SF via Alternate Entry. With Score Choice, it doesn’t matter to colleges if you do a bit worse. With superscoring, you might even bring up the 1540. I don’t want you to have to test again. I do want to keep your options open.

      As for why August can’t be used, one possible rationale is that you hadn’t yet missed the PSAT. Or that they don’t want to encourage students to take the SAT early and avoid the PSAT. Lame, I know. I’m just trying to imagine why NM would disqualify a legitimate score.

  • John K says:

    Hi Art! Any new updates on how much stricter / tighter alternate entry is going to be for Class of 2025?

  • Andrea says:

    Hello! Checking in to see whether there is any intel on alternate entry for the Class of 2025? We are anticipating a conflict for our son in terms of being able to take the test on the date offered at his school, and it is proving difficult to figure out how he can take the test at another local school, on a different day. Thank you in advance for any advice!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      NMSC usually doesn’t finalize the new Alternate Entry application until after the test (they don’t want to encourage skipping). I do not know if NMSC will require confirmation from the school this year. I would not be surprised if they do given that most special policies during the pandemic have been eased. It is certainly safest if your school knows about the conflict and understands. Yes, it can verge on impossible to arrange a change of venue.

  • Tsvetan says:

    What are the rules for National Merit Alternate Entry for the class of 2025? Would they be allowed to use SAT scores as in years past?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I don’t believe that NMSC will publish the official entry rules until after the PSAT, but the use of SAT scores for Alternate Entry will continue. Note that there will be a specific time range of acceptable test dates. It will likely be August of 2023 – June 2024.

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