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National Merit Semifinalist Cutoffs Class of 2022 – Final

By September 25, 2021 October 3rd, 2021 National Merit, PSAT
National Merit Semifinalists

The Semifinalist cutoffs for the class of 2022 are final. If you are looking for Compass’s analysis for the class of 2023, see our Semifinalist Cutoff post.

September 15th Update

National Merit (NMSC) does not directly make available a list of Semifinalists. Instead, it shares state lists with local media outlets. The information is embargoed until the 15th, so lists should begin showing up in a variety of publications over the course of the next few days. Many outlets only publish information on local students, so some state lists are harder to track down than others. There is no national compendium of state lists, although I will try to include links as they become available.. The 15th is also important because some schools wait until the press release date to share the announcement with students. There should be a lot more students getting the good news today. Semifinalists looking for more information about qualifying as Finalists can find details in our National Merit FAQ.

Just because NMSC does not publish the list of cutoffs doesn’t mean that we can’t. We’ve been able to fully verify the numbers provided by our source last week. These cutoffs are final.

StateClass of 2022 CutoffChange from 2021Class of 2022 SemifinalistsClass of 2022 CommendedClass of 2021 CutoffClass of 2021 SemifinalistsClass of 2021 Commended
Alabama2120215141212227120
Alaska208-43822123611
Arizona2180283660218295511
Arkansas211-11417921214063
California22102,1004,1042211,9427,235
Colorado2170298656217270399
Connecticut2200184674220194644
Delaware22014311521945105
Florida21719281,7872168791,242
Georgia21905031,2122194561,021
Hawaii21706314621763119
Idaho2140761062147877
Illinois218-17151,8512196941,735
Indiana2150353465215340406
Iowa211-11705921216273
Kansas2151166181214143134
Kentucky212-2224165214205165
Louisiana2131234179212233113
Maine211-274502137248
Maryland22433707222212961,057
Massachusetts221-13441,4472223411,579
Michigan2171541957216542723
Minnesota2180271568218288549
Mississippi21321419321114129
Missouri2140337333214332289
Montana208-244102104710
Nebraska210-31095421310358
Nevada214-1114118215112100
New Hampshire214-1739721572103
New Jersey22206152,4412225942,560
New Mexico210-1912821110225
New York22009752,2622201,0352,880
North Carolina2181485871217494882
North Dakota207-2330209280
Ohio2150695915215681748
Oklahoma210-11776121118039
Oregon2203183183217182298
Pennsylvania21816821,3572177211,165
Rhode Island213-352542165058
South Carolina2131212229212197103
South Dakota21013718209360
Tennessee2150346473215332352
Texas22011,3394,3072191,4413,448
Utah212014910821215786
Vermont211-132192123317
Virginia 22104171,6822213691,612
Washington22003828792203431,030
West Virginia 207-2660209620
Wisconsin2141307259213314214
Wyoming208-1242209160
District of Columbia22423416222228184
​​U.S. Territories207-2411209270
​​Outside U.S.224289570222103528
​​U.S. Boarding***125592180666
​​​​Commended207209
​​​​Total16,74034,50416,45335,613
​​​​​​Entrants895,0721,511,469

 

The table above compares the cutoffs, Semifinalists, and Commended Students for the last two years. The most obvious difference is that there were 1,511,469 PSAT entrants in the class of 2021 and only 895,072 in the class of 2022. That’s more than a 40% drop-off, and explains why the Commended number hit a new low. To account for the top 50,000 students, NMSC had to look to the top 5-6% of students rather than the top 3-4%.

If the qualifier pool was down 40% and the Commended cutoff was down to 207, why didn’t we see more cutoff collapses — especially in states with high rates of COVID-related cancelations? The x-factor was how NMSC treated Alternate Entry applicants this year. Every year there are students who are unable to take the PSAT. A broken leg two days before the exam. The flu. A canceled flight. There was always a small enough number that NMSC could ignore AE candidates when calculating the cutoffs. PSAT scores set the cutoffs, and AE students were added on top the the PSAT Semifinalists and Commended Students. Had NMSC kept that policy in place, it would have led to disparate results across the country because of the varying impact of COVID lockdowns. California had a high cancelation rate and a high AE application rate. Had AE students been added on top of PSAT qualifiers, the state could have ended up with 2,000 – 3,000 “extra” Semifinalists.

NMSC, instead, went in a controversial direction. It decided to fold in AE SAT Selection Indexes with PSAT Selection Indexes in order to come up with a blended cutoff. NMSC has not released definitive information on how many Semifinalists were AE versus normal PSAT qualifiers. In an outlier state such as Maryland, we don’t need confirmation from NMSC, because we know that most students entered via AE. All the largest public school systems canceled PSATs in October and January. Without all of those students in the competition, Maryland’s cutoff would have plummeted. Instead, it hit the highest mark ever recorded — 224. It’s easier to get top scores on the SAT (even with section scores being capped at 38); students can repeat the SAT and submit their best scores; and SATs can be taken later in the year, when a student is a more knowledgable tester. Hundreds of top-scoring SAT students entered the Maryland competition, and it distorted the cutoff in the state. I would be surprised if as many as 20% of the 370 Semifinalists were PSAT takers. The 224 figure may have been on the verge of being 225 for Maryland. The 370 NMSFs is about 25% higher than usual for the state. NMSC either (A) found that there were so many students clustered at 224 that it could go up to a cutoff of 225 without dropping the NMSFs well below the 290 target or (B) it decided that having a few more Semifinalists was more acceptable than a 225 cutoff that would have been an abomination. I tend to think the answer is B. I’ve never seen a medium-sized state miss target by 25% before.

Semifinalist counts are engineered to come in near a target each year based on the number of enrolled high school students in a state. On the other hand, the Commended level is set nationally, and states can end up with very different ratios of Semifinalists and Commended scholars based on how many PSAT takers they have and how well they score. It’s for this reason that just 6 states typically account for at least half of all Commended Students. California alone usually has about 7,000. However, California PSAT dates were decimated. Even after AE qualifiers, it only ended up with 4,000 Commended Students. Despite the great decline in the number of entrants, the cutoff remained unchanged because AE propped up what would have otherwise been a large decline.

We see major declines in Commended numbers in other states such as New York (-618),  Maryland (-335), Washington (-151), and Massachusetts (-132). These states all had significant PSAT cancelations. States with fewer disruptions gained Commended students: Texas (+859), Florida (+545), Colorado (+257), Michigan (+234), and Georgia (+191).

Advice for the Class of 2023

As the October 2021 PSAT approaches, juniors in most states should not expect to qualify as Semifinalists based on the most recent cutoffs. The class of 2021 had an improperly scaled exam, and the class of 2022 had 40% of its usual PSAT takers miss out on the exam. We expect most schools to be able to administer the PSAT this fall, and cutoffs are likely to return to something resembling the medians seen over the last 5-6 years. I always encourage students to think about a range of possibilities. A simple strategy is to look at the highest cutoff of your state in the last 6 years and add 1. If you can get that high, your odds fall around 95+% of qualifying. You should not expect your state’s cutoff to fall lower than 1 point below the historical low. Once test results become made available in December, I’ll publish analysis that refines those estimates.

September 9th Update

The full set of cutoffs leaked via a counseling office. I did not receive this directly, so I cannot say with certainty that it is accurate. [I have now seen the original documentation. The September 9th list was accurate and has been reproduced — along with some additional data — above.]

September 8th Update

Wisconsin qualifier at 216, so cutoff is <= 216. Confirmation from an Arizona qualifier at 218, so the cutoff is <= 218. Confirmation from a Louisiana qualifier at 216, so <=216. Confirmation that a 221 qualified in Virginia, so <=221. A student qualified at 219 in Illinois, so those at 219 and above should now be able to rest easier. Indiana’s cutoff must be between 215 and 218, since we found out that a 214 did not qualify, whereas a 218 did. A report last week on Reddit had a New Jersey student qualifying at 221. A report today on the site gave conflicting information. For now, the best we can say is that NJ <= 222.

Shorthand notation:

= means the state cutoff is confirmed
> means that we have a report of a student not qualifying at a given score, so the actual cutoff is higher.
<= means that we have a report of a student qualifying at a given score. The actual cutoff may be lower.

Alabama = 212
Arkansas <= 212
Arizona <= 218
California <= 221*
Colorado 216 or 217
Connecticut <= 221
Delaware <= 221
Florida = 217
Georgia <= 221
Illinois <= 219
Indiana >214 and <= 218
Kansas <= 214 or 215
Kentucky <= 212
Louisiana <= 216
Massachusetts <= 221
Michigan = 217
Minnesota <= 219
Mississippi = 213
Missouri <=215
Nebraska <= 216 [=211?]
Nevada <= 215
New Jersey <= 222*
New York <= 220
North Carolina <= 219
Ohio <= 215
Oklahoma = 210
Pennsylvania <= 218*
South Carolina <= 216*
Tennessee <= 215
Texas = 220
Utah <= 213
Virginia <= 221
Washington <= 222
Wisconsin <= 216

* I’ve highlighted some of the places where there are conflicts among reports or where the numbers have changed. In the case of California, I’ve heard from a student who qualified at 221 and one who did not qualify as 220. This would normally mean a 221 cutoff. Reports of a 220 as qualifying have come in on r/psat, so I’m now leaving CA as <=221. I had information from a Pennsylvania counselor that the cutoff was likely 219, but I believe they may not have had a 218 SI at their school. I’ve received reports of a 218 qualifying in PA, so the state is at <=218. In South Carolina, a student with a 216 thinks that friend also qualified at 215. There have been conflicting reports on Reddit about a 221 in New Jersey, so <= 222 is the fairest summary.

September 7th Update

As expected, there was little activity over the holiday weekend. We hope to make progress this week. Indiana is > 213 and Alabama = 212. A student reports that their school counselor gave the Michigan cutoff as 217. Minnesota now <= 219. Utah <=213.

September 3rd Update

With multiple students reporting missing out on National Merit Semifinalist status at 219, Texas is now confirmed at =220. Word from Massachusetts students qualifying at 221, so the state has been added at <=221. Massachusetts is traditionally one of the few states that gives NJ competition. New York is on the board at <=220. A Connecticut report now puts the state at <=221. Oklahoma is confirmed as = 210. Received confirmation from a Minnesota student qualifying at 221, so we are at <=221. Mississippi is confirmed at = 213. South Carolina and New Jersey have been added. I feel confident that we won’t see a state or selection unit higher than 222 this year, so anyone with a 222 or above should be feeling good right now. There is a report on Reddit that NJ may be <=221, so that would be even better news for students. There was a lot of concern that Alternate Entry was going to make for some nosebleed cutoffs. So far that has not been the case (which does not mean that individual states won’t see increases).

 

September 2nd Update

We know that Colorado is either 216 or 217, so that’s another state where we won’t see an increase this year.

An Oklahoma student qualified at 210, so that means that the state’s cutoff can be no higher than 210. That’s the lowest cutoff we have on record for Oklahoma — good news for students hoping to see scores go lower this year. Florida, however, came off its last year low, so we shouldn’t expect uniform changes.

August 30th Update

This is likely to be a big week for notifications. Letters went out to schools last week, but there is often a delay until the information actually gets to counselors and students. Florida is confirmed from an extremely reliable source. This section will be updated as new information becomes available.

April 26th Update

National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) recently sent an announcement to high schools that the Commended Student cutoff was a 207 Selection Index for the class of 2022. This year’s required score was down 2 points from last year and represents the lowest mark in a decade.

Compass was able to correctly predict a drop in the Commended cutoff because of the lower number of students achieving 1400+ PSAT scores. Pandemic-related cancelations were behind the decline. In its letter, NMSC conspicuously dropped its usual reference to “1.5 million program entrants.” Compass estimates that 25-30% of students were unable to take either the October or January PSAT.

No official announcements until September
NMSC sends preliminary lists to schools each spring in order to confirm student information and eligibility. Students are not notified of their recognition until September. Semifinalist cutoffs generally leak out once official announcement letters get mailed to schools in late August.

Since we now know that the Commended Student cutoff dropped to 207, does it mean that Semifinalist cutoffs declined, too?
Not necessarily. The top 50,000 students, based on PSAT Selection Index, are selected nationally and establish the Commended cutoff. It does not matter if one state has far more test takers or high scorers than another, since the 50,000 is tabulated from all PSAT takers. Semifinalist counts, on the other hand, follow an allocation to states based roughly on the number of high school students in each state. For example, Rhode Island will have approximately 50 Semifinalists, Georgia will have approximately 450 , Illinois 700, and California 2,000. The student in Rhode Island is not competing with the student in California, which is why states have such different cutoffs. The only caveat is that a student cannot become a Semifinalist without first reaching the Commended cutoff. This is true for both regular and alternate entrants.

The Commended cutoff moved lower for the class of 2022 not because students did worse, but because there were fewer students testing nationally. The state-by-state allocation of Semifinalists matters more than ever because of the disparate impact of PSAT cancelations. School and test site closures were more prevalent in California, for example, than they were in Iowa.

Even a single school can impact a state’s cutoff. Stuyvesant High School in New York City typically produces more than 150 Semifinalists each year or about 15% of the state’s total. The school’s cancelation of its October and January PSATs, effectively freed up 150 Semifinalist spots for other students in the state.

There is, unfortunately, no database that provides a full testing accounting within the state, let alone nationally.

So New York and California’s cutoffs must have gone down, right?
Probably. PSATs are imperfect at measuring the highest scoring students. The class of 2021, for example, saw record low cutoffs because of flaws in scaling. Had a typical number of students been able to test this year, we would have expected cutoffs to bounce back from last year’s lows. Without detailed state data — and College Board won’t release that until October — we can not pin down Semifinalist cutoffs. This is why Compass continues to report an estimated range of scores.

Won’t all of the students who applied for Alternate Entry with SAT scores push up the cutoffs?
No. The Commended and Semifinalist cutoffs are set based on students who took the PSAT/NMSQT in October or January. Students applying Alternate Entry will need to meet those cutoffs, but their scores do not influence the cutoffs. The somewhat unintuitive result is that pandemic-impacted states could see large increases in the number of Semifinalists without any offset in the number of Semifinalists elsewhere.

If there are extra Semifinalists this year, what happens at the Finalist stage?
NMSC has made no announcements about how it intends to handle this situation. In fact, it may not even know how many Semifinalists there will be. Alternate Entry applications were due April 1, but students have until October to submit SAT results (the test must be taken by June).

In a typical year, 15,000 of the 16,000 Semifinalist become Finalists. If there are 20,000 Semifinalists, will NMSC apply more stringent requirements or increase the number of Finalists? We will update this post if new information becomes available.

Projected Cutoffs
Compass has updated its projected Semifinalist cutoff ranges. In many cases, the Commended cutoff has not added useful information, because it speaks to the national, rather than local, landscape. The volatility is hard to assess this year, because we’ve never seen a PSAT during a pandemic before. While we may see cases where states have higher cutoffs than last year, I don’t think we’ll see any new highs established. Volatility is traditionally higher with smaller states. Wyoming had 16 Semifinalists last year. It doesn’t take much to produce a large swing. Below the table is additional commentary from our earlier analysis in January.

StateClass of 2022
(Most Likely Est.)
Class of 2021
(Actual)
Class of 2020
(Actual)
Class of 2019
(Actual)
Class of 2018
(Actual)
# of NMSF
Class of 2021
Alabama210 - 216212216216216227
Alaska210 - 21521221321521736
Arizona216 - 220218219220220295
Arkansas210 - 215212214214215140
California217 - 2222212222232221,942
Colorado215 - 221217220221220270
Connecticut217 - 222220221222221194
Delaware217 - 22221922022222145
District of Columbia220 - 22322222322322328
Florida214 - 219216219219219879
Georgia217 - 221219220220220456
Hawaii215 - 22021721922022063
Idaho211 - 21621421521421678
Illinois217 - 222219221221221694
Indiana214 - 220215218219219340
Iowa210 - 216212215216216162
Kansas212 - 218214218218219143
Kentucky212 - 218214217218217205
Louisiana210 - 216212215217216233
Maine211 - 21621321521721572
Maryland218 - 223221222223222296
Massachusetts218 - 223222223223222341
Michigan213 - 219216219219219542
Minnesota215 - 221218219220220288
Mississippi209 - 215211214215213141
Missouri212 - 217214217217217332
Montana208 - 21421021421421447
Nebraska211 - 216213216216215103
Nevada212 - 219215218218217112
New Hampshire213 - 21921521821921772
New Jersey219 - 223222223223223594
New Mexico209 - 215211213215215102
New York216 - 2212202212212211,035
North Carolina215 - 220217219220219494
North Dakota207 - 21020921221221128
Ohio213 - 219215218219219681
Oklahoma209 - 215211214215216180
Oregon215 - 221217220221220182
Pennsylvania215 - 221217220220219721
Rhode Island214 - 22021621822021650
South Carolina210 - 216212215216217197
South Dakota207 - 21220921421521536
Tennessee213 - 219215219219218332
Texas216 - 2212192212212211,441
Utah209 - 215212215215216157
Vermont210 - 21621221621621733
Virginia218 - 223221222222222369
Washington217 - 222220221222222343
West Virginia207 - 20920921221221162
Wisconsin212 - 217213216216217314
Wyoming207 - 21120921221221316
Territories20720921221221127
Outside US220 - 223222223223223103
Commended207209212212211

January 10th Update

The National Merit Scholarship Program for the class of 2022 will be the most unusual in the competition’s 60 year history. There has never been such a large drop in PSAT takers. Only 737,000 juniors were able to take the October 2020 PSAT/NMSQT, which is just 44% of the October 2019 level of 1.7 million. Almost 1 million students were not able to test because of COVID-19. The January PSAT will narrow the gap, but the shortfall will lead to a lower Commended cutoff nationally and lower Semifinalist cutoffs in many states. The decline in test takers is different in every state because of the course of the pandemic and the related restrictions. In most years, Semifinalist cutoffs change within narrow ranges — historically, 95% of cutoffs fall +-2 points from a state’s prior year cutoff. As with so many things, this year is nothing like most years. [Students who missed out on the PSAT can read about how to participate in National Merit with an SAT score via Alternate Entry. For an overview of the National Merit program, see our FAQ.]

While it is common shorthand to say that National Merit Semifinalists represent the top 1% of test takers and that Commended Students fall in the top 3%, those are coincidences rather than formulas. National Merit honors are not determined by a percentage of test takers. National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) targets an approximate number of Commended Students (34,000) and an approximate number of Semifinalists (16,000) no matter how many students actually test. Percentiles are not used, and the percentiles on student score reports are based on historical data only.

PSAT participation at the lowest level in decades
We estimate the eventual number of test takers in the class of 2022 at only 1.1 million. That’s a level that the PSAT has not seen in decades and would mean that one-third of students were not able to test. The Commended cutoff is a good place to start when evaluating the impact of those numbers. Compass has compiled data on how the students who tested in October 2020 stack up against prior years’ test takers. College Board does not release data by Selection Index, but the 1400-1520 range provides a convenient reference.

One theory going into the October PSAT was that schools with traditionally strong PSAT numbers would try harder to administer the PSAT. If that happened, the impact was too limited to see. The 3.5% of test takers achieving a 1400-1520 Total Score was in line with the average seen since the introduction of the new PSAT in 2015. To date, only 26,100 juniors in the class of 2022 have scored at least a 1400. We estimate that between 35,000 and 40,000 will reach that mark after the January PSAT. Alternate entrants do not factor into cutoffs.

The historical comparisons show the 1400-1520 scorers correlate with the Commended cutoff. The class of 2017 and class of 2021 saw relatively low numbers of top scores because of poorly constructed and scaled PSATs in 2015 and 2019. While the cause of the drop is quite different this year, the same idea holds. NMSC keeps moving the cutoff lower until it accounts for more than 50,000 students. Compass expects the Commended cutoff to be between 206 and 208 depending on the outcome of the January PSAT. [We now know the cutoff is 207.] It would represent the lowest cutoff in decades (adjusting pre-2015 scores to the new scale).

The Commended cutoff moves in a predictable manner, because it doesn’t matter where the 50,000 students come from. The Semifinalist cutoffs will be more chaotic this year. We expect to see some state cutoffs drop significantly, while others could actually move higher.

Why state cutoffs won’t move in unison
The class of 2021 saw low cutoffs across the country because of an unusually scaled PSAT that resulted in fewer students achieving top scores. This sort of anomaly shows up every 5 years or so. In such years, it’s not unusual to see at least 40 state cutoffs decline from the previous year. Not surprisingly, there is a bounce-back effect in the subsequent year. The pre-pandemic expectation for the class of 2022 was a bounce-back year. Most cutoffs would have gone up. What happens in the pandemic reality? States where students were able to test at normal levels may see a bounce-back, resulting in higher cutoffs. States where there was a modest decline in test takers are more likely to see cutoffs fall close to the class of 2021 levels. States with large drops in test takers are likely to see drops in their Semifinalist cutoffs, as well.

In order not to unfairly worry students in an actual state, the fictional state of Meritland provides a hypothetical. The cutoff in Meritland was 218 last year but had been 220 the year before. The state sees approximately 500 Semifinalists a year, so its cutoff is normally stable. Meritland was very fortunate and had relatively few school closures in October 2020. The number of PSAT takers was 95% of last year’s figure. In this case, Meritland would be more likely to see a cutoff of 220 than 218.

Compare this with a similarly-sized state of New Merit that also saw a cutoffs of 220 and 218 in the last two years. New Merit, however, only had 50% of its students able to test in October and January. It’s likely that New Merit’s cutoff will be at 218 or lower. Compass would estimate a range of 215 – 219.

Cutoff changes have a runaway brake built in. As NMSC moves down each notch of the Selection Index, more and more students are at a given score. For example, New Merit might have 50 students scoring exactly 220, 75 scoring 218, and more than 100 at 216.

There is no parallel to the sort of mass test cancelations we have seen this year. However, there are two examples of sudden changes in the opposite direction. In recent years, Illinois and Michigan switched their state-mandated testing from the ACT to the SAT. As a result, the number of PSAT takers more than doubled in a short period. In both cases, cutoffs moved up 3 to 4 points. In states where the pandemic severely impacted PSAT testing, we could see drops of that magnitude.

In most years, Compass establishes a projected range of cutoffs. While we are doing the same for the class of 2022, we are providing wider ranges, and we expect them to be less accurate than usual.

Am I Safe?
The most common question received from commenters is, “I got a 2xx Selection Index, am I safe in [state]?” As mentioned above, using the class of 2021 cutoffs as a reference point comes with problems. If complete “safety” is the goal, it is better to look at the highest cutoff for your state over the last 4 years. If your score is 2 points higher than that cutoff, there is a greater than 99% chance that you will be at or above the Semifinalist cutoff.

The highest cutoffs reach a limit because of how rare it is to receive scores in the 225 – 228 range on the PSAT. Even in a normal year, our model shows that no cutoff will go above 224 (and even that score is highly unlikely). This means that any student in the country (or eligible student studying abroad) with a score of 224 or higher will qualify as a Semifinalist. This is not a normal year, of course. Many states will see nothing close to 100% PSAT participation. 

The Wild Card. What is Alternate Entry, and how will it impact the numbers?
Every year students miss the PSAT for legitimate reasons such as illness. To allow those students the opportunity to compete in National Merit, NMSC has a process known as Alternate Entry. Because of the pandemic, NMSC has adopted a no-excuse-necessary policy for Alternate Entry for the class of 2022. Students can apply directly to NMSC and be considered based on their SAT scores.

As outlined at the top of this article, SAT scores from alternate entrants are not used in calculating cutoffs. Instead, the Commended cutoff is set by the highest 50,000 PSAT scores. The state cutoffs are set at the level that best matches the target number of top PSAT scores for the state. Once those cutoffs are set, alternate entrants are judged against them. If the Commended cutoff is 207, then any alternate entrant with an SAT Selection Index of 207 or higher will qualify. If the state Semifinalist cutoff is 215, then any entrant in the state with a 215 or better will qualify.

Is it fair?
While PSAT takers and alternate entrants have to meet the same cutoffs, many students are concerned that it is easier to achieve high scores on the SAT (and the SAT can be taken more than once).

The SAT and PSAT share what is known as a vertical scale. A 700 Math score on one test is meant to represent the same level of achievement as a 700 Math on the other. However, the SAT has more difficult problems, so its scale runs from 200-800. The PSAT runs from 160 to 760. In order to keep the maximum Selection Index at 228, a student’s SAT score in each section is capped at 760, just as it would be on the PSAT.

Despite vertical scaling and the score cap, no experienced test taker would prefer the PSAT over the SAT when attempting to achieve a high Selection Index. The PSAT is not well designed to measure high scores. It becomes a game of chance in the most competitive states. There is more room for error on the SAT. So, “Is it fair?” If fairness is defined as equivalent testing circumstances for all students, then the system is not fair. Compass encourages students to take a broader view. Is it fair to disqualify students because of a test cancelation or illness — especially a cancelation or illness during a pandemic? NMSC has few workable options.

PSAT takers actually benefit from a large number of alternate entrants, because it indicates fewer regular entrants. Only regular entrants are used when calculating cutoffs. This means that cutoffs will be lower (as shown in the hypothetical Meritland above) in rough proportion to the number of alternate entrants.

Expect a higher number of Semifinalists
How is it possible that everyone wins? If NMSC follows its normal procedures — and there is no indication that it won’t — there will be an abnormally high number of Semifinalists. We are likely to see at least some states where the number of alternate entrants actually dwarfs the number of PSAT/NMSQT entrants.

California, for example, was hard hit by October PSAT cancelations. Most large districts were closed for in-person testing, and a limited number of independent schools were able to offer exams. We estimate that as few as 10-20% of students were able to test in October. Because of the current (January) surge in cases, cancelations will also be commonplace for the makeup January PSAT. It would be surprising if the state reaches even 40% of typical levels. What will be the result?

California usually has around 2,000 Semifinalists at a cutoff of 221 or 222. If only 40% of those students were able to test this year, though, that only accounts for 800 scores at 221 or 222. The cutoff would likely need to drop 3-4 points to sweep up the additional 1,200 top PSAT scores. If — purely as a hypothetical —  the top 2,000 California PSAT scores this year fall at 218 and above, what happens? First, those 2,000 students will qualify as Semifinalists. Second, any alternate entrant with a 218 or higher on the SAT will also qualify.

Depending on how the January PSAT goes and how many students are able to take the SAT this spring, 2,000 – 3,000 alternate entrants could reach the Semifinalist cutoff in California. Since the alternate entrants don’t squeeze out the PSAT qualifiers, California could end up with 4,000 – 5,000 Semifinalists. Would NMSC allow this? The current rules indicate that it would.

As for fair outcomes, this seems like one of the better ones (and better still because it would not involve any rule changes). It’s unclear if NMSC would still try to cap the number of national Finalists at 15,000 or would let that figure move upward, as well.

At this point, we can only speculate on the final numbers. Perhaps the January PSAT will go off better than expected. Perhaps a large portion of SAT takers won’t apply for Alternate Entry. Perhaps NMSC has a top secret escape plan.

As for students who have taken the PSAT, their qualifying work is done. They cannot apply via Alternate Entry. An SAT or ACT score only comes into play at the Finalist stage as a “confirming score.” This condition was waived for the class of 2021 because of test date cancelations. We expect the confirming score requirement to return for the class of 2022 unless significant cancelations occur into the summer.

[Alternate Entry closed on April 1, 2021.] As for students unable to take the PSAT, they must be sure to follow the rules for Alternate Entry: complete an online application, take the SAT (already having a score is OK, too), and submit the scores to NMSC. Because there is no way of knowing where the cutoffs will settle for each state, we recommend that students within range of Commended level (possibly as low as a 206 SAT Selection Index) consider applying for Alternate Entry. The online form should take 5-10 minutes to complete. Since NMSC will use a student’s best SAT Selection Index, it is safe to use one of the 4 free reports included with SAT registration fees.

No matter how students qualify, the earliest they will receive word on National Merit honors is when schools notify students in September. It will feel like a long wait for students who have already waited a long time to test. 

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.

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