National Merit Semifinalist Cutoffs Class of 2020

By December 3, 2018National Merit, PSAT
National Merit Semifinalists

As students in the class of 2020 receive their PSAT scores, the discussion among high-scorers usually turns to National Merit Semifinalist cutoffs. Unfortunately, the calendar used by National Merit means that students will not be notified by their high schools about their status until September of 2019. For a number of years, Compass has tried to bridge this 10-month gap by providing research and discussion on the most likely outcomes. We update this page as new information becomes available. Students can view our other National Merit pages here. The National Merit FAQ is recommended reading.

A common misperception is that there is something on the PSAT/NMSQT score report or in the explanatory materials that will help students determine whether or not they will be Commended Students or Semifinalists. No such information exists. Instead, students can use the National Merit Selection Index on the score report and the information below to assess where they stand.

National Merit Semifinalist Class of 2020 Estimates

StateClass of 2020
(Most Likely)
Class of 2020
(Est. Range)
Class of 2019
Class of 2018
Class of 2017
Typical # of
Alabama216214 - 218216216215225
Alaska215213 - 21821521721340
Arizona220218 - 222220220219300
Arkansas214212 - 216214215213140
California223221 - 2242232222212050
Colorado221218 - 222221220218245
Connecticut222220 - 223222221220185
Delaware222219 - 22322222121845
District of Columbia223222 - 22422322322250
Florida219217 - 221219219217810
Georgia220218 - 222220220219460
Hawaii220217 - 22122022021765
Idaho214213 - 21621421621485
Illinois221219 - 223221221219735
Indiana219217 - 221219219217335
Iowa216214 - 218216216215170
Kansas218216 - 220218219217155
Kentucky218215 - 219218217215215
Louisiana217215 - 219217216214210
Maine217214 - 21821721521475
Maryland223221 - 224223222221315
Massachusetts223221 - 224223222222345
Michigan219217 - 221219219216565
Minnesota220218 - 222220220219300
Mississippi215212 - 217215213212135
Missouri217215 - 219217217216335
Montana214211 - 21621421421050
Nebraska216214 - 218216215215100
Nevada218215 - 219218217214100
New Hampshire219217 - 22121921721675
New Jersey223222 - 224223223222520
New Mexico215213 - 21721521521390
New York221219 - 2232212212191010
North Carolina220218 - 222220219218440
North Dakota212211 - 21421221120930
Ohio219217 - 221219219217615
Oklahoma215213 - 217215216213185
Oregon221219 - 223221220219180
Pennsylvania220218 - 222220219218680
Rhode Island220216 - 22122021621755
South Carolina216215 - 218216217215200
South Dakota215211 - 21621521520945
Tennessee219217 - 221219218218325
Texas221219 - 2232212212201340
Utah215213 - 217215216215155
Vermont216215 - 21821621721540
Virginia222220 - 223222222221390
Washington222220 - 223222222220330
West Virginia212211 - 21421221120975
Wisconsin216214 - 218216217215330
Wyoming212210 - 21421221320925
​U.S. Territories212211 - 214212211209
​Outside US223222 - 224223223222
​Commended212211 - 214212211209
Did scores on the October 2018 PSAT change significantly from those on the October 2017 PSAT?

The percentiles and average scores shown on the PSAT/NMSQT score report and in the Understanding Scores publication do not actually pertain to the class of 2020. All of the normative data are from previous class years. Instead of using these sources, Compass has turned to the score information made available to schools.

College Board does not report information for Selection Indexes, but it does reveal the number of students scoring in the 1400–1520 total score range. This range is useful in gauging upward pressure in scores—especially near the Commended level.

Both the percentage of test-takers and the absolute number of test-takers in the 1400–1520 score range increased this year. We expect the Commended level to fall at 212 or 213 for the class of 2020.

National results do not determine the state cutoffs.

While there is a rough correlation between upward movement in the Commended level and upward movement in state cutoffs, it is not a one-to-one relationship. Additional students taking the PSAT in Illinois or more top scorers in New Mexico—as hypothetical examples—have absolutely no effect on the cutoffs in California or Florida.

Why do states have such different cutoffs?

Cutoffs vary across the country because the approximately 16,200 Semifinalists are allocated proportionally to states based on the total number of juniors in a class. A state’s cutoff is derived by finding the score that will produce, as closely as possible, the targeted number of Semifinalists. Students in any given state are competing only against fellow residents. The test is national; the competition is local. Boarding school students are a special case and must meet the highest state cutoff in their region.

The best estimate is still a weak bet.

Compass has repeatedly shown that, in the absence of definitive movement in the Commended level, the best estimate of a state’s future cutoff is the current cutoff. However, even that best estimate is only correct 28% of the time. The chart below reflects historical changes in cutoffs over the last decade (adjusted for the scaling change of the new PSAT).

Changes are not equally distributed across all states. High scoring states tend to have more stable cutoffs than those with cutoffs near the Commended level. States with fewer Semifinalists represent almost all of the largest jumps.

Will this year be like all of the others?

National score changes from the October 2017 PSAT to the October 2018 PSAT are reminiscent of changes seen between 2016 and 2017. Last year saw all but one state cutoff staying within 2 points of its previous level. Overall, the upward movement of scores meant more states saw increases (20 states) than decreases (10 states). Twenty states had no change in cutoffs from the class of 2019. A similar outcome would not be surprising for the class of 2020.

So which states cutoffs will increase this year and which will move lower?

Historical data cannot answer that question, which is why it is so important that parents and students look at the estimated ranges rather than simply the “most likely” value. If this year is, indeed, like last year, that most likely value will be correct no more than 40% of the time.

The high-water mark is likely to remain at 223.

We believe that a 224 cutoff is a remote possibility. New Jersey is the state that has traditionally had the highest cutoffs, although it was joined at 223 by California, Maryland, and Massachusetts for the class of 2019. New Jersey has the highest probability of an upward shift in this group. A cutoff higher than 224 is, simply, not a possibility in any state or selection unit.  The cutoffs on the redesigned PSAT reach a natural limit. There are few score combinations that can even produce 225–228 Selection Indexes and not a sufficient number of students hitting those combinations.

The “alternate” date of October 24 had a form with an extremely harsh scale. Will this impact cutoffs or National Merit eligibility?

Two test forms are never completely identical. To smooth out any variations, tests are equated. A slightly harder test will have a slightly easier scale, for example. The October 24 test, however, was a bizarre anomaly that was easier than any PSAT ever given. In short, College Board made a horrible test. In order to account for the easy questions, the scale had to be made particularly harsh. A single Math mistake lowered a student’s score from 760 to 710. A second mistake meant a 670. A single mistake in Reading or Writing lowered a student’s Selection Index by 4 points. It would be extremely unlikely that a student missing just 2 problems over 139 questions would qualify as a Semifinalist in the most competitive states.

If the October 24 form does give an unusual distribution of scores, won’t that change the state cutoffs?

Only about 10% of students take the alternate date. This means that the impact on the cutoffs as a whole will be muted. The impact on individual test-takers, though, could be profound. Because Semifinalist status is based entirely on PSAT scores, there is, at present, no means to redress any problems the October 24 exam may cause.

If I think that I’ll be a Semifinalist, do I need to take the SAT to qualify as a Finalist?

The class of 2020 is the first group of students that will be able to use ACT scores as “confirming scores” in the Finalist round of the competition. This is a long overdue change, as many high-scoring ACT students have had to take the SAT for no reason other than National Merit’s rules. This does not apply to members of the class of 2019, who must still take the SAT if they want to move from Semifinalist to Finalist status. We will be updating our National Merit FAQ as more information becomes available over the next year. We expect that students will need to earn a 31 or 32 to serve as a confirming score.

A note about comments

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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.


  • Charles says:


    I was wondering when we get to see the commended score cutoffs. Thanks

    • Art Sawyer says:

      NMSC does not publicly release the Commended mark. It generally becomes known in April, however, when schools start to be notified of eligible students.

  • CKM says:

    Hi Art,
    Based on PSAT, ACT scores and GPA, my daughter has been receiving recruitment letters and emails from Ivies (including Yale and Harvard). This may not be a big deal, and we’re just curious about how excited she should be about that. We don’t want the recruitment letters to get her hopes up too much if there’s little chance they make much of a difference. Thank you so much for your moderation of this page.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Colleges would love it if every student with high scores and high GPA applied to their institutions. The letters that get sent out are marketing opportunities. So while it is nice to hear from colleges and receive validation of high scores and high GPA, the letters don’t reveal much about chances for admission. I’m talking here about letters generated from the lists obtained from College Board and ACT. Sports recruiting is an entirely different matter and not my area of expertise.

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