National Merit Semifinalist Cutoffs Class of 2020

By September 5, 2019 October 9th, 2019 National Merit, PSAT
National Merit Semifinalists

September 11 Update: NMSC has officially release Semifinalist information to the press, and schools are allowed to publicly share the information. Don’t panic if you have not yet heard anything. Some schools have still not received their packets. NMSC does not directly publish names, so you’ll only find lists online if your local paper or website publishes them. If you find complete state lists, please comment below with a link. I will try to aggregate those we have found. The cutoffs below are final. Lists available for: Arkansas, California, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Texas, Washington.

Compass has now confirmed all of the National Merit cutoffs for the class of 2020. They range from the Commended Student cutoff at a PSAT Selection Index of 212 all the way to the 223 Selection Index cutoff in New Jersey and Massachusetts. The cutoffs determine the approximately 16,000 Semifinalists who will move forward in the National Merit Scholarship Program. An additional 35,000 students will receive Commended Student status.

The changes were the narrowest we have seen in more than a decade of tracking National Merit cutoffs. Students hitting last years’ targets were almost universally rewarded with Semifinalist status. Only Idaho’s cutoff moved up this year (from 214 to 215). Exactly half the states saw lower cutoffs this year, and twenty-four cutoffs were unchanged. No cutoff changed by more than 2 points—again, almost unprecedented stability. Below are the actual cutoffs for the class of 2020 compared to those of prior years. For students qualifying as Semifinalists, we recommend our National Merit FAQ to learn more about next steps such as the Finalist essay and confirming SAT and ACT scores.

StateClass of 2020ChgClass of 2019Class of 2018Class of 2017Typical # of
District of Columbia223022322322250
New Hampshire218-121921721675
New Jersey2230223223222520
New Mexico213-221521521390
New York22102212212191,010
North Carolina219-1220219218440
North Dakota212021221120930
Rhode Island218-222021621755
South Carolina215-1216217215200
South Dakota214-121521520945
West Virginia212021221120975
​U.S. Territories2120212211209
​U.S. Abroad2230223223222
Eligible juniors with Selection Indexes at or above the relevant cutoffs will be named as Semifinalists. Students will receive confirmation from their schools.  National Merit Scholarship Corporation asks that students not be publicly named until September 11, 2019, but many schools have been privately notifying students.

Why do states have such different cutoffs?

Cutoffs vary across the country because the 16,000 Semifinalists are allocated proportionally to states based on the total number of 11th graders in each state. 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.

Did cutoffs align with projections?

All of the Semifinalist cutoffs fell within the “most likely” range projected by Compass, but the number of states moving downward was surprising given continued growth in high PSAT scores (see table below).

The number of students scoring at or above 1400 on the October 2018 PSAT increased over the prior two years. The increase was modest, so we were expecting modest changes in cutoffs. That turned out to be true, but the distribution of the changes was unusual. The most likely explanation is in the distinction between state and national results. While the Commended cutoff is driven by national performance, state cutoffs are independent of one another. A thousand additional California students could score 224 on the PSAT and it would have no impact at all on the cutoff in New Mexico, for example. We may get a better understanding when College Board eventually releases state PSAT data later this year.

The high-water mark remains at 223.

As expected, 223 seems to be an upper limit for Semifinalist cutoffs. For the class of 2020, the only states to hit this mark were New Jersey and Massachusetts. The District of Columbia and U.S. Students Studying Abroad are “selection units” where the cutoff is set to the highest state cutoff, so they also came in at 223. We have yet to see a cutoff hit 224 since the revised PSAT debuted in 2016. For future years, we believe that a 224 cutoff is a remote possibility. New Jersey has the highest probability of an upward shift. A cutoff higher than 224 is not a realistic possibility in any state or selection unit within the foreseeable future.  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.

Alternate reality

Perhaps the most talked about topic for the 2018 PSAT was the “alternate date” test given on October 24. The questions on this exam were easier than usual, resulting in a bizarrely harsh scale. Missing even two questions took students out of Semifinalist contention in the most competitive states. Only 10% of students took this form code, so we were expecting the national implications to be minor. The implications to individual students missing a couple of questions were far from minor. Once school-by-school data is released on Semifinalists, Compass will take a closer look at the impact of the October 24 PSAT.

What can the class of 2021 expect?

Class of 2021 students can view the current state cutoffs as approximate goals for their own Semifinalist hopes, but they should do so cautiously. Compass has done extensive research on fluctuations in PSAT scores and National Merit cutoffs. Over the last dozen class years, only 30% of cutoffs have remained unchanged from one year to the next. Approximately 38% of cutoffs have increased year-over-year in that period, sometimes by several points.

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. Compass does additional research when PSAT scores are released in December and when the Commended cutoff becomes known in April.

I’m a Semifinalist, what comes next?

Our National Merit FAQ has the most detailed explanations on the steps in the National Merit Scholarship Program. Students choosing an ACT path can learn how, for the first time ever, NMSC will be incorporating ACT scores into the Finalist stage. We also have the SAT confirming score level, this year’s essay prompt, and information on how Finalists are selected.

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 Kevin says:

    Hi Art,
    My 11th grader recently prepped for the Sept ACT and did quite well (99 percentile) but she just ran out of time to look at any SAT/PSAT materials before yesterday’s test.

    Any chance her ACT prep correlates enough with the PSAT to have given her an edge, or did we drop the ball? PSAT 10 score last year was a 1360 before any studying so she had a lot of ground to cover.

  • Avatar Greg says:

    Hi M. Sawyer. Last year as a Sophomore my son scored a 1260 on the PSAT. Does this score indicate a good possibility of him earning NM semifinalist status?

    His strength is math as he took Calculus 1 and 2 at the local university last year (his high does not offer AP Calculus B/C) and earned A’s. On the PSAT math section he missed three question (unfortunately simple computational errors) and his score was a 640. Given that a perfect math score is 760 how is it that he lost 120 points with just three wrong answers? Is this accurate? He has been working hard to try to try and be a NM semifinalist (or higher) this year but is discouraged by the grading/scoring system. He feels he has to be perfect.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Your son took the Oct 24, 2018 PSAT which had an extremely unusual scale. The math problems were far easier than usual, so the scale was far harsher to balance things out. On the Oct 10 form, for example, 3 wrong was a 730. Putting that aside, making NMSF is challenging. The ERW score is critical, since it is doubled in calculating a Selection Index. A student scoring 750 ERW could get a 700 and still reach a 220, for example. A student scoring 720 ERW would need a perfect 760 M to reach the same level. Those scores represent significant improvement from your son’s sophomore. NMSF is not out of the question, but it will require him hitting all of his marks.

  • Avatar Mp says:

    Morning – How are students notified if they make the ‘commended’ level? Thanks!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Schools are sent notifications (they were mailed out about 4 weeks ago). I would check with your college counselor or principal.

      • Avatar BandMom says:

        Checked with our school and they haven’t received info regarding commended. My son had a score of 218. Is there another way to find out? Would like to put it on college applications.

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          I would contact NMSC. (847) 866-5100. As long as he was otherwise eligible, we know that his 218 qualified. I would feel comfortable listing his Commended status.

  • Avatar Shawn says:

    Art – thank you for all your assistance. My daughter is completing her NMSF application and I want to ensure we understand the question – List one time honors or awards received. I am a bit confused – if she is always on the honor roll every semester, should we list this once?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Her academic record will speak for itself, so I don’t think listing honor roll adds anything to her application. This is a place for more specialized honors or awards.

  • Avatar Anna says:

    Hi Art––

    I know this comes much later than some of the other states, but I just received the full list of New York State semifinalists. Since it doesn’t look like it’s been posted here yet, I thought I would provide a link. https://www.dropbox.com/s/e4rhd368kcodfa0/NY%20National%20Merit%20Semifinalists%202020.pdf?dl=0

    Thank you for all your hard work!


  • Avatar Kerri says:

    Mr. Sawyer, Can you elaborate a bit on the comment you share about leaving the first college choice as “undecided” so that you do not miss on other possible scholarships from other schools? Thanks!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      The best advice is to keep the First Choice up-to-date at all times. Using Undecided is one way of preventing an unwanted match, but the better way is usually to regularly evaluate the student’s choice. It won’t matter at all until the end of Feb, as names will start being released to colleges in March. Even after that, choices can be changed. The folks at NMSC are good at helping students navigate this process. If a student forgets to change from Undecided, NMSC will usually check in to see if a choice has actually been made. If a student has a clear first choice now, no reason not to put it down. If the student is still weighing several schools, you might want to leave it as Undecided. In either case, set a reminder — set several reminders — in February to revisit the choice.

      None of this matters for students planning on attending a college that does not provide NM scholarships.

  • Avatar Kate says:

    Hi, how do I get the list of names for New Jersey? Thank you.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      State lists are only available when media outlets choose to post them. Most only list area students. You could try contacting the reporter to see if they can email you the entire list. I know that some students and parents have been successful in the past.

  • Avatar Cristen says:

    Mr. Sawyer, how are the commended students chosen? Does the NMSC choose them, and then notify the school?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      NMSC determines the Selection Index that identifies approximately the top 55,000 students. Those not qualifying as Semifinalists (about 16,000) are named Commended Students (about 39,000). The Selection Index cutoff this year was 212, and that is applied nationally. NMSC notifies schools.

      • Avatar PG says:

        Thank you for the explanation. My son earned a 217 in Maryland so is not a semi-finalist. It sounds like he is getting the designation of a Commended Student and would love for him to put that on his college application. So far he hasn’t heard anything and he is likely going to start submitting applications this week. Has it been published to the schools yet?

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          High schools have been mailed Commended lists, but they sometimes disappear into a black hole. I would check with your son’s counselor. You might also try calling NMSC. At 217, he can be confident that he was named a Commended Student.

  • Avatar Thiru says:

    Can someone explain how they derive at this cut off because kids take the exam for 1520. How is that converted to this cut off? Of 1520 what score they need to get the cut off score of 219 for Florida.

    • Margaux Erilane Margaux Erilane says:

      Hi Thiru,
      You cannot directly calculate a Selection Index from a total score (320–1520); you need to know the individual ERW and Math scores. But, once you have those numbers, the calculation is easy: First, ignore the final zero in your scores; then double your ERW score; then add your Math score. For example, a student with an ERW score of 690 and a Math score of 720 would have a Selection Index of (69)x2 + 72 = 210.

  • Avatar HM says:

    Hi Art- Sorry to sort of ask you this twice- but I can’t find my old question and your response from the spring. My daughter qualified as a semifinalist. She also has a confirming SAT, excellent grades, and no discipline issues, etc. However, she has almost no activities. She did do a full time internship in physics at our local university for the last two summers. That’s basically it, besides a little bit (once a year for the past several years) of volunteering for a local non profit. She has a physical disability and taking care of her health has been a priority. Do you think she has a good chance of qualifying as a finalist even if they don’t know her status as a person with a disability (which partly explains the lack of activities)? Thx

  • Avatar Elizabeth says:

    Do you know when commended students will be officially notified by their schools?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      It is up to the schools. I’ve even heard of schools that don’t bother to notify students. Schools should have now received word from NMSC. Any eligible student receiving a 212 or higher and not qualifying as a Semifinalist is named as a Commended Student.

  • Avatar Kristine says:

    Hi Art!

    Thank you so much for tremendous amount of helpful information you provide regarding the NMSF. My daughter earned an index score of 213. I believe, according to the information you provided, that should earn her Commended status. However, her school has said they did not receive any notice from NMSF. I know Commended status does not hold the weight or provide the opportunity for scholarships like semifinalist but it is still important to her. Do you know if NMSF just has not released a list of Commended students yet? Any insight you could provide is greatly appreciated. Thanks, again, for all the info your provide!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      The notice to her school may just be delayed in the mail. It comes separate from Semifinalist notifications. Her 213 would definitely qualify her. I’m glad that she takes pride in her achievement and hope that the notification comes through shortly (if it hasn’t already arrived).

  • Avatar Jim says:

    When would the current batch of semifinalist packets be received by the high schools? I guess the results have been public since September 11 so I’m surprised that our high school here in New Mexico hasn’t reported receiving the packet (my son is the only one at his school; his name was in the Albuquerque paper so they know).

  • Avatar Nikol says:

    I need a commended list from last April, how do I find this?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      There is no Commended list from April. Principals are sent a list of students who NMSC believes will be eligible, but the determinations are technically not final. In September (last week, in fact), schools were sent final lists. I have never seen a complete list published. Some schools will recognize their own students. Students are only notified via their schools.

  • Avatar JC says:

    Here is the Illinois list. I don’t think I saw an exhaustive list submitted already.

    Thanks for all your work Art!!


  • Avatar LB says:

    Hi Mr. Sawyer,
    Thank you for this information – I love Compass Ed and all your resources.
    I’m not sure I understand the cutoffs. I live in NY. It seems to me that it’s not possible to get a 221 – our state cutoff. Is there something I don’t understand about the scoring?
    If you get 38 (perfect) + 38 (perfect) + 38 (perfect) = score of 114 x 2 = 228.
    If you miss just one that’s 38+38+36 = score of 112 x 2 = 224
    If you miss two that’s 38+36+36 = score of 110 x 2 = 220.
    Thanks for any help. This is such a crazy game!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      There are a number of ways of getting 221, especially if we are only talking about the most popular date on October 10, 2018. You can find the conversion tables here.

      Your example shows missing 1 as dropping a student to 36. That’s not always the case. Sometimes it doesn’t drop a score at all. Sometimes it can drop a score 0.5 points (Math scores are not necessarily integers), and sometimes it can drop a score below 36, as it did on the Math section on the October 24 exam

      On the October 10 test, a student could have missed 2 Reading questions and still been at 37; 2 Writing & Language questions and been at 37; and then still been able to miss 3 Math questions and get a 36.5. This would have produced exactly a 221.

      On the October 24 test (a much easier exam), the scale was far harsher. You are correct that a student could not have earned exactly a 221. A student getting 2 Reading wrong would have received a 222 (35 / 38 / 38). Same thing for 2 wrong in Writing (38 / 35/ 38). Any other combination of 2 errors dropped a student below 221. It’s why I’ve often complained about that test form.

  • Avatar Johnathan says:

    Why is the notification process so broken?

    My daughter scored a 224 so we knew she would make any cut off for any state….we are in Georgia and the only notification that we saw was because the Atlanta Journal posted kids’ names.

    Nothing official has come from her school, just really curious why National Merit does not have a better method or at least encourages the schools to be more proactive with their communication.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      NMSC simply has not changed with the times. Consider yourself fortunate to have seen your name in the Atlanta Journal. There are plenty of students who have not seen their names anywhere and are still awaiting school notification. Even if we accept that NMSC wants pre-press release notifications to come from the school, why not publish all names after the press release? NMSC will tell students who ask, so it can’t be because they want to keep the information secret. Since news outlets are allowed to publish full lists, it can’t be for privacy concerns. I understand why NMSC doesn’t like to publish cutoffs, but they could easily post the PDF’s of each state.

      Fulminating aside, congratulations!

  • Avatar Harry says:

    Anyone has a link for North Carolina list?

  • Avatar Dana says:

    Has anyone reported seeing an Ohio list? My daughter still hasn’t heard from her school. I’m not a very patient person. It’s driving me insane.

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