National Merit Semifinalist Cutoffs Class of 2019

By April 9, 2018National Merit, PSAT
National Merit Semifinalists

The last two years have been unusual ones for National Merit. With the October 2015 PSAT, College Board introduced an entirely redesigned exam and scale, and the Commended Student cutoff came in at 209. The October 2016 PSAT resulted in even more changes: the Commended Student cutoff moved to 211, and Semifinalist cutoffs increased in forty-six of fifty states. [For a full review of how things played out, see the Semifinalist Summary for the Class of 2018. Our National Merit FAQ has more information about the overall process, and we have an in-depth selection of related posts.]

April 6 Update — Confirmation of National Merit Commended Student Level at 212: For the class of 2019, the Commended Student cutoff has moved one point above last year’s 211. The 212 Commended Student cutoff was what we expected based on our analysis of PSAT results. We have updated the estimated Semifinalist cutoffs based on this information. Because the 212 Commended cutoff was already expected, most estimated ranges have not changed.   We continue to believe that the majority of states will see no change or one point increases versus class of 2018 Semifinalist cutoffs. Less common will be two point increases or one point declines. Larger changes are likely to occur in only a handful of states. Changes are not equally likely across the Selection Index range. See the table below for our estimates in your state. College Board no longer releases state-by-state PSAT results, so the ranges are based on historical probabilities rather than on this year’s scoring data within a state.

Although we now know the Commended cutoff, commendations are not actually made until September. Eligible students at or above a 212 Selection Index will either be Commended Students or will continue in the competition as Semifinalists. The Commended cutoff is a national figure. Semifinalists cutoffs are calculated state-by-state and do not become known until late August or early September.

February 11 Update: Students eligible for the National Hispanic Recognition Program have been notified. Since initial NHRP qualification is based on PSAT/NMSQT scores, I am often asked how the results impact predictions for National Merit cutoffs.  For the class of 2018, Compass has the qualifying scores for only the South and Southwest regions. For the class of 2019, we have all regions except New England. Optimists will note that the Southwest’s cutoff went down 10 points this year (NHRP uses PSAT Total Scores rather than the Selection Index). Pessimists will note that the South’s cutoff went up 10 points, which would translate to 1-2 SI points. Realists will note that NHRP scores — especially since they are neither state-based nor representative of the entire pool of PSAT-takers — are not good predictors. There is no clear trend, so NMSF cutoff predictions remain unchanged. See Compass’ NHRP post for details.

Will the class of 2019 see still higher cutoffs or will scores settle back to earlier levels?

Compass’ working hypothesis has been that the higher October 2016 scores are more representative of future results. The 2015 PSAT was a rushed effort, and College Board was still refining the SAT scale. After crunching the numbers for the current PSAT, we believe that the hypothesis is correct and that — at least on a national level — there may still be upward pressure on scores. Compass estimates that the Commended level could rise to 212 [this rise has now been confirmed. Ed.].

The table below represents Compass’ best estimates for class of 2019 cutoffs. Although “most likely” cutoffs are provided, we recommend that parents and students consider the full set of possible outcomes in the estimated ranges. Historically, the Semifinalist cutoffs fall within the estimated ranges about 90-95% of the time once the Commended cutoff is established. Extensive analysis is included below the table.

StateClass of 2019
(Most Likely)
Class of 2019
(Est. Range)
Class of 2018
(Actual)
Class of 2017
(Actual)
Typical # of
Semifinalists
Alabama216214 - 218216215225
Alaska216213 - 21721721340
Arizona220217 - 221220219300
Arkansas214212 - 215215213140
California222220 - 2232222212,050
Colorado220217 - 221220218245
Connecticut221219 - 222221220185
Delaware221218 - 22222121845
District of Columbia223221 - 22422322250
Florida219216 - 220219217810
Georgia220217 - 221220219460
Hawaii219217 - 22122021765
Idaho216214 - 21821621485
Illinois221219 - 222221219735
Indiana219216 - 220219217335
Iowa216214 - 218216215170
Kansas219216 - 220219217155
Kentucky217215 - 218217215215
Louisiana216214 - 218216214210
Maine215214 - 21821521475
Maryland222220 - 223222221315
Massachusetts222221 - 224222222345
Michigan219217 - 221219216565
Minnesota220217 - 221220219300
Mississippi213212 - 215213212135
Missouri217215 - 218217216335
Montana214212 - 21521421050
Nebraska215213 - 217215215100
Nevada217214 - 217217214100
New Hampshire217215 - 21921721675
New Jersey223221 - 224223222520
New Mexico215213 - 21721521390
New York221219 - 2222212191,010
North Carolina219216 - 220219218440
North Dakota212212 - 21421120930
Ohio219216 - 220219217615
Oklahoma216213 - 217216213185
Oregon220217 - 221220219180
Pennsylvania219216 - 220219218680
Rhode Island217215 - 21821621755
South Carolina217215 - 218217215200
South Dakota213212 - 21521520945
Tennessee218216 - 220218218325
Texas221218 - 2222212201,340
Utah216214 - 218216215155
Vermont217215 - 21921721540
Virginia222219 - 223222221390
Washington222219 - 223222220330
West Virginia212212 - 21321120975
Wisconsin217214 - 218217215330
Wyoming212212 - 21321320925
​U.S. Citizens Studying Abroad223221 - 224223222
​U.S. Territories212212211209
​​Commended Student212212211209
Did scores on the October 2017 PSAT change significantly from those on the October 2016 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 2019. 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.

The average score for the class of 2019 declined 4 points from the 1019 total score seen for the class of 2018.

Average scores, though, do not give an excellent indication of what is happening at the high end of the score range where Commended and Semifinalists cutoffs are determined. More relevant are the results for students in the 1400 to 1520 score range.

Both the percentage of test-takers and the absolute number of test-takers in the 1400-1520 score range increased this year. The increase, however, was notably smaller than that seen the previous year. We believe that these results point to a Commended Student cutoff of 211 or 212 for the class of 2019 [now confirmed as 212. Ed.].

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 Jersey — as hypothetical examples — have absolutely no effect on the cutoff in California.

New Jersey (and, by extension, DC and U.S. students abroad) will continue to have the highest cutoff.

The high-water mark is likely to remain at 223. We believe that a 224 cutoff is a remote possibility, and a drop back to 222 is not eliminated. A cutoff higher than 224 is, simply, not a possibility in any state or selection unit.  We believe that cutoffs on the redesigned PSAT reach a natural limit. A “lopsided” student has a much harder time of reaching a top SI. On the old PSAT, a strong math student might score a 720 CR, 800 M, and 720 W and reach an SI of 224. A top-notch verbal student could have a mediocre Math score and still reach 224 (800 CR, 640 M, 800 M). On the new PSAT, a perfect scoring EBRW student must now pair that performance with an excellent Math score to reach the same level (760 EBRW and 720 M). While it is possible that a state might eventually hit a 224 Semifinalist cutoff, we think it is unlikely.

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, in particular, have more stable cutoffs than those with cutoffs near the Commended level. The standard deviation for the cutoffs in the dozen highest scoring states (which also represent 4 of the 5 largest states) is approximately 1. The standard deviation among the lowest scoring states is approximately 2.

Large states see more stability than small states.

The 9 states that saw 3-point or greater increases for the class of 2018 had a total of about 1,100 Semifinalists. California, in comparison, has almost twice that number. Large numbers bring stability. The largest state seeing a 3-point increase last year was Michigan, which switched from being an ACT state to being an SAT state. Illinois has made a similar transformation, and there may still be some upward movement.

If the Commended level does increase by a point this year, does it mean that all of the estimates go up by a point?

Historically, a one point change shifts the curve slightly so that there is a toss-up — across all states — between no change and a 1 point increase. Since we expect the Commended level to remain the same or increase by a single point, we believe that the most common situation will be “no change.” As seen in previous years, we expect a lower likelihood of change in the highest cutoffs and in the largest states. A few states have “hand-tuned” estimates based on historical patterns. Understanding the inevitable distribution of changes can help students and parents better appreciate why Compass presents estimated ranges and why a “most likely” can be “best” and “weak” at the same time.

Why are score changes so much smaller at the high end?

Even in this “up year,” only New Jersey saw a cutoff of 223 (cutoffs for DC and U.S. students studying abroad are based on the highest scoring state). Several more states were bunched up at 222. These results lend credence to the theory that cutoffs on the redesigned PSAT reach a natural limit. A “lopsided” student has a much harder time of reaching a top SI. On the old PSAT, a strong math student might score a 720 CR, 800 M, and 720 W and reach an SI of 224. A top-notch verbal student could have a mediocre Math score and still reach 224 (800 CR, 640 M, 800 M). On the new PSAT, a perfect scoring EBRW student must now pair that performance with an excellent Math score to reach the same level (760 EBRW and 720 M). While it is possible that a state might eventually hit a 224 Semifinalist cutoff, we think it is unlikely. Unless the test undergoes dramatic changes, we believe that it is impossible for a cutoff to ever reach 225.

Cutoffs increased for the class of 2017 and have now increased again. Will they keep going up? In both cases, the College Board played a larger role than did test-takers in overall score changes. There is not yet evidence that scores are on the rise for future years. In fact, we think it is the least likely case – although not by a large margin – when choosing among “no change,” “lower scores,” and “higher scores.”

Nationally, the ability levels of the top 16,200 students among 1.5 million NMSQT participants is relatively static over any mid-term window. The change for the class of 2017 was as expected as it was dramatic. The PSAT underwent a complete overhaul. The elimination of the guessing penalty and the reduction in multiple-choice answers helped “inflate” most scores. The shift from 200-800 scoring per section to 160-760 per section slightly lowered the top end.

What, then, caused scores to rise for the class of 2018?

There have been a number of theories to explain the increase in PSAT scores for the class of 2018. Test-takers for the 2016 PSAT had the advantage of additional practice materials, improved test preparation, and increased familiarity (many took the redesigned PSAT as sophomores in 2015). While any or all of these factors may have had some impact, Compass’ research points to PSAT scaling imperfections or irregularities as the more likely cause.

College Board’s goal is to make sure that PSAT scores from one year are comparable to PSAT scores in another year. It has not always met that goal. It faced a more difficult task than usual for the October 2015 and 2016 PSATs, because the scales were in flux and several PSAT problems had to be discarded as invalid. The fact that 46 of 50 states saw increased cutoffs and that PSAT scores increased for sophomore and juniors at essentially all ability levels means that student-specific factors such as increased preparation do not adequately explain the changes. The rise in cutoffs does not reflect an inexorable increase in scores. While cutoffs fluctuate from year-to-year, a longer view shows that there has not been a national trend toward higher scores. That claim cannot be made as universally at the state level. In-migration and economic growth help fuel competition for Semifinalist slots, which is why a state such as Texas has seen an upward trend over the last decade. Michigan is an example of where heightened attention to the PSAT can raise scores quickly. Even at the state level, though, it is unwise to focus on year-over-year changes as an indicator of future results.

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. The table at the top of the page shows how many Semifinalists from the class of 2016 were recognized 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.

Is it just my imagination or do PSAT scores bounce around more than SAT scores?

It is not your imagination. While approximately the same number of students take the PSAT each year as take the SAT, there are crucial differences. Every student takes one of two PSAT/NMSQT forms on one of two dates in October (technically, there is a third, “alternate,” form and date). SATs have more dates, more forms, and students take and retake them throughout the year. The relative homogeneity of the PSAT means that it is highly susceptible to shifts, as there is no averaging out of differences. The size and direction of these shifts, though, cannot be predicted in advance. If they could be, College Board would take steps to prevent them.

Semifinalists — or prospective Semifinalists — may want to visit the Compass National Merit FAQ to understand more about the National Merit Scholarship Program and the steps along the way.

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.

3,025 Comments

  • MBA says:

    We are in AZ and proceeding through alternate entry after PSAT score was cancelled due to proctoring issues. (Testing with accommodations and proctor was very inexperienced.) Under alternate entry she can submit any SAT score from Oct-June and they use the highest single sitting. So far she has taken the November SAT and got a 1430 with an SI of 215 (Test scores 36 reading, 36 W&L and 35.5 math). She is signed up for the May SAT. How much would she have to raise her score to get her SI high enough for AZ? Asked another way, how many questions can she miss?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      MBA,
      She will probably need to reach at least 219. I think she will be safe if she reaches 221. I can’t accurately answer your last question because the scaling varies widely from exam to exam. Loosely speaking, she needs to miss about 5-7 fewer questions than she did in November.

      • lisa says:

        I’m sure you’re correct in the cut-off being 212, but is that published somewhere? How do you find it out? I can’t seem to see it listed anywhere.
        Thanks!
        Lisa

        • Art Sawyer says:

          Lisa,
          That would make things too easy. 🙂 National Merit doesn’t publish its cutoffs. Technically, Commended Students are not determined until September. In practice, NMSC needs to work with schools in the spring to verify student information. Its that verification process that reveals the Commended cutoff. I’ve received the 212 figure from multiple sources, so I feel comfortable with it.

  • Traci says:

    I have twins in Louisiana – both scored a 217 – so we will be all or nothing…. FIngers crossed

  • Mary says:

    What are the chances of a 222 qualifying in California? 50-50??

  • Bob says:

    What are the chances of a 1440 PSAT score (roughly 213 or so for NMSQT selection index) can qualify for the state of Georgia? Thank you so much!

  • Tina says:

    Art – Your commended estimate is right on. Just-received April “prinicipal” letter says Commended level is 212 for this year’s juniors.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Thank you for the information, Tina. I received confirmation from other sources and have now updated the post to reflect the fact that 212 Commended cutoff is now known.

  • Nu says:

    Hi Art,
    Would a selection index of 215 in Colorado be enough to make the Semifinalist cut, or commended student cut? What are the benefits of being a commended student and would there be any recognition?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Nu,
      215 will not be high enough this year in CO to make the Semifinalist cut, but you will be a Commended Student. You will receive a recognition letter in the fall. A few colleges provide scholarship opportunities to Commended Students, but most are for Finalists.

  • Dan says:

    Art,
    What are the chances that a 223 in Washington State will qualify?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Dan,
      Almost 100%. While Washington saw a 2-point change last year, going from 222 to 224 is very different than going from 220 to 222. It would require several improbable events for a 223 not to qualify in Washington.

  • Mrs.W says:

    Hi.. with the 212 for national commended, what is the likelihood that 215 in Alabama will be enough to qualify for semi finalist ? Thanks.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Mrs. W,
      Unfortunately, the 212 Commended level makes it less likely that a 215 will qualify. Historically, Alabama has been 5-7 points above the Commended mark.

  • Veronica says:

    What are the chances for a 217 PSAT score in Louisiana?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Veronica,
      I think a 217 has an excellent chance at qualifying in Louisiana. I do expect a number of states (8-12?), though, to see 2 point increases this year. A 218 is not completely out of the question, I’m afraid.

  • Joanne says:

    Hi Art, my index for the PSAT was 217 and I just found out I was a quarter finalist so I was wondering if you got any new information regarding what the commended cutoff was and if you think the semi finalist cutoffs estimations will change at all. I live in Florida by the way.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Joanne,
      I’m guessing that your counselor told you that you were on his or her list of students at or above the Commended level of 212. Technically these students are not referred to as quarterfinalists, but I the name does feel appropriate. I don’t think Florida’s Semifinalist cutoff will go as low as 217 this year.

  • Daniel says:

    Hi Art. Thank you for investing your time in this. With a 223 in Texas, my D is a likely NMSF. She is interested in Baylor and I see a change in their Regents’ Gold scholarship that historically offered a full tuition scholarship for NMF. It seems they are instituting a more selective process rather than an automatic grant. The school is not offering more information on the selection process and I wanted to see, if by chance, you have any insights on this.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Daniel,
      Colleges frequently change their merit award criteria, so it is difficult to keep up. I just looked at the Baylor information, and it is quite interesting. I’m afraid that I don’t have any insight into how many awards will actually be available.

  • Ben says:

    What are the chances of a 211 in Missouri? Commended maybe?

  • Dan says:

    Hi Art, Now that the Commended Cutoff is final, what do you think the chances of a 219 in RI for Semifinalist?

  • Susan says:

    Hi Art,

    Thank you for such useful information. Any chance a student with a 212 in Arkansas will become a semi-finalist? I know she’s commended. Thanks!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Susan,
      I can’t rule it out completely, but history is not on your daughter’s side. In the last decade — I don’t have good records going back further — Arkansas has always been at least 1 point above the Commended cutoff. In the last 2 years it has been 4 points above the Commended level, so I don’t think it will go down as far as 212 this year.

  • Aaliyah says:

    I recently took the PSAT’s in February and I received an overall score of 1180. I got 600 on the EBRW section and 580 on the Math section. I am a sophomore in New York State. Could you, with an estimate, tell me the score I would probably need for next year to make the Semi- Finalist Cutoff?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Aaliyah,
      New York’s cutoff will likely fall in the 220-222 range for the class of 2020. The EBRW score is doubled when calculating the Selection Index, so it can play at outsized role. A 740 EBRW / 730 Math would produce a 221 SI.

  • An says:

    Hi Art,
    My daughter has a score of 224 in AZ. What is her chance of becoming a National Merit Scholar?
    Thanks.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      An,
      Your daughter will be a Semifinalist. In order to be a National Merit Scholar, she will need to make it through the Finalist and Scholarship portions of the competition. You can find out more on our FAQ.

  • Kathy says:

    Do you have any thoughts on a change is KS? They have a low number of semi-finalists compared to many states and wonder if the one point increase in commended will be more likely to influence a one point increase for NMSF. Our son is at 219.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Kathy,
      Small states can see large swings, but it does not necessarily have to be in the direction of the Commended level (although that’s the more common case). For example, twice as many students could get a 220 in KS and it would have essentially zero impact on the national Commended cutoff. I’m afraid that I don’t have any new insight into KS’ cutoff.

  • Steve says:

    Hi Art,
    How best/weak is the guess for 217 being the SMF cutoff for Wisconsin? Also, does the commended cutoff of 212 suggest that a confirming score on the SAT for Finalist would be 212 or higher? Thanks!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Steve,
      It is still very much a tossup. Wisconsin’s cutoff has traditionally been 5 or 6 points above the Commended level. The confirming SAT score is usually right around the Commended level, but it has often been a bit lower than the cutoff.

  • Rachel says:

    Chances of a 222 in Illinois? 🙁

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Rachel,
      I really like your (or your student’s) chances. IL is a tricky state because of its shift from ACT to P/SAT. It’s very unlikely, though, that its cutoff will move to 223.

  • Rich says:

    Art,
    Thank you for your continued information. I believe national merit finalist status is partially determined by receiving a confirming result on SAT. I also have understood that number is linked to the commended level. Is it reasonable then to assume a 227 psat with a reconfigured (new) SAT of 215 is good enough. My daughter took SAT early and with a 35 on ACT and would prefer not taking any additional tests. Any insight would be appreciated .
    Thanks again
    Rich

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Rich,
      You are correct that achieving Finalist status requires a “confirming” SAT score. While the confirming score usually falls near the Commended level, it is not fixed at exactly the Commended level (it’s more likely to be under 212 than it is to be over 212). It will certainly not be as high as 216.

  • Texas Parent says:

    Should we give up hope for national merit with a 220 in Texas now that the commended score went up.?

  • California Parent says:

    Hi Art, thanks for your detailed and extremely helpful analyses. I know you have been asked about likely California cutoff and best guesses are either 222 or 223, but do you think this is a true 50/50 tossup or would you lean more towards 222 or 223 if forced to choose (not holding to you anything, realize this is a best guess).

    • Art Sawyer says:

      California,
      If I really had to choose, I think I’d go with 222. Perhaps that’s just my inner optimist. Increases become harder and harder to achieve at the high end of the scale. Only NJ made it to 223 last year, so I’m not sure if CA will move up a point. This is a guess, though, so I appreciate your understanding! Best of luck to your student. Keep me informed when you get the news in Aug/Sept, since students on the cusp are an important way for us to figure out the cutoff as quickly as possible. Thanks.

  • California Mom says:

    How is the selection index determined from SAT scores? My daughter had to apply via alternate entry (using her SAT score) since the school made an error during the PSAT exam and all scores were invalidated. My daughter believes since the SAT is out of 1600, the selection index is not calculated in the same way as for the PSAT.

  • Alisha says:

    Art,
    I appreciate you continuing to inform and update us about National Merit! What are the chances of a 217 qualifying in Arkansas this year?
    Thanks so much.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Alisha,
      Thank you for the kind words. A 217 will qualify in Arkansas. We simply have not seen Arkansas’ cutoff anywhere close to 6 points above the Commended level. Congratulations!

  • Scott says:

    Art,

    Quick question: Commended is done on a National basis. Why don’t they stay consistent and do semi finalist on a national basis too?

    Seems to me that both should be done on a state by state basis or both on a national basis.

    Any insight you can share on this?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Scott,
      Since NMSC has been doing it this way for decades, part of the reason is just consistency. Let me make some hypotheses. The state-by-state basis for NMSF (and Scholars) is important in maintaining representation across the country. Why is that important? When corporate sponsors and college sponsors are spread across the country, it is useful for survival of the program.

      On the other hand, if Commended was done state-by-state, you might have Commended levels that fall to somewhat embarrassing levels in some states. It’s safer for NMSC to recognize the top 50,000+ students nationwide while limiting progress in the competition by state.

  • Scott says:

    Thanks for the explanation !
    (My daughter has a 220 in New York so we are bumming out re: the state based system for semi-finalist qualification)

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