National Merit Semifinalist Cutoffs Class of 2021

By January 31, 2020 February 7th, 2020 National Merit, PSAT
National Merit Semifinalists

Since our original class of 2021 National Merit post in December, Compass has done extensive research into how scores behaved on the 2019 PSAT. A full write-up can be found here. This research significantly changes our predictions for Semifinalist cutoffs for the class of 2021. We expect all—or nearly all—state cutoffs to move lower. The Commended cutoff is likely to fall between 208 and 210.

Here is what we know:

  • The number of juniors scoring 1400 or higher dropped 30%, from 71,041 to 49,749.
  • The “harsh scales” students saw in Reading and Writing may be a part of the explanation, but score drops were actually larger on the Math section than on the Reading and Writing sections.
  • Based on sample data we have received from schools, there are fewer students in the typical National Merit ranges. We have observed Selection Indexes running about 2–4 points lower than in previous years.
  • The most popular date, Wednesday, October 16th was impacted by lower scores.
  • The first semiofficial word on National Merit comes when the Commended score leaks in April.

Here is what we don’t know:

  • We don’t have enough data for the October 30th administration or other alternate forms to say how those scales performed.
  • We don’t know the exact amount by which Selection Indexes declined.
  • College Board does not publish data by state, so we can only estimate ranges.

You can find our full analysis below the table of class of 2021 cutoff estimates. If you would like to find out more about the National Merit process such as how to calculate the Selection Index, how notification works, how many students reach each level, and what comes after Semifinalist, we recommend our National Merit FAQ. You can also see a complete history of Semifinalist cutoffs for the last 13 years or view the archive of the class of 2020 results.

StateClass of 2021
(Most Likely)
Class of 2021
(Est. Range)
Class of 2020
Class of 2019
Class of 2018
Class of 2017
Typical # of SemifinalistsSize Category
District of Columbia221219–22322322322322245Small
New Hampshire216214–21821821921721675Small
New Jersey221219–223223223223222530Large
New Mexico212210–21421321521521395Small
New York219217–221221221221219960Large
North Carolina217215–219219220219218490Large
North Dakota209207–21221221221120930Small
Rhode Island216214–21921822021621755Small
South Carolina214212–216215216217215210Medium
South Dakota211209–21421421521520945Small
West Virginia209207–21121221221120975Small
​U.S. Territories209207–211212212211209
​U.S. Abroad221219–223223223223222

Explaining the Table

We have provided a column with our “Most Likely” cutoff estimate because students and parents expect a number, but the more informative column is the “Estimated Range.” Most cutoffs will fall in this range. The edges of the ranges are less likely, but they remain possibilities. In some years, a handful of states fall outside of the estimated ranges. These are generally smaller states. We will not have official cutoffs until late August or early September of 2020.

The Decline in High Scores

A key statistic we look at is the number of students scoring at or above 1400 in Total Score. College Board does not report more granular data or information on Selection Index distribution. But the 1400+ figure is a useful indicator of where the Commended Student cutoff will fall.

Large changes have happened in the past. The jump in 1400+ scorers from the class of 2017 to the class of 2018 was, at least, predictable. The class of 2017 had to contend with the rollout of the new PSAT and a questionable exam. For the class of 2018, the Commended cutoff went up two points, and only Rhode Island saw a lower cutoff.

In the years since, there have been increasing numbers of students achieving 1400+ scores, and Commended cutoffs have inched upward. Things reversed course dramatically on the 2019 PSAT. The class of 2021 has 49,749 students in the 1400–1520 range (as reported in mid-Dec by College Board)—even fewer than the 55,587 in the class of 2017. This points to a 208–210 Commended cutoff.

Why focus on the Commended figure?

The Commended cutoff is the only cutoff that is national. And the 1400+ figure is also national.

What evidence is there of the relationship between national and state changes?

The expected drop in the Commended cutoff does not mean that state cutoffs will all move in lockstep. I expect most states to see declines of between 1 and 4 points. It’s possible that some states will see no change, which is why last year’s cutoff is the upper bound of most of our estimated ranges.

The table below summarizes 12 years of Semifinalist cutoff changes. It shows how cutoffs at the state level have corresponded with the national Commended cutoff. For example, there was 1 year in which the Commended cutoff declined by 2 points. In that year, 17 states had cutoffs that were unchanged. Only 1 state saw a higher cutoff.

The table gives insight into what might happen when nationwide scores decline. In the 6 years in which the Commended level changed by 2 or more points—up or down—there are 300 data points from the 50 states. Only 6 cutoffs (2%) moved in the opposite direction of the Commended change. These 6 have all been states with a low number of Semifinalists. I don’t expect any large state to see an increase this year. I expect the vast majority to see lower cutoffs.

We have also analyzed a sample of anonymized 2018 and 2019 PSAT data from high schools. The school data gives us insight to the very top of the range (220+). The data confirm our hypothesis that even the highest-scoring states will see declines. The dataset is not diverse enough for us to use it to predict specific cutoffs.

As always, we will update this page as more information becomes available. This update has been a long time coming because of the extensive work it took to collect and analyze the data. It has also delayed many answers to specific questions.


Below are excerpts from our original post, with annotations where our new knowledge has reshaped our conclusions.

Why do we emphasize ranges?

The only predictable thing is unpredictability. Over the last 12 years, cutoff changes have shown a roughly normal distribution. The catch is that there is no way of predicting where on the curve an individual state will fall. Compass has also found that there is a wider spread of cutoff changes in smaller states (defined as the 16 states with the lowest number of Semifinalists).

The chart demonstrates two things. First, we can’t be assured that any estimate of a cutoff will be correct. There are always changes in the mix. Second, the best estimate is “no change.” [We now have firm reason to believe that cutoffs will decline this year, so the Most Likely figures have been adjusted downward.ed.]

On average, about 60% of cutoffs hold fast or go down. A given year, though, is rarely average. Below is a chart showing the number of state cutoffs that have gone up, remain unchanged, or gone down in each year. [We now believe that the changes for the class of 2013 will look something like those we saw for the class of 2013. –ed.]

The class of 2018 saw increases in 46 states; the class of 2020 saw an increase in 1 state! Which kind of year do we expect for the class of 2021? [We currently predict that most states will see decreases. This was seen for the class of 2013. It’s the same concept—but in the opposite direction—as seen with the class of 2018. There may be a handful of states in the No Change section, but most cutoffs will go down. –ed.]

Everything we think percentiles tell us about National Merit is wrong.

College Board’s percentile reporting falls somewhere between misleading and wrong. First, the percentiles prominent on students’ PSAT reports are for a “Nationally Representative Sample.” The sample reflects the hypothetical results if every student in a class year took the PSAT. The College Board also reports the PSAT/NMSQT User percentiles (found only on a student’s online report or in Understanding the PSAT/NMSQT) based on students who have actually taken the PSAT. These figures are lower than the Nationally Representative figures, since the PSAT-taking group has a higher proportion of college-bound students. However, the User percentiles are for the class years of 2018, 2019, and 2020 and not for the class of 2021. The percentiles reported by College Board do not reflect the results of a single student who took the October 2019 PSATs. We could also quibble about the fact that percentiles are rounded or that not all test-takers are eligible for National Merit or that no percentiles are provided for the Selection Index, but the fact that percentiles are not shaped in any way by student results from this year’s PSATs immediately disqualifies them from consideration.

Will the harsh scales alter the Semifinalist cutoffs?

Students missing a single question have always scored high enough to be Semifinalists, and that will be true again this year. On some test forms, just two missed questions has been able to take a student below the cutoff in the most competitive states. The table below shows the impact of two incorrect answers on a student’s Selection Index for the 2018 and 2019 PSATs. The PSAT is given on a primary date and an alternate date each year. Anywhere from 80–90% of students test on the primary Wednesday date. 

Comparing the impact of incorrect answers on Selection Index across test forms



 Oct 16, 2019
Oct 30, 2019
 Oct 10, 2018
Oct 24, 2018

In college admission, the difference on the SAT between a 730 ERW and a 740 ERW is trivial. On the all-or-nothing PSAT/NMSQT, however, small changes can prove significant. The Semifinalist cutoff for New Jersey was 223 last year. Even with a perfect Math score, a student would have still needed an ERW score of 740 or better to be named a Semifinalist. The ERW score receives twice the weight of the Math score, so errors can prove costly.

Why do test scales vary?

In theory, a more challenging scale exists only to offset an easier test. The scaling done on the PSAT is different from what a classroom teacher might do to determine that a certain percentage of students will receive As, a certain percentage will receive Bs, and so on. PSAT scaling is designed to take into account the small differences in difficulty between test forms. In recent years, however, we have seen large swings in test difficulty on both the SAT and PSAT. Last year’s alternate date PSAT saw an historically easy Math section and correspondingly harsh scale. While this year’s scales aren’t quite as bad as the October 24, 2018 scale, they are steeper than usual. The steep drop—particularly at the high end of the scale and particularly on the ERW—may end up lowering cutoffs for the class of 2021. As more data becomes available, we expect to better test this thesis. The impact is more likely to be seen on the highest cutoffs. By the time scores reach the expected Commended range, scale fluctuations tend to be less important.

Have things always been this bad?

No. Two trends have created the knife’s edge we saw last year and expect to see again this year. Elite students are stronger testers than they were a decade ago, and changes to the PSAT have made the test easier. On the 2008 PSAT, a California Semifinalist could have missed 8 or 9 questions. On the October 24, 2018 PSAT, a student would have needed to miss no more than a single question. We don’t yet know, of course, how students will fare this year.

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 graduating seniors 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.

What about the Commended cutoff?

The Commended student cutoff is set nationally, so it is the same for all participants.

Where can I learn more?

We regularly update this page and try to answer all questions in the comments. Our National Merit FAQ has the most detailed explanations on the steps in the National Merit Scholarship Program.

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 AD says:

    Hi Art,

    When will you know more about the official cutoffs? Does NM release more information before they begin notifying semi finalists in the fall?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      NMSC does not officially release any information until notifying schools in the fall. It usually contacts schools in April to get more information on students who it has identified as above the Commended mark (although it does not come out and say this). Given the number of school closures, I don’t know how smoothly this process will go or whether or not we will get word of the Commended cutoff. Again, it is not officially released.

  • Avatar Dave says:

    Hi Art,
    I got a 222 in Massachusetts. At first I thought I would be a point off, but reading this has got my hopes higher. Thoughts?


  • Avatar Trent says:

    Hey Art,
    I got a 221 in California, think I will qualify to be a semifinalist?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I think 221 will qualify this year. The data I’ve seen point to at least a 1 point decline. However, I can’t quite put it in the “sure thing” category.

  • Avatar Logan says:

    215 in ID. How are my chances?

  • Avatar Ellie says:

    Hi Mr. Sawyer! I got a 223 (perfect ERW, all points off in math), but I’m in Virginia, which I know is one of the harder states. How do you think my chances are? Thank you so much!

  • Avatar SFSC says:

    Hi Art,
    My son had an index score of 220 in SC. It seems that he has a fairly good chance to be a semi finalist. He just received a 34 on his ACT and will be taking the SAT in March. Are there any other things he should be doing this year to increase his chances of becoming a finalist?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      His 34 will be high enough to serve as a confirming score for Finalist. He needs to keep his grades up and make sure that he does nothing to upset the school administration (he will need their recommendation). It looks like he is on track!

  • Avatar SJones says:

    Hi Mr. Sawyer,
    Thank you SO MUCH for all your hard work to keep us informed and answer our questions! I understand it’s all a guessing game until the final cutoffs are released, but what do you think are the chances of a student with a 212 in Alabama making semifinalist?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      It will be tough, but it not impossible. Alabama’s cutoff usually falls within 4-6 points of the Commended cutoff. If we see a really low Commended level, then your odds improve.

  • Avatar Josh says:

    I received a index score of 218 in Florida (perfect in math and writing). Do you think I can be confident about becoming a semifinalist?

  • Avatar Lisa says:

    I’m curious – are there any trends in the number of students taking the PSAT? My daughter’s high school did a particularly poor job of reminding students to sign up for the exam and lots of other students decided not to take it simply because don’t see it as useful.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      PSAT numbers have been relatively stable. The biggest drivers tend to be decisions about state or district-wide testing. There have always been schools that do a poor job of informing students.

  • Avatar Kent says:

    Hi Art,

    Thank you for your informative posts. My son received an SI of 220 (for California). Can you briefly explain or point me to a prior post that explains why larger states such as California would experience a greater decline (in this instance -2) in the SI cutoff for semifinalists? What would be your best guess for the probability that the SI cutoff in California will be 221 vs 220 (50/50 or some other ratio?)

    Likewise, how informative (or not) will the April commended SI cutoff be, to infer the eventual September semifinalist SI cutoff, in particular for California? Thank you.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      If I wrote that larger states see greater declines, then I misspoke. Larger states see more stable cutoffs, in general. Let’s say that we knew, nationally, that the same number of students scored 220 and above this year as scored 222 and above last year. It would be likely that California would see a 2-point decline. A smaller state is more vulnerable to population shifts. Maybe a high-performing school skips the PSAT this year. Maybe the class just has fewer superstars. That’s why states such as Alaska or South Dakota can see swings that don’t correspond with national trends. Of course we don’t know that there were as many 220+ this year as 222+ last year, and that’s not a figure that is ever published.

      The Commended cutoff will give us some additional confirmation of the trends we are seeing, but it probably won’t change my estimate for states at the top end of the scale. The fact that there are fewer students scoring 209+, for example, doesn’t tell us that much about students scoring 220+. Still, it will be nice to see the impact.

      Yes, I’d say 50/50 or maybe 40/60. I think the evidence points to drops of more than 1 point in most states.

  • Avatar MG says:

    My DD got a 216 as her score in Colorado. Will she be commended or get a National Merit Scholar?

  • Avatar Era says:

    Hey! I got a selection score of 217 for IL, what do you think my chances are?
    Thanks 🙂

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I don’t think your chances are zero (that’s why I included 217 in my estimated range), but it would be extremely unusual for a state as large as IL to see a 4-point change. You will more likely be named a Commended Student.

  • Avatar Mollie says:

    How is a 219 looking in Georgia? Hoping GA goes down at least 1?

  • Avatar Benjamin says:

    Hi Art,
    I live in South Carolina and got a 211, I know it is slightly below the predicted index of SC but it is slightly above the commended index. What do you think the chances are for me?
    Thank you so much!!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I’m confident that you will at least be a Commended Student. There is plenty of evidence that scores dropped this year. In recent years, SC’s cutoff has been 3-6 points above the Commended level. A 211 cutoff for SC is not out of the question, but it’s just a bit outside of my expected range.

      • Avatar Benjamin says:

        Thanks for the reply!
        I just also wanted to add that on the College Board website, it says that my overall score is in the top 99% of the nation. This is the same case with each individual section score. Are these stats reliable and would they change anything?

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          No, it’s not reliable, and no, it doesn’t change anything. Percentiles are based on the prior 3 years of results and don’t even include this year’s results.

  • Avatar SB says:


    My daughter scored a 221 SI and we live in Texas. She recently received an invitation for a “JuniorNational Scholar session” from Texas A&M. On the registration website it said “This invite only social is for potential National Scholars who have scored high on their PSAT and may be recognized as a National Merit or National Hispanic Scholar in their senior year. ” I was under the impression that we will only know the cutoffs oficially in late August, does this mean that the Universities already have this information?


    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Thanks for bringing this up, since it creates confusion each year. I can guarantee that colleges do not know the cutoffs. A&M buys lists from College Board with a certain range of scores and expects it to roughly cover NM/NHRP students. I’m pretty confident that your daughter will be NMSF, but that level of confidence is not impacted by the invitation.

      • Avatar SB says:

        Mr. Sawyer,
        Thank you very much for the reply. This event was last Saturday, and my daughter could not attend it because of a school golf tournament (she placed second :)). I was a little disappointed that she was not able to attend, especially because A&M gives out a sizable scholarship to resident students who are finalists. When the scores came out in December, she and I decided to wait till September and be pleasantly surprised if her score qualifies her for NMSF. Still, this email gave me some hope. I guess we will stick to our original decision and wait till fall. Thanks again.

  • Avatar Fantastic-Tardies says:

    I have a selection score of 212. I saw your predicted commended scores were lower than this. Is there a good shot that this score will end up being commended? Also, I saw that the commended score leaks in April. How does that work?

    Thank you!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Yes, I think there is near certainty that the Commended cutoff will decline this year. NMSC has to contact schools in the spring to begin assembling data to verify student eligibility. It only asks about students in the Commended and above range, so the cutoff usually leaks that way.

  • Avatar BR says:

    Hi Art,
    do you think 222 is good enough for WA?

  • Avatar Lisa says:

    Hi Art,

    My son in Oregon had a perfect math score and perfect reading score but kinda bombed grammar. He is at 218. Do you think he has a chance?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I can only base my estimates on the national trends, and this year’s trends — as you’ve read — are a bit wacky. I’d say that you’s son’s chances are 50/50. I expect a 2-point decline to be common.

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