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National Merit Semifinalist Cutoffs Class of 2023

By December 6, 2021 January 3rd, 2022 National Merit, PSAT
National Merit Semifinalists

PSAT/NMSQT scores were released to students this week, and Compass has an inside look at the numbers from College Board. Almost 1.5 million juniors were able to test this October, up from the 982,000 in 2020. Far more schools were able to offer the PSAT this year than last, but PSAT volumes were still down about 12% from the pre-pandemic numbers of 2019. A number of factors can impact the Commended and Semifinalist cutoffs. For example, test taker volumes, test difficulty, scaling irregularities, geographic distribution of test takers, and Alternate Entry can all have an impact. Compass dissects these factors below. [For a general overview of the National Merit process, see our FAQ. An archive of our post on the lead-up to the class of 2022 cutoffs can be found here. For a look at cutoff trends going back to the class of 2008, see Historical National Merit Cutoffs.]

Our evidence points to a Commended cutoff of 208, but we suggest students think of it as a range of possibilities from 207 to 209. Most of the Semifinalist ranges have tightened from our September post, because we can now see that scores have not bounced back fully from the lows seen for the class of 2022.

[Below is the correct version of estimates posted 12/7/21 6:45am PDT and based on the 208 Commended cutoff. Apologies to those visiting during the evening of 12/6/21. -ed.]

StateClass of 2023
(Est. Range)
Class of 2023
("Most Likely")
Class of 2022
(Actual)
Class of 2021
(Actual)
Class of 2020
(Actual)
Alabama211 - 216214212212216
Alaska209 - 216212208212213
Arizona217 - 221219218218219
Arkansas210 - 215213211212214
California221 - 223221221221222
Colorado217 - 221218217217220
Connecticut219 - 222220220220221
Delaware218 - 224220220219220
District of Columbia222 - 224223
224222223
Florida215 - 219217217216219
Georgia217 - 221219219219220
Hawaii216 - 220217217217219
Idaho213 - 217214214214215
Illinois217 - 221219218219221
Indiana214 - 219216215215218
Iowa211 - 216213211212215
Kansas213 - 218216215214218
Kentucky212 - 218215212214217
Louisiana212 - 217214213212215
Maine211 - 217214211213215
Maryland220 - 224221224221222
Massachusetts220 - 224222221222223
Michigan215 - 220217217216219
Minnesota217 - 221219218218219
Mississippi210 - 215212213211214
Missouri213 - 217215214214217
Montana208 - 214210208210214
Nebraska210 - 216213210213216
Nevada213 - 218215214215218
New Hampshire214 - 218216214215218
New Jersey221 - 224222222222223
New Mexico210 - 215212210211213
New York218 - 222220220220221
North Carolina216 - 220218218217219
North Dakota207 - 211208207209212
Ohio214 - 219216215215218
Oklahoma210 - 216213210211214
Oregon217 - 221220220217220
Pennsylvania216 - 220218218217220
Rhode Island213 - 219216213216218
South Carolina212 - 217214213212215
South Dakota208 - 214211210209214
Tennessee214 - 219217215215219
Texas218 - 222220220219221
Utah211 - 216214212212215
Vermont211 - 217214211212216
Virginia220 - 223221221221222
Washington219 - 223220220220221
West Virginia207 - 211208207209212
Wisconsin213 - 217215214213216
Wyoming207- 212209208209212
​U.S. Territories207 - 209208207209212
​​Studying Abroad222 - 224223224222223
​​​Commended207 - 209208207209212

Consider the Range
Although we provide a “most likely” estimate for each state, Compass encourages students to think of cutoff targets as a ranges. As the historical data show, states can see significant swings in cutoffs from year to year. While Compass now has national figures from the PSAT administrations, we do not have state-by-state numbers. Our current estimates depend on the interplay between the expected Commended level and the historical trends in state cutoffs.

Estimating the Commended Student Cutoff

The table above provides essential clues for both the Commended and Semifinalist cutoffs. College Board does not provide a point-by-point breakdown of scores. Instead, it reports student counts by score range. While the conversion between total score and Selection Index is not perfect, we can loosely say that the 43,985 figure represents the number of students at 210 and above. Since National Merit looks for approximately 50,000 qualifiers, it is highly likely that the cutoff will be below 210 this year. Given the comparison to last year, it is also likely to be above 207. Compass predicts a cutoff of 208. What could drive the cutoff higher? College Board sometimes reports scores late. If there were a large dump of new scores, the cutoff might be higher. Late changes in student counts are usually small.

The PSAT was overhauled in 2015 (class of 2017) and its scoring changed. As we get more years of results from the new test, confidence grows in the relationship between the 1400-1520 scorer numbers and the Commended cutoff. The chart below shows the data for the 6 known years and indicates where the class of 2023 is expected to fall.

Commended versus Semifinalist, National versus State
The Commended cutoff is determined by looking at the top 50,000 scorers nationally. Semifinalist cutoffs, on the other hand, are determined state-by-state. The performance of students in Georgia or Michigan has no impact on the cutoffs in New York or Ohio. NMSC establishes a target number of Semifinalists based on the high school population in each state. California, for example, has a target of approximately 2,000 Semifinalists. NMSC determines the Semifinalist cutoff that comes as close as possible to producing 2,000 Semifinalists in the state. While this methodology ensures a national distribution of Semifinalists, it means that some states are far more competitive than others.

When your selection unit is not a state
The Semifinalist cutoff for each of the 50 states is calculated independently. However, some cutoffs are not independent.  NMSC considers boarding school students, students studying abroad, and students in the District of Columbia and in U.S. Territories or Commonwealths as separate “selection units” that follow specific rules. The net effect is that the cutoffs for the District of Columbia and students studying abroad are always set at the level of the highest state cutoff. The cutoff for U.S. Territories is set at the Commended Student level (as it is with some states). The cutoff for a boarding school is set at the highest state cutoff within the boarding school’s region.

Did scores skew low or high? What does that mean for potential Semifinalists?
Only 3% of students scored at or above 1400 this year. That’s the lowest value we’ve seen — tied with an October 2019 PSAT that had an unusually difficult scale. three things could produce that low of a figure: (1) the October 2021 exam also had a challenging scale or (2) student learning has been impaired during the pandemic and test performance reflects it or (3) a disproportionate number of high scorers were unable (or chose not) to test. The wildcard with the last case would be students applying Alternate Entry via SAT scores. Compass expects that wildcard to play a limited role this year. The 12% difference between this year’s PSAT volume and the pre-pandemic level is modest compared to the 41% drop for the class of 2022. Even last year’s falloff produced few anomalies — Maryland being the most painful exception. The timing of Alternate Entries means that there can be no impact on the Commended cutoff.

Expect cutoffs to resemble the low scoring classes of 2017, 2021, and 2022
There have been 3 recent years where the Commended cutoff fell below 210 and 3 years where it fell above 210. In the low years, the cutoffs averaged 216, 215, and 215. In the high years, the averages were all 218. If the 224 in Maryland is considered an inauthentic result, the highest cutoffs were at 222 in the low years and 223 in the high years.

The Role of Test Scaling
The PSAT is usually taken by about 1.5 million students each year. The pool is large enough and consistent enough that the scores of the top 50,000 students should not change much. And yet they do. This reflects a shortcoming of the PSAT/NMSQT — it’s well-designed to measure the performance of the average student, but is more prone to error at the edges. College Board attempts to scale each PSAT so that a particular score represents the same level of achievement. In practice, we see clear examples of where College Board’s numbers are “off.” The class of 2020, for example, had an unusual test form that produced far lower cutoffs than in the previous year. Further confusing matters is that several different test forms are used each year. Compass’s analysis shows that this year’s PSAT — or at least the primary form, taken by more than 1 million students — was difficult. This difficulty can show up throughout the range of cutoffs, but lower scoring states tend to track the Commended level more than do the higher scoring states.

Below is a chart showing the lowest third of cutoffs and the highest third versus the Commended level for the last 6 years.

Why our Most Likely estimates are wrong
Even the folks at College Board and NMSC don’t know the final cutoffs for the class of 2023 yet. The Commended figure usually leaks out in April, and the Semifinalist numbers generally aren’t known until Labor Day. Historically, most Semifinalist cutoffs fall within our estimated ranges. No website, though, should claim that they know what the cutoffs will be. While Compass knows the number of high scoring students nationally, for example, the figure could be skewed by state. If Hawaii had heavy cancellations [a fictional hypothesis – ed.], the numbers would barely be a blip on the national scene, and yet they could have a substantial impact on the Semifinalist cutoff in Hawaii.

We know from tracking cutoffs in past years that “no change” is the most common result, and yet it only occurs about 1 time out of 4. Variability is the one certainty. See the chart below for a summary of changes in the last 10 years.

Also, test-taking behavior can change from year to year. In some states, the majority of juniors take the PSAT, which makes the competition more intense for Semifinalist spots. In states where the focus is more on the ACT than the SAT, on the other hand, PSAT participation and cutoffs tend to be lower. Participation rates are not static. Schools, districts, and entire states make decisions about what test to offer and to which students. For example, when Illinois and Michigan shifted from the ACT to the SAT, they saw higher cutoffs as an offshoot. Changes at the school and district level may have a less pronounced effect, but they can still shift the cutoffs.

Why our ranges are most likely right
It’s unusual for a state to break out of its historical norms. Given the weakness in scores this year, it is unlikely that we will see a state establish a new high. It’s more likely that scores will be aligned with other low years. Even in that narrowly defined group, fluctuations are the rule rather than the exception.

Is it possible to quantify the swings seen when “low” years are isolated? The table below groups states by size, because larger states tend to have more stable cutoffs.

The difference between a state’s maximum cutoff in the classes of 2017, 2021, and 2022 is calculated versus its minimum. For example, the cutoffs for Florida were 217, 216, and 217, so the maximum difference was 1 point. There were a total of 9 large states that had the same difference. Five large states saw the same cutoff across all 3 years, and no large state had a swing of more than 2 points. By contrast, 10 of the 16 medium-sized states had swings of at least 3 points. Two of the 17 small states had differences of 5 points. It is wrong to assume that the data from three years is definitive. A state that had no change in those three years could see movement this year. The underlying idea, though, is solid. Swings happen. They happen more in smaller states. They are not always predictable by national results alone.

Did Alternate Entry break the NMSQT?
The junior year PSAT has also served as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test for more than 60 years. However, there has long been an exception for extenuating circumstances such as illness. For students who were sick on the day of the exam, NMSC allowed the substitution — pending an application by the school counselor and approval by NMSC — of an SAT score. Alternate Entry was uncommon and something of a rounding error. In fact, NMSC didn’t even need to use the entrants’ scores when calculating Semifinalist cutoffs. What if an entire country is ill, however? The pandemic forced NMSC to rewrite the rules for Alternate Entry. In California, for example, PSAT volume dropped by almost 90% because of COVID-19 restrictions. What would National Merit have meant if all of those students had been disqualified? In reaction, NMSC allowed students to self-apply and — so long as they met the application deadline and didn’t have a PSAT on file — be automatically approved. This change avoided disqualifying students who missed the PSAT, but now NMSC lacked PSAT scores from the majority of potential qualifiers in some states. The NMSQT was broken — at least for a bit — and SAT scores had to be incorporated into the calculation of cutoffs.

In most cases, the resulting cutoffs were at least within the historical norms. But then there was Maryland.  All of the top NMSF-producing districts in the state had to cancel the PSAT/NMSQT. Most of the state’s Semifinalists qualified via the SAT, and this moved the cutoff to the highest ever recorded by any state. The students who were able to take the PSAT (about one-third of the usual volume) were at a disadvantage. The Alternate Entry system wasn’t designed for such a radical set of circumstances.

The hope for the class of 2023 is that most states got back to something approaching normal this year. The 1.5 million test takers figure points to recovery. There could still be pockets, however, where Alternate Entry plays the role of spoiler. NMSC has been tight-lipped about how it will handle Alternate Entry applications and SAT scores in this years’ calculations. For now, we remain optimistic that the NMSQT was bowed but not permanently broken.

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.

2,049 Comments

  • DJ says:

    We’re new to this. My son has a 215 in Missouri. I’m really hoping Missouri is a state that hasn’t varied much (historically) from your predictions. Are you feeling pretty confident in the 215? Please say yes. 🙂

    • Art Sawyer says:

      DJ,
      I feel like a 215 is a good candidate. I’m not sure that I’d go as far as pretty confident. In one of the 3 “down years” — class of 2017 — Missouri had a 216. In the other 2 it was 214 and 214. So there is precedence for a 216 — even in a weak year nationally — but I wouldn’t say it’s the leading precedent. Don’t let what I say discourage you, since we are all just speculating until September. Positive thoughts!

  • Srividhya says:

    My son got perfect math score in PSAT and SAT in October. His PSAT index I believe in 214 with a score of 1450. He is a junior from Oregon. What are his chances of alternate entry? how much should be get in SAT to be considered for alternate entry?

    thanks,

  • Rob says:

    Hello Art, thank you for all the helpful insight. My son scored a 217 in New York, do you think there’s even a remote possibility that New York’s selection cutoff this year could drop to 217 or is it certain he may just miss it?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Rob,
      In all the years I have been tracking cutoffs, I’ve yet to see NY at 217. My honest take is that your son won’t make it in a competitive state such as New York. Best of luck during the rest of this process!

  • Anonymous says:

    Hi Art,
    Thank you for the detailed analysis and insight. How would you assess the chance of OR dropping to 218? Thank you in advance for your response.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I’m confident that we are going to see low numbers nationally. In the 3 years that has been true since the introduction of the new PSAT, Oregon has been at 219, 217, and 220 (although that 220 may have been impacted by Alternate Entry). So 218 is not out of the running. If I had to put a number on it, I’d say about 20% chance.

  • Shri says:

    Hello Art,
    My son scored 1460 in PSAT 217 index in Junior year
    Arizona cut of is 217 – 221
    What do u think about his chances?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Shri,
      It’s a long shot, but it’s not impossible. Arizona hasn’t seen a 217 cutoff since the class of 2015. We know that students didn’t do all that well on this PSAT, so it comes down to how much Arizona students struggled.

  • Tony says:

    Hi Art,

    My daughter PSAT score just came in today (a month late!). Her index score is 220, class of 2023. Do you think she has a chance of becoming a semifinalist in Maryland?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Tony,
      As you probably know, Maryland had the highest cutoff last year (something of a fluke), but always comes in top 5 or so. We haven’t seen a 220 cutoff in over a decade. This is an odd year, so I can’t say that there is no chance of a 220. More likely is a 221 or 222 cutoff.

  • DJ says:

    My son scored a 219 as a sophomore in NC this past October. I understand he is not eligible to be considered a Semifinalist even if his score proves to meet the threshold this year because he is not a junior. If he ends up having a particularly bad test day when he sits for the test next year, as a junior, can his sophomore score be used to qualify if it is above threshold for next years test?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      DJ,
      Only the results of the junior year PSAT are considered for National Merit. On the bright side, if your son was able to score a 219 in sophomore year, he should be in good shape to do well in October. Best of luck!

  • FL Mom says:

    Hi Art,

    Thank you for all of your invaluable information! My son received a 217 Selection Index in Florida. How do you feel about his chances of becoming a Semifinalist? He received a 1540 on the SAT last month and will retake in March. Verbal 750, Math 790. Grammar is his weakness. Can you please recommend how he can improve his verbal score? Thank you!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      FL Mom,
      I think we’re likely to see a Florida cutoff of 216 or 217, so your son has a good chance of being a Semifinalist.

      Grammar may be your son’s weakness, but he is not missing many problems with a 750. When a student misses 20 problems on a test, it’s is usually pretty easy to find areas for improvement. When a student is only missing 2 or 3 problems, it’s harder to pinpoint. He may be able to improve through practice alone.

  • Joe says:

    My son scored a 220 index in Texas. I saw that you predicted a cutoff of 220, but previously had predicted 221 – do you think it is likely that he will be a semifinalist?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Joe,
      The 220 was (is) my prediction after having had the opportunity to analyze the national results. Everything points to a year of low cutoffs. We can’t know that for sure, of course, but I think it’s more likely than not that a 220 will qualify in Texas.

  • Don says:

    Hi Art,
    Great articles! My daughter got a 219 in Florida, Class of 2023. Would you predict that she would be a Semi-Finalist?

  • Anonymous says:

    I do not have a full understanding how the scores work. My daughter score 190 but it says she is in the 96th percentile. Could you explain what that means?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Anon,
      The 190 is what is known as a Selection Index, and its only use is for National Merit. That score won’t be high enough to achieve National Merit recognition, but let me try to explain the 96th percentile.

      The percentile is probably based on her total score rather than her Selection Index. The percentile you are seeing is probably what College Board calls the Nationally Representative Sample Percentile. It’s a made up percentile based on an estimate of what would happen if every junior in the country took the PSAT. In reality, higher scoring students are more likely to take the PSAT. There is a second percentile called the User Percentile that compares students to others who have taken the PSAT. A 96th percentile score in the National Percentile is a 91st percentile score in User Percentile for juniors. Long explanation short: it sounds like your daughter is in the top 10% of students taking the PSAT.

      • Juan says:

        Mr. Sawyer, your knowledge of these numbers is uncanny. You mention that a 190 is likely 91 percentile nationally. We were wondering what top 10% is for our state, Maryland, for hispanic recognition. (I think my son needs to be top 10% for that by state). Thanks

        • Art Sawyer says:

          Juan,
          I haven’t written much about the NHRP recently, because College Board has changed them so much as to be unrecognizable. College Board does not publish percentile charts by state. In looking at the class of 2020 numbers (I wanted to avoid the pandemic-impacted class of 2021), 4% had scores from 1400-1600 and 16% scored 1200-1390. That likely means that top 10% is going to fall around 1300 +-20 points. I wish I could be more accurate, and of course we don’t know how things played out this year. College Board, BTW, uses Total Scores rather than Selection Indexes. You may already know that your son can also qualify via 9th and 10th grade AP scores, if he has gotten 3 or above. It’s an either/or situation, so if he has 2 strong APs, then he doesn’t need to worry about his PSAT score (and vice versa).

  • Marc says:

    My son (class of 2023) scored 212 in the PSAT in Tennessee. It does appear that he will miss the cut of scores based on the estimates, but is commended still a possibility?
    What are the benefits of getting commended?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Marc,
      Yes, he’ll almost certainly qualify as a Commended Student. For most Commended Students it is simply a recognition of a job well done. There are some company-sponsored National Merit scholarships that can go to Commended Students, but they are rare. You might check the College Confidential or Reddit forums to see if there are any colleges currently providing merit aid to Commended Students.

  • Sun says:

    Hi Art,
    Thanks for the article. I see that the max limit has dropped to 220 for NC. My son has an index of 220, class of 2023. What are his chances of becoming a semifinalist? Is there a chance of a new high being set in NC?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Sun,
      I suppose that there is a chance of a new high, but it would be an exceedingly slim one given the trend we are seeing nationally. I’m reasonably confident that 220 will qualify as a Semifinalist this year.

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