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.

3,104 Comments

  • Prat says:

    Does 218 for my son have a chance to make the cutoff in NC, since you expect a handful of states to end up with a lower cutoff?

  • Dave says:

    Hi, my son got a 219 in Ohio, do you think that will make it?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Dave,
      I think it is too close to call. I think about half of states will have cutoffs that remain stable or decline, but that is only an approximation.

  • J H says:

    Hi – My son got a 219 in Wisconsin. How far do you think that will take him in the competition?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      J H,
      Your son will likely qualify as a Semifinalist based on his PSAT score. In order to continue as a Finalist (and potentially a scholarship winner), he will need a “confirming” SAT score, good grades, and the support of his school. The confirming score is not determined until later in the year, but it will likely be in the 210-213 range (calculated as a Selection Index). Semifinalists will receive more information about the Finalist application in September.

  • Maria says:

    How far will a 213 index take my daughter in KS?

  • Daniel says:

    Hello Mr. Sawyer,

    I am writing to ask if you (or any of your readers) will publish the last 4-5 years of essay prompts for the NMF applications. I realize it can change this year but if there is a pattern, it could help with some summer preparation.

    thank you!
    DP

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Daniel,
      The pattern is that NMSC has not changed its prompt for at least 3 years. It is so broad that I think it is a safe starting point for students thinking ahead to this fall.

      “To help the reviewers get to know you, describe an experience you have had, a person who has influenced you, or an obstacle you have overcome. Explain why this is meaningful to you. Use your own words and limit your response to the space provided.”

  • Max says:

    Hi, I received a 214 in Florida. Do you foresee a chance that I may qualify as a Semi Finalist? Thanks!

  • Tina says:

    Hi, My son has a score of 217 and lives in. MS. How likely is it that he will be a semi-finalist and finalist?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Tina,
      He is essentially certain to reach the Semifinalist stage. More than 90% of Semifinalists become Finalists. He needs to achieve a confirming SAT score (not yet set, but probably an SAT Selection Index of around 212), have good grades, and get the recommendation of his school. He will receive more information in September. The scholarship portion of the competition is a bit more competitive, with about half of Finalists earning a scholarship from a college or sponsor.

  • MT says:

    Hi! How likely is it that a 220 in MN will make it to the semifinalist round? I see that 220 is the predicted score, but what are the chances that it could go up or down?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      MT,
      In a “normal” year, getting the same score as the previous year’s cutoff would work out about 60-70% of the time. There still seems to be some upward pressure nationally — although much less than last year — which is why I estimate this year that it is about 50/50 that last year’s cutoff will qualify. MN has been on the rise in recent years, but I would still handicap things at 50/50. Good luck.

  • S says:

    Hi, my daughter received 220 in CA. will she be a semi-finalist?

  • Natalie says:

    I earned a 227 in California. What do I need to do to become a finalist/scholarship recipient?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Natalie,
      In September, you’ll get an application for Finalist. In order to qualify, you’ll need
      1) Good grades. There is no set cutoff. If you get mostly A’s, you should be fine.
      2) A “confirming SAT” score. This is a national cutoff that usually falls around the Commended cutoff (212). Given your PSAT score, you shouldn’t have any trouble. You can use any score through December of this year. High scores can improve your chances of becoming a scholarship recipient.
      3) A recommendation from your school.
      4) A completed application — think of it as a barebones college application with a single essay.

      The Finalist stage is just a hurdle to overcome by checking off the four boxes. The Scholar level is a competition where your application will be weighed against other students in CA.

  • Mary says:

    If my child was recognized as a qualifier by her high school does that mean she will, at least, be recognized as a commendable achievement?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Mary,
      Schools are not supposed to do any recognition until official announcements in the fall (although I don’t mean that as a criticism a school that is honoring achievement). I’m not sure what your school chose to recognize exactly, but it was probably students with at least a 212 Selection Index — who will be, at least, Commended Students. You can find the Selection Index on your daughter’s PSAT report. Schools do not know the Semifinalist levels.

  • Eric says:

    Hi Art,

    Great article, and really helpful. I am trying to understand the conversion between the PSAT scores and the old three-digit NMSQT scores that everyone still seems to prefer. It seems like the cutoffs between semifinalist and commended are really squishy year to year, but my confusion has now extended to the actual conversion. The best I have been able to find as a guide is the set of tables released in 2015 with the PSAT redesign, but I feel like the accuracy might be suspect as they have had a couple of years to shake down the test. Do you know if they have made changes to these tables in the last couple years?

    Many thanks!
    Eric

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Eric,
      You may be confusing the concordance tables that were used during the switchover from old PSAT to new PSAT with the conversion of PSAT numbers into a Selection Index. The concordance no longer plays any role in the process and would just make squishy estimation that much squishier. The only reason the old PSAT scores were simpler to work with was that they added up to the Selection Index. It just takes a couple more arithmetic steps now (ERWx2 + Math)/10.

      You are correct that the accuracy of the concordance tables is suspect — at least in the sort of fine detail that would be needed for NM. New tables by ACT and College Board will finally be released this month. Again, these in no way impact or inform National Merit. The previous year’s National Merit results are the best information available. Think of the concordance as a rule of thumb necessary when comparing two tests (old to new or new to ACT). We don’t need that rule of thumb when every eligible student took the same exam.

  • Talib H. says:

    Hi, I got a 219 on the PSAT. Do you think I have a chance at qualifying for National Merit Semifinalist?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Talib,
      It completely depends on where you live. In more than half of states, a 219 will likely qualify. In others — including the most populous — a 219 will not qualify. The estimated figures on this page will give you some idea of you rank in your state.

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