Each year, Compass produces extensive research on National Merit Semifinalist and Commended Student cutoffs and spends time clearing up the many misconceptions that arise. The unusual scales seen this year have provided a new angle for analysis and are discussed below. At this point in the year, students are advised to consider a range of possible cutoffs rather than guessing a single number. The precise cutoffs will not be released until September 2020. 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. We also provide an archive of the class of 2020 results.
|State||Class of 2021 |
|Class of 2021 |
|Class of 2020 |
|Class of 2019 |
|Class of 2018 |
|Class of 2017 |
|Typical # of |
|District of Columbia||223||221–224||223||223||223||222||45||Small|
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 range may be less likely, but they remain possibilities. In most years, there are a handful of states that fall outside of these ranges. These are generally smaller states. Eligible juniors with Selection Indexes at or above the official cutoffs will be named as Semifinalists. The cutoffs above are currently estimates. We will not have official cutoffs until August or September of 2020.
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, as College Board no longer releases any state data. 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 (some years more than others). Second, the best estimate is “no change.” In most cases, our Most Likely estimate is simply the cutoff for the class of 2020. Where we feel the class of 2020 figure is out of line with historical data, we have adjusted the Most Likely.
The PSAT was completely overhauled in 2015. Compass developed its own linking formula to compare scores across the old and new PSATs, but we can also focus on the new PSAT by itself.
We are only dealing with four sets of year-over-year changes, but the general principles still hold. 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.
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? That’s what the discussion revolves around for the next nine months.
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 11th graders in each state. A state’s cutoff is derived by finding the score that will produce, as closely as possible, the targeted number of Semifinalists. Students in any given state are competing only against fellow residents. The test is national; the competition is local. Boarding school students are a special case and must meet the highest state cutoff in their region.
What about the Commended cutoff?
The Commended student cutoff is set nationally, so it is the same for all participants. It has been pushed upward in recent years by an increasing number of students scoring above 1400 (the only scoring data released directly by College Board). That change leveled off last year. We have yet to see the data for the class of 2021.
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.