National Merit Semifinalist Cutoffs Class of 2023

By October 3, 2021 National Merit, PSAT
National Merit Semifinalists

The National Merit Semifinalist Cutoffs for the class of 2022 are final. Now the question becomes how high members of the class of 2023 will need to score on the October 2021 PSAT in order to qualify for next year’s National Merit honors. [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.]

Students typically look to the prior year’s cutoffs for guidance, but juniors are likely to be disappointed if they set their expectations based on the pandemic-impacted numbers from the class of 2022. More than 40% of students missed the PSAT/NMSQT last year. Even after National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) changed its policy to factor in SAT scores from Alternate Entry candidates, cutoffs were among the lowest ever recorded. With most schools back to in-person instruction and admission testing returning to normal, PSAT volume should be closer to the historical norms. The class of 2023 will likely see a “bounce back” year where cutoffs resemble those from the classes of 2019 and 2020. See our full analysis below the table. [For a look at cutoff trends going back to the class of 2008, see Historical National Merit Cutoffs.]

StateClass of 2023
(Est. Range)
Class of 2023
("Most Likely")
Class of 2022
Class of 2021
Class of 2020
Alabama211 - 216214212212216
Alaska209 - 216213208212213
Arizona217 - 221219218218219
Arkansas210 - 216213211212214
California221 - 224222221221222
Colorado217 - 222219217217220
Connecticut219 - 222221220220221
Delaware218 - 224220220219220
District of Columbia222 - 224223224222223
Florida216 - 220218217216219
Georgia217 - 221220219219220
Hawaii216 - 220219217217219
Idaho213 - 218215214214215
Illinois217 - 222220218219221
Indiana214 - 219217215215218
Iowa211 - 217215211212215
Kansas213 - 219217215214218
Kentucky212 - 218216212214217
Louisiana212 - 218215213212215
Maine211 - 217215211213215
Maryland220 - 224222224221222
Massachusetts220 - 224222221222223
Michigan215 - 220218217216219
Minnesota217 - 221219218218219
Mississippi210 - 216213213211214
Missouri213 - 218216214214217
Montana208 - 215212208210214
Nebraska210 - 216214210213216
Nevada213 - 219216214215218
New Hampshire213 - 219217214215218
New Jersey221 - 224223222222223
New Mexico210 - 216213210211213
New York218 - 222221220220221
North Carolina216 - 221219218217219
North Dakota207 - 213211207209212
Ohio214 - 220217215215218
Oklahoma210 - 217213210211214
Oregon217 - 222220220217220
Pennsylvania217 - 221219218217220
Rhode Island213 - 220217213216218
South Carolina212 - 218215213212215
South Dakota209 - 216213210209214
Tennessee214 - 220218215215219
Texas218 - 222221220219221
Utah211 - 217214212212215
Vermont211 - 218215211212216
Virginia220 - 223222221221222
Washington219 - 223221220220221
West Virginia207 - 213211207209212
Wisconsin213 - 218216214213216
Wyoming208 - 214211208209212
​U.S. Territories207 - 213211207209212
​U.S. Abroad222 - 224223224222223
​​Commended207 - 213211207209212

Consider the Range
Although we provide a “most likely” estimate for each state, Compass encourages students to think of cutoff targets as a range of possibilities. As the historical data show, states — especially ones with fewer PSAT takers — can see significant swings in cutoffs from year to year. Until scores become available in December, our estimates are based on historical trends. We will refine the projections as data become available.

Commended versus Semifinalist, National versus State
The Commended cutoff is determined by looking at the top 50,000 scorers nationally. That typically represents the top 3% of test takers. 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 1,000 Semifinalists. NMSC determines the Semifinalist cutoff that comes as close as possible to producing 1,000 Semifinalists in the state. While this methodology ensures a national distribution of Semifinalists, it means that some states are far more competitive than others.

The methodology also means that state cutoffs can move in opposite directions. The colors in the chart below show how many states saw increases, decreases, or no change from the prior year. Although there are the occasional all-or-nothing years (recently, the class of 2020), most classes see a variety of results (red, blue and gray).

How Much Do Semifinalist Cutoffs Change?
The chart below shows the distribution of year-over-year changes in state cutoffs over the last 10 years. While “no change” is the most common result, it only happens 1 time out of 4. Variability is the one certainty.

Compass expects 3 factors to play a significant role in determining Commended and Semifinalist cutoffs for the class of 2023: test scaling, test taker volume, and Alternate Entry policies.

The Role of Test Scaling
The PSAT is usually taken by 1.7 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 gets it wrong. The class of 2020, for example, had an “off” test, which meant far lower cutoffs than in the previous year. Further confusing matters is that several different test forms are used each year, and some prove easier than others. We should know in December how the overall numbers lean this year.

Below is a chart of the Commended cutoff and the average Semifinalist cutoff for the last 6 years. Imperfections in PSAT scaling account for a significant portion of the swings. The Commended cutoff has ranged from 207 to 212. The average of the 50 state cutoffs has ranged from 215 to 218.


The Role of Test Taker Numbers
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, however. 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.

The Role of Alternate Entry
NMSC does not want to disqualify students who miss the PSAT because of extenuating circumstances such as illness or storm closures, so it has an Alternate Entry procedure to allow students to submit an SAT score, instead. In the past, students who missed the PSAT needed to apply, receive their counselor’s authorization, and be approved by NMSC. The number of entries was small enough that qualifiers could be considered as “bonus” Semifinalists, and their SAT scores were not used in calculating cutoffs. The volume of test cancelations was so unprecedented in October 2020 and January 2021 that NMSC dropped the authorization requirement. Further, the number of PSAT takers declined so much in some states — an 87% drop in California! — that NMSC felt that it had to factor SAT scores into cutoff calculations. This prevented cutoffs from plummeting, but it meant that PSAT takers were competing directly against SAT takers for the first time. The most notable problem arose in Maryland, where mass PSAT cancelations and record Alternate Entry qualifiers produced a 3-point jump in the Semifinalist cutoff (to 224). There has never been a cutoff that high nor a jump that large in the 220+ range. As the state with the highest cutoff in the class of 2022, Maryland also set the bar for the District of Columbia, students studying abroad, and many boarding school students.

NMSC has not announced how it plans to handle Alternate Entry for the class of 2023 or whether schools voluntarily opting out of the PSAT represent an “extenuating circumstance.”

Why does Compass expect higher cutoffs for the class of 2023?
The down year for the class of 2021 was caused by an oddly scaled exam and would normally have been followed by a bounce back year. Instead, the pandemic kept cutoffs low for a second year in a row. We don’t expect that trend to last, so the class of 2023 should look to earlier years as targets. We eagerly await test results in December. At that point, we’ll know how many students were able to take the PSAT (although we won’t know those figures by state), and we should have a more refined take on where the Commended cutoff will end up.

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.


  • Catherine M says:

    Thank you for your thoughts Art. I certainly don’t expect SI for CA to be any lower than 221, just hoping it won’t jump to 223.

  • Catherine M. says:

    Could it be fair to speculate that the 2023 indexes may remain on the lower side following 1.5 year of online school during which many students fell behind grade level? We are in CA and hoping for index to stay at 221/222 max. Thank you Art.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I think that’s fair speculation. Other testing has shown that the disruption has impacted outcomes. My guess would be that the impact is lower among high-achieving students, but I don’t have evidence. And while PSAT numbers will recover, I doubt that they will fully recover this year.

  • Haaris says:

    Hello, are you sure that the lowest for DE is 218. Im kind of scared I might now make it. Just took the PSAT today. Know I got 760 on math byut other sections messed me up.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      That’s an estimate based on historical performance and how much states typically change year-to-year. I expect 95% of cutoffs to fall within these ranges. Obviously we don’t yet have any score data. Good luck!

  • Douglas says:

    Think it is pretty weird to have a cutoff by STATE for something called a NATIONAL Merit Scholarship

    • Art Sawyer says:

      It’s a common complaint, but NMSC has been handling things this way for 60+ years, so they are unlikely to change. The state cutoffs ensure national representation, so I don’t think the naming is completely unfair. A national cutoff would lead to a concentration of Semifinalists that could ultimately damage or destroy the program, as NMSC depends on a national array of schools and corporate sponsors.

  • Gina says:

    Help! My son received a 215 but was told by his HS counselor that he is not a commended scholar. Is this true??

    • Art Sawyer says:

      You should check your son’s PSAT report to see that he was flagged as National Merit eligible. The 215 was clearly high enough, so there may be a misunderstanding. I would recommend contacting NMSC for more information. Good luck!

  • Heather says:

    Do we know yet what the essay question for semi-finalists?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      “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 on the application.” NMSC estimates that the maximum allowable length is about 3,500 characters.

  • Sam B says:


    Thanks for all the useful information. It has been a huge help. We are pretty excited as my daughter qualified based on her PSAT score. Couple of questions:

    1.). Is there a place to see or figure out what Alternate entry scores meet the cutoff by state? For example would a 1500 qualify in CA versus a 1530?

    2.). Does the 895,072 entrants number for 2022 include Alternative entry?

    3.). Is it possible there are students that would have qualified based on their SAT scores that will not be recognized because they did not complete an application for alternate entry. At my daughter’s public school in CA not only did they did not offer the test they also did not offer any information about alternate testing locations or alternative entry. When we asked the counselor about taking the the PSAT he was clueless about alternate test locations and did not mention anything about alternative entry. I was able to find another school in our area that offered the January PSAT. I am just wondering if there is sort of mechanism in place for students to be automatically notified if their score were high enough. If not this would seem to provide an advantage to students at more academically oriented school where this type of information is emphasized.

    Sorry in advance if you have already answered these questions.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Sam B
      1) It’s a little more complicated than the total score. What you need to look for are the section scores that go from 10-40 in Reading, Writing & Language, and Math. For example, a student with a 1500 might have a 38 / 37 / 37.5, which gives a 750 / 750. To calculate the SI, you sum the section scores and multiply by 2. (38 + 37 + 37.5) * 2 = 225. Ah, but it’s not that easy in all cases. Because the PSAT maxes out at 38 on each section, NMSC caps the SAT scores at 38. Let’s say that 1500 scorer had 39 / 39 / 36 or 780 / 720. The calculation is (38 + 38 + 36) = 224.

      2) My reading of it is that number is only for PSAT entrants (NMSC considers any eligible junior PSAT taker as an entrant) It’s possible that this number includes AE students. Because AE students are a relatively small, elite bunch, they wouldn’t change the total all that much.

      3) If your daughter ended up taking the January PSAT, then she would have been entered through the normal National Merit pathway. Her SI should be on her PSAT score report. For students not taking the PSAT, there is no automatic entry. Students needed to apply in April and then submit SAT scores. You are correct that students at schools where information about AE was widely shared had an advantage.

  • Rhonda says:

    When does the “Letter of commendation” go out?

  • George says:

    Since there’s been talk about 000’s lately… my former high school, which has a decent number of semifinalists every year, has had every semifinalist listed as “000” for the last four years (and I know they didn’t cancel the PSAT last year). However, every semifinalist in the classes of 2015, 2016, and 2017 had a nonzero number. At a school that has 5-10 semifinalists per year, this would be unlikely to happen by random chance. Do you know what’s up?

    Still, looking at those lists for past years, there are quite a few schools that have all 000’s for years prior to 2022. I don’t think it can be ascribed to alternate entry.

  • Ornery Flummoxed says:

    999 is undecided major; 000 is SAT AE. My son made it in Austin, TX for the regular Oct PSAT. However, there are several schools in Austin that have a high number of 000s even though the state was “open”. Check Vandegrift- it is all 000s. As mentioned by another person, the entire list is on Reddit. It would be helpful to pull together the percentages of 000s for different states and compare them to last year. Thank you Art for all you do and all the hard work your team does!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I don’t believe that 000 = AE. 000 reflects that the student has not opted into Student Search Services (which would be true of AE students, but would also be true of some PSAT students). Texas had a 000 rate of 20% last year, and it looks to be at 40% this year. My mind is still open as to whether the 20% figure for the class of 2021 is primarily AE or a combination of AE and SSS opt-out.

      The Reddit images are great for checking names. Not so great for analysis. PDFs are far friendlier for analysis.

      • Barbara says:

        How do you explain Maryland? Look at some of the schools, particularly in Montgomery County. Far more semifinalists than in prior years (20+ at WWHS, compared to maybe 8 last year). Did all 20+ students score about 1500?

        • Art Sawyer says:

          Yes, they did (or thereabouts). On the SAT. The cancelation of the PSAT in most public schools in Maryland really reshaped the map. Students at some of those powerhouses you see were able to use SAT scores to apply Alternate Entry. AE also allows students to use their best SAT scores. This made for an extremely competitive landscape, and one that worked against those who had taken the PSAT. Maryland did have a much higher than usual number of Semifinalists, so not all of the gain came at the expense of PSAT takers, but a portion of it certainly did.

      • Mom says:

        My kid did NOT do AE and they had a 000 because they opted out of the student search services. As a recruited athlete who has already verbally committed, they did not have any interest in hearing from other schools. Hope this helps.

        • Art Sawyer says:

          Thank you for the confirmation. Congratulations to your son!

        • Katya MV says:

          Hi!! My son is a semifinalist too and has 000. He did not do AE. His classmate have other numbers. I am very confused now. Is there a way to know what “000” means? Thank you

          • Art Sawyer says:

            The numbers represent a student’s intended concentration as listed in the personal information provided during registration. My understanding is that information is only shared with NMSC if a student has opted to participate in Student Search Service. Since AE students haven’t taken the PSAT, they have no code (“000”). Other students — such as your son — may have the 000 because they did not opt to share their information.

      • T. B. says:

        If you haven’t seen the CA pdf yet, there’s a copy here: https://ca-times.brightspotcdn.com/ef/2b/f92135e24e7d963558fda24244e0/22-ca-semifinalists-natlmeritprogram.pdf

        (I couldn’t figure out how to DM you so I responded on this thread)

  • Teddy says:

    Hi, Art,

    I’m from Massachusetts and scored a 221 on the PSAT last fall. Today, my school informed me that I had not qualified as a semifinalist. On your post from earlier today, you said that these cutoffs had been confirmed and that Massachusetts was listed at 221. How do I reconcile?

    Confused in Massachusetts…

    • Art Sawyer says:

      The Massachusetts cutoff is 221. If you attend a boarding school, you may face a higher cutoff. If you are not at a boarding school, double check that you were listed as NM eligible on your score report. If you are listed as eligible and not at a boarding school, then I’d contact NMSC to see if they can give you any more information. Good luck!

  • RichS says:

    Some data, based on only one state (PA) and likely off by a few as I hand counted from a .jpg image of qualifiers:

    2021 – 721 semifinalists, 121 with intended major code 000 = 16.8%
    2022 – 682 semifinalists, 378 with intended major code 000 = 55.4%

    Subtracting the same 16.8% from the 2022 SFs (114), would leave 264 excess 000 qualifiers, or 38.7% of all qualifiers.

    (again – back of the envelope “statistics”, with several assumptions, which is always dangerous)

  • Wondering says:

    A student on Reddit has the complete list for all states and is posting here: https://www.reddit.com/u/lil-catfish/?utm_source=share&utm_medium=ios_app&utm_name=iossmf

  • Manisha says:

    Do the National Merit people recognize that they have effectively punished people who went to great lengths to take their PSAT test in October or January? If my daughter could have used her SAT score, her selection index number would have been 228. But she can’t use that number because she took the PSAT. And the fact that she scored in the 99th+ percentile on the January PSAT is not good enough to be a semi-finalist. So the National Merit people ended up treating badly people who took their own PSAT seriously. They should do something to course correct.

    • Mulan says:

      how have they punished kids who took their PSAT in January? they explicitly stated that you could either take the PSAT or submit an SAT score. The 221 SI is effectively the same as last year, when there were ONLY PSAT test takers and a few AE entries.

  • MA Student says:

    Hi Art,
    Thanks for all the work you’ve put into compiling this information for students and parents, it really means a lot! I found out today via a local media outlet that I qualified as a NMSF. However, I’ve yet to receive any official confirmation from my school, and when I asked someone who works in our counseling office if they’ve received any news, she told me that they still haven’t gotten the letters in the mail. Should I be worried? Is it worth calling the NMSC to ask about my status, and do you think they’ll grant me access to my application? This opportunity really means a lot to me, and I’d hate to miss out on a scholarship because I couldn’t meet the application deadline.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Congratulations! You should not be worried at all. The important is that you know you are a Semifinalist. The rest will sort itself out and is not uncommon.

      Unless things have changed recently, NMSC will not give you the information directly. If the letter doesn’t show up at your school, they’ll coordinate getting a new letter. I’d check in again with your school next week and then contact NMSC. The Finalist application is straightforward, so you’ve got plenty of time.

  • Rich says:

    Jus curious – how did a Us Territories student earn Commended status with a cutoff score of 207?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I’m scratching my head on that one, too. I’ve seen it before, but don’t have a good explanation. Perhaps it’s some eligibility/validation issue that allows the student to be Commended but not Semifinalist.

  • G says:

    Why don’t you advise class of 2023 to skip or cancel PSAT? All students need to know that AE SAT gives them a better chance to NMS? I think it will only make NMS competition healthier.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      It’s a question I’ve wrestled with, but ultimately I think it’s a misuse of the AE process to voluntarily cancel or skip the exam. If every student in the country followed the rule, then it might be fair. It’s more likely that it would squeeze out many students for whom National Merit is vital. And to the extent that it creates inequities, it ultimately threatens the National Merit program.

      • G says:

        Well, when you don’t qualify with two SAT exams, each with 228 selection index, because your PSAT selection index is lower than some cutoff made of other AE SATs, you kind of lose faith in the system (if there is one). It is NMSC that is seriously threatening the future of NM program. We all recall how they lost support of many decent universities last two decades.

  • A CompassPrep Fan says:

    Hi Art,
    The this link posted Maryland’s full semifinalists for class 2022:


    What caught my eyes is that most schools on the list have entire student body with “000” as future interested major. I think “000” means undecided.
    In normal years, these three digit codes vary as students picked different interested area to study in colleges. When entered with AE using SAT scores, there is no place to indicate such interested area, thus I guess NMSC puts all AE entries as “000”. Again, this is just my assumption. If that holds true, probably >95% semifinalists in Maryland comes from AE as I only saw a handful none “000” next to student names.

    Always appreciate your insights and extremely helpful information on Compass Prep!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Good eye. I looked at last year’s lists, and about 1/3 of students had 000. There were some schools where every student had 000, even where I know the PSAT was given. Students are not required to provide the personal information.

      So while we can’t say that every 000 means an AE Semifinalist, we can say that (a) every AE Semifinalist is 000 and (b) it provides further confirmation of how few students were able to take the PSAT in Maryland.

      I counted roughly 4% with a non-000 code. If we assume that PSAT registrants provided personal information at the same rate as in prior years, 1-2% of Maryland Semifinalists took the PSAT and were labeled 000 (one-third of those with non-000 codes). That would give an estimate of 94% of Semifinalists in MD coming from the AE pool.

      • Anonymous says:

        To see the affect of AE in Maryland: Almost every Montgomery County Maryland public high school – where they did not administer the PSAT, and so students have to be AE – has *double* the number of semi-finalists this year. By contrast, a number of Maryland private schools do not have any, despite having several in the past. (And I can confirm that 000 does not necessarily mean that the student submitted AE).

      • Manisha says:

        Art, you write: “There were some schools where every student had 000, even where I know the PSAT was given. Students are not required to provide the personal information.” I would think more likely than these students not giving personal information would be some students at this school knowing to cancel their PSAT score after they took the PSAT and use Alternate Entry for National Merit competition. In other words, the pandemic is now revealing that the National Merit competition has long been gamed and lost by suckers.

  • ELENA says:

    Hi Art.
    I want to thank you for all the support and info you provide in this blog.
    It has been very helpful for my senior and helped us a lot psychologically while we were waiting for results on NMSF.
    She qualified in FL, with 1480 PSAT (1550 confirming SAT) , hooray!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Congratulations to your senior, Elena! I’m glad that I could help pass the time.

      • Manisha says:

        Pretty sure CA could have filled up FL’s whole class of semifinalists with people with scores above FL’s 217 cutoff and below CA’s 221 cutoff. A very rough day for Californians who made the mistake of taking the PSAT in their state. Can’t see Californians ever taking the PSAT again. The National Merit council has destroyed their PSAT test.

        • Annie says:

          Many semifinalists in CA deserved their place regardless of their AE status. Not allowing AE at all would neglect students who were terrified to attend school because of poor COVID-19 precautions and protocols in schools in October and January, especially for immunosuppressed students. Since the cutoff took AE into account, nothing would change for PSAT test takers as we see California be the same cutoff as it was last year. I don’t quite understand your frustration on this question; if your daughter wanted to submit her SAT score, she should have, but she chose to take PSAT.

          From, an immunosuppressed California student

  • Manisha says:

    Disagree with you, Art, on the idea that AE entrants can deserve to be semi-finalists. Perhaps in some cases, but not in what is likely to be a huge number of cases in which an AE candidate becomes a semi-finalist over someone with a higher SAT score that they cannot count because they took the PSAT on which they may well have scored in a higher percentile than the Semifinalist did on their SAT which they used for AE. The College Board has done a miserable job of adjusting to the pandemic and cost deserving students big scholarship money. Anger builds every year against the College Board; this fiasco has likely hastened its demise.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      In this case, it is National Merit, rather than College Board, responsible for the (bad) decision making. College Board already has enough mistakes that it can claim as its own.

    • Missourian says:

      I fully agree. My son has a 1540 SAT March score and he is out of National Merit by one point because he took the PSAT in October. There should have been a way for people like him to qualify.

      • Manisha says:

        All this raises two questions for me.

        1. How many people have been gaming the system each year by calling in “sick” on PSAT day so that they could choose among their highest SAT scores to submit via Alternative Entry? Have some of the testing companies (not Compass of course) been hinting to their customers to do this? Or has the trick if it has been used just spread through word-of-mouth?

        2. I am also confused why each wrong math answer on the January PSAT cost 20 points while a wrong math answer on the SAT costs only 10 points. At least that was in the case of my child’s PSAT and SAT which at 1550 (790 ERW, 760 Math) would yielded a perfect 228 NMSC Selection Index.

        • Art Sawyer says:

          1) I’m sure that there have some who have suggested sicking out in the past, but there was at least the need to work through the college counselor to be approved. That was not true this year. I am concerned that all of the AE discussion this year has spread the idea for future years. Let’s hope not.

          2) The test scales can have anomalies at their extremes. If a PSAT form is a little easier, for example, than another PSAT form, even 1 wrong can drop a student 20 points (or more in extreme cases).

  • James says:

    Hello Art,
    Is there one boarding school group, or multiple groups? (i.e. Northeast boarding schools, Mid-Atlantic boarding schools, etc.) And is the NMSF cutoff for each region, or all boarding schools?


    • Art Sawyer says:

      There are cutoffs for each boarding school region, with the cutoff determined by the highest state cutoff within that region. I can’t seem to come up with an accurate list of the current regions, but the boarding school cutoffs ranged from 219 to 224 this year.

  • Flotsam Jetsam says:

    Hi Art,
    Thank you for all the meticulously gathered information. Now that we know the cutoffs, does the Commended SI of 207 make sense? It appears too low. Not saying this because I want fewer students to get Commended; just calling into question NMSC methodology. There are some pieces to this process that appear capricious and opaque. Are parents allowed to do a FOIA to get information or is this moot because they are a private organization? Thanks.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      It does make sense. First, there is a possibility that NMSC did not consider AE scores when setting the Commended score. The Commended level is set no later than April, when NMSC sends initial eligibility checklists to high schools. Even if NMSC had received some AE scores, it certainly would not have received all of them.

      Also, the AE applicants would have been unlikely to have offset the drop in PSAT takers. Large, high scoring states produce a disproportionate number of Commended Students (think of how many Californians there are between the Commended level and the NMSF level). But I doubt that many students with a 1400 SAT bothered to apply, and it’s unlikely that those applicants offset all of students who weren’t able to take the PSAT (and would normally have qualified for Commended). So when NMSC took the top 50,000 of students, it had to go lower than it usually would. The AE applicants would have offset that dip at the SF level.

  • JBraun says:

    Question: for students who applied via AE using SAT scores, is the verbal score based on each subscore or is it based on the total verbal score? For example, if a student scored 730 on Verbal with 33 on Reading and 40 on Writing…is the student’s Verbal score for purposes of AE 33+38= 71 or is it just 730/10=73?

  • Ljohn says:

    Do you have the cutoff score for class of 2022 for Outside the US?

  • Wondering says:

    Hi Art – isn’t it likely that cutoffs are down in so many states because designating the same 16k Semifinalists from a testing/AE pool that’s much smaller than the 1.6M average number of PSAT-takers means that you’d go deeper into selection index ranking to get the 16k same total number of qualifiers? And that this year’s lucky group of PSAT/AE qualifiers aggregate to more than the typically targeted 1% of total test takers? If the numerator number of qualifiers is constant and the denominator of test takers has declined, it must be so, right?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      True, fewer entrants means lower scores. This was notable even pre-COVID when comparing states with low-participation rates with those with high-participation rates. What’s not as straightforward is that cutoffs are not down uniformly. In fact, cutoffs are up in almost as many states as they are down. And we would have expected a state such as California to have a much lower cutoff had only PSAT scores been used. The x-factor is the addition of AE students. According to recently obtained NM data, 895,000 students entered the competition via the PSAT/NMSQT. Even if we assume that high-scoring students were a little more likely to take the exam, there would be a giant void. As you say, instead of the top 1% of test-takers, you’d be taking the top 1.6%. AE, though, throws that equation out the window, since those entrants are uniformly high scoring. I’m guessing that we saw 15-20K AE applicants. In a few states, more than half of the NMSFs are likely AE students.

      • Wondering says:

        Thanks, Art. Confirming what you’ve heard as the number of PSAT test-takers this year: 985k per this reply above and 895k per table you posted this morning.

        Guessing table is correct and that means 16.7k semifinalists divided by (895k PSAT entrants + 25k guess AE entrants) = 1.8% test takers/AE entrants vs NMSC goal of 1% top test takers. It was a good year to enter through AE.

        • Art Sawyer says:

          Table is correct. Thanks for catching the typo.

          For AE, yes. It was a rough year in many places to apply as a regular PSAT entrant. The 895K + 25K aren’t really additive as a useful denominator, since the 25K is such an elite group.

          • Wondering says:

            As data people, wouldn’t we all love to disaggregate the qualifiers by PSAT vs AE.

            Let’s guess it’s half of the 16k semifinalists from each route. That would mean 8k/900k PSAT = .9% of PSAT takers qualified as NMSF and 8k/25k (AE guess) = 32% of SAT takers qualified as NMSF via AE. Lots of guessing, but makes your point about the elite nature of AE entrants.

          • Art Sawyer says:

            Sounds about right. If we assume that the PSAT takers scored similarly to prior years (and my Oct showed that they did), and most cutoffs ultimately came in just below historical norms, then that produces around 9-10K PSAT qualifiers. The AE qualifiers were concentrated in the states with the most cancelations.

          • Wondering says:

            And that seems to mean that PSAT takers were not disadvantaged, as the top 1% of PSAT takers likely qualified as semifinalists.

          • Art Sawyer says:

            It’s different ways of looking at it. For the most part, Semifinalists this year did not have to score higher than Semifinalists in prior years. That goes to your point. On the other hand, AE students were advantaged by being able to use SAT scores.

  • Amanda says:

    Do we have any idea what the confirming SAT cutoff will be for semi finalists to advance?

  • Beth says:

    Regarding Maryland: I called the NMSC office today, left a message and sent a fax lodging my protest against the outsized impact AE had on this year’s cutoff score, and proposing an alternative: Maryland PSAT takers who scored 222 or higher — equal to the highest cutoff of any other state — should be extended the opportunity to submit a confirming SAT score with an SI of 224 or above.

    I did receive a call back (I do give them credit for that at least). They dispute that AE in any way raises scores, they use College Board as cover for that, and, as expected, stand by the process. Furthermore, they would not tell me the proportion of semi-finalists in Maryland who came from AE and said they will never release that information.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      The folks at NMSC really care about the program and about students, so I don’t want to paint them as the bad guys. That roll is played by COVID-19. That said, I wish they’d be more open and honest. Let’s break down Maryland.

      The NMSFs in Maryland are highly concentrated. Montgomery County Public Schools had 157 Semifinalists last year. That’s more than half the state’s total. MCPS canceled the PSAT this year because of the public health crisis. I’m sure there were other schools in Maryland that canceled, but let’s pretend it was only MCPS. If we were to believe that AE applicants had no impact on cutoffs, then it would require the other 50% of schools to have generated a 224 SI all by themselves. That’s nonsensical. You can’t halve the number of likely qualifiers while seeing the cutoff hit a 50-state, multi-year record.

      I want to make clear that AE students deserve to be Semifinalists. It would be terribly unfair to take half the slate of likely qualifiers and tell them, “Sorry, the pandemic means you don’t get to enter.” [Again, I’m sure it’s much more than half when other cancelations are factored in.]
      Other NMSC representatives have said that NMSC did, indeed, factor in AE scores. That’s almost certainly the case.

      The way in which NMSC handled AE scores, though, seems to have biased the results in favor of SAT takers. This year was a scenario no one saw coming. “How to administer National Merit in the event of a global pandemic” was not in the playbook. It’s understandable that NMSC had to make adjustments and that some of those adjustments would seem unfair or would produce discordant results. I wish they had made different choices.

      • Steve says:

        I was worried that this would happen in Virginia (we live just over the border from Maryland BTW, thankfully as it turns out) and Fairfax County typically has over 50% of the Semifinalists every year. Thank fully it looks like we stayed the same at 221 but not sure what made VA and MD so different.

        • Art Sawyer says:

          Yes, Virginia has me confused, as well. The same can be said about California. My best guess right now is that the overlap of canceled tests and motivated AE applicants was particularly high in MD. California students also had a hard time taking the SAT. Not sure how things were in the spring in VA.

          The alternative scenario that this was all about PSAT performance in Maryland doesn’t hold up. Let’s say that this year’s test was particularly easy and a 224 cutoff was possible. Why didn’t we see this reflected anywhere else? And how could that level be reached with so few students? I don’t see any plausible explanation beyond AE (or NM played around with the number of students used in calculating the cutoffs). Suggestions welcome!

          • Cyndi says:

            My interpretation, FWIW: The commended score cutoff went down 2 points from 2021. But only 8 states had semifinalist cutoffs that went down 2 or more points, and many of these were the smaller, more volatile states (Alaska, Rhode Island, Montana, North Dakota, Maine…).

            What do we make of this??

            I only see 2 possible explanations. Perhaps the pandemic negatively affected those who would traditionally score in the 97th-98th percentile, while those at the very top found a way to get their tests in. More plausibly, though, is that the NMSC took into account AE for awarding semifinalist status more robustly than in their computation of commended status (which, after all, was done prior to many AE submissions).

          • Art Sawyer says:

            The first part of your post, in my opinion, is linked to the second part. I agree that the Semifinalist marks were propped up by AE, whereas the Commended level was not (or was to a lesser degree). That’s why we saw the expected drop in Commended score — even from the class of 2021’s unusually low mark. Commended students are highly concentrated in the large, high-scoring states (large score differentials between the national Commended level and the statewide Semifinalist levels). California, alone, had more than 7,200 Commended students last year, and 6 states accounted for half the total. To the extent that those states saw fewer PSAT takers, the overall Commended level was bound to fall. Since the Commended level was set before (or right around) the AE deadline and before most AE SAT scores were received, it’s unlikely that SAT scores played much of a role. For Semifinalist cutoffs, we have strong evidence that SAT scores did play a role in preventing large drops (or creating odd increases).

            Your other theory may have played a small role. For the October PSAT, score distributions were as expected, despite the far lower number of testers. In other words, the pandemic seemed to impact the full swath of students. On the other hand, January may not have been so even. I don’t have the final numbers for that test. Anecdotally, some schools did try harder to make room for their NM candidates when offering the January PSAT. That’s probably a rounding error on the larger movements.

      • G says:

        The question is not if “AE (SAT only) students deserve to be finalist”. The question is should AE students with SAT 1500 have an higher selection index than a student with PSAT 1450 and SAT 1600. I asked this question in March if you remember.

        • Art Sawyer says:

          That’s why I now think NMSC should have treated all students as AE candidates. Otherwise, I just don’t know of a fair way to decide that 1500 SAT is as good as a 1450 PSAT but not as good as a 1480 PSAT or a 1500 PSAT. Percentiles are not the solution.

      • MoCo Resident says:

        I think it’s worth mentioning that not only does MCPS have over half the NMSF in any given year, but that the SAT scores are oftentimes even higher, with many students missing out on NMSF simply due to MD’s historically high cutoffs. This year, if all of those 1500+ scorers applied for AE, and believe me, there are A TON of them especially concentrated at a few select magnet schools, NMSC would have had no choice but to factor in AE or there would’ve been at least double the usual number of MD NMSF in Montgomery County alone. It’s also worth mentioning that PG County (second largest) and Howard County also cancelled the PSAT. While neither one of these districts has even close to the same number of NMSF as Moco, they do have enough to a point AE entrants could have also increased the cutoff.

        • Art Sawyer says:

          Thanks, MoCo Res. I heard similar information from another reader. This is almost certainly how Maryland ended up with such an outlier of a cutoff. I don’t know which schools were able to offer a PSAT, but my guess is that they’ll end up with a smaller number of Semifinalists this year.

      • Terri T says:

        As you surmised, it wasn’t just Montgomery County that cancelled. Howard County and others plus our top private schools. Based on last year’s results it was most of the schools that regularly produce semi- finalist. When I scratched off all the cancelled schools from last years list it was literally a handful of kids left. Our county did run but we never have more than a negligible number. However, I could see on all the school websites that cancelled — they made a big push for AE. Not sure what the fair answer is here but this does not seem to be it.

    • Elijah says:

      Wait so they admitted that the Maryland cutoff was 224? If I were to call them regarding my state would I also be able to find out the cutoff score?

  • Mina says:

    Hi Art,
    I am in the same camp as Sonia. I sent my student into PSAT (220) CA and she also took SAT (227). I didn’t know about AE until after she took PSAT. I feel like CA PSAT students (and I’m sure other states) got screwed.

  • Missourian says:

    It seems it would have been better to claculate the cutoffs using October’s scores and add the students that took the test in February and the alternate entries to the mix after that. October test takers are clearly disadvantaged in the mix. My son missed MO cutoff by one point despite testing in the 1% and having a much better score in the March SAT.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      That was my thought, too, originally (although I probably would have included January). The results would have made some anomalies however. The number of California students able to take the October PSAT, for example, was extremely low. The resulting cutoff would have been low, and the number of qualifiers from January and Alternate Entry would have been huge. California could have ended up with an extra 2,000+ NMSFs. States that were able to pull off the PSAT, on the other hand, would have seen almost no increase in NMSFs. I think NMSC was loathe to go that route. And I can’t imagine that other states would have viewed it as fair.

      My alternative would have been to allow PSAT and SAT submission (and maybe ACT if we are to be completely fair) for all students.

  • Tsvetan says:


    I ran a quick statistical analysis (Monte Carlo simulation) in order to quantify the magnitude of the advantage one gains from being allowed to report / use the highest score from multiple SAT tests. A student’s highest score after taking three SAT test would tend to be higher than that student’s score from a single SAT test by about 48-50 points (about 23-24 in Math and 25-26 in EBRW). That would be equivalent to a bump in that student’s SI of about 7+ points. The results are pretty robust under a range of reasonable assumptions. My two cents’ worth… (my way of saying ‘thank you’ for the wealth of information you provide!)


    • Art Sawyer says:

      Thanks for the contribution. That’s in line with what I’ve found when modeling the impact of score choice and repeat testing. I don’t know if you accounted for the capped section scores when running the simulation. A 760 M scorer gets no benefit in Selection Index, for example, from a 790 M. And the R and WL are separately capped at 38 each.

      We at least avoided the doomsday scenario that some worried about — 1550+ SAT scorers driving cutoffs completely out of reach of PSAT takers. [Although Maryland’s cutoff has to be wind-aided.]

      I’ll add, too, that a California student would have had a better chance at winning at the roulette tables of Monte Carlo than coming up with 3 SAT dates by June. Cancelations were the norm.

      • Tsvetan says:

        Given that the true beneficiaries of multiple testing are the kids “on the bubble,” I ran the analysis (including the caps) for a hypothetical student with a “true” scores / abilities at 730M / 700V). That student’s SI would go up from 213 to about 220.

        The impact of caps on the magnitude of the bump is be greater (lower) for lower (higher) scoring students. Repeated testing, however, is of limited usefulness to both tail groups.

      • Manisha says:

        In this unusual year it’s incumbent on the College Board to reveal, state-by-state, what percentage of students qualified by AE and what percentage by the PSAT. CA’s 221 could be mostly the result of SAT scores such as 740 verbal and 730 math, i.e. scores only in the 95th percentile or so. This would represent a huge drop off in standards for the national merit competition; semi-finalists in CA have tended to score higher than the top one percent of test takers. California kids who scored in the top 1% (or even higher) on the Oct or Jan PSAT may have lost out to those scoring in 95th % on a SAT taken sometime in the Spring. Given the number of PSAT cancellations and people being advised strategically not to try to qualify for National Merit through the PSAT, there is a high chance that a very high percentage of CA National Merit Semi-finalists qualified on the basis of less-than-spectacular SAT scores. As others have pointed out, we are going to have a lot of people who scored in 99th percentile plus on the PSAT and on the SAT that did not qualify as a National Merit Semifinalist because their PSAT score was not high enough while their SAT score that far exceeded the cutoff can’t be counted.

  • C says:

    Do we know if AE will be allowed for this year for the class of 2023? Our school is offering the PSAT and SAT on the same day and since I am worried about cancellation (due to covid and/or fire – I am from CA) for the regular SAT I registered for in Oct / Nov / Dec. My school will likely not cancel the School SAT on Oct 13 and I am considering registering for it instead of the PSAT. I am a Junior ready to test and want to be done with SAT this fall but don’t want to miss out on PSAT.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Alternate Entry will be around; the unknown is how strictly NMSC will interpret the wording. “If you do not take the 2021 PSAT/NMSQT because of illness, an emergency, or other extenuating circumstance, you may still be able to enter the 2023 National Merit Scholarship Program.” In the past, entering via AE required a good excuse. This last year was an exception. I’d imagine that NM would like to get back to normal. Please check with NMSC to see if they can offer any guidance. [And then check again the next day to make sure that you get the same guidance!] You can find the AE information for your class here. Good luck!

  • Rich says:

    Just curious – what kind of a counseling office receives a full breakdown of NMS cutoff scores by state?

  • m says:

    I am so sad; I was holding out hope that a 221 was going to be enough in New Jersey this year. 🙁
    That person who claimed they made it with a 221 on Reddit never replied again, huh?

  • G says:

    If it helps, student that took PSAT and submitted AE, at the same time, were considered only based on PSAT. This is especially interesting for students with PSAT selection index lower than cutoff and AE selection index higher than cut off. I believe that there are many students in this category as well and probably larger than 1.8% (AE portion) of semifinalist.
    Thank you, Art, for all you do.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Correct. AE is only for students who were not able to take the PSAT. Students who took the PSAT and did much better on the SAT are understandably frustrated.

      The casual way you worked in the 1.8% tells me that’s cited somewhere. Has NM officially given that figure. I know that Sonia, in these comments, was told 1%, but I’d expect a NM rep to round down. Do you have a link? Thanks. Sure seems like it should be higher than 300 students nationwide, but I may just be biased by my California perspective.

      • G says:

        Yes, I called NM, since we received “National Merit Scholar Family Guide” from University of Oklahoma as well. Knowing that this year was going to be anything but normal, especially in California, we anticipated that some rules will be bent. That is why my daughter applied for AE as well. Again thank you.

      • Rich says:

        “AE is only for students who were not able to take the PSAT.”

        I think it’s extremely important to note that this is not completely true. A certain college advisory company widely advised students to cancel their PSAT, and CB/NMC seemed quite open to this, as with AE, compared to past years.

        Sending an “I was anxious about COVID and couldn’t concentrate, please cancel my score”, followed by multiple SAT attempts, certainly occurred. It was possibly quite widespread.

      • Sonia says:

        Hi Art!

        I was also told yesterday that we could have canceled by son’s PSAT at anytime before his scores were released. Obviously, this made me more upset as I had sent him in with a headache and some Advil and mentioned this on the phone when I called National Merit. I was basically told in January that nothing could be done. Now I am being told that a student can cancel if they feel they did not perform to the best of their abilities for any reason . The supervisor said anyone who answered the phone would have told me that. So many inconsistencies that make students feel this was not fair cycle. I would love to know how many of the semifinalists from CA were AE vs PSAT takers.

      • G says:

        It seems quite unreasonable that only 1.8% of all semifinalist were from AE. The cutoff for California should have been well under 221, even if all 300 AE semifinalist were from California. I will take this percentage with grain of salt. Maybe, NM representatives are intentionally muddying the waters.

        • Art Sawyer says:

          It does strain credulity. It will be interesting to look at the released lists by school. We know certain schools, for example, had no PSATs. Every qualifier at those schools would presumably be AE.

        • Kim says:

          I can believe that 1.8% of all score submissions were AEs, but I do not believe that 1.8% of students who ultimately qualified as NMSFs were selected through AE. The students who applied through AE were a self selecting group, and as a result, the ratio of score submissions to NMSF selection will be significantly higher in the AE group.

          I do not have a problem with AE, but I really wish that NMSC worked to clamp down on the abuse this past fall.

          • Art Sawyer says:

            Your interpretation sounds like a good one. There were a bit fewer than 1 million entrants this year (versus 1.5M in a typical year), so 1.8% would be 18,000. That feels like the proper order of magnitude for AE entrants. NMSC clearly wants to spin 1.8% as a small number, but 18,000 highly-qualified SAT takers were bound to have impacted the results in many states.

  • Missy says:

    I believe that in a typical year, the NM competition rules are fairly strict about all PSAT testing being completed in October. I am trying to understand how the scores for students who took the PSAT in October 2020 can be aggregated with those of students who had an additional 3 months of learning, leading up to the January PSAT. Despite the crazy year that so many students (including my child) had during a year of virtual schooling, there is no doubt that that additional time provided an opportunity to learn new concepts (particularly, at least in my son’s case, in math). Our school offered the PSAT in person in October 2020, with Covid protocols, and encouraged all juniors to take it. By the time he took the SAT in March 2021, his math score had improved considerably. I can’t help but wonder how his PSAT score might have been different had the PSAT been administered at his school in January, so it’s surprising to me that there has been no mention (at least that I have seen) of the potential differences in scoring between who took the test in October and those who had the benefit of the additional three months of learning time. (If the Commended cutoff holds up, it looks like he will make it; he’s going to miss the semifinalist cutoff in our state, though.)

    • Art Sawyer says:

      There has been less discussion of Oct vs Jan than PSAT versus Alternate Entry partly because much of the debate about the January impact happened earlier this year. You’re right that scores improve over time and with practice. The problem NMSC faced was disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of students who had no ability to take the October PSAT. That would have been a wildly unpopular outcome with, among others, the National Merit sponsors who pay the bills. It’s hard to imagine a plan that would have pleased everyone. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that accepting PSAT and SAT scores from all students might have worked. Yes, you still have the problem of some students having taken and October PSAT being compared to a March SAT, but at least it gives the choice to the student.

      I’m sorry that your son didn’t qualify as a NMSF, but he will be a Commended Student (the 207 is for sure). And it sounds like he did great on the SAT!

      • Missy says:

        The most difficult aspect of this is seeing that students are disappointed with their outcomes. We can debate the merits of how NMSC handled the situation, but at the end of the day, I am trying to help my son put things into the same perspective that you did. Thanks so much for helping parents and students navigate yet another unforeseen consequence of the pandemic!

  • Marylander says:


    Thanks for the cutoff list and very useful analysis. You mentioned that “As the state with the highest cutoff, it also determines the DC cutoff and the international cutoff.” Did you mean the cutoff for DC is determined by cutoff for Maryland?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      NMSC puts guide rails on the lowest and highest cutoffs. No state or selection unit cutoff can fall below the Commended cutoff. No selection unit cutoff can fall above the highest state cutoff. DC, boarding schools, international students, and U.S. Territories and Commonwealths are examples of selection units that follow these guidelines. Maryland doesn’t always determine the DC cutoff; it just so happens that Maryland has the highest state cutoff this year.

      • TH says:

        Is the Maryland cutoff of 224 a definitive number, do we know that for 100% certainty? It just seems so odd considering other states that are similar to Maryland every year are at 222 or below for their cutoffs. If my daughter has a 222 and my son has a 221, what do you feel their chances are in Maryland for semifinalist status?
        Is there a chance the 224 number is definitely wrong?
        Thanks for your great information,

        • Art Sawyer says:

          I haven’t seen the original document, so I don’t want to claim 100% certainty. However, everything I know about the list of cutoffs checks out.

          The 224 does seem odd. The fact that DC is also 224, however, makes me think it wasn’t a typo. Canceled PSATs, Alternate Entry, and a concentrated set of NMSFs allow for some unusual possibilities. Hopefully your students’ school(s) can give more clarity. They may be more forthcoming as of the 15th. You can be assured that I’ll post it clear and loud if we find out that 224 is a mistake.

  • rca says:

    Hi Art
    Now that we have all of the numbers, could identify the regions National Merit uses, specifically which states (I’m thinking of boarding schools) are in Maryland’s region

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