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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
(Actual)
Class of 2021
(Actual)
Class of 2020
(Actual)
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.

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