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National Merit Semifinalist Cutoffs Class of 2023

By May 5, 2022 May 8th, 2022 National Merit, PSAT
National Merit Semifinalists

Compass has learned that this year’s National Merit Commended cutoff will remain at 207, the historical low set by the class of 2022. What are the reasons behind the low cutoff, and what are the implications for the Semifinalist cutoffs that will be announced in September?  [For a general overview of the National Merit process, including Finalist selection, see our FAQ. An archive of our post on the lead-up to the class of 2022 cutoffs can be found here. For a look at cutoff trends going back to the class of 2008, see Historical National Merit Cutoffs.]

The Commended cutoff came in at the low end of the expected range despite the number of PSAT takers bouncing back from 982,000 in October 2020 (and the January 2021 make-up) to almost 1.5 million in October 2021. This year’s cutoff may reflect the COVID-related learning losses also observed in the record low AP scores from 2021. The Commended cutoff is set nationally, so the 50,000 National Merit-eligible students scoring 207 and above will reach at least Commended status. The 16,000 Semifinalist slots, on the other hand, are allocated by state, and Semifinalist cutoffs are likely to range from 207 to 222.

It’s tempting to assume that Semifinalist cutoffs will remain unchanged given an unchanged Commended cutoff. It turns out that this assumption is no better than a coin toss (while also being the most accurate assumption). In Compass’s historical archive, there has never been a year where more than 25 Semifinalist cutoffs stayed constant.

Although we provide a “Most Likely” estimate for each state’s Semifinalist cutoff in the table below, Compass encourages students to think, instead, in terms of ranges. Even in years where overall scores are stable, individual state cutoffs rise and fall. Those changes, on average, tend to be lower in the states with higher cutoffs and higher in states with lower populations. The historical standard deviation of Alaska’s cutoffs is 3 times that of Connecticut’s, for example, and more than double that of New York’s.

While we should not expect more than 24 or 25 cutoffs to remain unchanged, the mix of increases and decreases is generally well-distributed in flat years. We may see only 10-12 Semifinalist cutoffs go up for the class of 2023; that is still 10-12 too many surprises for students sitting at a class of 2022 cutoff. The period between now and Labor Day is always a tense one for students “on the bubble.”

StateClass of 2023
(Est. Range)
Class of 2023
("Most Likely")
Class of 2022
(Actual)
Class of 2021
(Actual)
Class of 2020
(Actual)
Alabama211 - 215213212212216
Alaska209 - 216212208212213
Arizona217 - 220218218218219
Arkansas210 - 215212211212214
California221 - 223221221221222
Colorado217 - 220217217217220
Connecticut218 - 221220220220221
Delaware218 - 224220220219220
District of Columbia222 - 224223224222223
Florida215 - 218217217216219
Georgia217 - 220219219219220
Hawaii216 - 220217217217219
Idaho213 - 217214214214215
Illinois217 - 221219218219221
Indiana214 - 218216215215218
Iowa211 - 215212211212215
Kansas213 - 218216215214218
Kentucky212 - 216214212214217
Louisiana212 - 216213213212215
Maine211 - 216213211213215
Maryland220 - 224221224221222
Massachusetts221 - 223222221222223
Michigan215 - 219217217216219
Minnesota217 - 220218218218219
Mississippi210 - 215212213211214
Missouri213 - 217214214214217
Montana208 - 214209208210214
Nebraska210 - 216212210213216
Nevada213 - 217215214215218
New Hampshire214 - 218215214215218
New Jersey221 - 224222222222223
New Mexico210 - 215211210211213
New York218 - 221220220220221
North Carolina216 - 219218218217219
North Dakota207 - 210207207209212
Ohio214 - 218215215215218
Oklahoma210 - 215212210211214
Oregon217 - 221219220217220
Pennsylvania216 - 220218218217220
Rhode Island213 - 219216213216218
South Carolina212 - 216213213212215
South Dakota207 - 212210210209214
Tennessee214 - 218215215215219
Texas218 - 221220220219221
Utah211 - 216212212212215
Vermont211 - 217212211212216
Virginia220 - 224221221221222
Washington219 - 222220220220221
West Virginia207 - 209207207209212
Wisconsin212 - 216214214213216
Wyoming207- 211208208209212
​U.S. Territories207207207209212
​​Studying Abroad222 - 224223224222223
​​​Commended207207207209212

The Drop-Off in High-Scorers

In December, Compass reported on the low number of high scorers on the October 2021 PSAT. Only 3% of test-takers achieved a score of 1400 or higher. Three things could produce that low of a figure: (1) the October 2021 exam had a challenging scale (what we saw with the October 2019 exam), (2) student learning has been impaired during the pandemic and test performance reflects it (what we saw on the 2021 APs), or (3) a disproportionate number of high scorers were unable (or chose not) to test. The first two cases, if true, would likely have a uniform impact across states. The third scenario is the wildcard.

Lockdown restrictions during the first year of COVID-19 were not at all uniform. California had only 13% of its usual volume of PSAT takers in 2019, whereas Florida achieved 82% of its prior year numbers. Fewer students taking the PSAT usually correlates with lower Semifinalist cutoffs. A return to normalcy, then, might indicate higher cutoffs. College Board does not release state figures until the fall, but we know that most schools were able to offer PSATs in 2021. The national volume for the class of 2023 was down only 12% from that of the class of 2021. Will the bounce-back in testing numbers for states like California, Oregon, and Washington mean higher Semifinalist cutoffs? How could cutoffs not go up with 6 times as many students in those states contributing PSAT scores this year? Answering those questions requires a diversion into the world of Alternate Entry.

What is Alternate Entry and did it break the NMSQT?
The junior year PSAT has served as the exclusive National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test for more than 60 years. However, there has long been an exception for extenuating circumstances such as illness. For students who were sick on the day of the exam, NMSC allowed the substitution — pending an application by the school counselor and approval by NMSC — of an SAT score. Alternate Entry was uncommon and something of a rounding error. In fact, NMSC didn’t even need to use the entrants’ scores when calculating Semifinalist cutoffs. What if an entire country is ill, however? The pandemic forced NMSC to rewrite the rules for Alternate Entry. In states where 80-90% of students were unable to take the PSAT, what would National Merit have meant if all of them had been disqualified? In reaction to the pandemic, NMSC allowed students to self-apply and — so long as the student met the application deadline and didn’t have a PSAT on file — be automatically approved. NMSC had little choice but to incorporate the SAT scores of alternate entrants into the cutoffs.

Despite the radical change in testing volume and the impact of folding SAT scores in the mix, cutoffs for the class of 2022 were within the historical norms.* The hope is that the reverse is true this year: despite higher testing volumes, Semifinalist cutoffs will not climb precipitously. At the moment, we can only speculate. NMSC has been tight-lipped about how it will handle Alternate Entry applications and SAT scores in this years’ calculations. There is no source for the number of Alternate Entry applicants.

*[Maryland was decidedly outside the norms. All of the top NMSF-producing districts in Maryland had to cancel the PSAT/NMSQT. Most of the state’s Semifinalists qualified via the SAT, and this moved the cutoff to the highest ever recorded by any state. The students who were able to take the PSAT (about one-third of the usual volume) were at a disadvantage. The Alternate Entry system wasn’t designed for such a radical set of circumstances. Everyone is hoping to avoid another Maryland in the class of 2023.]

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

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

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

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

The Role of Test Scaling
The PSAT is usually taken by about 1.5 million students each year. The pool is large enough and consistent enough that the scores of the top 50,000 students should not change much. And yet they do. This reflects a shortcoming of the PSAT/NMSQT — it’s well-designed to measure the performance of the average student, but is more prone to error at the edges. College Board attempts to scale each PSAT so that a particular score represents the same level of achievement. In practice, we see clear examples of where College Board’s numbers are “off.” The class of 2021, for example, had an unusual test form that produced far lower cutoffs than in the previous year. Further confusing matters is that several different test forms are used each year. Compass’s analysis shows that this year’s PSAT — or at least the primary form, taken by more than 1 million students — was difficult. This difficulty can show up throughout the range of cutoffs, but lower scoring states tend to track the Commended level more than do the higher scoring states.

Why our Most Likely estimates are wrong
Confirmation of the low Commended cutoff makes us more confident of our estimated Semifinalist ranges, but the Most Likely figures could just as easily be labeled “Best Guess.” We know from tracking cutoffs in past years that “no change” is the most common result, and yet it only occurs about 1 time out of 4 (as mentioned at the top of the post, it is 1 time out of 2 when the Commended level is unchanged). Variability is the one certainty. See the chart below for a summary of changes in the last 10 years.

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

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

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

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

Small shifts can matter
It doesn’t always require a large change in testing behavior to cause a state’s cutoff to move. NMSC has no way of making fine distinctions within a state. Everyone at a given score is either a Semifinalist or not. The organization tries to come as close as possible in meeting the state’s allocation of Semifinalists (a number it does not directly report), but the nature of the Selection Index means that small variations can move a cutoff higher or lower.

Let’s assume that the target number of Semifinalists for a state is 300. If 282 students had Selection Indexes of 220 or higher and 315 scored 219 or higher, then 219 comes closest to meeting the target and will be set as the cutoff. If only 5 students at 219 had gotten 1 additional question right, there would have been 287 students at 220 or higher, and a 220 cutoff would have been chosen by NMSC. Small differences in class makeup, test form difficulty, or a few extra students guessing correctly on a problem can move the Semifinalist cutoff by a point.

Compass will update this post as new developments arise. We try to (eventually) answer all questions in the comments, but please be aware that comments are moderated and will not display until approved.

Art Sawyer

About Art Sawyer

Art graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where he was the top-ranked liberal arts student in his class. Art pioneered the one-on-one approach to test prep in California in 1989 and co-founded Compass Education Group in 2004 in order to bring the best ideas and tutors into students' homes and computers. Although he has attained perfect scores on all flavors of the SAT and ACT, he is routinely beaten in backgammon.

2,147 Comments

  • John says:

    Hey Mr. Sawyer,
    I received a 214 in Kentucky and was just wondering if you thought that my score would be high enough to qualify to be a Semi-Finalist?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      John,
      While I think that the Kentucky cutoff could fall anywhere from 212 to 216, I now have 214 as my Most Likely. I’d say that there is a good chance you will make Semifinalist.

  • Mary says:

    Good day Art
    Would 222 in psat and 35 in act qualify for national merit finalist in MA for 2023 ? Academic stand is good. Is SAT required and if so before when should it be taken?
    Thank you for your time and appreciate all the good work
    Mary

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Mary,
      I don’t see how MA’s cutoff moves to 223 unless something really unusual happens with Alternate Entry. That means you’re almost certain to be named a Semifinalist. National Merit finally caught up with the times a few years ago and started accepting the ACT as a confirming score to become a Finalist. Your 35 will work. If your academic record is strong and your school supports you, I like your chances to make Finalist!

  • Ben says:

    Hi Art,
    I scored a 213 on the PSAT in New Mexico. Do you think this will be high enough to qualify as a semifinalist? I have a GPA over 4.0 but I am not sure what my SAT score is yet for my first attempt. What SAT score do you think I need to become a finalist? If I get a score below that, should I try to retake over the Summer?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Ben,
      The cutoffs of small states such as New Mexico are more volatile than those of larger states. In the last 6 years, New Mexico’s cutoff has bounced around between 210 and 215. The good news is that in years where the Commended cutoff has been below 210 (and it is 207 this year), the New Mexico cutoff has been 213 or lower. Based on what we have seen of scores this year, I think you stand a good chance.

      The “confirming score” applies the Selection Index to an SAT score. The cutoff is generally set at the Commended cutoff. This means that your SAT Selection Index would need to be at least 207. I recommend that students don’t cut it close. I would shoot for at least 210. NMSC takes your highest scores (but not a superscore) in determining eligibility, so retaking the SAT is definitely an option. You can get a confirming score as late as December of your senior year.

  • Justin says:

    Hi Art,

    If my son is on the semifinalist or finalist but he may not be a winner, any benefit for him in semifinal or finalist? Thanks you, Justin.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Justin,
      Most colleges that offer college-sponsored National Merit Scholarships provide them to Finalists who list the college as first choice in the National Merit Finalist portal. If your son makes Semifinalist but misses out on Finalist, there are some schools — although considerably fewer — that provide awards to Semifinalists.

      If you are talking about benefit for admission, it varies tremendously by college. In general, the more competitive the college, the lower the benefit.

  • AJ says:

    Hi art, I got a 223 in NJ. Do you think I will become a semifinalist?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      AJ,
      Only one state has ever hit 224, and that was Maryland last year do to the oddities around canceled test and Alternate Entry. While it’s true that NJ is the state most likely to hit 224 at some time in the future, it’s highly unlikely that this will be the year. As predicted, we’ve seen a very low Commended cutoff. In such years, new records on the upside are rarely made. I don’t think we can put your odds at 100%, but they should be close to it.

  • BunBun says:

    Art,

    Thank you very much for the very insightful information! Now that the commended score is known? What percent chance would you give my daughter in Florida of being a NMSF with her 217?

    Kind regards,

    BunBun

    • Art Sawyer says:

      BunBun,
      Based on where the Commended level fell and what we have seen from Florida, I think it is far more likely that we will see a 216/217 cutoff than a 218/219 cutoff. Florida has had 3 years of 219 cutoffs recently, but they’ve all come in years with a high Commended cutoff. I’d put your daughter’s chances at 80-90%. Someone I know who is quite familiar with the Florida landscape would peg it even higher. I tend to be cautious because I’ve seen weird things happen.

  • Margie says:

    Hi Art,
    My son’s PSAT is 223 and his SAT is 1510. We live in Texas. My question is that he has had a lot of trouble with school precipitated by the Pandemic. Do grades lower than A’s affect the outcome of National Merit Scholar? I feel like the school would have notified us by now if he was a finalist. He graduates in 2023. Two of his brothers were finalists, but they also had stellar grades.
    Thanks for your help!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Margie,
      Let’s start with the good/great news. Your son’s score will qualify him as a Semifinalist. Congratulations! He won’t hear this from the school — because the school doesn’t even know it — until around Labor Day. At that time, he’ll get information about filling out his Finalist application on the National Merit Portal.

      Most Semifinalists become Finalists, but it is not guaranteed. Your son’s SAT score gives him the necessary confirming score. It sounds like the biggest obstacle is the requirement to have “a consistently very high academic record.” NMSC does not put a number to this. My advice is for your son to concentrate on what he can control — doing as well as possible as he completes his junior year. Hopefully he will make Finalist.

  • Fern says:

    Hi Art

    Thanks for your help as always!
    To keep you informed and help with your data base, my son got confirmation from school that he is a Semifinalist with a 212, in a US Territory. He was later told, they made a mistake and that they should have not share that information with him until September. Hope this help with your analysis.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Fern,
      Thank you. The U.S. Territory number has always fallen at the Commended cutoff, so your school is right that he will qualify. They are also right to backtrack, because nothing becomes final until NMSC says it is final. Your school is unlikely to have been specifically informed that your son is a Semifinalist. Instead, he would have been on their list of eligible students for honors (Commended and Semifinalist). NM gets information from the school to verify that list before it continues the process. Since you are in a U.S. Territory, your school has experienced everyone on that list becoming a Semifinalist. That’s a long way of saying that they will ultimately be right, but it is premature to say so. The school will get official letters sometime around the end of August.

  • jyothi says:

    My son scored 222 index score , we live in Texas and his first SAT score is 1580, do you think he will be a semifinalist if so can he make it to finalist.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      jyothi,
      It seems highly unlikely that Texas would set a new record in such a down year. Your son will be a Semifinalist. He also has an SAT score that fulfills the need for a “confirming score.” The other components of the Finalist decision are his application, a recommendation from his school, and a “consistently very high academic record.” Those factors can’t be accurately handicapped becomes NMSC does not release details. Most Semifinalist do end up becoming Finalists.

      • P. says:

        Hello Art
        Thanks for your effort. My son has 220 in Texas and SAT of 1560. With commended cut-off now confirmed as 207 (like 2022), do you think that 220 would again be the Semi-finalist cut-off like 2022?
        Also, now that National merit has all the scores, do you have an idea as to why it takes them until August to figure out the Semi-finalist cut-off in this computer age?

        • Art Sawyer says:

          P.,
          Yes, I’d rank it as 220, 219, and 221 in order of likelihood (with 220 as my Most Likely).

          The glib answer is that National Merit hates change. Who uses the mail to make notifications in 2022? The fairer answer is that there is a rhythm that needs to be followed. NMSC needs to work with schools to verify student information. Ineligible students don’t count toward the computation of cutoffs. Why not do that in Jan, Feb, or March? One potential answer is that those are the months when NMSC is heavily involved in selecting Finalists and making matches with colleges. And as long as it insists on running notifications through schools, June and July are out of the picture. Last year NMSC’s calendar worked out well, since it would have been impossible to deal with the January PSAT and the flood of Alternate Entry applicants on a winter/spring timeline.

  • Allegra says:

    Hi Art,
    Thanks for all of your amazing input. I didn’t even have my first son take the test because he had already gotten a high ACT score. Ugh. My daughter has a 219 in Delaware and graduates in the spring of 2023. Any thoughts about the semifinalist cutoff in our state?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Allegra,
      While I think a cutoff of 220 is a bit more likely in Delaware, I’d be happy to be wrong. The state did see a cutoff of 219 for the class of 2021, and we know that this was a challenging year for many PSAT-takers. Your daughter falls squarely in the “stay positive until September” camp.

  • FriendlySkies says:

    Thanks for the new info about the commended cutoff of 207. Does it vary by state like the semifinalist ranges do? For example, my child has a 206 in Indiana. Does that mean there is no way they’ll make the cutoff if you’re saying that it’s 207? I didn’t think 206 would be even close to making it, but it will sting a bit to miss it by just one point. Thank you for all the helpful information!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Friendly,
      The Commended cutoff is the same throughout the world. Congratulations on your student’s strong score. I appreciate why missing by a point might sting, but your student should still be proud.

  • Avaneesh says:

    Got a 1490/222 in VA. Class of 2023. Odds of being NMSF?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Avaneesh,
      Virginia is one of the most competitive states, but its cutoff has — through the class of 2022 — never gone above 222. I think you should be confident without taking it as a given. Good luck!

  • Anthony says:

    Hi Art,
    As a 221 scorer in California (which also seems to be the ‘most-likely’ score on the chart) I had a couple quick questions I’m hoping you could answer; namely, how confident are you in that most likely number being the actual cutoff for becoming a semifinalist, would all 221 scorers be accepted as semi-finalists if the cutoff in CA is indeed 221, and does becoming a finalist improve your chances to selective colleges or does it not really matter because they are flooded with finalist applications anyways? Any insight would be appreciated!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Anthony,
      It is all or nothing. If the cutoff is 221, then everyone at 221 and higher is a Semifinalist.

      It depends on who you group as “selective.” If you are zeroing in on Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc., then, yes, they are flooded by Finalist applications. Schools that provide NM scholarships generally care. You can find a list of colleges with their counts of NM Scholars in the PSAT/NMSQT Guide.

  • Sid says:

    Hi Art,
    As you’ve mentioned, Alternate Entry was a huge factor last year in raising the Selection Index for both Washington DC and Maryland. Some private schools in DC knew about Alternate Entry and advised parents to jump on it, while other schools there somehow missed this information and their very deserving students therefore missed out – even ones with near-perfect SAT scores, because they never submitted them for consideration.

    What would stop ALL private schools and “parents in the know” to this year have their students skip the PSAT altogether and instead prepare them to do well on the SAT, since SAT scores provide a much better chance at achieving the required Selection Index score? For example, one private high school in Florida had 51 National Merit Semifinalists last year – second highest school totals in the US. That is a huge number. Were those scores achieved via PSAT or SAT?

    You adjusted down a few of your Selection Index score projections after PSAT scores came in. But won’t that change if the majority of pricey private schools and savvy parents instead came up with excuses as to why their kids could only take the SAT for 2023? Many private schools live and die by their National Merit Semifinalist list. It would seem to me that they would definitely at least consider gaming the system this way. It sure worked well for some last year!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Sid,
      What would stop them? Primarily ethics with a dose of uncertainty. Alternate Entry has a specific purpose, and I would expect National Merit to clamp down if it felt like AE were being abused. AE was made easier during the pandemic, but the rubber stamp aspect is not something I expect to be permanent.

      It’s interesting to speculate how AE might impact cutoffs this year, but one can quickly get tied into knots. I’m fairly certain that no one said last year, “Maryland and only Maryland will hit 224.” I expect to be wrong about many of the estimated cutoffs and try to be honest about it. That’s one of the reasons why I tend to be rigorous about showing my work.

      During PSAT registration students are asked to identify a field of study. What we saw last year was a spike in the number of 000 codes (seen next to a student’s name in the list of NMSFs), which indicates no answer to the question or no registration. While not every 000 is an AE student (and not every student with a number is not-AE), there is a strong correlation.

      There are schools that like to tout their NMSF numbers, but it might be a stretch to say that they live and die by it.

  • Caroline says:

    Hi Art,
    My son has a selection index of 216 in Ohio. His best composite on the SAT is a 1420, and he has a superscore of 1480. If he makes the cutoff, will a college that doesn’t accept a superscore think that a semifinalist should have an SAT score higher than a 1420. Do you recommend that he sit for the SAT again? He got a 780 on the math section the first time and hasn’t been able to come close to that in two subsequent tests.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Caroline,
      I recommend making SAT retesting decisions regarding college admission separately from decisions about National Merit. We have a fairly good idea of where the SAT Selection Index for the confirming score will fall (around 210). On the other hand, every college has a different way of judging SAT and ACT scores. I would look at how your son’s score stacks up against a school’s admits. I’ve certainly never heard of a college holding NM against a student, so I don’t think you should worry that a school might be expecting a higher score from a Semifinalist.

  • Shawn says:

    Hello Art:
    My son (Texas-2023) scored 223 and 1510 in SAT. What is his chance to become National Merit Semi Finalists/Finalists? Will he need a higher SAT score to qualify for Finalists? Thank you.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Shawn,
      He will be a Semifinalist with a 223 in Texas. Congratulations! Most Semifinalists become Finalists. The 3 factors (other than completing the application) are a confirming SAT/ACT score, strong grades, and a recommendation from the school. Your son’s 1510 is easily high enough as a confirming score (the level is usually set at the Commended cutoff). NMSC gives no definitive guidelines for what is required for a GPA. I have heard that C’s can pose a problem. Unless there is a disciplinary problem, the school’s recommendation is straightforward.

  • Anya says:

    Hi Art, thank you for this very informative article. My daughter (class of 2023) scored a 228 index in Massachusetts, and I’m curious if you know about how many students actually get perfect scores every year. I’m also curious as to whether you know anything about the process of deciding which of the semifinalists become finalists (as I’ve heard most semifinalists make it to finalist standing barring extreme cases, is this true)? As well as which of the finalists get scholarships. Thanks!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Anya,
      Congratulations to your daughter! College Board has never published score distributions for the current PSAT. My estimate is that about 1000-1500 students achieve perfect scores each year.

      It’s true that most Semifinalists (about 16,000) become Finalists (about 15,000). Semifinalists must get a confirming SAT or ACT score, which basically means an SAT score with a Selection Index of about 210 or higher (trivial for your daughter). They must receive a recommendation from their high school principal. And, the squishiest criteria, they must have “a record of very high academic performance
      in all of grades 9 through 12.”

      The scholarship process is more complicated. If a scholarship is a Finalist’s only goal, it’s quite simple — choose a college that sponsors National Merit scholarships (technically you must list them as a first choice with NMSC during the matching process)! About half of the 7,500 scholars receive scholarships from their colleges. The other half receive corporate- or NMSC-funded scholarships. With only about 3,500 scholarships for a highly-qualified group of students, these can be quite competitive. NMSC treats Finalist applications in much the way a college would look at applicants, considering essay, application, scores, grades, and recommendation.

  • Katie says:

    Thanks so much for the very helpful reply. That really puts my daughter’s mind at ease. And thank you for all you do!

  • Katie says:

    Can one low SAT score ruin my daughter’s chances of becoming a National Merit Finalist if she already has a good confirming SAT score? My daughter already has gotten very high confirming score on a previous SAT, so she wasn’t planning on taking the SAT again, but her school is requiring her to take a school-day SAT as a state-wide assessment. She is worried that, if she bombs the school-day test, that would disqualify her from being a National Merit Finalist. When she sends her confirming score to the National Merit Scholarship Program, can she “score choice” and send only the SAT with the best score, or must she send in all her scores? And if she has to send in all her SAT scores, would a low score on one test hurt her chances of becoming a Finalist? Thank you!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Katie,
      NMSC uses a student’s highest SAT score. While it does not superscore, there are no circumstances where an outlier score hurts a student. You can use Score Choice or let NMSC choose your daughter’s best score, but the result will be the same.

  • Drea says:

    Any chance a 220 in CA can make the cut for the class on 2023?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Drea,
      I don’t want to say that it is impossible, but it’s highly unlikely. California’s cutoffs are consistently among the highest in the country. If we see a really low Commended cutoff, it could indicate that scores have fallen nationally more than expected. As I said, it’s not impossible.

  • Anonymous says:

    Hello,

    My daughter is in IL and had a point total of 220 on the PSAT. As it is 1 point above your “most likely,” what would be your ballpark re: her odds? It looks like IL has only gone to 221 when the national PSAT scores were very high, percentage wise.

    I also wanted to ask if an SAT exam she took over the summer could be used as the confirming score? She took the SAT the summer before her junior year and scored 1460 (760M, 700R). Of course, she has the SAT coming up again this month and I expect her to do better the second time around, but wanted to see if the first score could be used just in case.

    Thanks!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Anon,
      Based on what we know right now, I’d say that she is in the 80%+ category. We often find out the exact Commended cutoff in late April. I *expect* it to come in where I’ve predicted, but I’ll feel better once we have it confirmed. If it comes in as low as I think, then I’d bump her chances to 90-95%, IL would have to do something very unusual. If it turns out that the scores were not as low as my research predicted, then it becomes more of a toss-up.

      Yes, a student can use scores as early as October of sophomore year. Your daughter’s score works as a confirming score and would already be high enough.

  • Sock says:

    Thank you for your insightful article. My daughter has an index of 222, class of 2023, California. Likelihood of her becoming a semi finalist in California?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Sock,
      California reached 223 in the class of 2019, but that was a year where scores were high across the board, with a 212 Commended cutoff. We are seeing weakness this year. It seems unlikely that CA will go above 222, but I don’t want to completely discount the possibility. I’d say your daughter’s chances are at least 90%.

  • Jack says:

    Why does it take so long for them to determine/announce recognition and semi-finalists given the test is given in October? You think with technology they should know all their results by December.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Jack,
      The gracious interpretation is “if it ain’t broke.” NMSC has barely changed its procedures in 50 years.

      It’s not quite as simple as running a database report, because NMSC does need to do checking on their own and then cross-validation with schools to verify student eligibility. They also have different parts of the process running at different times. For example, now is when scholarship matches are taking place for seniors. They also have Alternate Entrants who missed the PSAT and must submit SAT scores. The bottom line is that they feel that the schedule works for them. Even when they are ready to announce the Semifinalists, it’s maddening that they do it with snail mail. Outside of the movies, when was the last time a college used letters rather than the internet to inform students of admission?

  • chris says:

    Hi
    Junior (Tx) took PSAT fall 2021 and got 1450); Index 218(99th%)- probably Commened status). Compass shows prediction of 218-222 range with mostly likely Finalist@220 but also shows quite a swing in historical trends. She took SAT Dec 2021 and got 1570(missed 5 Qs). Anymore thoughts on Tx Finalist being closer to 218? While being commended is likely in Tx, does applying to other states with lower finalists scores help in her college applications? If she qualifies for finalist does she have to take another SAT to qualify or can she submit the Dec2021 /1570 number?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Chris,
      Yes, Semifinalist cutoffs do move around. We expect to see a down year, so 219 or 220 are possibilities. I have 218 as a borderline case. It hasn’t happened in Texas in 10 years, but this may shape up to be a very unusual year.

      I’ve never heard of colleges treating Commended or Semifinalists differently based on where they are located. I don’t think they’d even be allowed to under NMSC rules.

      She can submit her Dec SAT as a confirming score. Great job!

  • G says:

    Hi Art,
    My student scored high on his PSAT (Looks like he’ll make our state’s NM Semifinalist cut-off) and his ACT.
    He had heard about only answering what was required when taking the tests, so we’ve literally not received any mailers or promotional materials.
    That’s fine, but I want to make sure we’re not missing anything either.
    I’m also a little worried if he filled things out correctly to make sure he’s eligible to be included to be a NM Semifinalist.
    He filled out that his graduating year is 2023, but is there anything that he should make sure to check in his College Board account for the PSAT for NM Semi-finalist purposes?
    Or anywhere else for anything?
    I’m happy not to be getting any marketing materials, but it’s almost a little disconcerting! (Can’t win)

    Thank you.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      G,
      If he logs into his College Board account, there should be a section of the PSAT report for National Merit. It will indicate whether he is listed as eligible.

      Your student may have opted out of the Student Search Service that colleges use to buy mailing lists. To be clear, they don’t know anything more than we do about National Merit status. Colleges are allowed to buy names from College Board based on PSAT score ranges. College Board is all too happy to let him change his designation to receive mail.

  • Mary says:

    Hi Art — I’m wondering why the most likely cutoff for DC is 223 when the highest cutoff for any state is 222 (MA/NJ). I thought DC’s cutoff was the same as the state with the highest cutoff, so wouldn’t that be 222? Thanks

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Mary,
      You are correct that DC’s cutoff will be the same as the highest state cutoff. However, that means that the probability of DC having a cutoff above 222 is greater than any single state having a 223 cutoff. Last year’s MD development made this risk plain. I think things have settled back close enough to normal that NJ will at least tie for the highest cutoff and DC would follow NJ. Listing DC as 223 is a reminder, though, that DC is subject to a breakthrough cutoff in other states.

  • Mary Sue says:

    Hi! I am in West Virginia and my score was a 213. Do you think I will qualify as a semi-finalist this year? Like are my chances good? I looked at your list from the class of 2008 to the class of 2022 and I saw that it has never gone above 212 in WV but I am unsure if I will qualify with the pandemic affecting numbers/test performance and whatnot. Please let me know what you think! Thank you!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Mary Sue,
      Yes, I think you will qualify. Not only has WV not gone over 212 in that time, only in that period has it ever gone above the national Commended level. This year will almost certainly see a sub-210 Commended score, and West Virginia’s Semifinalist cutoff will be right there with it.

      • Mary Sue says:

        Thank you so much! This was reassuring! Sorry to bother you further, but what do you think my chances are percent wise? Thank you so much for your amazing articles and predictions! 🙂

        • Art Sawyer says:

          I’m going to go out on a limb and say 99+%. There is just no indication that this is going to be a breakout year, and it would require a MAJOR breakout for West Virginia’s cutoff to move to 214.

          Thank you for the kind words.

          • Mary Sue says:

            Wow, thank you so much! I feel a lot better about my chances now! You are doing amazing work and it should be commended! 🙂 Thank you again and have a great night!

  • Jenee says:

    Mr. Sawyer: Thanks for the prediction. when will the cutoff be released for class of 2023?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Jenee,
      NMSC mails information to schools in late August. It’s up to the school when to start notifying students, but most students hear in the first 2 weeks of September. Compass and others will try to get the cutoffs early enough in September that students won’t have to wait quite as long. Still, there is a long wait ahead of us.

  • Tamara says:

    Hi Art,
    What are the chances of either a Commendation or Semi-Finalist with an Index Score of 216 in Colorado for the Class of 2023? Looks like it is just below what will be expected as the cutoff score for being considered a Semi-Finalist, but wondering if there’s still a slight possibility?
    Thank you,
    Tam

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Tamara,
      Colorado had been growing more competitive, but it took a step backwards with the class of 2021 (an oddly scaled test) and the class of 2022 (significant test cancellations). While the test taker numbers have bounced back this year, the results nationally point to another set of low cutoffs. Could CO drop to 216? Yes, I think there is a possibility. At minimum you will be named a Commended Student.

  • Tiffany says:

    When will the official list of Semifinalists be released for the Class of 2023?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Tiffany,
      National Merit doesn’t publicly publish a list of Semifinalists. Instead, it mails lists to high schools at the end of August. It also provides lists to media outlets for publication in mid-September. Some schools wait until the press release date before notifying students.

  • Emily says:

    Very excited for these students! My son got a 227 SI in Louisiana. The future is so bright! I’m learning to be patient through this process. Thank you for all your wonderful advice on this website.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Congratulations to your son, Emily! I’m sure you are both anxious to make it official and have him move on to the Finalist stage, but I can assure you that it’s much easier to be patient with a 227!

  • John says:

    Hi Art,
    Very detailed articles! My daughter got a 218 /1470 in North Caroline, Class of 2023. Would you predict that she could make the semifinalist?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      John,
      It’s going to be close. While I have 218 as my “most likely” cutoff, realistically we have to think of it as a range of possibilities from 216 to 220 (with the extreme values being the least likely). Best of luck to your daughter!

  • AJ says:

    My son is at 222 in NJ so it appears we’re right on the edge of making/not making the cut. At this point, are we just waiting until the early Fall to find out or does the cutoff usually leak before that point? Thanks in advance.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      AJ,
      The Commended cutoff usually leaks in April or May, but we won’t see any Semifinalist numbers until late August or early September.

      • AJ says:

        Hi Art – Does the commended cutoff coming in at 207 change your prediction in any way re: NJ being 50/50 on 222 vs 223. With my son sitting on a 222, obviously he’s right on the fence here.

        Thanks again.

  • ZJC says:

    Hi Art,
    Thanks for all the info and comments! My daughter is in the 2023 class. She got an index score of 224 on the PSAT in Virginia. How is her chance to be a semifinalist?
    Thanks,

    ZJC

    • Art Sawyer says:

      ZJC,
      I doubt that we’ll ever see a 225 NMSF cutoff from the PSAT, so I think your daughter is safe. The only remote possibility of a 225 would have to involve a never-before-seen level of Alternate Entry. 1) Cancellations were modest this year, so AE should be less of a factor. 2) Even with AE, I don’t see a 224 missing out in Virginia.

  • Keith says:

    I have a two part question: My daughter (IL) scored a 1460 on the SAT in IL last summer before her junior year and then scored a 1460 on the PSAT. However, the SAT points = 216, while the PSAT points = 220. Given your adjusted estimate of 219 for Illinois, what odds would you give a score of 220? It looks like on all of the low national years, IL was 218 or 219. Also, assuming she does make semi-finalist based upon her score, would the summer SAT score of 1460 be acceptable to confirm, even though the score is the same, but the SAT points = 216? Thanks!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Keith,
      Sorry for the slow reply. Unless I’m wrong about this being a down year, a 220 looks very strong in Illinois. As you say, it’s only been 221 in years where the Commended cutoff was 211/212. The Commended level usually leaks out in late April and will confirm (or disprove) my findings on the overall trend. It won’t guarantee IL’s cutoff, but it would provide a bit more reassurance.

      Yes, a 216 will be a sufficient confirming score. The confirming score is a national number that is usually set at the Commended level. Your daughter’s score clears it with ease.

  • Emanuel says:

    What are your views on 221 for Virginia this year? Its in the lower part of your range, but what would you say the odds that qualifies are?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Emanuel,
      I actually have it as my “most likely” cutoff. In the years with generally weak scores (Commended < 210), Virginia has come in at 221. Reasons I can't exclude 222 or 223: 1) I could be wrong about the trend. 2) Virginia could zig while other states zag, especially given the uneven impact of the pandemic. Good luck!

  • Meredith says:

    Hi Art,
    Thank you for the wealth of knowledge you provide!
    How confident are you regarding a Selection Index of 217 for Florida? Could that number go even lower?
    I think your original projected Selection Index for Florida was 218, but then it was determined that 2023 PSAT scores across the US
    came in lower than expected.
    Have you received any additional information regarding score projections / why scores were much lower than expected?
    Do you think there was an issue with the test itself? Is it strictly pandemic-related? Something else?
    Thanks again, Art!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Meredith,
      My really late reply. I think 217 is the most likely cutoff. Is a 216 possible? I don’t think we can exclude it (or a 218), but I’d peg the odds at maybe 20-25%.

      No definitive information, but the low percentage of high scores indicates poor test performance as opposed to the test cancellations that impacted scores last year. That poor performance could be the result of an anomalous PSAT (as it was for the class of 2021) or could indicate that even top students have struggled during the pandemic.

  • DJ says:

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

    • Art Sawyer says:

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

  • Srividhya says:

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

    thanks,

  • Rob says:

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

    • Art Sawyer says:

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

  • Anonymous says:

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

    • Art Sawyer says:

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

  • Shri says:

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

    • Art Sawyer says:

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

  • Tony says:

    Hi Art,

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

    • Art Sawyer says:

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

  • DJ says:

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

    • Art Sawyer says:

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

  • FL Mom says:

    Hi Art,

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

    • Art Sawyer says:

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

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

  • Joe says:

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

    • Art Sawyer says:

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

  • Don says:

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

  • Anonymous says:

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

    • Art Sawyer says:

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

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

      • Juan says:

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

        • Art Sawyer says:

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

  • Marc says:

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

    • Art Sawyer says:

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

  • Sun says:

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

    • Art Sawyer says:

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

      • Kate says:

        Hi ARt,
        I have a Q about the rural/small town National scholarship. How do you know what the cut-off for PSAT Fall 2021 is for the 90% percentile for the state of PA. We live in a small/rural town. Thanks for your guidance. Thank you. Kate

        • Art Sawyer says:

          Kate,
          College Board does not report this data. Unfortunately, there is not a good way of estimating it by state. To give the completely non-scientific response: fingers crossed.

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