National Merit Semifinalist Cutoffs Class of 2021

By January 31, 2020 February 7th, 2020 National Merit, PSAT
National Merit Semifinalists

Since our original class of 2021 National Merit post in December, Compass has done extensive research into how scores behaved on the 2019 PSAT. A full write-up can be found here. This research significantly changes our predictions for Semifinalist cutoffs for the class of 2021. We expect all—or nearly all—state cutoffs to move lower. The Commended cutoff is likely to fall between 208 and 210.

Here is what we know:

  • The number of juniors scoring 1400 or higher dropped 30%, from 71,041 to 49,749.
  • The “harsh scales” students saw in Reading and Writing may be a part of the explanation, but score drops were actually larger on the Math section than on the Reading and Writing sections.
  • Based on sample data we have received from schools, there are fewer students in the typical National Merit ranges. We have observed Selection Indexes running about 2–4 points lower than in previous years.
  • The most popular date, Wednesday, October 16th was impacted by lower scores.
  • The first semiofficial word on National Merit comes when the Commended score leaks in April.

Here is what we don’t know:

  • We don’t have enough data for the October 30th administration or other alternate forms to say how those scales performed.
  • We don’t know the exact amount by which Selection Indexes declined.
  • College Board does not publish data by state, so we can only estimate ranges.

You can find our full analysis below the table of class of 2021 cutoff estimates. If you would like to find out more about the National Merit process such as how to calculate the Selection Index, how notification works, how many students reach each level, and what comes after Semifinalist, we recommend our National Merit FAQ. You can also see a complete history of Semifinalist cutoffs for the last 13 years or view the archive of the class of 2020 results.

StateClass of 2021
(Most Likely)
Class of 2021
(Est. Range)
Class of 2020
Class of 2019
Class of 2018
Class of 2017
Typical # of SemifinalistsSize Category
District of Columbia221219–22322322322322245Small
New Hampshire216214–21821821921721675Small
New Jersey221219–223223223223222530Large
New Mexico212210–21421321521521395Small
New York219217–221221221221219960Large
North Carolina217215–219219220219218490Large
North Dakota209207–21221221221120930Small
Rhode Island216214–21921822021621755Small
South Carolina214212–216215216217215210Medium
South Dakota211209–21421421521520945Small
West Virginia209207–21121221221120975Small
​U.S. Territories209207–211212212211209
​U.S. Abroad221219–223223223223222

Explaining the Table

We have provided a column with our “Most Likely” cutoff estimate because students and parents expect a number, but the more informative column is the “Estimated Range.” Most cutoffs will fall in this range. The edges of the ranges are less likely, but they remain possibilities. In some years, a handful of states fall outside of the estimated ranges. These are generally smaller states. We will not have official cutoffs until late August or early September of 2020.

The Decline in High Scores

A key statistic we look at is the number of students scoring at or above 1400 in Total Score. College Board does not report more granular data or information on Selection Index distribution. But the 1400+ figure is a useful indicator of where the Commended Student cutoff will fall.

Large changes have happened in the past. The jump in 1400+ scorers from the class of 2017 to the class of 2018 was, at least, predictable. The class of 2017 had to contend with the rollout of the new PSAT and a questionable exam. For the class of 2018, the Commended cutoff went up two points, and only Rhode Island saw a lower cutoff.

In the years since, there have been increasing numbers of students achieving 1400+ scores, and Commended cutoffs have inched upward. Things reversed course dramatically on the 2019 PSAT. The class of 2021 has 49,749 students in the 1400–1520 range (as reported in mid-Dec by College Board)—even fewer than the 55,587 in the class of 2017. This points to a 208–210 Commended cutoff.

Why focus on the Commended figure?

The Commended cutoff is the only cutoff that is national. And the 1400+ figure is also national.

What evidence is there of the relationship between national and state changes?

The expected drop in the Commended cutoff does not mean that state cutoffs will all move in lockstep. I expect most states to see declines of between 1 and 4 points. It’s possible that some states will see no change, which is why last year’s cutoff is the upper bound of most of our estimated ranges.

The table below summarizes 12 years of Semifinalist cutoff changes. It shows how cutoffs at the state level have corresponded with the national Commended cutoff. For example, there was 1 year in which the Commended cutoff declined by 2 points. In that year, 17 states had cutoffs that were unchanged. Only 1 state saw a higher cutoff.

The table gives insight into what might happen when nationwide scores decline. In the 6 years in which the Commended level changed by 2 or more points—up or down—there are 300 data points from the 50 states. Only 6 cutoffs (2%) moved in the opposite direction of the Commended change. These 6 have all been states with a low number of Semifinalists. I don’t expect any large state to see an increase this year. I expect the vast majority to see lower cutoffs.

We have also analyzed a sample of anonymized 2018 and 2019 PSAT data from high schools. The school data gives us insight to the very top of the range (220+). The data confirm our hypothesis that even the highest-scoring states will see declines. The dataset is not diverse enough for us to use it to predict specific cutoffs.

As always, we will update this page as more information becomes available. This update has been a long time coming because of the extensive work it took to collect and analyze the data. It has also delayed many answers to specific questions.


Below are excerpts from our original post, with annotations where our new knowledge has reshaped our conclusions.

Why do we emphasize ranges?

The only predictable thing is unpredictability. Over the last 12 years, cutoff changes have shown a roughly normal distribution. The catch is that there is no way of predicting where on the curve an individual state will fall. Compass has also found that there is a wider spread of cutoff changes in smaller states (defined as the 16 states with the lowest number of Semifinalists).

The chart demonstrates two things. First, we can’t be assured that any estimate of a cutoff will be correct. There are always changes in the mix. Second, the best estimate is “no change.” [We now have firm reason to believe that cutoffs will decline this year, so the Most Likely figures have been adjusted downward.ed.]

On average, about 60% of cutoffs hold fast or go down. A given year, though, is rarely average. Below is a chart showing the number of state cutoffs that have gone up, remain unchanged, or gone down in each year. [We now believe that the changes for the class of 2013 will look something like those we saw for the class of 2013. –ed.]

The class of 2018 saw increases in 46 states; the class of 2020 saw an increase in 1 state! Which kind of year do we expect for the class of 2021? [We currently predict that most states will see decreases. This was seen for the class of 2013. It’s the same concept—but in the opposite direction—as seen with the class of 2018. There may be a handful of states in the No Change section, but most cutoffs will go down. –ed.]

Everything we think percentiles tell us about National Merit is wrong.

College Board’s percentile reporting falls somewhere between misleading and wrong. First, the percentiles prominent on students’ PSAT reports are for a “Nationally Representative Sample.” The sample reflects the hypothetical results if every student in a class year took the PSAT. The College Board also reports the PSAT/NMSQT User percentiles (found only on a student’s online report or in Understanding the PSAT/NMSQT) based on students who have actually taken the PSAT. These figures are lower than the Nationally Representative figures, since the PSAT-taking group has a higher proportion of college-bound students. However, the User percentiles are for the class years of 2018, 2019, and 2020 and not for the class of 2021. The percentiles reported by College Board do not reflect the results of a single student who took the October 2019 PSATs. We could also quibble about the fact that percentiles are rounded or that not all test-takers are eligible for National Merit or that no percentiles are provided for the Selection Index, but the fact that percentiles are not shaped in any way by student results from this year’s PSATs immediately disqualifies them from consideration.

Will the harsh scales alter the Semifinalist cutoffs?

Students missing a single question have always scored high enough to be Semifinalists, and that will be true again this year. On some test forms, just two missed questions has been able to take a student below the cutoff in the most competitive states. The table below shows the impact of two incorrect answers on a student’s Selection Index for the 2018 and 2019 PSATs. The PSAT is given on a primary date and an alternate date each year. Anywhere from 80–90% of students test on the primary Wednesday date. 

Comparing the impact of incorrect answers on Selection Index across test forms



 Oct 16, 2019
Oct 30, 2019
 Oct 10, 2018
Oct 24, 2018

In college admission, the difference on the SAT between a 730 ERW and a 740 ERW is trivial. On the all-or-nothing PSAT/NMSQT, however, small changes can prove significant. The Semifinalist cutoff for New Jersey was 223 last year. Even with a perfect Math score, a student would have still needed an ERW score of 740 or better to be named a Semifinalist. The ERW score receives twice the weight of the Math score, so errors can prove costly.

Why do test scales vary?

In theory, a more challenging scale exists only to offset an easier test. The scaling done on the PSAT is different from what a classroom teacher might do to determine that a certain percentage of students will receive As, a certain percentage will receive Bs, and so on. PSAT scaling is designed to take into account the small differences in difficulty between test forms. In recent years, however, we have seen large swings in test difficulty on both the SAT and PSAT. Last year’s alternate date PSAT saw an historically easy Math section and correspondingly harsh scale. While this year’s scales aren’t quite as bad as the October 24, 2018 scale, they are steeper than usual. The steep drop—particularly at the high end of the scale and particularly on the ERW—may end up lowering cutoffs for the class of 2021. As more data becomes available, we expect to better test this thesis. The impact is more likely to be seen on the highest cutoffs. By the time scores reach the expected Commended range, scale fluctuations tend to be less important.

Have things always been this bad?

No. Two trends have created the knife’s edge we saw last year and expect to see again this year. Elite students are stronger testers than they were a decade ago, and changes to the PSAT have made the test easier. On the 2008 PSAT, a California Semifinalist could have missed 8 or 9 questions. On the October 24, 2018 PSAT, a student would have needed to miss no more than a single question. We don’t yet know, of course, how students will fare this year.

Why do states have such different cutoffs?

Cutoffs vary across the country because the 16,000 Semifinalists are allocated proportionally to states based on the total number of graduating seniors in each state. A state’s cutoff is derived by finding the score that will produce, as closely as possible, the targeted number of Semifinalists. Students in any given state are competing only against fellow residents. The test is national; the competition is local. Boarding school students are a special case and must meet the highest state cutoff in their region.

What about the Commended cutoff?

The Commended student cutoff is set nationally, so it is the same for all participants.

Where can I learn more?

We regularly update this page and try to answer all questions in the comments. Our National Merit FAQ has the most detailed explanations on the steps in the National Merit Scholarship Program.

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.


  • Avatar jothi says:

    Hi, My son got 222 and we are from Wisconsin, How is his chance to be semi finalist/finalist. Thanks

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Congratulations, your son will be a Semifinalist. His grades, scores, recommendations, and essay will determine whether or not he becomes a Finalist in Jan/Feb 2021, but he is off to a great start.

  • Avatar Rick says:

    My son received a 1520 and an index score of 224 as a Virginia resident in October. Do you think his odds are good for a Finalist?

  • Avatar Mark says:

    In Massachusetts, it would seem that many of the stronger public school districts (Newton North and South, Concord-Carlisle, Lexington, Acton-Boxborough, Dover-Sherborn, Westford Academy, Wayland, etc.) opted for the Saturday testing date. In light of the more forgiving curve for 10/19, how do you think this regional testing difference will play into the state specific cut-off? Do you have sufficient data from this state to suggest the drop in cutoff or are you extrapolating from national data? Sitting with a 222 Index in an unforgiving state while this all shakes out is a bit unpleasant!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      We don’t know what the score distribution looks like for Saturday. In the past, we have not noticed big differences between states based on test date. My guess is that MA is large enough to where the Wed/Sat split evens out, but you raise an interesting possibility. I definitely do not have sufficient data to have any state-specific insights.

  • Avatar Liz says:

    Do you have any insight on how big a problem it is if the school submitted their part for the finalist application late? We are anxiously waiting to hear daughter’s status because it looks like the school’s submission was about 1 1/2 weeks after the Oct 9 deadline.

  • Avatar Ann says:

    Hi Art,

    How do you feel about the National Merit cut-offs for mid sized states? We are in Minnesota with a 217; how confident are you that the MN cut off will drop to that level as estimated?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      When we are talking about changes of this size, it’s best not to be overconfident one way or the other. The data I have analyzed tells me that most cutoffs will drop this year. I’d expect the average decline to be at least 2 points. We can’t automatically conclude, though, that MN will drop to 217.

  • Avatar Karpagam says:

    My son got a Selection Index of 221 from CA. Do you think he would qualify for NMSF? Thanks!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      We can’t say with certainty, but I will be very surprised if the CA cutoff does not drop to 221 or lower. Unfortunately, we won’t get the actual cutoff until around Labor Day.

      • Avatar Logan says:

        I have a SI of 215 and I’m from Idaho. How likely do you think is Idaho’s cutoff this year to be at 216 or higher?
        Also, I noticed that 95% of NM Semifinalists move onto the Finalist rounds. Any thoughts on how the unlucky 5% who don’t advance are chosen? I really don’t want to be in that 5% if I’m a semifinalist lol
        (Thanks btw for all your research, it’s been helpful)

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          With only 80-90 Semifinalists, Idaho’s cutoff can swing more than in larger states (it doesn’t take much of a bumper crop of 216s or 217s). That said, I like your chances. Few — maybe even no — states will see higher cutoffs this year.

          NMSC doesn’t break down the specific reasons, but we can speculate. First, there are some students that just don’t care and don’t apply. You’re not in that group. Second, your grades need to be exceptional. NMSC doesn’t quantify that. With a transcript of mostly A’s, you’d probably be in good shape. Third, you need to achieve a confirming score on the ACT or SAT. This usually falls around the Commended level. So think about calculating a Selection Index from an SAT score. If you’re at 213+, you should be good. Fourth, you need the recommendation of your school. This is not the year to get suspended! My guess is that most students miss out because of low ACT/SAT scores or grades.

    • Avatar J says:

      Hello, I got a 1460 on October 16 PSAT, which was a 219. I was kind of disappointed because I got the same score as a sophomore, plus I got a 1560 on the actual SAT in October of this year. Do you think 219 will be enough for a National Merit scholarship in DC this year?

      • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

        Congratulations on the 1560. DC’s cutoff is set at the nation’s highest state cutoff, so we’d need to see every state drop to 219. Unfortunately, I think that’s unlikely.

  • Avatar Janet says:

    Curiously, NHRP cutoffs apparently are not yet available, unlike prior years when they were made available on the first Monday in Feb. Cutoffs might not be available until March. Have you heard anything about NHRP for class of 2021?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      College Board has added new recognition programs, so it’s not surprising that timelines are being reshuffled. I don’t yet have any confirmations on class of 2021 cutoffs.

  • Avatar Sarah says:

    I got a 1450 with an index score of 217 in Ohio. Do you think that I would make the cutoff for a semi-finalist class of 2021?

  • Avatar John says:

    What do you think about a 217 for Alabama? Good enough for SF? Finalist?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Yes. I don’t see how Alabama would move beyond that this year. PSAT is used that the SF stage and at the scholarship stage. It is not used in deciding Finalists.

  • Avatar Tim says:

    State: Missouri
    1-) My son was scored as 47 of 48 Math correct and 1 omitted. He is sure he answered every question and had the correct answer for the one that was scored as “omitted”. His Math dropped from perfect 760 to a 740. Collegeboard can’t explain why it was scored as omitted or why his score dropped 20 points for one “omission.” Can you recommend any recourse?
    2-) I think his selection index was a 211…. any hope of commended for Missouri?
    – Tim

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      (1) I don’t know of any rescoring procedure for the PSAT. There are 2 things that I sometimes see happen: 1) students answer the question in their booklets but forget to transfer the answer and 2) students accidentally bubble in 2 answers or don’t properly erase a changed answer. A “double bubble” is treated as an omit. I state these as FYIs, since I don’t know what happened in your son’s case.

      A wrong answer and an omission are treated identically on PSAT scoring. Unfortunately, the Math scale was fairly steep. If it’s any consolations — and it probably isn’t — 1 wrong on Reading dropped a student’s score by 4 SI points.

      (2) Yes, he has an excellent chance. Based on what I have seen, I expect the Commended level to drop to 211 or lower.

  • Avatar JH says:

    The above chart shows what -2 wrong SI scores would be but any guess to what the variance in -1 scores are? Feels a bit absurd that someone can miss -2 and get same SI as my son who had -1 (reading) with SI of 224.

    He had taken the Oct SAT before the Oct 16 Psat and also got -1 reading and it only reduced his score by -10 vs the PSAT which was -20.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      On the Oct 16th test, 1 wrong in reading took a student to 224 (your son). 1 wrong in Writing was 226, and 1 wrong in Math was 226. On the Oct 30th test, the figures would be 226 for -1 R, 224 for -1 W, and 227 for -1 M. College Board’s scoring model showed that the Reading was particularly easy, so that accounts for the large drop. The PSAT has, quite frankly, become too easy to do a good job with NMSF. That said, your son’s 224 will make him an NMSF.

  • Avatar Jess says:

    Hi Art,

    My son scored a 218 SI in Arizona. Any chance for the NMSF cutoff to be reduced in AZ?

    Thank you for all your hard work responding to questions!

  • Avatar AD says:

    Hi Art,

    Will a 221 qualify for National Merit in Texas?

  • Avatar PN says:

    Hi Art,
    How is the selection from Semi finalist to finalist made? My daughter has a SI of 225 so hoping she will be a SF.


  • Avatar Jen says:

    As I’m starting college research, I was wondering if my 223 SSI would be enough to qualify me in TX (class of 2021)? I am nervous despite the past years of a 221 trend, and don’t want to get invested in schools who give a NMF scholarship only to just miss qualifying.

  • Avatar Jeff says:

    Is 225 good enough for NM semifinal in CT? Thanks.

  • Avatar James says:

    Hello, Mr. Sawyer,

    I just had my stomach fall out. I have a homeschooled son who takes several courses at the local high school, where he also sat for his PSAT. He scored a 36 on his ACT this fall, and he got his PSAT/NMSQ scores back last week, getting a 1470, which translates as a 221 Selection Index Score. In our state, ID, that should qualify him for semi-finalist status. However, I just noticed an asterisk next to his score, which referenced this comment:

    The asterisk (*) next to your Selection Index score means you do not meet entry requirements for the 2021 National Merit Scholarship Program. See your responses in the “Entry Requirements” section on this page.

    Under “Entry Requirements” I see this:

    Information you provided on your answer sheet

    High school student

    Year to complete high school and enroll full-time in college
    after 2022

    Years to be spent in grades 9-12

    My son is graduating high school in 2021. He is applying for college next year, in 2020. However, he had in his head that since he was considering seeking a deferred admission he would not be “enrolling full-time” in college until 2022. He has totally misunderstood this eligibility question and thought he was being honest.

    Can this be remedied? Again, I feel sick.


  • Avatar Adam says:

    Hello Mr. Sawyer,

    I am an 11th grader in NJ and received a 222 SI score (1 wrong in math and reading). Although I will not know for sure whether NJ’s cutoff will go down, you keep saying that you are waiting for more information before you change your prediction. What information are you referring to, and what is the timetable for updates? Also, do you think given that NJ’s cutoff was 223 the past three years, it is less likely to go down than other states? CA and MD went down from 223 to 222 last year, but their previous cutoffs were not as high as NJ’s previous cutoffs.
    Thank you very much for this resource. My dad was pushing me to try to become a semifinalist, but I didn’t care so much until I saw how close my score is. It’d suck to do so well and just miss it, and I’m really anxious to know.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      College Board releases summary data to counselors, and schools also receive data on their own students, of course. I’ve had a chance to research these sources over the last month, and they point (strongly) to lower scores. I think there is a very good chance that NJ’s cutoff will move to 222. I’ll be publishing more about this later in the week, I hope.

  • Avatar Daniel says:

    Hello Mr. Sawyer,
    Recently I took the PSAT on the 16th, and when I got my scores back, I was surprised but glad to get an index score of 221. I live in Texas, and the cutoff score last year (and the two before it) happened to be a 221 as well. It seems like predicting the future cutoff score is impossible, but do you expect to get a potential idea on which way the cutoff score will go in the coming months? In other words, do you think it will become more apparent which way the tide will go, or do you think there’s not any possible predictor until the day it is released? Obviously it is important not to get overly delighted if indeed the tides seem to be steering towards a constant/lower cutoff year, and likewise not get overly gloomy if it seems like it will go higher, however my curiosity is still high. On a slightly different note, do you believe there are any distinct differences in what the college board looks at for its finalists and say colleges look at for its students? It seems like most factors are the same, grades, extracurriculars, strong essay, etc., however I’m interested in hearing if you believe any noticeable difference exists.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      It’s taken me quite some time, but the research I’ve done points to lower cutoffs — probably across the board. I don’t see the TX cutoff moving to 222.

  • Avatar Rog says:

    Art, I got a 1450 on this year’s psat with a 690 math (-4) and a 760 reading writing. Will the harsh curve help keep the Texas cutoff at 221 (what I got) or will it be more likely to go up. Thank you

  • Avatar Bob says:

    Hello Mr. Sawyer,

    This may seem like an off topic question, but it is a hypothetical one I have nonetheless. With the PSAT being made astoundingly easier than ever before in the last 12 years, and with more crowding of the top spots for semifinalists, is it safe to say that this trend will continue? Will the test be only made easier that it is now, or will it be ever made harder?


    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      One of the problems is that NMSC has no say in the test construction — it’s entirely up to College Board. College Board has little incentive to make a test that performs more accurately for students at the high end of the curve, because it would mean “borrowing” reliability from elsewhere along the curve. Every year about 4 million students take a PSAT. Only 60,000 will fall somewhere within the National Merit program. I don’t think College Board is trying to make the test easier so much as it is failing to produce consistent forms.

      • Avatar MomCat says:

        Hey, Art,

        I apologize for writing this as a reply to a different comment. I’m having technical glitches and can’t get around your website.

        Do you have any thoughts about the implications with regards to the National Merit Scholarship qualifying for students who go to boarding school? Students who go to boarding school out of their home state? Students who go to a New England boarding school outside of their homestate? Is there any way to analyze whether there is a proportional number of out of state NE boarding school students who achieve finalist status compared to how many achieve NM scholar? Do any? Our DD had an SI of 225 in 2018. Home state MD. BS in CT. Her scores were measured against MA. She made the finalist cut but did not get chosen as a scholar. I understand the NM scholarship is not a boatload of $ relatively speaking but she had all of the other credentials as an applicant/nominee except for going to public school in state. (She attends a college she threw an application in to last minute because she had time to submit another. Had never visited. It was not her lifelong dream school. Turns out to be a great match. You know it-your alma mater. Only sharing to illustrate she was a strong candidate).

        Anyhow, I’m curious if you have spent any time looking at this. There were other instances where being a boarding school student was a handicap such as with some Senate youth program. I don’t remember the specific one but you had to go to school in the state of your permanent residence or you could not qualify. S he has a Capitol Hill internship as a college freshman so again, she clearly powers her own engine, but it was another experience that seemed unfair to me).



        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          NMSC does not publicly release a breakdown of scholars by state or boarding school region. The competition is certainly fierce in some areas, because boarding school students compete with other boarding school students.

  • Avatar FriendlyDreams says:


    Regardless of the difficulty of the test, I would like to believe that the smartest students make the dumbest mistakes. With last year’s SI cutoff of 223 for MA, about 4-5 mistakes were tolerated. If the cutoff is set to 223 this year, it means that essentially, the only two ways to get there is 2 mistakes, one in writing and math, or 2 mistakes in math. This holds for both the primary and alternate dates. Doesn’t this seem particularly harsh?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      It does, but the models that estimate test difficulty should take this into account. I am sure that I could create a test where elite students would make virtually no mistakes. This year’s PSATs aren’t that extreme, but that’s the idea about what is going on. While I don’t think we should rule out 223 cutoffs, I would not be at all surprised to see them move to 222 (or even lower). I’d like to gather more data, though, before altering my rule of “last year’s figure is the best estimate.”

  • Avatar siri says:

    if u live in virginia and got a 1480 with a nmsqt of 220, is there a chance to make national semifinalist because i heard this year was very hard for all students and not many ppl crossed 1450

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      We don’t have enough information to say for sure. We may be able to gather more information from large schools to see how widespread the situation you describes is. Students should remain positive. I think there is a good chance that we will see declines in cutoffs.

      • Avatar Daniel says:

        Similarly, daughter got 1460/219 in Ohio which should be plenty. However, she goes to boarding school that is also in Ohio, yet they go by Illinois cutoff which has been 221. Any chance we can change that , or that Illinois cutoff may fall to 219 this year?

        Thank you!

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          The state with the highest cutoff sets the standard in a region — that will likely be IL again. My research is showing that scores have declined this year. I think it is entirely possible that a 219 will qualify.

  • Avatar LD says:

    My son scored a 1510 on the College Board’s PSAT Practice Exam 2 that he took the week before the 10/16 PSAT, and his lowest verbal score on the College Board’s SAT Practice Exams 1-4 was 720 (got 740, 720, 730 and 760 on the verbal sections). His guidance counselor told him his Oct 16 scores today: 760 math, but 690 verbal (don’t know how he was unable to break 700). His index score is 214. My son is so devastated by this score, as he was quite confident he would meet the National Merit cutoff. I don’t know how to explain this to him. To make matters worse, he plans to take the SAT (first time) this Saturday on 12/07. I think his confidence is completely shaken and he feels his upcoming SAT will not go well even though he earned the following scores on the College Board’s SAT Practice Exams 5, 8, 9 and 10: 1560 (790V, 770M), 1520 (750V, 770M), 1570 (770V, 800M), and 1550 (760V, 790M). He is hoping to score 1550 this Saturday. Are the practice exams put out by the College Board poor predictors of actual test day scores?

    Interestingly, on the College Board’s SAT Practice Exam 5, he made 2 verbal errors and 2 math errors with a score of 1560 (790V, 770M). On SAT Practice Exam 10, he made 3 verbal errors and 2 math errors (just one more verbal error), but his score dropped to 1520 (a 40-point decline for 1 more error). Did something like this happen with this PSAT?

    My son asked if an error might have been made and if it might be worthwhile to request his test get rescored – is that advisable?

    I’ve never posted anything online before, but it breaks my heart to see my son so crushed today, and I am desperately searching for some guidance (and some encouragement for him as he heads into his SAT this Saturday). Thank you!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      The most important thing, at this point, is to maintain a positive outlook for the SAT. I think your son’s confidence will come back, and it sounds like the 690 was just an anomaly. Practice tests 1-4 are prototypes that were never used in the wild. Practice tests 5-10 are released exams, so they accurately reflect SAT content. The scaling differences also give a sense of how things can fluctuate.

      The test scales are designed to even out any difficulty differences across forms. A similar group of students might be able to average 46 out of 48 questions right on one exam and 44 out of 48 questions right on another. The raw to scaled score conversions would take this into account. This does mean that the easier the questions, the harsher the scale will be when a student does make an error. The ERW sections of this year’s PSAT were easy, so even a few errors led to significant drops. It looks like he missed 5 ERW questions and no math questions.

      I don’t believe there is any provision for rescoring. His results will be available online next week, so he can look to see if his answers make sense.

      • Avatar LD says:

        Thank you so much for your reply! Do you have a sense of what the cutoff for the commended students might be? My son does not seem to care too much about it now, as it still feels like a failure to him, but I think he will appreciate it when the time comes. Thanks!

    • Avatar Peter says:

      Hello Art,
      With so many of our kids losing their NMSF chances due this year’s curve, I am now speculating on Commended (with admittedly not much more than novice guessing).
      I looked at the info from the College Board and I see that 1410 was 97 percentile and 1390 was considered 96 percentile. Is there any point at all is looking at the 97 percentile in EBRW (which was a 710) and the 97 percentile in Math (which was a 730) and speculating that it gives a SI of 215 for the most likely Commended Score? If we apply the same to the 96 Percentile it gives us a 212.

      I’m thinking this misses the mark b/c percentile scores are almost always a little different when you consider the student’s overall score. The above formula would assume that the student is equally skilled in math and EBRW when in reality one could skew way higher than the other, significantly impacting the SI. So based on that logic I would rule out 215. I also hope for the sake of some of my friends that 212 will hold.

      Can you shed any perspective on where the Commended score may fall this year based on the percentiles the College Board disseminated?

      • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

        At least this speculation I can answer definitively. Percentiles are a dead end. There are multiple reasons for this, but the easiest to understand is that the percentiles aren’t actually based on this year’s exam. They are “based on the actual scores of students…in the past three school years.” What’s more, College Board means the school years prior to this one! So it is based on results from the PSATs in 2016, 2017, and 2018. So even if we tried to get around the other problems you point out (such as the assumption that students are even in performance), the percentiles simply don’t apply.

  • Avatar Irene says:

    Oct 16th PSAT curve was brutal. Any more than one wrong in each section put you below a 220 Selection Index. I’d love your best guess on Commended Cutoff for next year based on historic movement. Thanks.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      It’s frustrating the College Board has done this again. Do you have a source on the curve this year? I haven’t yet seen the public release. It’s very difficult to extrapolate from a curve to the impact on SI. I’ll be taking a look at as much release data as possible over the coming days and weeks to update estimates. Thanks.

      • Avatar Nervous says:

        Hi Art,
        I saw someone on another site say that bc the curve was harsh, that suggests that kids scored higher nationally and the Commended Score may likely go to 214. I’m hoping that’s wrong since what the highest scoring kids did isn’t necessarily representative of what *most* kids did, correct?

        On another site people contended that with a harsh curve, Selection Indexes would in fact go *down.* What has been your experience?

        Is there reason to hope that 214 is too high for Commended since it’s also used as the NMF confirming score? Thanks as always for your valued insight!

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          To quote the Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything.”

          We can’t discern what will happen based only on the scales. We certainly can’t assume that it points to higher scores, overall. I think that commenter is making some faulty assumptions. It is entirely possible, of course, that the Commended cutoff does move up, but the scale doesn’t tell us that. I hope to find out more about how many students scored in the 700-800 ranges in ERW and Math. That would be a better predictor of the Commended level (less useful for higher cutoffs).

          • Avatar Still Nervous says:

            Thanks for important insight. I’m *very* curious to know whether you think Commended 214 is unlikely if the Commended/confirming score this year was 212.

            I would love to think 214 is too high to be expected of the NMSF to achieve for confirming scores in the lower cutoff states but maybe that’s wishful thinking from a parent with a kid sitting at 213. :-/

          • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

            I don’t think it’s wishful thinking to expect the cutoff to come in below 214, but I don’t think we are going to know enough to completely rule it out before we get word in April. Two point movements upward are uncommon, but not unprecedented.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I see they are now posted. I know how my day is being spent…

      • Avatar Theresa says:

        Related to Irene’s question, how does a curve like this typically affect the state cutoff scores — or does it? Thank you for sharing your wisdom every year!

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          There isn’t usually a discernible connection. In a perfect world, the scale has no impact. Easier questions = harsher scale. Harder questions = easier scale. Everything should be in balance. The reality is not so clean when we are talking about the edge cases of National Merit. There is little room for error. For example, 1 wrong Reading question (and perfect Writing) dropped a student from 760 ERW to 740. That’s a drop of 4 points on the Selection Index. So doesn’t that mean cutoffs are likely to go down? It’s not that simple, since the easier makeup of this year’s Reading also means that it was easier for students to obtain a perfect score. Bright side: Easier to reach a 760. Dark side: A bigger drop with a single error.

          • Avatar Ankit says:

            Do you have any idea of any estimate of how many perfect scores there are in any given year? Even just a ballpark idea. I’m not going to quote you on anything, I’m just curious.

          • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

            There is no data released on this, but my back-of-the-envelope would be about 1,500 – 2,000 students or around 0.1% of testers.

      • Avatar Saitej says:

        Are you gonna post the new predicted cutoffs for the class of 2012? This new curve was harsh and will it be generally lower than previous years?

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          I’m trying to gather as much information as possible and will have something up by next week. The harsh curve does not necessarily mean that cutoffs will be lower. The easier tests would also mean that students performed better — in terms of raw points.

          • Avatar Neon F says:

            Hello, Art, I got a score of 211 and I’m freaking out that I missed the commended cutoff of 2012 from last year. However, as stated previously by many, the score curve for this year was one of the worst ever so I was wondering what my chances would be of being commended. My national percentile based on my composite score was 97 as it was 1420. People who got 1440s and 1450s where in the 98th percentile if that helps. Thank you.

          • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

            There is certainly a possibility of the Commended level moving down to 211. The only thing I know for sure, though, is that percentiles won’t tell us whether that is true or not. The percentiles are calculated from results on the 2016, 2017, and 2018 exams. They don’t tell us anything about the distribution of scores this year. Realistically, the Commended level is going to be in the 210-214 range. Our ability to pin it down more specifically is very much limited by the amount of data supplied by College Board. We won’t know anything for sure until April. Which won’t, of course, stop me and you and many others from speculating.

          • Avatar Neon F says:

            Hey Art, the official college board scores came out and my 1420 classified as the 99th percentile can you help me make a sense out of that info since a week ago it was the unofficaly 97th percentile.

          • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

            On the printed score report, College Board uses the Nationally Representative Sample percentile — in other words, an estimate of your percentile if every junior in the U.S. took the PSAT. The 97th percentile you saw is the User percentile and includes only students who took the PSAT from 2016 – 2018. That group is filled with more college-bound students, so the percentiles are lower. I find it the more accurate number, and feel that it is misleading for College Board to emphasize the fake number.

      • Avatar FL parent says:

        Now that you have had a couple of days to dissect the information, any initial thoughts on the Oct 16th vs the Oct 30th PSAT test? Which curve will be more brutal for the kids who took each one?

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          One of the things that I hated about last year’s Oct 24th form was that it reeked of unfairness. Yes, it was an easier form, but it was so outside the norm that the scale couldn’t possibly deal with the difference in an accurate manner. The difference between 4 wrong on the Oct 10 form (720) and 4 wrong on the Oct 24 form (620) was 100 points. The difference this year is 10 points.

          Whatever complaints students might have about this year’s set of exams, they are in it together. There is little difference between the two forms — probably less than usual. The Reading test was a bit easier on the 10/16 form (harsher scale), but the Writing was a bit easier on the 10/30 form. I looked at the various combinations of -1, -2, and -3 for ERW, and the scores are almost identical. The Math exams were quite similar if we are to believe the scales. There is basically a 10 point difference between -1, -2, -3, and -4. That’s a typical adjustment based on test difficulty.

          It’s hard to know what impact this year’s scales will have compared to last year, but I do think the two dates are comparable. It’s unfortunate that NMSF cutoffs in the most competitive states can mean that things boil down to luck on 1 or 2 problems (or at least the careless errors or brain freezes that we often call “bad luck”).

          I’ll be writing this up more extensively for the post. [And showing my work so that readers can point out any mistakes!]

  • Avatar D Haus says:

    So, I know it’s a little “off topic”, but how can one get some historic information? Looking for data from 1989-90. State cut offs and Commended info. Also seeking info for the Achievement (African American) and Latino National Merit competitions from that year, if possible….

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I do not know of any source for that information. NMSC does not publicly release cutoffs, and I don’t know of anyone who was able to collect them going back that far. The NHRP is run by College Board, which has also not released historical data.

  • Avatar Deb says:

    Hi Mr. Swayer, does NMSC consider ACT scores for selecting Semi-Finalists. My 11th grader is giving ACT instead of SAT

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Semifinalists are chosen entirely based on junior year PSAT score, which was administered last month. For students qualifying as Semifinalists, NMSC does consider ACT scores when evaluating students for Finalist status.

  • Avatar Grace says:

    Hi Mr. Sawyer, my son and a few other fellow students in his school made NM semifinalist. Today from the school newsletter, I saw one of them made to the finalist. We have not heard any status about my son. Do you know if the selection has been completed? Thanks.

  • Avatar Kevin says:

    Hi Art,
    My 11th grader recently prepped for the Sept ACT and did quite well (99 percentile) but she just ran out of time to look at any SAT/PSAT materials before yesterday’s test.

    Any chance her ACT prep correlates enough with the PSAT to have given her an edge, or did we drop the ball? PSAT 10 score last year was a 1360 before any studying so she had a lot of ground to cover.

  • Avatar Greg says:

    Hi M. Sawyer. Last year as a Sophomore my son scored a 1260 on the PSAT. Does this score indicate a good possibility of him earning NM semifinalist status?

    His strength is math as he took Calculus 1 and 2 at the local university last year (his high does not offer AP Calculus B/C) and earned A’s. On the PSAT math section he missed three question (unfortunately simple computational errors) and his score was a 640. Given that a perfect math score is 760 how is it that he lost 120 points with just three wrong answers? Is this accurate? He has been working hard to try to try and be a NM semifinalist (or higher) this year but is discouraged by the grading/scoring system. He feels he has to be perfect.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Your son took the Oct 24, 2018 PSAT which had an extremely unusual scale. The math problems were far easier than usual, so the scale was far harsher to balance things out. On the Oct 10 form, for example, 3 wrong was a 730. Putting that aside, making NMSF is challenging. The ERW score is critical, since it is doubled in calculating a Selection Index. A student scoring 750 ERW could get a 700 and still reach a 220, for example. A student scoring 720 ERW would need a perfect 760 M to reach the same level. Those scores represent significant improvement from your son’s sophomore. NMSF is not out of the question, but it will require him hitting all of his marks.

  • Avatar Mp says:

    Morning – How are students notified if they make the ‘commended’ level? Thanks!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Schools are sent notifications (they were mailed out about 4 weeks ago). I would check with your college counselor or principal.

      • Avatar BandMom says:

        Checked with our school and they haven’t received info regarding commended. My son had a score of 218. Is there another way to find out? Would like to put it on college applications.

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          I would contact NMSC. (847) 866-5100. As long as he was otherwise eligible, we know that his 218 qualified. I would feel comfortable listing his Commended status.

  • Avatar Shawn says:

    Art – thank you for all your assistance. My daughter is completing her NMSF application and I want to ensure we understand the question – List one time honors or awards received. I am a bit confused – if she is always on the honor roll every semester, should we list this once?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Her academic record will speak for itself, so I don’t think listing honor roll adds anything to her application. This is a place for more specialized honors or awards.

  • Avatar Anna says:

    Hi Art––

    I know this comes much later than some of the other states, but I just received the full list of New York State semifinalists. Since it doesn’t look like it’s been posted here yet, I thought I would provide a link. https://www.dropbox.com/s/e4rhd368kcodfa0/NY%20National%20Merit%20Semifinalists%202020.pdf?dl=0

    Thank you for all your hard work!


  • Avatar Kerri says:

    Mr. Sawyer, Can you elaborate a bit on the comment you share about leaving the first college choice as “undecided” so that you do not miss on other possible scholarships from other schools? Thanks!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      The best advice is to keep the First Choice up-to-date at all times. Using Undecided is one way of preventing an unwanted match, but the better way is usually to regularly evaluate the student’s choice. It won’t matter at all until the end of Feb, as names will start being released to colleges in March. Even after that, choices can be changed. The folks at NMSC are good at helping students navigate this process. If a student forgets to change from Undecided, NMSC will usually check in to see if a choice has actually been made. If a student has a clear first choice now, no reason not to put it down. If the student is still weighing several schools, you might want to leave it as Undecided. In either case, set a reminder — set several reminders — in February to revisit the choice.

      None of this matters for students planning on attending a college that does not provide NM scholarships.

  • Avatar Kate says:

    Hi, how do I get the list of names for New Jersey? Thank you.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      State lists are only available when media outlets choose to post them. Most only list area students. You could try contacting the reporter to see if they can email you the entire list. I know that some students and parents have been successful in the past.

  • Avatar Cristen says:

    Mr. Sawyer, how are the commended students chosen? Does the NMSC choose them, and then notify the school?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      NMSC determines the Selection Index that identifies approximately the top 55,000 students. Those not qualifying as Semifinalists (about 16,000) are named Commended Students (about 39,000). The Selection Index cutoff this year was 212, and that is applied nationally. NMSC notifies schools.

      • Avatar PG says:

        Thank you for the explanation. My son earned a 217 in Maryland so is not a semi-finalist. It sounds like he is getting the designation of a Commended Student and would love for him to put that on his college application. So far he hasn’t heard anything and he is likely going to start submitting applications this week. Has it been published to the schools yet?

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          High schools have been mailed Commended lists, but they sometimes disappear into a black hole. I would check with your son’s counselor. You might also try calling NMSC. At 217, he can be confident that he was named a Commended Student.

  • Avatar Thiru says:

    Can someone explain how they derive at this cut off because kids take the exam for 1520. How is that converted to this cut off? Of 1520 what score they need to get the cut off score of 219 for Florida.

    • Margaux Erilane Margaux Erilane says:

      Hi Thiru,
      You cannot directly calculate a Selection Index from a total score (320–1520); you need to know the individual ERW and Math scores. But, once you have those numbers, the calculation is easy: First, ignore the final zero in your scores; then double your ERW score; then add your Math score. For example, a student with an ERW score of 690 and a Math score of 720 would have a Selection Index of (69)x2 + 72 = 210.

  • Avatar HM says:

    Hi Art- Sorry to sort of ask you this twice- but I can’t find my old question and your response from the spring. My daughter qualified as a semifinalist. She also has a confirming SAT, excellent grades, and no discipline issues, etc. However, she has almost no activities. She did do a full time internship in physics at our local university for the last two summers. That’s basically it, besides a little bit (once a year for the past several years) of volunteering for a local non profit. She has a physical disability and taking care of her health has been a priority. Do you think she has a good chance of qualifying as a finalist even if they don’t know her status as a person with a disability (which partly explains the lack of activities)? Thx

  • Avatar Elizabeth says:

    Do you know when commended students will be officially notified by their schools?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      It is up to the schools. I’ve even heard of schools that don’t bother to notify students. Schools should have now received word from NMSC. Any eligible student receiving a 212 or higher and not qualifying as a Semifinalist is named as a Commended Student.

  • Avatar Kristine says:

    Hi Art!

    Thank you so much for tremendous amount of helpful information you provide regarding the NMSF. My daughter earned an index score of 213. I believe, according to the information you provided, that should earn her Commended status. However, her school has said they did not receive any notice from NMSF. I know Commended status does not hold the weight or provide the opportunity for scholarships like semifinalist but it is still important to her. Do you know if NMSF just has not released a list of Commended students yet? Any insight you could provide is greatly appreciated. Thanks, again, for all the info your provide!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      The notice to her school may just be delayed in the mail. It comes separate from Semifinalist notifications. Her 213 would definitely qualify her. I’m glad that she takes pride in her achievement and hope that the notification comes through shortly (if it hasn’t already arrived).

  • Avatar Jim says:

    When would the current batch of semifinalist packets be received by the high schools? I guess the results have been public since September 11 so I’m surprised that our high school here in New Mexico hasn’t reported receiving the packet (my son is the only one at his school; his name was in the Albuquerque paper so they know).

  • Avatar Nikol says:

    I need a commended list from last April, how do I find this?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      There is no Commended list from April. Principals are sent a list of students who NMSC believes will be eligible, but the determinations are technically not final. In September (last week, in fact), schools were sent final lists. I have never seen a complete list published. Some schools will recognize their own students. Students are only notified via their schools.

  • Avatar JC says:

    Here is the Illinois list. I don’t think I saw an exhaustive list submitted already.

    Thanks for all your work Art!!


  • Avatar LB says:

    Hi Mr. Sawyer,
    Thank you for this information – I love Compass Ed and all your resources.
    I’m not sure I understand the cutoffs. I live in NY. It seems to me that it’s not possible to get a 221 – our state cutoff. Is there something I don’t understand about the scoring?
    If you get 38 (perfect) + 38 (perfect) + 38 (perfect) = score of 114 x 2 = 228.
    If you miss just one that’s 38+38+36 = score of 112 x 2 = 224
    If you miss two that’s 38+36+36 = score of 110 x 2 = 220.
    Thanks for any help. This is such a crazy game!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      There are a number of ways of getting 221, especially if we are only talking about the most popular date on October 10, 2018. You can find the conversion tables here.

      Your example shows missing 1 as dropping a student to 36. That’s not always the case. Sometimes it doesn’t drop a score at all. Sometimes it can drop a score 0.5 points (Math scores are not necessarily integers), and sometimes it can drop a score below 36, as it did on the Math section on the October 24 exam

      On the October 10 test, a student could have missed 2 Reading questions and still been at 37; 2 Writing & Language questions and been at 37; and then still been able to miss 3 Math questions and get a 36.5. This would have produced exactly a 221.

      On the October 24 test (a much easier exam), the scale was far harsher. You are correct that a student could not have earned exactly a 221. A student getting 2 Reading wrong would have received a 222 (35 / 38 / 38). Same thing for 2 wrong in Writing (38 / 35/ 38). Any other combination of 2 errors dropped a student below 221. It’s why I’ve often complained about that test form.

  • Avatar Johnathan says:

    Why is the notification process so broken?

    My daughter scored a 224 so we knew she would make any cut off for any state….we are in Georgia and the only notification that we saw was because the Atlanta Journal posted kids’ names.

    Nothing official has come from her school, just really curious why National Merit does not have a better method or at least encourages the schools to be more proactive with their communication.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      NMSC simply has not changed with the times. Consider yourself fortunate to have seen your name in the Atlanta Journal. There are plenty of students who have not seen their names anywhere and are still awaiting school notification. Even if we accept that NMSC wants pre-press release notifications to come from the school, why not publish all names after the press release? NMSC will tell students who ask, so it can’t be because they want to keep the information secret. Since news outlets are allowed to publish full lists, it can’t be for privacy concerns. I understand why NMSC doesn’t like to publish cutoffs, but they could easily post the PDF’s of each state.

      Fulminating aside, congratulations!

  • Avatar Harry says:

    Anyone has a link for North Carolina list?

  • Avatar Dana says:

    Has anyone reported seeing an Ohio list? My daughter still hasn’t heard from her school. I’m not a very patient person. It’s driving me insane.

  • Avatar Nathan says:

    Is 212 good enough for commended in Missouri?

Leave a Reply