National Merit Semifinalist Cutoffs Class of 2021

By August 28, 2020 National Merit, PSAT
National Merit Semifinalists


The Semifinalist cutoffs for the class of 2021 (October 2019 PSAT) have leaked early this year [thank you to those who alerted me to it]. They reflect the largest decline we have ever seen — a result of College Board’s inability to maintain consistent difficulty and scaling across multiple test forms. All 50 states have lower cutoffs for the class of 2021 compared to the class of 2020. As we learned in April, the Commended cutoff fell from 212 to 209. What is somewhat surprising is how sharp the difference is between the highest scoring states and everyone else. Of the 10 states at a cutoff of 221 or higher for the class of 2020, 8 saw only a 1-point decline. Illinois and Texas were the exceptions, with 2-point declines. The average decline among the other 40 states was 2.7 points. This implies that PSAT scaling was more problematic in the 700 range than it was at the very top of the scale, which is somewhat surprising. Students in the class of 2022 can find information and speculation about the October 2020 PSAT here.

Students may not receive notice of their Semifinalist status until mid-September. Notifications were mailed to schools on August 25th. NMSC asks schools not to make the names public until the press release date (usually the second week in September). Many schools interpret this to mean that they are allowed to notify students privately prior to the release; other schools prefer to wait until names are released to the media (September 9th, 2020). NMSC will not confirm a student’s status until the press release date. Finalist applications are not due until October 7th.

Due to the pandemic, ACT and SAT scores will not be required or considered for Finalist standing. NMSC has posted the 2021 Requirements and Instructions for Semifinalists.

StateClass of 2021
ChangeClass of 2020
Class of 2019
Class of 2021
Class of 2021
District of Columbia222-122322328184
New Hampshire215-321821972103
New Jersey222-12232235942560
New Mexico211-221321510225
New York220-122122110352880
North Carolina217-2219220494882
North Dakota209-3212212280
Rhode Island216-22182205058
South Carolina212-3215216197103
South Dakota209-5214215360
West Virginia209-3212212620
​U.S. Abroad222-1223223103528
​U.S. Territories209-3212212270
​U.S. Boarding Schools****180666

Eligible students receiving a Selection Index at or above the cutoff for their state are named Semifinalists and can apply to be Finalists. Students scoring at or above 209, but less than their state’s cutoff, are named Commended Students. Boarding school cutoffs are set regionally at the highest state cutoff within a region.

An Unprecedented Change

Earning a score high enough to be named a National Merit Semifinalist is not an easy feat — only about 1% of test takers achieve it. Producing a test and a scale that can distinguish among such high-scoring students is also not an easy feat. Changes within individual states can be caused by shifts in demographics or participation or chance. When large-scale shifts occur, though, it is almost always attributable to imprecise test construction. A single wrong answer on the October 2019 PSAT could have lowered a student’s Selection Index by as many as 4 points or as few as 1 point depending in which section the error occurred and which test form the student took.

This year 28 states saw a decline of 3 or more points in their Semifinalist cutoffs. In the next most volatile year in recent memory (2013), only seven states saw a change of that magnitude. The average decline this year was almost a full point more than the previous record holder.

A Bounce-back for the Class of 2022?

Because large swings are due to unusual test forms, an up or down year is often followed by a settling back to the overall trend. We would normally expect to see the same thing occur with the October 2020 PSAT. However, we’ve never seen a PSAT during a pandemic before. And many schools won’t see a PSAT at all. We’ve created a short (and speculative) post to discuss what might happen with National Merit for the class of 2022. You can also see a complete history of Semifinalist cutoffs for the last 13 years.

Confirming Scores and Finalist Status

Given the cancellations of the SAT and ACT, many class of 2021 Semifinalists are concerned about earning the confirming score required to move from Semifinalist to Finalist. Class of 2021 Semifinalists would normally need to earn a high enough score on the SAT (or a concordant score on the ACT) between August 2018 and December 2020. NMSC has not yet announced any changes to its plans or timeline. Semifinalists do not receive access to the online application portal until mid-September. We may know more at that time. For more information about the Finalist stage, please see our National Merit FAQ.


The commentary below was published prior to the release of the official cutoffs.

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. [Commended is now confirmed at 209, and all Semifinalist cutoffs are in the table at the top of the page.]

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. As we expected, this led to a 209 Commended cutoff.

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

The 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.

Update: Now that we know the Commended cutoff fell 3 points, I am more convinced than ever that few, if any, states will see an upward movement. It is likely, in fact, that 40-45 states will have lower cutoffs this year.

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.

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 now know exactly what kind of year it was, with all 50 states showing lower cutoffs.]

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 Josh says:

    Given the drop in commended cutoff from last year, what do you think are the odds for a 218 in Florida?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I think we’re likely to see 80-90% of cutoffs go down this year. There is an excellent chance that Florida will be among them, especially since larger states are less likely to have out-of-the-ordinary bounces. So I like the odds of a 218 qualifying.

  • Avatar bw says:

    Hi, my child scored a 211 index in Mississippi, what do you think his chances are?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I think we’ll see a number of state cutoffs fall by 3 points this year, although I do think that 2 point changes will be a bit more common. Mississippi has come in two points above the Commended level on several occasions, so a 211 is definitely in range.

  • Avatar Susan says:

    Hi Art, Our daughter has PSAT score of 220 from Texas . What are the chances of being a semifinalist?

  • Avatar Ari says:

    220 in Kentucky. Looks good based on what I’m reading here. Can you reassure me?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I can reassure you. Kentucky has never been close to a 220 cutoff, and it certainly won’t be this year. Congratulations!

    • Avatar amy says:

      What do you think of chances for 219 in DC?

      • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

        It’s so tough for DC students, because the District ends up having the cutoff of the state with the highest cutoff. I don’t think we’ll see every state fall that much.

        • Avatar amy says:

          Thanks. That’s too bad. But this methodology seems to set a really high bar for dc students, especially the DC public school students (DC residents) who are competing against the kids from Maryland and VA attending DC’s fancy private schools/. I don’t think there are ever more than a handful of DC public school winners every year..

          • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

            Amy, you’re absolutely right about why the DC cutoff is so high. While I don’t have data to prove it, I’ve heard that it would be even higher if it were not pegged to the highest state cutoff.

  • Avatar Olivia says:

    Hi Art

    Any conjecture on a 213 in Louisiana ? Thanks.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Louisiana ranges between 3-5 points above the Commended level. My “Most Likely” is in the middle of that range at 213. I think the odds are maybe a just better than even that a 213 will qualify.

  • Avatar Anonymous says:

    Hi Art,

    I’ve got four questions for you:
    1) Thoughts on a 216 in Arizona?
    2) How do colleges “know” PSAT scores, since I’ve gotten mail saying how well I did on the PSAT?
    3) Are there any scholarships for a commended student?
    4) How do you think Coronavirus will affect the National Merit timeline?

    By the way, thank you for your insightful reports.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      1) I think we will see some state cutoffs move down by 3 points, so 216 could happen in AZ.
      2) College Board makes a lot of money selling lists to colleges (you checked a box to allow them). Colleges will buy up lists based on ranges. “I’d like all of the students in AZ, NV, and CA scoring above 1300 who mentioned an interest in engineering.” It’s a way for them to target their marketing.
      3) I have run across a handful over the years, but I’m afraid that I can’t cite any.
      4) Counselors are working remotely, but they are still working. So schools should be able to get NMSC the information it needs. I am hoping Semifinalist announcements stay on schedule. If SAT and ACT dates continue to get canceled, I could see a chance of SAT/ACT being dropped as a requirement at the Finalist stage. I don’t think it will come to that, but anything is possible at this point.

      • Avatar PN says:

        Hey Art,
        In regards to your 4th point, what do you think could be the finalist requirement be in that case? GPA? Extracurricular?


        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          Academic performance (NMSC doesn’t specify GPA, and I don’t think it will) and a recommendation from the school have always been Finalist requirements, but I doubt that extracurriculars would be a factor at that stage — it’s too soft of a criterion. I’m very hopeful that SAT and ACT will be back in time, especially now that each has committed to remote proctored exams if schools continue to be closed in the fall.

  • Avatar Ann says:

    Hi Art, do you think a 217 in Florida will make the cutoff?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      The best answer I can provide is that it has a better than even chance of qualifying. The cutoff is almost certain to go down this year, but I don’t think 216, 217, or 218 are out of the mix. Obviously, only the 218 would be a problem. Unfortunately, we’ll be waiting until September to find out the correct answer.

  • Avatar Lynn says:

    My child has a index score of 195 and says falls in the 97% . Which is still good score don’t get me wrong. But sounds like from what I have read this score is not close to getting even Commended so why is my child still looks like they are in the running for this?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I don’t believe there are official percentiles for the Selection Index (if you are seeing one on the score report, I’d be interested in hearing more). You may be seeing the percentile on the overall score. On score reports, College Board emphasizes what it calls the “Nationally Representative” percentiles. It estimates what the percentiles would be if every student took the exam. The students who actually take the exam have a higher performance than the nationally representative sample, and the Commended cutoff is based on actual test takers. Also, if the percentile is based on your student’s total score, it may not reflect how the Selection Index gives twice the weight to the ERW score versus the Math score. Also, I’m assuming your student is a junior. If your child is a sophomore, then the scores are only being compared to other sophomores, and National Merit is not a concern until this October’s PSAT.

  • Avatar Karpagam says:

    Hi Art,

    My son has an SI of 221 in CA. Can you please tell me how certain this can qualify for semifinalist? With a percentage ratio?


    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Because College Board releases a limited amount of information and does not break things down by state, I have to be cautious in predictions. For the class of 2017, there was a 209 Commended level and CA was at 222. I think this year is different. The high end of the scale was impacted, in my opinion, more than it was in 2017. I would put a 221 qualifying as 80/20 or even 90/10. The limited data I have seen coming out of schools simply doesn’t fit with a 222 cutoff.

  • Avatar Pamela says:

    Good morning…
    My son has been anxiously awaiting these numbers…we live in Arkansas, and he scored a 212. We are over the moon with the prediction being a 212…do you feel that still is likely have him qualify? Thanks for all the info

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      The 209 was good news. With around 140 NMSFs, though, Arkansas’ cutoff can float around more than many others’. In the last 4 years, it has twice come in at 4 points above the Commended level and in the last two years it came in at 2 points above. Let’s hope it is no more than 3 points above Commended this year!

  • Avatar KF says:

    Hi Art,
    With a commended cutoff of 209, how confident would you be that 220 for CA qualifies for semifinalist?

  • Avatar Sophia says:

    Hi Art,
    The selection score is 209 or above as per the letter I (homeschooling parent/principal) received today from NMSQT.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Thank you for sharing this! The “209 or above” generally means the cutoff is at 209. I am going to risk being wrong and update the post to reflect this information. Since the 209 falls where we expected, it doesn’t change things that much.

  • Avatar SM says:

    Hi Art,

    My daughter got a selection index score of 216 for OHIO, how confidently you think that she will be a semifinalist?

    Also, I like to thank you for your valuable insights and service!



    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Thank you, SM. I’ve been pegging 216 as about 60/40 for Ohio, but that’s just one man’s take. We did get confirmation of the Commended level falling to 209, so it’s just more evidence that everything will be moving lower this year.

  • Avatar MK says:

    Dear Art,

    Your post and data analysis raises my hopes about my daughter’s PSAT score.

    She received a 218 in Pennsylvania. Where do you think she will fall: Commended or Semi-Finalist?

    Thanks for your insights!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I feel confident that Pennsylvania will see a lower cutoff, so the only chance of her missing out would be if it comes in at 219. She has better than even odds of being a Semifinalist.

  • Avatar Tom A. says:

    Hi Mr. Sawyer! Thank you for all your articles and insight! My son got a 216 in Ohio, is it possible to be a semifinalist? Thanks!

  • Avatar AE says:

    Any updates about how the current situation is gonna affect us? Any updates on commended or New Mexico cutoff.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      There are so many ways it is going to effect us, but I imagine that you mean as it relates to National Merit. It looks like NMSC has gotten out its April letters on time (the requests it makes to schools for more information on students at or above the Commended level). The initial report is that the Commended level is 209. That doesn’t change my Most Likely for New Mexico at 212. I don’t know if, at some point, NMSC will make a decision to relax the requirement of a confirming score for Finalist. As more test dates get erased, it becomes an added burden on students.

  • Avatar SC says:

    Hi Mr. Sawyer,

    Do you think a 219 is good enough for GA to qualify for a semifinalist? I was thinking it would be a 220, but after reading this blog, I’m a little more confident.

  • Avatar Abigail says:

    Hi, Mr. Sawyer. I got a 212 alternate SAT score in Delaware. What are my chances looking like this year?

  • Avatar Lukas says:

    Hi Art,

    First off thanks for putting this all together. I have a 217 in Kentucky. Do you think there’s any chance at all the cutoff grows higher or should I feel safe?

  • Avatar Sam says:


    My daughter received an email inviting her to apply for one of the College Board National Recognition Programs (CBRP). I am exicted for her, but not really sure what to expect. I understand that this is a new program especially for schools designated as “Rural” based on information from the National Center for Education Statistics. Following is a part of the email she received.

    “Congratulations! You scored in the top 2.5% on the PSAT/NMSQT among high school junior test-takers in your region who identify as one or more of the following: African American, Hispanic American or Latinx, Indigenous, or attend school in a rural area or are from a small town. As a result of your test performance, College Board is pleased to invite you to participate in the College Board National Recognition Programs (CBRP).

    In order to be considered, please complete a brief application and provide supporting verification online at https://learnmore.xxxx. Your invitation number needed to complete the online application is XXXXXX. You have been invited to apply to the following: Rural/Small town”


    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Congratulations to your daughter, and thank you for giving the specific language used in the letter! The College Board’s recognition programs have traditionally been about just that — recognition. They are not directly linked to scholarships. If your daughter meets the other criteria as part of the application, she will be officially recognized. It will be up to colleges to decide whether or not to attach any merit scholarships to the designation.

  • Avatar Bonnie says:

    College Board changed the NHRP program to CBRP, adding African Americans, Indigenous, and students from rural or small towns. Is it likely that the rural small town category would have a significant effect on cutoffs compared to last year’s NHRP cutoffs? CBRP is sending out emails today, apparently.

    • Avatar Bonnie says:

      It looks like I guessed correctly. The rural and small town category caused a giant leap in cutoffs (using the terms “rural” and “small town” loosely, as some large suburban high schools are on the list, linked at College Board). Conveniently papers over the drop in PSAT scores.

      • Avatar Bonnie says:

        No need to post, or even post the above comments either, but just FYI because you probably want to know about cutoffs: per email from CBRP, “The College Board Hispanic cutoff score for Colorado is 1340.” For the past two years, it was around 1280.

        (Nevermind that my kid’s score dropped on this year’s PSAT compared to sophomore year. Six weeks later, on the Dec SAT, he scored 180 points higher and his sibling scored 320 points higher compared to Oct PSAT. Thank goodness that is what matters! Sorry if I was a little upset yesterday)

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          Don’t worry, Bonnie, I didn’t interpret it that way at all. I hope you don’t mind that I am going to go ahead and post this, since it can be valuable to others.

          Wow! Congratulations to your student on the SAT score!

      • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

        Thank you for the update. The changes in definitions and scores for what was once the NHRP have certainly surprised many people. It’s unfortunate that College Board couldn’t have provided more information up front. For example, it could have easily computed cutoffs based on prior years’ data. I’ve been very slow to incorporate new information this year because (a) Compass has been busy helping students deal with a crazy testing environments and (b) I just haven’t received enough data to make accurate comments.

        I really appreciate when readers like you can contribute. Thank you!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Thanks again, Bonnie. Our NHRP page needs a complete overhaul due to the changes, but College Board has been slow in leaking out details.

  • Avatar Gloria says:

    Hello Art,

    I hope you and your family are taking care during this time. My daughter scored a 217 in AL. From your projections she looks to have made the cut?

  • Avatar AD says:

    Hi Art,

    When will you know more about the official cutoffs? Does NM release more information before they begin notifying semi finalists in the fall?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      NMSC does not officially release any information until notifying schools in the fall. It usually contacts schools in April to get more information on students who it has identified as above the Commended mark (although it does not come out and say this). Given the number of school closures, I don’t know how smoothly this process will go or whether or not we will get word of the Commended cutoff. Again, it is not officially released.

  • Avatar PLS says:

    Hi Art,

    I scored a 217 in Michigan. Do you think I have a good chance to become a semifinalist?

  • Avatar Jeanne says:

    Thank you so much for all of your work on this. I’m wondering if the decline in high scores is partly related to social media. My older son graduated in 2018, and although there was some technology in his elementary/middle school, it was minimal. My younger son will graduate in 2021, and his peers have been glued to technology since they were toddlers. I see a vast difference in the attention span and educational motivation between the two classes. Just a thought.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      That’s an interesting theory, but it’s one that would be more likely to confirmed in long-term trends. This year’s drop was abrupt and very much about College Board’s poor test construction. Then again, maybe College Board’s test makers are spending too much time on social media!

  • Avatar Steve says:

    How does all this work for home schoolers. Daughter is in FL and got a 219 PSAT index (EBR&W=730, Math=730). She has a 35 ACT score (English=38, Reading=35, Math=35). I saw that the College Board sends scores and notifications to the high school. My kids have been home schooled for the longest time. How will we receive the notifications? Is there anyone I need to contact or call… or are there special forms I need to fill out?

    I sure hope you are right about FL cut off for NMS being lower this year. Such an honor will guarantee her a full ride scholarship. As she is my youngest, that will be three out of three! :o) We were overseas for the first two so they didn’t take the PSAT; so this is my first time dealing with this. My first two had to compete up front for the full ride scholarships… a much more difficult route. I am hoping my daughter gets a NMS as that will get her a full ride and save a lot of time and effort.

    Thanks for any advice or guidance.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      This is a time when being a homeschooler can be a real advantage, because you are treated as the “principal” as far as NMSC is concerned. You should soon receive notification from NMSC that your daughter will be at least Commended (they may not word it that way, but it’s what the letter means). If you don’t receive something in the next 2 weeks, I would give NMSC a call. This also means that you’ll find out your daughter’s Semifinalist status earlier than most (depending on the mail in late August), because the notification will come right to you.

      It is hard for me to imagine Florida’s cutoff going up this year. I know how much it can mean to someone like your daughter, so I will keep thinking good thoughts. I’d also be grateful if you would write back when you receive any notices. It can be a real help for other students. Thank you!

  • Avatar NC Stan says:

    Hi Art,

    Thanks for this information, it is very helpful.

    My son is in NC and has a score on the PSAT of 221 which should qualify him for NMSF. He took the SAT in August 2018 and got a 1550 but are we right to understand that this score was taken too early by a month for it to count as a confirming score? He feels it is high enough and did not plan to take the SAT again. Instead, he was going to give the ACT a shot in a few weeks but we are now concerned that the test may be cancelled given the coronavirus. I guess we might have to scramble to find a testing location?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      NC Stan,
      As you can tell, I’ve been slow at getting back to questions. We’ve been kept busy helping students with all of the changes this spring. Your son’s April ACT was, of course cancelled. I’m concerned about June dates, as well, so he should be looking to schedule later dates. You are correct that NMSC has traditionally ruled out scores received before fall of sophomore year. He’ll have no problem getting a confirming score once the tests return.

  • Avatar Ty2020 says:

    Hi Art,

    My daughter in Pennsylvania has 219. Do you think she has a chance of being a semifinalist? she already gave SAT and scored 1530. Does SAT score make any difference on being a finalist?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Your daughter just needs the PA cutoff to fall 1 point, and I think that’s likely in most states this year. That’s not a guarantee, but her chances look good. No, her SAT will matter at the Finalist stage (it’s high enough), but is not a factor when choosing Semifinalists.

    • Avatar Joseph says:

      Hi Art
      Would there be any chance with a selection index Of 218 on Illinois ?

  • Avatar Bill says:

    Hi Art,
    My son got a 216 on the 2021 PSAT in Ohio. Do you think he has a good chance?

  • Avatar CeeCee says:

    Art, My daughter has a 217 in Louisiana. She missed a few really easy Math questions, but she already has lots of upper level college Math. How important does the actual PSAT score matter one you make the semi-finalist cutoff for Finalist status and scholarships?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I’m confident that your daughter will make Semifinalist this year. Congratulations! In order to qualify as a Finalist, she’ll need to achieve a “qualifying score” on the ACT or SAT (this shouldn’t be that hard for her), have great grades, and stay on the good side of the school administration. She’ll receive more detailed in September about the Finalist application. Most college-sponsored scholarships depend only on achieving Finalist status. The NMSC-sponsored scholarships are more competitive, but also less valuable than many of the college awards.

  • Avatar Justin says:

    Do you think a 222 in Arizona will make Semi-Finalist?


  • Avatar Steve says:

    My high school junior child only missed one question in the Writing section of the 10/30 test and that question was deemed a “hard” question. The index score was 36. It doesn’t seem right that they would deduct two points for missing one hard question. Any thoughts?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      It’s not great test construction on the part of College Board (I’m being polite), but that doesn’t mean that the drop is “wrong.” It means the test was too easy overall. That makes even a single error very expensive. The difficulty of the question your daughter missed doesn’t play a role.

  • Avatar Dave says:

    Hi Art,
    I got a 222 in Massachusetts. At first I thought I would be a point off, but reading this has got my hopes higher. Thoughts?


  • Avatar Theresa says:

    Hi Mr. Sawyer – I have a 218 in Pennsylvania. What do you think are my chances to qualify for semi-finalist? Thanks!

  • Avatar Trent says:

    Hey Art,
    I got a 221 in California, think I will qualify to be a semifinalist?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I think 221 will qualify this year. The data I’ve seen point to at least a 1 point decline. However, I can’t quite put it in the “sure thing” category.

  • Avatar Logan says:

    215 in ID. How are my chances?

  • Avatar Ellie says:

    Hi Mr. Sawyer! I got a 223 (perfect ERW, all points off in math), but I’m in Virginia, which I know is one of the harder states. How do you think my chances are? Thank you so much!

  • Avatar SFSC says:

    Hi Art,
    My son had an index score of 220 in SC. It seems that he has a fairly good chance to be a semi finalist. He just received a 34 on his ACT and will be taking the SAT in March. Are there any other things he should be doing this year to increase his chances of becoming a finalist?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      His 34 will be high enough to serve as a confirming score for Finalist. He needs to keep his grades up and make sure that he does nothing to upset the school administration (he will need their recommendation). It looks like he is on track!

  • Avatar SJones says:

    Hi Mr. Sawyer,
    Thank you SO MUCH for all your hard work to keep us informed and answer our questions! I understand it’s all a guessing game until the final cutoffs are released, but what do you think are the chances of a student with a 212 in Alabama making semifinalist?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      It will be tough, but it not impossible. Alabama’s cutoff usually falls within 4-6 points of the Commended cutoff. If we see a really low Commended level, then your odds improve.

  • Avatar Josh says:

    I received a index score of 218 in Florida (perfect in math and writing). Do you think I can be confident about becoming a semifinalist?

  • Avatar Lisa says:

    I’m curious – are there any trends in the number of students taking the PSAT? My daughter’s high school did a particularly poor job of reminding students to sign up for the exam and lots of other students decided not to take it simply because don’t see it as useful.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      PSAT numbers have been relatively stable. The biggest drivers tend to be decisions about state or district-wide testing. There have always been schools that do a poor job of informing students.

  • Avatar Kent says:

    Hi Art,

    Thank you for your informative posts. My son received an SI of 220 (for California). Can you briefly explain or point me to a prior post that explains why larger states such as California would experience a greater decline (in this instance -2) in the SI cutoff for semifinalists? What would be your best guess for the probability that the SI cutoff in California will be 221 vs 220 (50/50 or some other ratio?)

    Likewise, how informative (or not) will the April commended SI cutoff be, to infer the eventual September semifinalist SI cutoff, in particular for California? Thank you.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      If I wrote that larger states see greater declines, then I misspoke. Larger states see more stable cutoffs, in general. Let’s say that we knew, nationally, that the same number of students scored 220 and above this year as scored 222 and above last year. It would be likely that California would see a 2-point decline. A smaller state is more vulnerable to population shifts. Maybe a high-performing school skips the PSAT this year. Maybe the class just has fewer superstars. That’s why states such as Alaska or South Dakota can see swings that don’t correspond with national trends. Of course we don’t know that there were as many 220+ this year as 222+ last year, and that’s not a figure that is ever published.

      The Commended cutoff will give us some additional confirmation of the trends we are seeing, but it probably won’t change my estimate for states at the top end of the scale. The fact that there are fewer students scoring 209+, for example, doesn’t tell us that much about students scoring 220+. Still, it will be nice to see the impact.

      Yes, I’d say 50/50 or maybe 40/60. I think the evidence points to drops of more than 1 point in most states.

  • Avatar MG says:

    My DD got a 216 as her score in Colorado. Will she be commended or get a National Merit Scholar?

  • Avatar Era says:

    Hey! I got a selection score of 217 for IL, what do you think my chances are?
    Thanks 🙂

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I don’t think your chances are zero (that’s why I included 217 in my estimated range), but it would be extremely unusual for a state as large as IL to see a 4-point change. You will more likely be named a Commended Student.

  • Avatar Mollie says:

    How is a 219 looking in Georgia? Hoping GA goes down at least 1?

  • Avatar Benjamin says:

    Hi Art,
    I live in South Carolina and got a 211, I know it is slightly below the predicted index of SC but it is slightly above the commended index. What do you think the chances are for me?
    Thank you so much!!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I’m confident that you will at least be a Commended Student. There is plenty of evidence that scores dropped this year. In recent years, SC’s cutoff has been 3-6 points above the Commended level. A 211 cutoff for SC is not out of the question, but it’s just a bit outside of my expected range.

      • Avatar Benjamin says:

        Thanks for the reply!
        I just also wanted to add that on the College Board website, it says that my overall score is in the top 99% of the nation. This is the same case with each individual section score. Are these stats reliable and would they change anything?

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          No, it’s not reliable, and no, it doesn’t change anything. Percentiles are based on the prior 3 years of results and don’t even include this year’s results.

  • Avatar SB says:


    My daughter scored a 221 SI and we live in Texas. She recently received an invitation for a “JuniorNational Scholar session” from Texas A&M. On the registration website it said “This invite only social is for potential National Scholars who have scored high on their PSAT and may be recognized as a National Merit or National Hispanic Scholar in their senior year. ” I was under the impression that we will only know the cutoffs oficially in late August, does this mean that the Universities already have this information?


    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Thanks for bringing this up, since it creates confusion each year. I can guarantee that colleges do not know the cutoffs. A&M buys lists from College Board with a certain range of scores and expects it to roughly cover NM/NHRP students. I’m pretty confident that your daughter will be NMSF, but that level of confidence is not impacted by the invitation.

      • Avatar SB says:

        Mr. Sawyer,
        Thank you very much for the reply. This event was last Saturday, and my daughter could not attend it because of a school golf tournament (she placed second :)). I was a little disappointed that she was not able to attend, especially because A&M gives out a sizable scholarship to resident students who are finalists. When the scores came out in December, she and I decided to wait till September and be pleasantly surprised if her score qualifies her for NMSF. Still, this email gave me some hope. I guess we will stick to our original decision and wait till fall. Thanks again.

  • Avatar Fantastic-Tardies says:

    I have a selection score of 212. I saw your predicted commended scores were lower than this. Is there a good shot that this score will end up being commended? Also, I saw that the commended score leaks in April. How does that work?

    Thank you!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Yes, I think there is near certainty that the Commended cutoff will decline this year. NMSC has to contact schools in the spring to begin assembling data to verify student eligibility. It only asks about students in the Commended and above range, so the cutoff usually leaks that way.

  • Avatar BR says:

    Hi Art,
    do you think 222 is good enough for WA?

  • Avatar Lisa says:

    Hi Art,

    My son in Oregon had a perfect math score and perfect reading score but kinda bombed grammar. He is at 218. Do you think he has a chance?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I can only base my estimates on the national trends, and this year’s trends — as you’ve read — are a bit wacky. I’d say that you’s son’s chances are 50/50. I expect a 2-point decline to be common.

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