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 Tony says:

    Hi Art,
    It’s 9/9 and we still haven’t heard about the semifinalist announcement for Texas, specifically Plano ISD. Neither our school counselor. My daughter got a SI=220 (score: 1480). Sorry but this waiting has been eating me up. Can you confirm with us
    1) Texas cutoff for semifinalist is 219
    2) Where can I find the list for semifinalist for my state?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I can confirm that the cutoff is 219. I wish there were a better system for announcements. It’s up to the school, the district, or the news media to publish the list (National Merit does not), and it’s a hit-or-miss process. PISD did publish an announcement last year, but there is so much different about 2020. You’ll want to first see if you can reach the school counselor, since the counselor (or principal) is the only source for the information your daughter will need to login to her portal. NMSC may be able to confirm your daughter’s status, but it will not release any other information to you.

  • Avatar Tunt says:

    Is there any way to see the list of all Semifinalists in Pennsylvania? No news sources have posted an article about my school district.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Only news media and schools receive lists. They are only published if a news site feels it is useful, and — as you’ve found — many sites only post about local students. There are three options that have worked in the past: (1) Ask your counselor or principal. They’re the only ones who can get you the official letter and Finalist portal information. (2) Contact NMSC. They’re likely overwhelmed, but they will often confirm a name after the press release date. (3) Reach out to a reporter/blogger in PA who has published local information. They should have received the full state list, and some are willing to share. Good luck in your quest.

  • Avatar Jeremy says:


    We have a senior who was notified of NMSF status in Florida. Her selection score was 220, though the state cutoff was 216. Especially in light of the fact that this year’s applications will not include SAT scores, do you think a higher selection score will impact Finalist Selection, or do you think the score is irrelevant once you make Semifinalist? Thanks for all the information you provide!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      If NMSC was going to make that change, I’d think that it would have amended the Requirements and Instructions to mention it. There is no such mention, so I am assuming “irrelevant.”

  • Avatar Ava says:

    Hi, your table says that 216 is the cutoff for Florida. However, I got 218 and I was commended. The cutoff is 219 this year.
    Your table is wrong.
    Please let me know if there is some confusion.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I’m investigating this on my end. Is there any chance that you are at a boarding school? If so, you would likely need to meet Georgia’s score of 219. Also, did you receive notice that you were Commended or is that an assumption? I am wondering if NMSC doesn’t have your eligibility marked correctly. If that were true, it can usually be corrected. I apologize for any distress. Rest assured that I am trying to get more information.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I did some further research. Another colleague confirmed the 216 in Florida. Boarding school cutoffs are set at the highest cutoff within a region, which is why Florida boarding schools inherit the Georgia cutoff.

    • Avatar tec says:

      how did you know you are commended? my son should be commended as well but we have not heard anything. thanks.

  • Avatar Satchi says:

    A technical question … How does a cutoff score become 219 (an odd number) considering the following math? Thank you.
    NMSC Selection Index Score = 2 x (Reading Test + Writing and Language Test + Math Test)

    • Margaux Erilane Margaux Erilane says:

      Hi Satchi,

      The Math Test has some scores on the half point. For example, a Reading score of 36, Writing & Language score of 38, and Math score of 35.5 would be 2 x (36 + 38 + 35.5) = 219.

  • Avatar Jeremy says:


    Our senior was just notified of NMSF status. She had a 220 selection score in Florida. In determining the 15,000 finalists, does the program weigh the selection score so that a higher score improves your chances or, once you make the cut, does the selection score get disregarded and the analysis is just GPA, essay and application? Curious especially since confirming SAT will not be considered. Thanks for all you do!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      In the past, the Selection Index has not played a role in Finalist selection. And since it is not mentioned in the current requirements, I can’t imagine that this will change. What we don’t know is whether there will be more Finalists or whether grades will become more important.

  • Avatar Ankit says:


    Assuming that a semi finalist completes all of the requirements adequately, are they guaranteed finalists? In other words, is the semi finalist to finalist process a competition or is it just a matter of completing set requirements.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I believe it is a matter of completing the set of requirements. However, since NMSC does not publish specific criteria on academic performance, it’s impossible to know what meeting that requirement looks like.

  • Avatar Sam says:

    NMSC has released the Requirements and Instructions for Semifinalists. Per the PDF (link below), NMSC will announce/release the names of the semifinalists to news media on Sept. 9th. And the deadline to send completed applications is Oct. 7th.


    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Thank you for the link and the dates. I’ve updated the post.

      • Avatar Sam says:

        Mr. Sawyer,

        Could you please publish the essay prompt if/when you get a chance to see it? I am sure my daughter’s school will be informing us very late in the game. Last year they did not do it till Sept 13th and this year with all the chaos, I am sure this is not on their priority list.


  • Avatar Abdul says:

    Good Afternoon,

    As stated in the Requirements and Instructions for Semifinalists in the 2021 National Merit Scholarship Program document, “Due to the global pandemic and the resulting lack of available test administrations, SAT and ACT scores will not be required or considered for Finalist standing in the 2021 National Merit Scholarship Program.” You can find this document posted at http://www.nationalmerit.org/resources.


    This is from a email exchange with NMSC, thought everyone should know! I am sure I was not the only one who was stressed.

  • Avatar pavani says:

    My son’s PSAT Index 222(AZ) and SAT (1560) from Dec 2019 (760 reading and 800 math), what are his chances of qualifying for NMSC finalist ?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      We just received word that NMSC will not be considering SAT or ACT scores for Finalist standing. It’s not clear whether that means they will put more emphasis on grades or simply have more Finalists. NMSC does not publish any specific cutoffs on grades. Students must have “a record of consistently very high academic performance in all of grades 9 through 12.”

      • Avatar Elizabeth says:

        How likely is it that NMSC will clarify whether they will put more emphasis on grades or simply have more Finalists? My son was hoping his qualifying SAT score might help to offset the weakness in his application — some iffy grades his freshman year.

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          Given how few specifics NMSC has ever given about grades, I’d say that it is unlikely that there will be any clarification. Keep in mind that it would not be a significant shift. Even when SAT/ACT scores were a factor, almost 95% of Semifinalists qualified as Finalists.

  • Avatar Laura S. says:

    Hello Mr. Sawyer, I submitted this question to you but had already submitted to the NMSC and just received their response. I thought you may be interested in confirmed timing as well as others too. Thanks for this forum to share info. Laura
    “Thank you for contacting us.   National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) is not changing the method of notifying high schools of Semifinalists in the 2021 National Merit Scholarship Program. National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) will mail information regarding Semifinalists in the 2021 National Merit Scholarship Program to high schools on August 25, 2020. We will mail information about Commended Students in the 2021 National Merit Scholarship Program to high schools on September 10, 2020.   

    We ask that a school official watch for the mailing.  Once a school official logs in as the OSA Administrator, that person will download the student letters in PDF format, which can be distributed to students electronically. ”

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Thank you, Laura. It’s good to get the exact mailing date. My experience is that it’s not a quick journey from post office to school (or at least to the right person at a school). If there are any home schoolers reading these posts, please let everyone know when you receive something!

      • Avatar Laura S. says:

        Yes, hoping it makes it into our new Principals hands promptly. My concern is that because we have had a significant change of school leadership personnel along with major school remodel construction and add that to the major challenges of new distance learning due to Covid-19, just hope it doesn’t get buried under a pile somewhere.

      • Avatar Kristina A. says:

        I just received the letter from National Merit Scholarship. My homeschooled son with index 219 is semifinalist in Illinois.

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          It’s great to hear that the mail is arriving. Congratulations to your son!

        • Avatar Laura S. says:

          Kristina, can you post a picture of what the envelope & letter look like? We have had important mail/packages go missing at our school many times. Thought having a pic could help the mail sorter. Thanks!

          • Avatar CNS says:

            Received notification envelope for my daughter in CT on Sept 1.

            Laura, I don’t believe I can post an image here, but ours arrived in a large (9×12 inches) white envelope. On it there is a large neon green sticker with the words “ATTENTION: Scholarship Application Materials Enclosed,” and the lower left corner says “ATTENTION PRINCIPAL Dated Material Enclosed.” It should be easy to spot!

  • Avatar AA says:

    PSAT SI of 215 in SC along with SAT SSI of 227 and ACT SSI of 234. Fingers crossed for both Semi- and Finalist designations!

  • Avatar Madison J says:

    My daughter has a 220 index. We live in NY. I always thought she missed it by 1 point. How accurate is your prediction?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      The information comes from official sources, so I feel confident in the information. Given the scores we saw on the October 2019 PSAT, it’s not that surprising.

  • Avatar Saumya says:

    Does anyone know how to see the cutoffs on the NMSC website? Thanks!!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      The page is no longer available on NMSC’s site, and I don’t expect that it will be in the future. Your best hope of confirmation — beyond what I’ve presented — is from your counselor.

      • Avatar Saumya says:

        Got it. Thank you so much!!

      • Avatar Mia says:


        PSAT sent out an email to admins that they will also offer an additional testing date for PSAT on Tuesday January 26, 2021 that will still count for the 2022 NMSQT.

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          That’s good news for some students. Students will only be able to take 1 PSAT/NMSQT, but schools can mix-and-match any of their dates for sophomores and juniors. It will be up to schools as to whether January is offered.

      • Avatar Denise says:

        Art, I saw the scores on the NMSC site too before they were taken down. Is there any chance that they weren’t accurate and that is why they were removed or do you think it’s just because they don’t usually post that info until 9/12. I just dont want to get excited and then be disappointed.

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          They don’t usually post the info at all — even after the press announcement. I think the numbers were accurate. There was nothing about them that struck me as preliminary. Obviously I can’t say with absolute certainty.

  • Avatar Nia says:

    I’ve seen some comments with regards to the scores being released on NM’s website, but I wanted to check it out myself. Do you have the direct link for it? Also as of the information here, I made it as a semifinalist! Thanks for your continual work on updating the information about the PSAT this past year!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      The page is no longer available on NMSC’s site, and I don’t expect that it will be in the future. If I were in your shoes, I’d want to see it with my own eyes, too! Your best hope of confirmation — beyond what I’ve presented — is from your counselor.

      • Avatar Katherine says:

        How certain are you that TN is a 215 SI? I am frustrated because my son received a SI of 214, total score of 1440. Several classmates scored a lower total score than him (1430) and missed the same (or more) questions than him (2 Reading, 2 W/L, one math; all “most difficult” level questions), but had a higher SI than my son (215-219). I cannot get anyone at CB or NM to explain why. Obviously the Reading and W/L are weighted more heavily??

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          To the best of my knowledge, these are all official and accurate. I’m sorry to hear that your son missed it by just a point. You are correct about the weighting. For the Selection Index, R, W/L, and M are considered as equal components. This means that the ERW score (as a combination or R and W/L) gets twice the weight in the SI as it does in the Total Score.

  • Avatar susan says:

    From Texas with PSAT score 220 and SAT from Dec 2019 (750 reading and 770 math) : what are the chances of NMSC finalist ? Thank you

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      In Finalist qualification, scores are either high enough or they aren’t. Stronger scores don’t increase a student’s chances of being named a Finalist. A 750/770 goes well above the confirming score. A Finalist also needs great grades (no cutoffs are specified) and the support of the school. Most Semifinalists become Finalists. Congratulations!

  • Avatar SO says:

    Got a 216 in Arkansas. Hopefully my school doesn’t wait until September to notify semifinalists individually.

  • Avatar John says:


    Thanks for sharing useful information. I just wonder if sophomore PSAT/NMSQT scores might be accepted for recognition in the National Merit Scholarship Program due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Avatar Abdul says:

    Confirming Score:

    I am worried about the confirming score I got a 1390 SAT/32 ACT (SI of 208) and I am worried that may not be enough. As from what I understand the confirming score has to be at the commended level of SI 209

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Yes, I believe the confirming score is at least at the Commended level. You might need to test again if making Finalist is important enough to you. Did you calculate your ACT Selection Index using the individual section scores as outlined in our FAQ?

  • Avatar Karpagam says:

    Hello Art,
    Found this link on the National Merit website. Hope it’s ok to share the link.



    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Thank you for the breaking news! I don’t think there is a prior year when NMSC published the figures on its website. We’ll soon see if it was an intentional policy shift or an oversight. Either way, I have update the post with the latest information. Maybe in future years NMSC will also start notifying students directly and electronically. We can dream.

      • Avatar Sam says:

        Mr.Sawyer, Thank you very much for your blog. Your prediction for Texas is right on the mark! What do you think they will do with the confirming scores for finalists? My daughter was able take an ACT test earlier this year, though she is not happy with her lopsided math and science scores (34 composite, 35 English, 36 reading, 32 math and 32 science). Do you think that will be good enough to qualify to be a finalist, if she is not able to take another SAT or ACT? We were able to get both the September SAT and ACT dates, hopefully she will be able to take one of those two and improve her scores. Thanks, Sam.

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          Let me start with the most important part first: your daughter’s ACT score will be more than sufficient. And, congratulations!

          I haven’t heard what NMSC intends to do. Semifinalists are more apt than most students to have tested early, but I still think there will be a significant number of prospective Finalists struggling to get scores. I hope that NMSC provides some sort of alternative. Here in California, for example, some SAT students haven’t been able to test since December 2019.

          The confirming score usually is set at or near the Commended cutoff (209 this year). An ACT is converted to an SAT Selection Index by using concordance tables. The Science score is not used. The ACT Math is concorded to an SAT Math score. A 32 would be a 720. The 35E and 36R are added to get a 71 E+R ACT, which concords to a 770 ERW. That means your daughter has an SAT SI equivalent of 77×2 + 72 = 226. No question that her score is high enough.

          • Avatar Sam says:

            Thank you very much. It would be interesting to see what NMSC decides about the conforming scores this year. I know quite a few smart kids who do not have a standardized test score yet due to the cancellations. Here in Harris county, TX, they cancelled pretty much all the test centers for the August 29th SAT. So, kids are hoping to get in the September ACT or SAT.

            Thanks again,

      • Avatar PiliT says:

        Hi Art. I was looking on the NMS site and can’t find anywhere the post you all are referring to. Any chance you can give me insight on how to get this information going forward? I just stepped into a new support role for high-achieving high school students in FL and want to be able to give the most accurate info to our students and community.

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          NMSC doesn’t normally post the cutoffs, and I suspect that it didn’t mean to this time, either. The page has been taken down. Schools, though, are provided this information in the packet naming Semifinalists. This is usually mailed to the principal. Best of luck in your new role!

  • Avatar Jung says:

    The NM website has the scores now. Your predictions were pretty close, and you were spot on for Illinois!

  • Avatar Jung says:

    I’m a student from Chicago, IL that got exactly your predicted cutoff score. I was wondering if the predicted scores this year took into account that Chicago Public Schools did not get to take the PSAT. I attend a CPS school, but I was lucky enough to set up a testing date at a suburban high school prior to the cancellation.
    Thank you!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I just saw your most recent post. Congrats, again. It’s an interesting theory about CPS, since Illinois was one of the only high scoring states to fall 2 points.

  • Avatar Laura S. says:

    Mr. Sawyer, we are anxious to hear official word on the National Merit Semifinalist from the PSAT/NMSQT in Fall 2019 (graduating class of 2021). I have seen slight mentions that high school admin will receive notification in August. Do you know if that is this week or next? Should families reach out to the admins to find out about their student? We anticipate it to become official for our daughter who only missed 1 on her test (226 index), but would like it to become official as she wants to send out some early college apps and include on her resume/profile to those that will be writing recommendations for her. Please provide insight on the timing from your years of experience. Thank you!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Notifications likely went out last week, but schools often don’t receive their packets until after Labor Day. Some schools choose not to inform students until after the press release date in the second week of September. As you say, there is no doubt that your daughter will qualify. You might check in the the school at the end of next week.

  • Avatar anne says:

    My son has 216/ohio, will it be 50/50 ?

  • Avatar Justin says:

    I have a 220 in Illinois. What do you think my chances are? Thanks!!

  • Avatar MG1224 says:

    My daughter got 219 in PA. What do you think her chances are? How likely is it to drop from 220 to 219 in PA? Thanks for your very informative article.

  • Avatar Josh says:

    I’ve got a 217 in Tennessee, so probably 50/50 right?

  • Avatar Lita says:

    What are the chances of a student qualifying for Semifinalist in CT. Student received a selection index of 224

  • Avatar Tammy says:

    I was wondering if you have gotten any hints as to what they will do to determine National Merit Finalists if students are unable to take the SAT or ACT due to COVID. My son received a 221 in Texas and has had his ACT and SAT cancelled multiple times already. Thanks!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I have not heard any updates. My guess is that NMSC will try to hold out a bit longer and see if the fall test dates can happen. If we are seeing extensive cancellations in Sept and October, it would seem irresponsible to require a confirming score. That’s just my opinion (and most colleges, of course, have decided that it is already irresponsible to require an SAT/ACT this year).

      • Avatar Tammy says:

        Thank you!! Unfortunately for my son, his test scores would be a big part of his application – he has ok EC and good grades 3.85 GPA with IB classes – he was hoping his scores would help his application since he tends to do well on these exams. I appreciate your time!

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          It may not matter. I believe the criteria for Finalist qualification are all or nothing. You make the confirming score or you don’t. You have a good enough academic record or you don’t. One factor can’t compensate for another. It sounds like his GPA may be high enough.

          It’s only at the scholarship stage where all factors come into play. Even there, it wouldn’t matter for most college-sponsored scholarships. If your son is a Finalist and ranks a college as his number 1 choice with NMSC (that comes later, don’t worry), then he would generally qualify for a scholarship.

  • Avatar Ted says:

    My son got a 221 in CA. On his school electronic report card for 2nd semester, under “Graduation Awards” – it lists “NMS-Commended”. Does this indicate that the CA cutoff is 222 for Class of 2021? I thought the projections were going to be between 1-2 points below Class of 2020 of 222.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      High schools do not yet know the NMSF cutoffs and do not receive word until late August. What they do know is that your son has reach at least the Commended level. I should emphasize that I do not know the Semifinalist cutoff, either. From the evidence I have seen, I feel that California’s cutoff will go down.

      • Avatar Tammy says:

        When will the schools be notified of the commended scholars? My son got a 211 in Florida, but we haven’t heard anything from the school yet. Thanks!

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          That’s as it should be. Officially, Commended Students are not named until after Semifinalist names are publicized in September. However, NMSC has to verify eligibility of students at the Commended cutoff, so it works with schools to get these records in the spring. That is how we know the cutoff is at 209. Technically, no one is a Commended Student until NMSC says they are.

  • Avatar Robert says:

    How accurate are Compass Education Group’s predictions for the cutoff of commended scholars? Have your predictions usually been lower/same/higher than the actual commended scholar score? Is there a good chance that the national commended scholar score will be higher than 209?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      The Commended score is accurate. Although NMSC does not officially announce Commended students until September, it needs to communicate with schools in the spring to get the preliminary list of eligible students. That’s why we usually learn the Commended mark in April.

      Our Semifinalist estimates are based on historical data, the limited data shared by the College Board (discussed in the post), and the limited data we receive from schools. In a typical year, the final cutoffs will fall within our estimated ranges, with the exception of 1 or 2 states (usually smaller ones). “Typical” and “estimated ranges” are important parts of that statement. This year looks to have more extreme changes than usual. Still, I hope to see 90-95% of states fall within the estimated ranges. The “most likely” is an estimate within an estimate. States can move up or down for reasons that can’t be predicted by the current data. I try to estimate “most likely” cutoffs represent a better than 50% chance of students qualifying.

  • Avatar SH says:

    With a commended score of 209 do you think a 210 score in Mississippi is high?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      In recent years, Mississippi’s cutoff has fallen 2-3 points above the Commended level. I don’t think 210 is out of the running, but I do feel that 211 or 212 are more likely.

  • Avatar Megan says:

    Thank you for this info! My son has schooled from home and through co-ops his whole life in South Carolina. He received a 220 with only 2 missed answers, seemingly due to the difficulty level of the two he missed (?). We are hopeful he will receive semi-finalist status. However, are home schooled students ever considered for finalists? I am unfamiliar with the application process. We would appreciate any input or advice! Thank you again.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Not to ruin the suspense, but your son will make the Semifinalist cut! His 220 will be well over the cutoff for South Carolina. Yes, homeschoolers are definitely considered for Finalists. You will get more information in late August/early September when NMSC mails out announcements to schools (your home is considered a school). You’ll need to submit transcripts and a recommendation, just as a regular high school would. You will have about a month, and NMSC should be able to answer any questions that you have.

  • Avatar Jaime says:


    My daughter got a perfect score on her PSAT last October. I’m curious about the confirming SAT or ACT score that’s required. She took both tests in June of 2018 and did really well. I noticed that the cut off date for acceptable confirmation scores is typically August. Have you heard that they’ll be making any exceptions this year due to Covid or do you think she should sign up to take the SAT again?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      First, congratulations to your daughter! I haven’t yet heard of any changes this year. Scores before fall of sophomore year are not eligible as confirming scores, so your daughter would need to take the SAT again (assuming NMSC does not change its policy). Confirming scores can come as late as the December test, but for obvious reasons, I don’t recommend waiting that long.

  • Avatar Tanay says:

    Hi, I am a US Citizen by birth, Studying in Mumbai, India for last 10 years and have an index of 222. Which cutoff will be used for qualification?

  • Avatar David says:

    Hi Art,

    Hope all is well. Do you think a 222 in New Jersey will receive National Merit?


    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      A 222 has better than even odds, certainly. Overall, the Class of 2017 seems the most analogous to what we are seeing this year. I think NJ could drop to 221.

  • Avatar Ashley says:

    Has the commendation score for the class of 2021 been officially released? Is 209 the official commendation cut-off, or is that not confirmed until this Fall?

    • Margaux Erilane Margaux Erilane says:

      Hi Ashley,

      College Board won’t release the Commended cutoff to the public until September. However, they provided some Commended notifications in April, and we have confirmed that 209 is the cutoff sore.

  • Avatar Gina says:

    Thanks so much for all the helpful info! My Son has a 220 in Texas and we are crossing fingers. How do you think COVID issues will affect National Merit this year? My son already has a qualifying SAT score but wondering if they will have to adapt that measure? Also with the test optional movement occurring – will this have any impact on national merit?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      If test dates keep being cancelled, NMSC will need to reevaluate the confirming score requirement. Students can earn that score as late as December, so there is still time. The great news is that your son doesn’t need to worry about that! The confirming score is only relevant during Finalist selection, so no adjustments will need to be made for NMSF. I don’t see COVID issues impacting National Merit that much this year (PSAT cancellations would dramatically change the landscape for next year’s class). Colleges that are already committed to sponsoring scholarships are unlikely to back out this year just because they have temporarily gone test optional. I don’t know if the economic fallout will mean fewer company sponsorships.

  • Avatar Ben says:


    I got 222 in NJ, what do you think r my chances?
    Also, if there are 10 kids in the grade that made the cutoff how the school choose? and for the distinct honor, what is the cutoff?

    Thank you!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I like your chances at 222. If any state sticks at 223, it will be NJ, so I can’t say that 222 is 100%. The number of high scoring students at your school does not impact NMSF selection. Even at the Finalist stage, there is no need for a school to favor one student over another — most like the bragging rights of having Finalists. The Commended Student cutoff is 209 this year.

  • Avatar Evan says:

    Hi Art, thank you for writing this very informative article.

    I got a 222 in Maryland this year, which is usually right on the border. Seeing how circumstances have changed, is it likely that this score will qualify?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Everything I’ve seen points to falling scores this year, so I don’t see much chance of Maryland moving up to 223. You have an excellent chance of making NMSF.

  • Avatar DT says:

    Hi Art;
    So nice of you to answer all these questions during these trying times. We originally thought my daughter missed the cutoff but do you think with a 220 in NY she will be a semi finalist?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      A 220 is in a range where we can’t know for sure, but I do believe that most state cutoffs will see at least a 1-point decline. Your daughter’s chances are good. Stay safe.

  • Avatar Jiangfeng says:

    Do you think a 219 will be good enough for Semifinalist/Finalist in PA?

    Also when they choose the Finalists out of the Semifinalists, if all other criteria is met, do they choose the highest scoring Semifinalists to become Finalists?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Given what we know, I think it is unlikely that Pennsylvania’s cutoff will stay at 220.

      No, scores are not a deciding factor. The Semifinalist to Finalist stage is about meeting the criteria.

  • Avatar Josh says:

    Hi Art,
    how likely is it that a 218 in Arizona will get me SemiFinalist?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I think we’ll see 90% of cutoffs go down this year (100% is not out of the question!). So while we don’t have specific information on Arizona, I’d be optimistic with a 218. Good luck.

  • Avatar R. Jones says:

    Hi Mr. Sawyer,

    My son scored a 220 in Virginia, how would you place his odds of qualifying for national merit? I.e. do you believe 221 or 220 is more likely?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I would put them at even odds. We know that Virginia is likely to come within a point or two of the highest cutoff, but there is no certainty yet over where that top mark will fall.

  • Avatar JSP12 says:

    I have truly appreciated your posts and thoughtful responses to your readers! I had put NMS on the “back burner” after my junior son received a 217 index here in North Carolina. The information you posted about possible cut off numbers has certainly reenergized my research. I never would have considered a 2 point drop as a possibility! Wow.

    Realizing that he is still very much on the bubble, I have a question relating to the semi-finalist to finalist stage. Can you shed light on the mysterious 1000 person drop that seems to happen outside of the application portal?

    Thanks, again!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      NMSC does keep that a bit mysterious. The criteria are stated, but not with any level of certainty.
      (1) Some students don’t bother applying. Yes, in some cases students are not concerned about reaching Finalist stage.
      (2) Some students do not receive a recommendation from their school. Now is not the time to pull a prank on a principal.
      (3) Some students do not earn a confirming score on the SAT or ACT. The score is not usually determined by this point, but will fall right around the Commended level (use the same formula to create an SAT Selection Index). See our FAQ for the more complicated explanation for ACT scores.
      (4) Some students don’t have a transcript that supports their bid. This is the squishiest one. There is no GPA cutoff. C’s supposedly can be a problem. I have no idea what NMSC will do about all of the P/F grades this year.

  • Avatar Dawn says:

    Hello Art,
    Now that the Commended Cutoff is known to be 209, is a 212 for AL likely out of the running for semi-finalist? Thank you for your insight.

  • Avatar Dinesh says:

    my child scored 222 in California – (class of 2021). what are her chances?

  • Avatar Sri says:

    Are the chances of a score of 220 making national merit semifinalist in virginia high?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Virginia is always one of the most competitive states, but we will likely see its cutoff drop. I think there are roughly even odds that it will fall to 220 or 221.

  • Avatar Hanna says:

    I have a 219 index (in Washington state) so crossing my fingers that I qualify! Thanks for your very informative article, it helps to calm (some) of my nerves 🙂

  • Avatar Rohan says:

    Got a 218 in florida. What do you think my chances are? How likely is it to drop from a 219 to 218?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I think we will see most cutoffs across the country dropping by at least 1 point. We can’t say with certainty that Florida’s cutoff will be 218 or lower, but I think there is an excellent chance.

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