National Merit Semifinalists by State

By October 9, 2016 December 9th, 2016 National Merit, PSAT

The most recently released counts for all 50 states comes from National Merit Scholarship Corporation’s 2014-2015 report on the class of 2015.

Class of 2015 Summary

PSAT Takers: 1,595,486
NMSP Entrants: 1,469,451
Commended Students: 37,705
Semifinalists: 16,307
Finalists: 15,121
National Merit Scholars: 7,468
Special Scholarship Recipients: 1,218

StateEntrantsCommendedSemifinalistsSF as % of EntrantsCutoff
District of Columbia4,143198471.1%224222
New Hampshire7,612135831.1%212216
New Jersey73,5692,5805210.7%224222
New Mexico6,56489961.5%210215
New York132,5982,9061,0170.8%218219
North Carolina40,8427344621.1%212216
North Dakota1,7040352.1%201208
Rhode Island5,58789520.9%212216
South Carolina17,7141982071.2%209214
South Dakota2,2449421.9%203210
West Virginia3,5000591.7%201208
Other Selection Units20,3351,1922751.4%VariousVarious

Note that while it is common to refer to 50,000 students receiving National Merit honors of some sort, the exact figure was actually closer to 54,012. As with all the counts, they can vary from year to year, but large swings are rare.

Individual states have very different profiles because of the way that Semifinalists are allocated. A state receives an allocation of Semifinalists proportionate to the total number of high school juniors in a class. The number of students taking the PSAT is irrelevant. Utah has the lowest percentage of PSAT takers within its junior class, so it has the highest percentage (2.7%) of “entrants” — PSAT-taking juniors who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents — who received Commended Student or Semifinalist status. At the other end of the spectrum is Connecticut. Almost all of the state’s juniors take the PSAT, so only about 0.6% of students receive National Merit honors.

Although Semifinalists are allocated proportionately, Commended Students must meet the national cutoff. North Dakota had 35 Semifinalists and 0 Commended Students, because all of its students meeting the 201 Commended cutoff also made the state cutoff of 201. Minnesota is more typical of the national average, with a ratio of Commended (651) to Semifinalist (288) of 2.3 to 1. New Jersey has the highest state cutoff, so it also has the highest ratio of Commended Students to Semifinalists. Only 1 out of 6 state students meeting the national Commended cutoff end up qualifying as Semifinalists.

The column “Cutoff (Original)” represents the Selection Index required in that state to become a Semifinalist. In order to better represent historical data in terms of the new PSAT scores (October 2015 and later), Compass developed a conversion table to approximate the original score “restated” on the new 48-228 scale. The range of cutoffs is more compressed on this scale. See our post on current National Merit qualifying scores for more detailed information.

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 Gary says:


    We are from Florida and our son scored 218 which appears to be borderline. However, in the 2014-2015 report above the ratio of commended students to semifinalist is significantly low. How does this impact the cutoff for Florida.


    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Thanks for paying such close attention to the numbers. The ratio doesn’t directly impact the cutoff; it’s more of an indicator. Semifinalists are allocated based on high school population. In 2014-2015, that was about 0.5% of all juniors in a state. Florida was the 4th largest state and saw the 4th most Semifinalists. Commended Students are not allocated. How many Commended a state ends up with depends on a) how many students took the PSAT b) how strong those students were and c) how many of those students ended up as NMSF rather than Commended. Florida’s PSAT taking rate is not as high as in some other states, so it ranked 6th in entrants. Those entrants also achieved honors at a slightly lower rate (about 2.9% were NMSF or Commended versus a national average of 3.6%). The net result of everything I just threw at you is that Florida ended up with a low Commended to SF ratio. What could impact Florida’s cutoff is if the state suddenly increased its percentage of PSAT-takers (in particular, high scoring test-takers). Florida has been emphasizing state-paid testing, but I think they have had some budget issues with full implementation. I am not aware of any major changes for the class of 2018.

  • Avatar Gary says:


    Thank you for your reply. I just talked to the National Merit Corporation and asked specific questions regarding last year’s test results for Florida and got the following responses:
    1) The number of semifinalist…..879
    2) The number of commended……1431
    3) The number of entrants…….69500

    It is interesting to note the increase in commended students from the test year you provided. The number of semifinalists and entrants appears to have changed only modestly. The increase in the commended cutoff would have the effect of lowering the number of commended students to be more in line with the test year you observed. This could mean that changes in the semifinalist cutoff may not change as much as predicted. What do you think?


    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Thanks for the data on the class of 2017. It prompted me to see if NMSC has published a more current Annual Report than the one I published. It now has the 2015-2016 report available (their printed reports take forever to come out) on the class of 2016. Here are the Florida numbers:
      Entrants 69,066
      Commended 1,400
      Semifinalist 807

      It looks like the class of 2015 was an anomaly. I went back and looked at the classes of 2012, 2013, and 2014, and they are closer to that of 2015 and 2016 than they are to 2015. It does look like Florida hit a recent high last year for Commended. I don’t think we can tell much from that. If we read it as “Florida seems to be doing better in honored students,” then I’d actually be concerned about more upward pressure on the NMSF cutoff, not less. Compared to the class of 2016 data, though, the change is negligible.

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