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National Merit Scholarship Program Explained

By October 4, 2023November 1st, 2023National Merit, PSAT

Below we cover the the most frequently asked questions about the National Merit Scholarship Program. Please see our National Merit Semifinalist Cutoffs page for the latest information on actual and projected Selection Index cutoffs by state.

What is the National Merit Scholarship Program and how do you enter?
The NMSP is a program administered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation in cooperation with the College Board to recognize high achieving high school seniors. Some recognition levels are based purely on junior PSAT/NMSQT scores, while other levels have additional qualifications (explained below). The NMSC gives out approximately $50 million in scholarships each year, and some colleges provide lowered—or even free—tuition to recognized students, multiplying the net impact of National Merit severalfold.

You must take the PSAT/NMSQT as a high school junior and either attend high school in the United States or U.S. Territories or be a U.S. student studying abroad. On your PSAT score report, you will see a section with your Selection Index and how you answered the questions about your entry eligibility. If there is an asterisk next to your Selection Index, it means that NMSC believes that you are ineligible.

What if I couldn’t take the PSAT?
Every year students miss the PSAT for legitimate reasons such as illness. To allow those students the opportunity to compete in National Merit, NMSC has a process known as alternate entry. Students must make a written request to NMSC for an alternate entry application form. The application itself must be signed off on by your principal or counselor and postmarked no later than April 1 after the missed PSAT/NMSQT.

What is the Selection Index?
The Selection Index is a weighting of your PSAT component scores to determines the level of your recognition within the initial stages of the National Merit program.

How is the Selection Index calculated?
The Selection Index is double the sum of your Reading and Writing (RW) score, and Math score divided by 10. Alternatively, you can simply drop the last zero on your section scores, double the RW and add the Math. For example, a student with scores of 690 RW and 720 M would have a Selection Index of 69 x 2 + 72 = 210. You cannot directly calculate a Selection Index from a Total Score (320 – 1520). For students entering the competition with an SAT score through Alternate Entry, note that — when calculating a Selection Index — each SAT section is capped at 760. If, for example, you have a 700 RW and 800 Math, your Selection Index would be 70 x2 + 76 = 216.

Why is the Reading and Writing twice as important as the Math?
The emphasis on “verbal” skills has a long history with the NMSP. The digital PSAT no longer has separate Reading and Writing scores, but the RW score is still doubled.

I’ve already received my PSAT scores; how can I find out whether I will qualify for recognition?
Although you can use the Compass projections to estimate whether you are likely to qualify as a Commended Student or Semifinalist, there is no way of knowing your official status until high schools are notified by NMSC in early September of your senior year (sometimes schools hear by late August). Compass has published the cutoffs for the class of 2024 and estimates for the class of 2025. An historical archive dating back more than 15 years can be found here. The Commended cutoff for future classes becomes unofficially known in the April after the PSAT. Compass will report this score and how it may impact Semifinalist cutoffs on our regularly updated cutoffs post.

Will I qualify as a Semifinalist if I am in the 99th percentile for Selection Index according to my score report?
Although approximately 1% of test takers will become Semifinalists, there are a number of reasons why percentile scores are far too inaccurate to determine eligibility. Even the state percentiles that are now on the digital SAT report do not have enough information, because they are actually based on the prior 3 years of scores. Further, the percentile is rounded, and not accurate enough to determine cutoffs.

Why do some states have more Semifinalists and Finalists than other states?
Although Commended Scholars are honored based on a single, national cutoff, NMSC distributes Semifinalists proportionally to states (and District of Columbia and U.S. Territories) based on the number of graduating students in the state. For example, California sees approximately 2,100 Semifinalists each year—the most in the country. It gets 13% of Semifinalists because it produces approximately 13% of high school graduates. Mississippi, on the other hand, typically sees about 135 National Merit Semifinalists, because the state produces a bit more than 0.8% of U.S. graduates. The distribution is completely unrelated to the number of students taking the PSAT in the state.

Why are Semifinalist cutoffs so much higher in some states than in others?
Two things that have impact on cutoffs are participation rates and demographics. In some states, ACT is the dominant test and not as many students take the PSAT. This leaves some students out of the competition and will tend to produce lower cutoffs. Some states have large pockets of extremely qualified students and are particularly competitive. For example, Massachusetts and New Jersey have class of 2024 cutoffs of 222 and 223, respectively. At the other end of the spectrum, North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming had NMSF cutoffs of 207 for the class of 2024. The minimum Semifinalist cutoff for a state is the national Commended level. If, for example, the Commended cutoff is at 210, no state can have a Semifinalist cutoff less than 210.

How are Semifinalists set for homeschoolers, boarding school students, or U.S. students studying abroad?
Homeschoolers are treated no differently than other students in a state. U.S. students studying abroad will have to meet the highest state cutoff in the country. For the class of 2024, that was 223. Boarding school cutoffs are the most complex to calculate. Instead of being set at the state level, they are determined regionally. A Northeast boarding school student, for example, must meet the highest cutoff of any state within the Northeast region. NMSC defines boarding schools as schools with predominantly out-of-state students. NMSC considers your state to be where you went to school when you took the PSAT, not your state of residency or the state of your new school.

Do I have to be a U.S. citizen to participate?
NMSC has made this part of the process easier to understand than it was in the past. Students at high school in the U.S. or in U.S. Territories are eligible. Period. Students studying abroad are eligible as long as they are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents of the U.S. (“green card”) or or have applied for permanent residence (the application for which has not been denied) and intend to become U.S. citizens at the earliest opportunity allowed by law.

Will NMSC notify me if I become a Semifinalist?
No. NMSC provides information only to schools until a student becomes a Finalist. Homeschoolers are the exception.

When will my school tell me?
NMSC mails information to schools in late August. Some schools let students know their status in early September. Many schools wait until NMSC officially releases student names to the press in the second week of September. Compass will track all of the latest news on our Semifinalists cutoff page.

Will being a Semifinalist help get me into my first-choice college?
While Semifinalist status is a nice award to list on your application, you should not expect it alone to have a significant impact on your admission chances at most colleges. The recognition tells college that you did well on the PSAT. Your SAT and ACT scores are far more important to colleges; your National Merit status does not add much new information. However, having a high number of enrolled Semifinalists is seen as a badge of honor at some colleges and will factor in their admission decisions. Some colleges have programs specifically to attract National Merit Finalists and offer large merit awards.

Do I need to take the SAT to become a Semifinalist?
No. Commended Student and Semifinalist recognition are based only on your Selection Index and your entry eligibility.

What happens after I am named a Semifinalist?
Semifinalists will receive login credentials for the Finalist application portal. You will need to provide background information and an essay. Your school will need to provide its recommendation and electronically submit your application in the second week of October,

What is the National Merit Finalist essay prompt?
NMSC may change the prompt in future years, but it has been the same for many years. It is broad enough that most students are able to use or slightly rework their Common App essay. For the class of 2024, the prompt was:

“To help the reviewers get to know you, describe an experience you have had, a person who has influenced you, or an obstacle you have overcome. Explain why this is meaningful to you. Use your own words and limit your response to the space provided.”

There is not a word limit specified, but the essay must fit within the provided space (approximately 3500 characters). Expect to keep your essay to 600 – 650 words.

Do I need to take the SAT or ACT to become a Finalist?
Among the requirements to proceed from Semifinalist to Finalist is that you receive a “confirming score.” This score helps validate that you can, on an official SAT or ACT test date, achieve a high score and confirm your testing skill.

Can a high ACT score be a confirming score?
Yes, the ACT can be used to confirm PSAT results.

How high of an SAT score do I need for a confirming score?
The confirming score is determined each year by NMSC and is calculated in the same way as the PSAT Selection Index. The confirming score is set nationally, so it does not matter what Semifinalist cutoff you met. The confirming SAT Selection Index (SSI) generally falls at or near the Commended cutoff.

The easiest calculation of the SSI is from your section scores. Drop a zero, double your RW, and add your Math score. For example, Student X might have a total score of 1450, with section scores of 720 RW and 730 M. Student X’s SSI would be 2(72) + 73 = 217. It’s possible for a student with a lower total score to have a higher SSI. Student Y has a total score of 1430, with section scores of 750 ERW and 690 M. Student Y’s SSI would be 2(75) + 69 = 219.

You cannot determine your SSI directly from your total score. One student scoring 1400 might have a high enough SSI, whereas another student with a 1400 might fall short. You must know your RW and Math scores.

How high of an ACT score do I need for a confirming score?
NMSC wants to have a level playing field, so it converts components of the ACT score into an SAT Selection Index. In order to do that, you need to use the official concordance tables published by ACT/College Board. There is no SAT Science, so NMSC does not look at ACT Science. So discard that score.

Step 1: Add your ACT English and ACT Reading scores
Step 2: Use the ACT E+R to SAT RW concordance table to find the concordant SAT RW score based on the sum in step 1. Be sure that you are going in the correct direction when using the concordance tables. ACT E+R to SAT RW is not always the same as SAT RW to ACT E+R.
Step 3: Use the ACT M to SAT M table to find the concordant SAT M score based on your ACT Math score.
Step 4: Calculate your SAT SI: drop the last zeros (i.e. divide by 10), double your RW, and add your Math score. You want this number to be at least as high as your class year’s Commended Student score.

A student has ACT scores of 32E, 34M, 33R, and 31S. Science is not used. The sum of E and R is 65. In the concordance tables, this is equivalent to a 700 RW. The 34 Math is concordant to a 760. This student’s SAT Selection Index is 70×2 + 76 = 216.

When do I have to take the SAT or ACT for the score to be ‘confirmed’?
You can use any SAT or ACT score from the fall of your sophomore year to December of your senior year. This means that you could have received an SAT confirming score even before taking the PSAT/NMSQT. NMSC recommends that you not wait until the December test date.

How do I submit scores to NMSC?
NMSC does not automatically know your SAT and ACT scores. You must submit them just as you would to a college. The College Board code for NMSC is 0085. The ACT code is 7984. Please verify these codes before submitting. Since NMSC will use your highest scores, there is no penalty for choosing them as one of your free score recipients when you register for the SAT or ACT.

Can I superscore SAT or ACT dates in order to reach the confirming score cutoff?
No. NMSC will use your highest scores, but will not superscore across test dates.

If I have achieved a confirming score, is there any reason to shoot for a higher score?
The requirement for a confirming score is simply true or false when applying to become a Finalist. However, your test scores are used to evaluate you during the scholarship phase of the competition. Depending on your goals, you may want to optimize your score.

Can sophomores qualify for National Merit recognition?
No. Even if your scores are high enough, you will not be eligible for National Merit as a sophomore unless you will be graduating a year early. In that case, you should contact NMSC or your principal about next steps as NMSC has no way of automatically knowing your eligibility.

Is it hard for a Semifinalist to become a Finalist?
Of the 16,000 Semifinalists, 15,000 become Finalists. You must go through an application process to proceed to Finalist level and then to compete for National Merit Scholarships. As part of the application, you must meet citizenship requirements, have a satisfactory academic record, achieve a confirming score on the SAT or ACT (and submit the scores to NMSC!), write an essay, and receive a recommendation from your principal. More information can be found in the PSAT/NMSQT Student Guide. In the Semifinalist letter from your school (it will NOT come from NMSC unless you are homeschooled), NMSC will provide details about how to begin the process online.

When will I find out if I am a Finalist?
You will be notified in February of senior year.

Do all Finalists receive scholarships? What is a National Merit Scholar?
Only about half of Finalists become National Merit Scholars and receive a National Merit Scholarship. There are three types of scholarships for Finalists, each with its own criteria. A student can only receive one type of scholarship. Approximately 4,000 Finalists receive scholarships from sponsoring colleges with renewable stipends of $500–$2,500 per year. Students must be accepted by a sponsoring institution and list the college as first choice in order to receive a college-sponsored award. These awards are not transferable to another college. Corporations sponsor approximately 1,000 awards for Finalists each year with a minimum one-time value of $2,500 or $1,000 renewable. Most of these awards are to Finalists who are the children of employees. Approximately 2,500 students receive awards of $2,500 directly from National Merit. These awards are highly competitive and are allocated proportionally by state. A list of sponsoring colleges and corporations can be found in the PSAT/NMSQT Student Guide.

I’ve heard about colleges that provide full-ride awards. Why are college-sponsored awards only listed as $500–$2,500 per year?
Colleges can also choose to provide additional awards to National Merit Finalists. These are not technically National Merit Scholarships, but they can be the most important awards for many students. Which colleges offer these awards and how much they offer can change from year to year. In recent years, Florida has had a generous scholarship program for National Merit Finalists, and schools such as UT-Dallas and Texas A&M also provide substantial awards. Compass does not maintain a database of scholarships. The National Merit forum at collegeconfidential.com is a useful resource.

Are scholarships available to Commended Students and Semifinalists?
Technically, these students cannot be National Merit Scholars, but approximately 1,100 of them will receive Special Scholarships from sponsoring corporations. As with other corporate-sponsored awards, these are predominantly for the children of employees, although companies can also identify students in a particular region or field of study.

When will I find out if I receive a scholarship?
You will be notified of scholarship status sometime between March and June of your senior year. In order to receive a college-sponsored scholarship, you must note the college as your first choice on the National Merit application. It can be to your advantage not to immediately choose a first-choice college—you can leave it as “Undecided.” You do not want to miss out on a large scholarship because you have listed the wrong college. There is no reason to list a college that does not provide National Merit Scholarships. List your first-choice among college that do provide scholarships. You can update your choice via the Online Scholarship Application portal.

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.


  • Steph says:

    Hello! I had a question about Alternative Entry. If a student took the PSAT/NMSQT as a 10th grader (as practice, with the rest of his class), would this then disqualify him from using the “Alternative Entry” method in 11th grade? I realize that to do Alternative Entry you can’t already taken the PSAT– but I wasn’t sure if that applied to just PSATs in junior year, when kids are eligible for entering the National Merit competition. [For clarification- I’m sure the test that the kids took was the PSAT/NMSQT, and NOT the PSAT 10.] Thank you!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Only the junior year PSAT/NMSQT serves as a qualifier for National Merit. The sophomore year test your student took is, therefore, irrelevant. The Alternate Entry process specifically applies to students who are unable to take the 11th grade PSAT.

  • Vivek says:

    Hi Art,
    For a 10th grader, would you recommend taking PSAT/NMSQT or SAT given that to qualify for NMSC, the child would have to re-take PSAT/NMSQT again in junior year.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      There is not a right or wrong answer here. Normally I would recommend that a student go ahead and take the PSAT. It’s convenient; it’s very similar to the digital SAT. That last part is important. If the student’s testing career is going to extend beyond this December (and that’s true for virtually all sophomores), they will be taking the digital SAT. If your student wants to get in a paper SAT, they have until December. For all but a very small number of sophomores, that seems like overkill. A fall sophomore is unlikely to be at a point where they’ll get a final score (the exception would be students already well into the 1500s). And it doesn’t have a practice benefit because the paper SAT is almost gone. So my soft recommendation would be to go ahead and take the PSAT.

  • Neelahm says:

    1. For the students who got selected to semi-finalists, they need to submit only one school of their choice (one of the questions) in the NMSQT finalist application – does the public/private school choice make a difference in getting the Corporate/NMSQT awards?
    2. Do the parents need to be an employee of the Corporate Sponsors to receive any awards under the corporate awards category?

    Thank you in advance.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      If a Semifinalist becomes a Finalist and has listed a school that sponsors National Merit, NMSC will generally match the student with a school award. If the student’s first choice is not a sponsor, then they will be eligible for a corporate or NMSC award. The student’s first choice school can be updated through April, I believe, but the matching process starts in March.

      Most corporate awards are for the children of employees. You can find more info here on page 10 of the Student Guide.

  • Synde says:

    English Learners cannot take the NMSQT w/accommodations such as “extended time”; the system does not allow them. Is this a true statement?

  • Mary Ann says:

    Hello Art
    If my ACT is 35 & translates to 228/230 ( twice taken ) and SAT is (229) , which do you think should I submit? Also if I do ACT should I just submit the superscore as it will include both.
    Would you also be able to chime in with regards to colleges which would be a better option to send SAT ( 1530 ) or ACT (35 both times) ?

    As always thank you so much for your time & help

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Mary Ann,
      Both your SAT and ACT are so strong that it doesn’t matter for National Merit which one you provide. Those scores are only used as a minimum qualifying standard — the “confirming score.” They are not used in the competition itself.

      It’s very much a toss-up for colleges. As a single point to point concordance, a 35 is equivalent to a 1540. In the other direction, a 1530 is concordant with a 35. You might say that the ACT is ever so slightly stronger.

  • usha says:

    Hello Art,

    My son is in his junior year and he has an SAT score of 1570 and a PSAT score of 1460. Do you think he has a chance to qualify to become a semi finalist for NMSQT Scholarship? Please let us know.


    • Art Sawyer says:

      Only his PSAT score matters for qualification as a Semifinalist. Actually, it’s the Selection Index that matters, not so much his 1460. The SI puts twice the weight on the Reading and Writing score. You’ll find his Selection Index on his score report. The cutoffs are determined by state. In some places he would probably qualify easily. In other states he might miss out. See our estimates in my other post here.

  • MG says:

    Hi Art,

    I wanted to ask if you know what the typical cutoffs for the National Merit African American, Hispanic recognition, Rural recognition typically are? I know they’ve been making some changes the past few years? I’m a tutor who’s going to be doing some pro bono work at a Title I school in our county for some of their top sophs this coming fall and the admin asked if i knew what the typical cutoffs are for those programs!

    Love your blog!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I wish I could be more helpful here, but College Board doesn’t release the figures — at least not en masse. The cutoffs are set by state, and student must be in the top 10% of scores (they can also qualify via AP scores). You might want to call College Board and ask about your state.

      Thank you for the kind words, and thank you for helping students in your local area!

  • Walker says:

    My son got a 226 composite score, so we are most certain he will make the semi-finalist list. But, he only has a 1480 in SAT (770 r/w, 710 math). Will that be sufficient to move from semi-finalist to finalist? Are there any red flags he should watchout for during the application process?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Not sure how I missed your post from December! Congratulations to your son! Yes, the 770/710 is more than high enough to serve as a confirming score. It basically needs to be at the Commended level and otherwise doesn’t impact his Finalist application. The process is straightforward. His grades are his grades. He will fill out a short application, write an essay (the hardest part, although it is a general topic where students can often rework other essays), and get a recommendation from the school. No red flags, just deadlines to hit. Your son will get login information to the application portal with his Semifinalist letter in September.

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