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 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, Writing and Language, and Math Test Scores. For example, a student with scores of 34, 35, and 36 would have a Selection Index of (34+35+36)x2 = 210. Most students remember their section scores (160–760) rather than their 8–38 test scores. The Selection Index is still easy to calculate. First, ignore the final zero in your scores; then double your ERW score; then add your Math score. For example, a student with an ERW score of 690 and a Math score of 720 would have a Selection Index of (69)x2 + 72 = 210. The two methods will always work because of the fixed relationship between test scores and section scores. You cannot directly calculate a Selection Index from a total score (320–1520).
Why is the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (ERW) twice as important as the Math?
The emphasis on “verbal” skills has a long history with the NMSP. Even when there was no Writing section on the PSAT or SAT, the Verbal section was doubled and added to the Math score for a 60–240 Selection Index range. Also, College Board considers Reading and Writing and Language to be separate tests.. In short, the “doubling” is nothing new.
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 been able to assemble all of the cutoffs for the class of 2020. 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. NMSC does not publicly publish state cutoffs, so Compass provides this information to students. For the class of 2021, the Semifinalist cutoffs can only be estimated until September 2020.
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, especially since cut-offs vary dramatically from state to state. The Compass projections are better estimates, but they are still just estimates.
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 2020 cutoffs of 223. At the other end of the spectrum, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming had NMSF cutoffs of 212 for the class of 2020. The minimum Semifinalist cutoff for a state is the national Commended level. If, for example, the Commended cutoff is at 213, no state can have a Semifinalist cutoff less than 213.
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 2020, 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 several years. It is broad enough that most students are able to use or slightly rework their Common App essay. For the class of 2020, the prompt is:
“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. 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. This is new for the class of 2020, so older resources may refer exclusively to the SAT.
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. For the class of 2020, Compass has heard that the confirming score cutoff is 212.
The easiest calculation of the SSI is from your section scores. Drop a zero, double your ERW, and add your Math score. For example, Student X might have a total score of 1450, with section scores of 720 ERW 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. The ERW score has twice the weight because it is made up of two test scores—reading and writing.
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 ERW 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. Throw it out. Further, the SAT Essay and ACT Writing Test are never considered at any stage of the competition.
Step 1: Add your ACT English and ACT Reading scores
Step 2: Use the ACT E+R to SAT ERW concordance table to find the concordant SAT ERW 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 ERW is not always the same as SAT ERW 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 ERW, and add your Math score. You want this number to be at least 212.
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 ERW. 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 most 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.