PSAT National Merit FAQ

By October 7, 2018National 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.

The big news for juniors taking the PSAT in October 2018 is that they are the first class that will be able to use ACT scores as “confirming scores” in the Finalist round of the competition. This is a long overdue change, as many high-scoring ACT students have had to take the SAT for no reason other than National Merit’s rules. This does not apply to the class of 2019, who must still take the SAT if they want to move from Semifinalist to Finalist status. We will be updating this page as more information becomes available.

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 for recognized students.

You must take the PSAT/NMSQT as a high school junior and meet certain citizenship requirements. 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 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. Some students remember their section scores (160-760) but not their test scores; the Selection Index is still easy to calculate. First, ignore the final zero in your scores; then double your EBRW score; then add your Math score. For example, a student with an EBRW 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 (EBRW) 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 aded to the Math score for a 60-240 Selection Index range. Also, College Board considers Reading and Writing and Language to be separate tests. The scores are added when forming the 160-760 section score (200-800 on the SAT), but the tests roughly parallel the Critical Reading and Writing sections of the old PSAT. 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). The Commended cutoff becomes unofficially known in the April after the PSAT. Compass will report this score and how it may impact Semifinalist cutoffs on our cutoffs post. NMSC does not publicly publish state cutoffs, so Compass provides this information to students. For the class of 2020, the Semifinalist cutoffs can only be estimated until September 2019.

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 the same national cut-off, 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 cut-offs so much higher in some states than in others?
Two things impact state cut-off levels – 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 lower the cut-offs. Some states have large pockets of extremely qualified students and are particularly competitive. For example, California, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey have class of 2019 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 2019. 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 2019, that was 223. Boarding school cutoffs are the most complex. 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.

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

When will my school tell me?
NMSC mails information to schools in 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.

Do I need to take the SAT to become a Finalist? What about the ACT?
Among the requirements to proceed from Semifinalist to Finalist or National Merit scholarship recipient is that you receive a “confirming score.” This score helps validate your PSAT score (i.e. it wasn’t a fluke). For the class of 2019 and earlier, only the SAT can serve as a confirming score. For the class of 2020, NMSC has announced that the ACT can be used as a confirming score. It has not yet announced how it will use ACT scores — for example, straight Composite or a weighting of scores as on the SAT — or what the confirming level will be. Based on past SAT confirming scores, we would expect a 31 or 32 to be the approximate Composite score level for a confirming ACT score. This is only speculation until NMSC provides more details.

Can a high ACT score be a confirming score?
Yes, starting with the class of 2020 — those taking the PSAT/NMSQT in October 2018 — the ACT can be used to confirm PSAT results.

How high of a 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 just below the Commended cutoff. This means that students with SSIs of 214 or higher are generally “safe.”

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 730M. 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 690M. 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.

Students can take the SAT as late as December in order to qualify as a Finalist. Students must send an official SAT score report to NATIONAL MERIT SCHOLARSHIP CORPORATION. Semifinalists will receive Finalist application materials soon after announcements are made.

When do I have to take the SAT or ACT for the score to be ‘confirmed?
You can use any SAT 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 has not yet announced test date ranges or cutoffs for ACT confirming scores. The class of 2019 can ONLY achieve a confirming score on the SAT.

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

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 (and submit the scores to NMSC – code 0085), 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.

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 2019, 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.

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.

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.

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.


  • David says:

    Hi Art,
    I live and go to boarding school in CT. With a selection index of 222, I would fall just short of being a NMSF when using the highest cutoff for a northeast state (NJ at 223/224). Does it change anything that I live in CT, where I go to school? Would I just need to reach the CT cutoff?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Eligibility is “based on the high school in which the student is regularly enrolled” when taking the PSAT. This means that your school’s status will determine the cutoff rather than your home residence. If your school “enroll[s] a sizable proportion of [its] students from outside the state,” then it would fall in the boarding school category, and you would need to meet the regional cutoff.

  • DJ says:

    Hello Mr. Sawyer – Thanks for the great information. My son (Class of 2021), already took his SAT at the beginning of Sophomore year (August 2018) and will be taking his PSAT in Jr Year (2019 Fall). He got great score and not planning to retake the test. Can he use his SAT score for the National Merit finals or he has to take the test again?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Unless NMSC changes its rules — at it almost never does — the August SAT is just 2 months too early. They want a confirming score to be no earlier than October of sophomore year. He has plenty of time, of course, to see how he does next year and to decide whether or not qualifying as a Finalist is something that matters to him.

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