PSAT National Merit FAQ

By October 4, 2020 January 19th, 2021 National 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. Because of the pandemic, NMSC has adopted a no-excuse-necessary policy for Alternate Entry for the class of 2022. Students can apply directly to NMSC and be considered based on their SAT scores.

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). 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 ERW and 800 Math, your Selection Index would be (70)x2 + 76 = 216.

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 published the cutoffs for the class of 2021. 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 2022, the Semifinalist cutoffs can only be estimated until September 2021.

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 2021 cutoffs of 222. At the other end of the spectrum, North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming had NMSF cutoffs of 209 for the class of 2021. 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 2021, that was 222. 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 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. 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 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.

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 Hoyoung says:

    Hi Art,

    Just from my curiosity. I’ve seen the posted images of the letters sent to national merit finalists with their first-choice college. Does it mean that the finalist has been already accepted to the college?

    Thanks, John

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I’m not sure that I know what letters you are referring to. Anything from NMSC, as far as I know, would only be confirming a student’s selection, since the matching process does not begin until March 1.

  • Avatar Billy says:

    Hi Art,
    I took the December SAT and got a 1540(740 RW and 800 Math). I wanted to enter the alternate entry process and I didn’t know if my score would be high enough. I live in New Jersey and it’s a really competitive state, so would I make the cutoff?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Your Selection Index is 74×2 + 76 [Math is capped] = 224. That should be high enough. The only cost to enter the program is sending a score report to NMSC, so I strongly encourage you to complete the online application.

      • Avatar Nicolas says:

        Hi Mr. Sawyer,
        I am using the alternate entry method to attempt to qualify for the NMS. My SAT score converts to a 221 index (last year’s cutoff for my state, MD), according to the people I spoke to at the NMS corporation. If the cutoff stays the same, I will qualify. The cutoff is also on a downward trend for my state. Anyway, how do you think cutoffs will change given the pandemic and the reduced testing? Will the corporation be more lenient?

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          I would not say that Maryland is trending downward. Its cutoff has tracked the fluctuations that we see from minor inconsistencies in the scale from year-to-year (compare how it aligns to California). Last year’s PSAT had a poorly scaled exam on the primary PSAT date, so cutoffs were low across the board. I’d say that the more natural level for Maryland is 222-223. HOWEVER, pandemic. The difficulty in testing this year will lead to downward pressure. It’s not that NMSC will be more lenient, it’s that fewer students will have taken the PSAT (see your own case as evidence). I think there is an excellent chance that 221 will qualify this year, but it’s impossible to say with certainty. The good news is that you already have a confirming score, so you are ready no matter what happens.

  • Avatar SD says:

    Hello Art — My child did SAT in December 2020 and has not been able to take the PSAT yet. Could you please help calculate the Selection Index based on the following scores:
    39 Reading, 38 Writing and Language, 39.5 Math. Thank you so much!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      When calculation a Selection Index the scores are capped at 38, since the highest achievable on the PSAT. That means your student received a perfect 228 SI: (2)(38+38+38). Congratulations! Be sure to complete the Alternate Entry application and send a score report to NMSC.

  • Avatar Kimberly says:


    I hate to even ask this question because I’m very proud of my son’s recognition as commended for the 2019 NMSQT. His composite score of 219 would have him qualify as a semifinalist in 41 states; we live in Virginia where the cut score is 221. However, we do not live in Northern Virginia, Tidewater, or Charlottesville where the school systems are so very different from Southern Virginia where we live. Has anyone ever appealed the score based on diversity of the state? It seems to me that the College Board recognizes the disadvantage rural students inherently have since they recently created a National Rural and Small Town Recognition Program. (I only know this because he earned this recognition as well). What are your thoughts? It’s an ethical dilemma for me, yet I feel the need to advocate for my son (and one other student who was also commended). The school has only had one other commended student years ago. It’s a rarity in our area. Thank you for any advice you can share.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I think a mixture of pride and indignation is merited. I had a lengthy discussion last year with a mother in an almost identical situation (her son was in southwestern VA). We see the same problems in other states, too, where the concentration of resources in metropolitan areas results in an extreme concentration of Semifinalists. Unfortunately, I’ve never heard of a successful challenge. National Merit is certainly aware of the situation and has chosen to ignore it for decades. College Board runs its recognition program separately from NMSC, which as full control over National Merit. Your battle is with NMSC, and you have nothing to lose in letting your voice be heard.

  • Avatar Kelly W says:

    Hello, Mr. Sawyer,
    Good evening. My son’s high school has not try notified him of the commended status. As I understand, they would usually do this before or at least by the second week of September? His index is 216 and NMSF in our state is 217, while commended is 209. Could you please tell us how the students are notified if their school chooses not to? My son did get the letter stating he was selected for the College Board Recognition Program, but of course, that is not the same. The school has not given him the certificate for that either. Is this normal? Thank you.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      NMSC doesn’t send out Commended information to schools until the Semifinalist information is released (September 9 this year). Most schools should have received the packets by now. You can call NMSC, and they should be able to confirm your son’s status. He clearly scored high enough. I don’t know the policy on the CB Recognition Program, as they have changed it markedly. I was not aware of a certificate from the school.

  • Avatar Michelle says:

    My son received a National Merit Scholarship from the University he will be attending. He was notified of being a Finalist and we are trying to clarify if he moved to the next level of becoming a National Merit Scholar. In his scholarship letter from NMSC, they referred to him as a “Merit Scholar designee”. Does that mean he is a National Merit Scholar or is that the term used for National Merit Finalists too? Thank you for all the information you provide.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Congratulations to your son. It’s curious wording that NMSC uses, but your son is a National Merit Scholar. Perhaps they choose to use “designee” because a student could always switch colleges and lose out on the scholarship. No, it is not a term used for all Finalists.

      • Avatar Bobby says:

        Hello Art,
        I have a follow up question on NMSC – my son was awarded the scholarship and had committed to a particular college by the deadline they specified. However, he just got off the waitlist and has decided to go there instead. What is the method to get the scholarship money to the new school, since NMS website has closed the option to select the school where funds are to be sent. Have you had students in such a situation?

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          Hopefully you’ve contacted NMSC by this point. My guess is that he will not be able to transfer the award if it is school sponsored. If it is a corporate-sponsored scholarship, then NMSC should be able to handle it. Those awards follow the student. Let me know what you find out.

  • Avatar Brittany says:

    Hi Art,
    I work for a gifted high school, I am looking for data that shows students ACT scores and becoming a finalist. Do you know where I can find this? Thank you!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      If you mean the ACT scores needed as confirming scores, I cover the convoluted conversion to a Selection Index above. Since the confirming score is an all-or-nothing cutoff, there is just that conversion. NMSC doesn’t publish the confirming score, but it is usually the same as — or close to — the Commended level. Let me know if I misunderstood the question!

  • Avatar PRG says:

    My son, who is a Junior scored 36 in his ACT, but he did not take ACT Writing section. He took ACT last year(10th grade) with Writing. He scored 35 composite score and got 8 on his writing part.He got 1490 in his PSAT and got 224 SSI(Minnesota)
    I have couple of questions….
    1)when we apply for college admission, which ACT score would be the best option?
    2) Sure, he will be NMSF. What score would be good for his NMF application?
    Please Advise.
    Thanks Mr.Art.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      1) The Writing test has been essentially given up on by virtually all colleges (the University of California should formally announce soon, we hope). There will be no reason to report his 35 unless he is applying to West Point (I hope that they will finally drop Writing, as well).
      2) NMSC does not consider Writing or Science. So likely his 36 unless the 35 is better for E/R/M.

      • Avatar PRG says:

        Dear Mr.Art,

        Thanks a lot for your information and valuable advise as always. His ACT score is 36(Math-36, English 36, Reading 36 and Science 35). So, we will use his ACT score 36 for his NMF application when time comes.

        Thanks again for all your help and advise Mr.Art.

  • Avatar Katie says:

    Hi Art,
    Will you post when the Finalist letters are mailed? Thanks.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Since Finalist letters go directly to students, I need to hear about mailings from other commenters. I will publish as soon as I do (and please update me if you have heard).

  • Avatar JK says:

    Hi, Mr. Sawyer!
    Thank you for writing this detailed article. I had many questions about my first PSAT test, and I am so grateful I could find a dependable source like you. I am a sophomore student in California, and I recently took the PSAT/NMSQT. Here are my scores:

    – 710 for the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Score
    – 690 for the Math Score
    – 1400 for the PSAT/NMSQT Total Score
    – 211 for the NMSC Selection Index Score

    Will I be able to be recognized as Commended Student, or are scores for the PSAT/NMSQT not eligible for anything?

    Thank you for your time!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      As a sophomore, you are not yet eligible to compete in the National Merit Scholarship Program. You have an excellent score, and Semifinalist status is within range for next year. Expect to need around a 222 next year (Commended is likely to fall in the 211-213 range). But you still have a lot of time before needing to worry about that. Congratulations on a great job.

  • Avatar Julie says:

    My son was selected as Semi-Finalist. He fits the criteria for the other boxes ….application asked for recommendation, but not specifically through Principal – he obtained it through 2-time teacher and 4-yr coach (explanation indicated Principal). I have question on #1 choice. He did put #1 choice school down as it offers cost of attendance benefit and he’s leaning that way anyway. His other considered school offers essentially nothing for NMF so it seems to make sense. However, what if he doesn’t get accepted into that school? I would think he would get in given his other credentials, but with the “wholistic” application, you just never know and I never want to “assume”. Admission acceptance doesn’t come out until mid March. Is this one of the reasons to go “undecided”? If he doesn’t get accepted, can he change to another school at that point or is that when it’s too late? Isn’t he able to change his #1 school until May?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      On such an important question, I would recommend a call to NMSC. I can tell you that the choice won’t matter until the first round of names are sent to first-choice colleges on March 1. This is a match-making process, and colleges have to make an offer to a student. I may be wrong, but it doesn’t seem like a college would make an offer without intending to accept a student. I think this avoids the worst-case-scenario in your case. Your son could leave himself as “Undecided” and change this only after acceptance. The risk there is if a college limits the number of awards it provides. A school with a cost of attendance benefit usually has a liaison to deal with NM questions. Based on the situation you’ve described, I would have your son list the college providing sponsorship. You’d then have time to do further research with the school and with NMSC to make sure that things go according to plan. “Undecided” is more important when there are multiple scholarship-providing schools that a student is still considering. Again, when it comes to such an important award, don’t trust a guy on the internet!

    • Avatar jen says:

      Hi Mr. Sawyer;
      curious about the PSAT test taken on October 24 2018 alternative date.
      Like others have mentioned, just missing one or two questions could have knocked someone out from being a NMSF.
      My question is this: how many took the test on the 24th of October in 2018; and how many of them are NMSFs? is there any way to know that? Is it a similar ratio as to those taking it on the original date?

      It was very disappointing to be knocked out of contention when my kid had to take it on October 24 because of a school disruption earlier in October. I’d be interested in your thoughts about this all. THANKS!

      • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

        About 10% of test takers took the alternate date — somewhere around 150-170K. Neither College Board nor NMSC release any score or Semifinalist data by test date. The assumption is that the test scaling equates the two exams. The Oct 24, 2018 exam had easier questions, so it had a harsher scale. It was way out of the norm, though, and I suspect that it did a poor job for National Merit purposes. It’s not quite as easy as saying it produced a lower number of Semifinalists — it would, however, have done it in a more arbitrary fashion. I’m sorry that it did not work out in your son’s favor.

  • Avatar Harsh says:

    I got a PSAT selection index of 223, but my ACT selection index is only a 216. Will that affect my chances of becoming a finalist?

  • Avatar Michelle says:

    Mr. Sawyer,
    My daughter will be out of town the weekend her school district administers the PSAT. We live less than 5 miles from another high school, however it is in a different state. If she takes the test in the neighboring high school, will her PSAT score be weighted against the state she took the test or the state she lives in.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      NMSC considers the state based on the location of the high school in which the student is “regularly enrolled.” Where your daughter takes the test does not matter. Hopefully you have already arranged this with the neighboring school. It can be difficult to arrange an alternate location with the PSAT.

  • Avatar S says:

    Will NMSC accept an ACT of 35, taken in the summer before senior year, to qualify towards being selected as a Semi-finalist ? I’m a bit confused as to whether they only look at the PSAT to select semi-finalists or do they take other tests into consideration too.
    S. B.

  • Avatar Kate says:

    So can you comment on the advantage of not immediately choosing a first choice college; and leaving it undecided? We read the NMSP information and it wasn’t that clear to us.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      It’s a really confusing process. There are two things you want to avoid: 1) Missing out on a scholarship to College A because you listed College B as your (well, your student’s) first choice. 2) Missing out on a scholarship because you don’t put anyone down as a first choice (Undecided). NMSC will usually prevent a student from making mistake #2 and will contact students who are still Undecided in the spring. But it’s best not to count on it! Some families choose to remain Undecided so as to avoid #1. You have several months before this will even matter. NMSC will start informing colleges on March 1. Even that is not a hard deadline for students, but the longer you wait the greater the chances that a college will reach its cap of scholarships. The folks at NMSC are also great about helping Finalists make matches. After all, college-sponsored scholarships cost them nothing.

  • Avatar Becky says:

    Hi Art,
    You mention that 2500 finalists receive scholarships directly from NMSC and 1000 from sponsoring companies. I know that the company I work for sponsors scholarships through NMSC and I am fairly sure my daughter will receive one of those. Does that mean she won’t be eligible for the non-company sponsored scholarship, or can you get both?
    Thanks! Becky

  • Avatar SP says:

    Hi Art,

    My son has a selection index of 224 for MO . We believe he will have a shot at being a semi finalist. He took his ACT back in his junior year (September’2018) and scored a 34 (E 35, M 36, R 35, S 31). Will his ACT score be enough for the 2020 selection index cut off? He also has a weighted GPA of 4.462. Does he have a chance at becoming a finalist? We are hoping for a finalist position to secure a scholarship with a institution he is interested in. Please advise.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Yes, his Selection Index will be high enough — especially since his weakest score, Science, is not used in the calculation. NMSC does not specify a cutoff for GPA, but his 4.462 should check the box there. The other boxes he needs to check are a recommendation from the school, and a completed application. About 15,000 of the 16,000 Semifinalists become Finalists. This step is largely about making sure that a student’s profile fits what NMSC wants in its Finalists. It sounds like he has an excellent chance of going to the next stage.

  • Avatar Mary Beth says:

    Where can the school instructors find the info that the class of 2020 is the first class that can confirm with ACT scores? The teachers are telling my daughter this is a rumor and not true. She has already taken the SAT and scored a modest 1430. We are trying to decide if she’ll have to take it again. Mississippi(cut off 214). [ACT 35]

  • Avatar Robert says:

    For my PSAT in Nevada I received a 220 Index Score, but my highest SAT score would give me a 221 SSI. Would this be enough to move on to finalist?

  • Avatar Natalie says:

    Hi Art,
    Thanks for all of your help and great info. My daughter qualified in IL with a 221. Her SAT confirmation score is 213, but her ACT confirmation score is 222. We should turn in the 222, right? Also, most of the schools she is interested in do not provide any scholarships for NMSF or NMF. I read that you mentioned that she should not “waste” her “first choice” listed school on one that doesn’t provide scholarships for NMSF or NMF. However, we want her first choice school to know that school (University of Michigan) is her first choice. Should we list them anyway?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Yes, you only need to submit the ACT. I believe that NMSC doesn’t even begin sharing information until February. I have not heard of schools using this information for admission. You will also have time later to change the choice. If your daughter feels most comfortable listing Michigan but in, say, April decides that she wants to go to Alabama, then she would still be able to change her choice.

  • Avatar julie says:

    for purposes ONLY of becoming a finalist, is there any difference in a confirming score of 213 (compass says 212 is the minimum) vs a confirming score of 213+? or put another way, all other criteria being equal, would a confirming score WAY above the minimum have a better chance of becoming a finalist VS. a score right at the minimum?

    potentially unnecessary background: my son took the SAT twice. he used his very high SAT score (225) as his alternate entry into the national merit contest, so he is only left with a lower SAT score (213) as a confirming score. he does not want, or need, to take the SAT again, except simply for the chance of becoming a finalist because:
    1. he already has a high SAT score to use for other scholarship competitions.
    2. his first choice school gives the same scholarship to semi finalist and finalists and he is already admitted into that school.

    will the 213 affect his chances of becoming a finalist? Thanks for any insight.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      For Finalist qualification, it’s all or nothing. Higher provides no advantage until the scholarship round (specifically, non-college-sponsored scholarship round). Your son’s situation is so unique that you might want to contact NMSC — particularly to make absolutely sure that the 213 is high enough. I believe it is, but there is no point in taking any risk. I agree that it would be a shame to make him re-test. In re-reading #2, I see that his top choice only cares that he made NMSF. I’m belts-and-suspenders, so I’d still try to qualify as Finalist.

      • Avatar julie clevenger says:

        thank you. i’ll contact national merit and let you know what they say. thanks!

      • Avatar julie says:

        our national merit paperwork says, “to become a finalist, you must confirm your psat performance with scores from the sat or act. the scores you submit will only be used to determine whether you meet requirement #7 for finalist standing and WILL NOT BE USED IN THE SELECTION OF AWARD RECIPIENTS. so it does seem that the confirming score is only that… a confirming score and nothing more. higher confirming scores do not help a student in the competition.

        fyi–another part of the packet says, “because every semifinalist who qualifies as a finalist has an excellent academic record and outstanding test scores, the school’s official characterization of the student and the student’s essay play an important part in the process of choosing merit scholar designees. activities, awards, and employment are also considered.” so it seems the essay and recommendation play a big part in going further in the competition.

        thanks for all you do! hope this helps someone.

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          I really appreciate the update, since this is a significant change in policy. I can’t put my hands on the exact wording, but in the past, the selection committee used both PSAT and SAT scores to inform its decisions. It seems odd for a competition based on testing to drop testing post-Finalist, but that’s clearly the direction NMSC decided to go. This likely has the biggest impact on NMSC-sponsored awards in states with lower cutoffs. In states such as New Jersey, Finalists are all going to have very high scores, so they aren’t as useful in distinguishing among students.

          I should point out for readers that this is primarily about the NMSC-sponsored awards, which are the minority of awards.

  • Avatar CMD says:

    Hi Art- I’ve been following your site for a few days – is something wrong with the website? I can’t find all of the information that has been gathered in the last few days. Anyway….any more info of the SI for NYS? Last I saw it had to be less than or equal to a 223. Thanks so much for all of your efforts!

  • Avatar Cathy says:


    Any updated information on the Selection Index Score Cutoff for Texas?

    When will the students know if they are Semi-finalists or not? My son is on the bubble in Texas but needs to submit an application to a school with a rolling admission sooner as opposed to later.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Nothing new at this point. NMSC should be mailing information to schools (and homeschoolers) next week [ed. I mean THIS week. Last year the mail drop was August 22.]. However, the official press release will not be until September 11, I believe. Some schools feel obligated to wait until that date to inform students. I expect to have cutoffs confirmed well before that date. Rest assured that I’ll be updating this page with any new information.

  • Avatar Bhavya says:

    Dear Mr. Sawyer,
    My daughter who is a junior goes to a high school in Maryland she got 222 on PSAT and 1590 on SAT. she is Weighed GPA of 4 and will be completing 10 APs.
    could you please share your thoughts on her performance and guide us if we need to apply to get finalist or semifinalist status.
    Thanks a lot for your time.
    Best Regards,
    Bhavya Sharma

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      The only thing that matters for Semifinalist status is the PSAT Selection Index of 222. Her SAT and GPA come into play at the Finalist stage. Maryland has always had one of the highest Semifinalist cutoffs in the country. Last year, in fact, it was tied for the highest cutoff. There is a chance that it will fall back to 222. Your daughter will learn of her Semifinalist status automatically in September. If she does qualify, then she’ll be given access to an online application for Finalist.

  • Avatar HM says:

    Thanks for the helpful info- I don’t know much about it and appreciate your help.

  • Avatar HM says:

    Hi Art-

    I think my daughter has a good chance of making finalist- she got a 222 in Oregon, and just took the SAT and got 1540. Right now she has a 4.0- though her high school is a mediocre public school. My questions are:

    1- For her senior year, all she needs to graduate are 1.5 credits of Language Arts. There aren’t really any more classes at her high school that she wants to take, so she plans to take the Language Arts, and then take one or two college classes each trimester, or work, or some combination thereof. Would a non-traditional senior year keep her from making finalist status?
    2- She is a wheelchair user who deals with a chronic health condition- she basically has no extracurriculars during the school year. This is because basic school and taking care of her health is enough. She did have a full time summer science internship last year that she will get to do again this summer. Do you know if there is an appropriate place somewhere on the finalist application where these kind of circumstances can be explained? (besides the essay- she might not want to have to write about disability in the essay)

    Finalist status is important to us because we are looking at some of the schools that offer the large merit scholarships. She is not planning on applying to any elite or highly selective schools- we are just looking for the financial help.


    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      It looks like your daughter will qualify as a Semifinalist. So what does she need to become a Finalist?
      (1) A confirming score. Done.
      (2) Excellent academic performance. Sounds like she is there (I am assuming that the 4.0 is unweighted). The non-traditional senior year will not be a hindrance.
      (3) The support of her school. I doubt that this will be a problem.
      (4) A completed Finalist application. I’m assuming that this one won’t slip by.

      Note that I did not list “a great essay” or “fabulous extracurriculars.” These do not impact Finalist selection. They only come into play when choosing students for corporate and NMSF-sponsored scholarships. The largest awards are from colleges, and those are almost always available to all Finalists.

      The application is quite short. I don’t have access to the portal, so I don’t know if there is an “Other” category where your daughter might discuss her circumstances. Students I have talked to have not mentioned it. Even the space for extracurriculars is quite short. I think your daughter has an excellent chance of being a Finalist. It sounds like her focus at this point should be on doing her best this semester.

  • Avatar Rory says:

    Hi Art,

    Thanks for taking the time to help all of us.

    My daughter has a PSAT 10 test of 1420 (710/710). I know this isn’t the qualifying NMS test, but I’m wondering how accurate these reports are from the PSAT 10 as reported by the college board. It looks like the max score was 1520. Is the PSAT/NMST harder than PSAT 10? Are the scores comparable, such that she effectively got a 213? Otherwise, generically, what % do the kids tend to have to get correct on the ERW/M portions of the test?

    Sorry for so many questions, and thanks again.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      The PSAT 10 is just clever branding by College Board. It is the same test as the PSAT/NMSQT. It allows schools to test sophomores later in the year, which can be helpful when looking at such things as junior year AP placement. The PSAT/NMSQT also goes to 1520; only the SAT goes to 1600. This means that your daughter’s 213 is a 213. It’s hard to generalize the % correct, because the conversion tables vary a good deal from test form to test form. You may come across posts from students very upset about the scaling for the October 24 test last fall. Two wrong on math dropped a student to 670 and out of contention for National Merit in many states. ERW was not a lot better. In contrast, a student taking the October 10 exam could have missed 4 ERW questions and 2 Math questions and still ended up with a 222 SI.

  • Avatar Al says:

    Question: My daughter is a NMF 2019, and waiting to hear admissions decisions from colleges. I was told that NMSC sends out to colleges a list of finalists who choose them as “1st choice” on March 1st. My question is this: could selecting a school as 1st choice influence the admissions decision from a school? For instance, if I have applied to University X, and put them down as 1st choice for the NMS, would they learn about that March 1st, and could that influence their decision to admit me to University X?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I don’t think it’s possible to account for every college, but my generalization would be that it will have no impact. This is especially true at colleges that do not sponsor awards, since they have no reason to monitor the lists from NMSC (and may not even receive them). I would recommend thinking about the choice as about maximizing your daughter’s scholarship potential rather than as a tip factor.

  • Avatar Deborah says:

    Hi Art,
    If a student makes it to the Finalist stage, should they inform the colleges where they have applied? The colleges already know that the student is a Semi-Finalist. Do you think this news is a useful update for colleges to have prior to making an admissions decision?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      The case where I would definitely update is where the school offers significant financial awards to Finalists. While it’s true that NMSC will eventually pass along this information if the college is listed as a student’s first choice, I think it would be a good idea to act early. In most cases, though, it likely doesn’t matter. Since most Semifinalists become Finalists and since colleges already know a student’s academic history, it’s not providing the admission office something new.

  • Avatar Robert says:

    Non-selection letters were mailed January 10, 2019. NMSC confirmed this via telephone; however, the person I spoke to warned that individuals may be removed from the process after that date. The same source confirmed selection letters will be mailed to schools on February 4, 2019, as previously scheduled. Student notifications will be mailed on February 11, 2019, also per the schedule.

    I actively transmit positive vibes to all whose mailboxes have been empty to this point!

  • Avatar Robert says:

    It is January 28, 2019. If a non-selection letter has not been received by this date, is it likely my son has achieved National Merit Finalist status?

  • Avatar Sarah says:

    Mr. Sawyer,
    I am a senior that qualified for the semi-finalist position. I had a very high PSAT score (1500) and a nice SAT to back it up (1540). I also have a very balanced and active extracurricular regimen. I would say that my weakest point of my finalist application would be my GPA, but it is still definitely competitive at a 3.52. Despite all this, I very recently got a letter telling me that I have been withdrawn from finalist consideration because “my coursework and grades does not fulfill the finalist requirement.” I take VERY rigorous coursework (I’m in IB) and I’ve never gotten a D or F. I know a 3.5 GPA isn’t exactly stellar but it’s still an A average and ‘competitive.’ Really, what I’m saying is I don’t understand. How are my grades not good enough? Why was I kicked out? All the sites I read said that as long as I kept a 3.5 GPA or above and got no D’s or F’s, I’d be set in the grade aspect of the application. How is a 3.52 GPA so bad that I’m one of the 1,000 people out of 16,000 that doesn’t become a finalist? Am I missing something? Anyways, thank you for reading. I would appreciate your input.
    Thank you,

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Congratulations on what you have achieved. I’m sorry to hear that NMSC has said that your grades are insufficient. Unfortunately, they don’t provide any definitive guidelines for students (unlike the NHRP, which specifically states a 3.5 GPA as the cutoff).

      If it impacts your scholarship situation, then you should absolutely follow up with NMSC to see if they can provide you with more information or tell you if there is any appeal process. Perhaps they feel that you had too many B’s or had a C or had weakness in a particular year. I will say that the 16,000 Semifinalists have very high GPAs. Even a competitive 3.5 GPA is probably below that of most Semifinalists. It does seem, though, like you deserve more of an answer. You can reach NMSC at (847) 866-5100.

      If it doesn’t impact your college funding, it would be perfectly reasonable to take pride in being a Semifinalist and move on. In most cases, your Finalist status won’t have any impact on your admission chances. Thank you for sharing your situation. Good luck!

  • Avatar Daniel says:

    Dear Mr Sawyer,
    I am a junior and I was not able to take the PSATs this year because I suffered a concussion the week before my high school’s PSAT date.
    My school successfully petitioned the College Board to allow me to take the SATs and use the score from it in place of the PSATs.
    I just received my score from the SATs last weekend and I got a 760 EWR and 730 in Math. The score was also broken out to 39 reading 37 English and 36.5 Math. Is the rule of 2 times the 1/10 of EWR plus 1/10 of math rule applicable for calculating the selection index (225) in my case or the 39/37/36.5 scores will be converted in some fashion? I have seen a quick reference somewhere that makes me think that the 39/37/36.5 score set would be used, except the highest number can only be 38 so the set would be modified as 38/37/36.5. My selection index would look like (38+37+36.5)*2=223.
    Could you please confirm if the above calculation are used or some other re-scaling due to the difference in the max points in the PSAT and SAT.
    Thank you,

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I just recently received confirmation of this from another reader. You are correct that scores are capped at 38, and your calculation of 223 is correct. It’s the equivalent of having a 750 ERW / 730 M because your Reading score got knocked down from 39 to 38.

  • Avatar April says:

    Hi Art,
    My daughter (class of 2020) has a SI of 211 for Alabama. She only missed 6 questions total and the report shows 99%. She did not have an * by her SI and stated she met the entry requirements. My question is: Based on other comments of students having higher SI, how could she have qualified with a SI of 211?

    Thanks, April

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      I’m glad you brought this up, as it is a point of confusion for many. Being eligible for National Merit (or meeting the entry requirements) is not related to the SI — which is very confusing given that the asterisk for non-eligibility is next to the SI. Instead, eligibility simply means that the student is in the class of 2020 and meets the citizenship standards. That applies to about 1.6 million test-takers. Even NMSC doesn’t know, at this time, exactly where the cutoffs will fall. Unfortunately, Alabama’s cutoff will likely be closer to 216.

  • Avatar 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?

    • Avatar 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.

      • Avatar DJ says:

        Thanks for the advice. He took ACT and got a perfect score of 36. Now that ACT is accepted as alternate to SAT I think we are good. Hope he will do good and qualify for the Semifinals/Finals in October 2019.

  • Avatar 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?

    • Avatar 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.

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