Researching National Merit Cutoffs

By April 14, 2017National Merit, PSAT

Below is an in-depth exploration of the research we have done to understand the relationship between the Commended Student cutoff and the NMSF cutoffs. To go straight to the estimates, scroll to the bottom of this page or visit the regularly updated National Merit Semifinalists cutoffs post. An earlier post explains why we predicted an increase in the cutoffs this year and explores some of the reasons behind the rise.

As of April 2017, we know that the Commended Student cutoff for National Merit has risen from a Selection Index of 209 to an SI of 211. The 2-point rise in the Commended level means that a majority of states will see increases in their Semifinalist cutoffs. Will NMSF cutoff increases be clustered around the 2-point mark, or will they be skewed higher or lower? How one interprets the historical data makes a significant difference in what sort of distribution to expect.

The Historical Record

National Merit Semifinalist cutoffs for the old PSAT cannot be directly compared to those for the Class of 2017 and later. The test changed, the scoring changed, and the scale changed.  We can use the historical NMSF cutoffs in one of two ways: 1) We can look at the old PSAT data in isolation and try to understand how Commended level and state cutoff changes were correlated. 2) We can try to convert older cutoffs onto the new scale and then look at the data across all class years. Both paths have limitations. The first option doesn’t allow us to easily translate the findings into how scores look on the new, compressed range of Semifinalist cutoffs. The second option introduces the bias of the conversion factor. We based our conversion methodology on how Class of 2016 scores translated to Class of 2017 scores. This puts a lot of weight on scores (those from October 2015) that were clearly still a work in progress.

Pathway 1: Old PSAT Cutoffs

Below are the Commended cutoffs for the classes of 2009 to 2016. Even on the old exam, scores could rise and fall in unexpected ways because of scoring inconsistencies (see, in particular, the 2012-2014 period).

Below is a summary of the state (and DC) Semifinalist cutoff changes versus the Commended changes.

The only one-year period in which the Commended level remained unchanged was 2009-2010. In the 0 column, each number for a row corresponds to how many states saw a particular NMSF cutoff change. For example, 17 states saw no change, 11 states went up 1 point, 11 states went down 1 point, and the rest saw larger increases or decreases. The 2009-2010 period reflects how evenly things are distributed when there is no change in the Commended level. It also illustrates the danger in expecting that a single estimate is going to be correct. Despite the fact that there was no Commended change, and despite the fact that there was a clear mode (most common value), only 1/3 of the time (17/51) was there no change in cutoff. A prediction that a state cutoff would not change would have been wrong in 2/3rds of the cases.

Understanding Distribution of Changes

Things grow still murkier when there is a change in the Commended level. In both the 2010-2011 and 2015-2016 periods, the Commended cutoff went up 1 point. Of the 102 state and DC Semifinalist cutoff changes, only 22 were exactly 1 point. That means that 78% of cutoffs changed more or less than did the Commended figure. In fact, more states saw no change (24) than saw 1-point increases (22).

Pathway 2: Restated PSAT Cutoffs

One of the difficulties in drawing conclusions from how scores shifted on the old PSAT is that the range of “usable” Selection Indexes is far narrower on the new SAT. A 3-point change on the old PSAT should not automatically be equated to a 3-point change on the new scale. In the chart below, the 51 state and DC cutoffs for the Class of 2016 and the Class of 2017 are sorted from low to high. [Also included are the estimates for 2018.]

The range from bottom to top (209-222) on the new PSAT is about half that seen on the old test (202-225). The change was also not uniform. The lowest cutoffs went up 7 points, whereas the highest cutoffs declined by 3 points. A mapping of the two sets of figures was used to restate historical figures onto the new scale. Below are the restated Commended levels.

In theory, this restatement of scores should allow us to view prior year changes in the context of the 2017-2018 period. The data table below extends the year-over-year analysis to include comparisons across two and three years. For example, it’s obvious that there was a 1-point change between 2010 and 2011 and between 2015 and 2016, but the same could be said when comparing 2009 and 2011 or 2015 and 2017 (among others). The reference periods were limited to 3 years in an attempt to avoid measuring long-term trends.

Below is the summary of Semifinalist cutoff changes versus the Commended changes when restated as new PSAT Selection Indexes:

Changes in the Commended cutoff, in this model, show less of an impact on Semifinalist cutoffs. While the 0 column shows a symmetric distribution, a 2-point increase shows most cutoffs going up 1 point or less. One way of visually summarizing the relationship between a Commended change and the ensuing state cutoff changes is to plot the Commended change against the average cutoff change.

The graph of average scores for the old PSAT and for the restated PSAT scores shows greater regression to the mean on the latter. Given the 2-point change this year, a muted impact on state cutoffs is exactly what most students are hoping for. It’s unclear whether this regression is a legitimate difference caused by scale compression on the new PSAT or whether this is an unintended artifact of remapping old PSAT scores based on a single class’ results. I’ve tried to present as much explanation as possible so as not to pretend that there is a magical “best score” predictor.

Cutoffs at the Commended Level

While no state’s cutoff should be considered a sure bet, there is a narrower set of possibilities at the low and high ends of the range. States with cutoffs at 209 for the Class of 2017 (North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming) are most likely to move to 211 (they cannot go any lower). However, each of those states has, at some point in the last decade, had a cutoff above the Commended level. It would not be surprising to see at least one of those states move to a higher cutoff or to see another state join them at 211. The estimated ranges reflect this uncertainty.

Cutoffs at the Highest End of the Range

The scoring of the new PSAT makes the highest Selection Indexes extremely difficult to achieve. Top marks require not just great skills; they require a lucky combination of scores. For example, there are only two combinations of scores that produce a Selection index of 225 — 760 EBRW / 730 Math and 750/750. In fact, there are only 12 combinations of scores that determine Selection Indexes from 223 to 228. The air gets thin quickly. Last year’s numbers seemed to establish a practical limit of 222-223 for a Semifinalist cutoff. While an increase to 224 for MA/NJ/DC seems unlikely, it is premature — based on a single year — to rule out such a change.

Most Likely Scores

I am expecting the highest frequency of changes to be +1 and +2. Choosing between +1 and +2 to determine a “most likely” score is often arbitrary (think ranges!). Among the considerations: When, and at what level, did a state achieve its previous high? What is its average cutoff in recent years? How have its cutoffs differed from the Commended level in the same year? How has it ranked against other states? Have its cutoffs bounced around or been stable? An argument can be made for any score across the estimated range, and each year usually brings at least 1 or 2 surprises.

The table below is the same one found on National Merit Semifinalist Cutoffs, but that page is more likely to have updated notes when new information becomes available. You can find all of our National Merit posts here. Please feel free to contribute to the discussion.

Class of 2017 Semifinalist Cutoffs and Estimated Range for Class of 2018
StateClass of 2017
Class of 2018
Est. Range
Class of 2018
Most Likely
District of Columbia222222-224223
New Hampshire216215-219218
New Jersey222222-224223
New Mexico213212-216215
New York219219-222220
North Carolina218217-221219
North Dakota209211-213211
Rhode Island217216-220219
South Carolina215214-218216
South Dakota209211-213211
West Virginia209211-213211
​U.S. Citizens Studying Abroad222222-224223
​U.S. Territories209N/A211
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.


  • anxious says:

    Thank you so much for the thorough analysis! I am curious, does it make a difference when a state switches from ACT to SAT, as Colorado did last year? With more kids having taken a practice PSAT the year before, would the scores be expected to rise or the state?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      There haven’t been many data points on this, because most of the states choosing state-funded PSATs have already been dominated by College Board tests. Michigan’s switch is the most analogous, but it’s difficult to assess the impact there because a) it occurred during the switchover to the new scoring for the PSAT and b) College Board stopped publicly releasing state data (all we know are the cutoffs). My research on the topic has shown that there is a correlation between the percentage of PSAT-takers in the state and the cutoff. I think CO will fall in my estimated 217 – 221 range. It is possible that more test-takers would push things toward the top half of the range, but scores should not go above that level.

      • Pat says:

        Can you tell me where I can find the list of names of National Merit Scholars that were announced to the public May 10 2017 in New York State?

  • Ec says:

    Art, how confident are you about 2 point increases in states which were previously at 214, such as Idaho or Nevada; any additional thoughts/comments on the 214 -216 state projected increases? Thank you.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      My Class of 2018 estimated range for states at 214 for the Class of 2017 is 213-217 *with the exception of Maine at 214-218). Maine, based on restated historical figures, has not gone below the 214 mark and has recently hit 218, which is why I treated it differently. None of the other states has gone over the 216 mark, but it is possible in an up year. Idaho and Nevada only have about 8-9,000 PSAT-takers each, so they are more vulnerable to large swings than a state such as FL or TX. Given the lack of state data from College Board, I don’t have much to work with other than historical performance and supposition right now.

  • Robert says:

    Hello Art, thank you so much for this in-depth research. I am from California and received a 221 PSAT score. With the new commended scores increased, do you think I will make the Semifinalist cutoff? Thank you!

    Also, can you explain this paragraph a little more? Thanks!

    “The graph of average scores for the old PSAT and for the restated PSAT scores shows greater regression to the mean on the latter. Given the 2-point change this year, a muted impact on state cutoffs is exactly what most students are hoping for. It’s unclear whether this regression is a legitimate difference caused by scale compression on the new PSAT or whether this is an unintended artifact of remapping old PSAT scores based on a single class’ results. I’ve tried to present as much explanation as possible so as not to pretend that there is a magical “best score” predictor.”

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I think you are right in the toss-up zone. While there is a good chance that CA will stay at 221, I have to admit that the Commended increase does increase the likelihood of a 222 cutoff.

      My teachers used to say that “if you can’t explain it, you don’t understand it.” So, my bad. What I was trying to get at is that analyzing the restated scores showed a shallower relationship between Commended change and average state change when compared to non-restated (original) scores. For example, from the slopes of the fitted lines, we might expect that a 2-point change on the original scale would lead to an average change of a bit less than 2 points. When restated, though, the expected state cutoff change is lower. The 2-point Commended change results in an average state cutoff change of only about 1 point. If that relationship is correct, then most states will go up by less than 2 points (yay!). The problem is that the relationship might not be correct. When I developed the equation to restate scores, I may have introduced a bias. It’s not necessarily that a 2-point change will be less impactful, it could just be that I got things wrong. The restated relationship was based off of a single year of new scores. That uncertainty is one of the many reasons I like to look at ranges, and also the reason I don’t trust any predictions (including my own) that claim to be exact.

  • Cathy says:

    Hi Art, Do you think 215 from Wisconsin have chances for national merit semifinalist cut off I see that your prediction already shows 216. But want to see if there is chance as it falls in the predicted range

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I think that we will see a number of states with no change this year, despite the 2-point increase in the Commended level. There is certainly a chance that WI will be one of those states.

  • SW says:

    Couple of questions about commended scholars–
    Does NMSF ever publish names of commended scholars?
    Does NMSF (or does the CollegeBoard) give colleges commended names? (or do colleges simply request names of students with a specific minimum score?)

    • Art Sawyer says:

      NMSC provides the names of Commended Students to high schools. Some schools publish those names, others do not. National Merit doesn’t directly share any Commended or NMSF names with colleges. It’s only at the Finalist stage where NMSC works with scholarship-providing colleges.

      During the PSAT process, colleges purchase mailing lists from College Board using broad criteria (e.g. “students interested in engineering who score above 700 on math.”). These names are used for marketing purposes, not for admission. National Merit does not sell its names. It’s up to students to let colleges know about NM honors. The far more important thing for admission is to provide colleges with great SAT or ACT scores.

  • JJ says:

    Dear Art,

    My son received a 221 on the PSAT in TN; is there a chance of a 4 point increase in the state or is it likely that he will reach the 2018 cutoff?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I should probably resist the temptation to say that it’s “impossible” for the cutoff to move up 4 points. It’s whatever comes right behind impossible. I’m confident that your son will be a Semifinalist. Congratulations.

  • Curious says:

    Dear Mr. Sawyer,
    JJ’s question led me to look at the chart and I have a random question: Why is TN (218 last year) projected this year at 216-220 and a 219 “most likely” whereas PA (also 218 last year) is projected at 217-221 and also a 219 “most likely?” I’m guessing some of it may have to do do with historic highs but thought I’d ask why PA’s range is higher since I’m in PA – also with a 221. 😉
    Thank you~

    • Art Sawyer says:

      You’re exactly right as to my thinking. I looked at max and min scores and trends. While TN and PA had the same score last year, PA had a higher cutoff in each of the previous 6 years. The 218 cutoff is a new max for TN over the last 9 years, whereas PA has been at 218 and 219 on multiple occasions. I felt that PA had a bit more upside. I may not be right, but that was my logic. You are looking pretty solid at 221!

  • Terrified says:

    Dear Mr. Sawyer,
    I’m from MS and I made a 213 on the PSAT, and my state’s estimate for the SF cut-off (based on your research) is a 214. Could you explain your reasoning for a 2 point jump? I trust you, which is what makes me disappointed that I’m likely only 1 point off.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      My apologies if I’ve added stress to your life; it’s the somewhat unpleasant aspect of predicting cutoffs. You are probably better off trusting me when I say that MS’s cutoff could fall anywhere from 212-215 than when I say that the “most likely” cutoff is 214. Why do I consider 214 most likely? We know with certainty that this year’s Commended cutoff went from 209 to 211. This means that it is very likely that many — but not all — of the state cutoffs will also be increasing. MS’s cutoff, recently, has been at least 3 points above the Commended level, so that’s where I came to 214. I’m predicting that MS’s cutoff will go up the same 2 points as the Commended cutoff. I could be wrong by a point or more. Looking back over the last 9 years, there have been 3 times where MS has had a cutoff within 2 point of the Commended level. Under that scenario, your 213 would qualify you as a NMSF. In cases this close, we won’t know the answer until the end of August. Good luck.

  • GK says:

    Dear Mr. Sawyer,

    I apologize in advance if you’ve answered/explained this before. When the powers that be choose the NMSF cutoffs do they decide on an Overall Score lower threshold and then convert that into all the various Selection Index scores that could make that Overall Score, or do they just go with Selection Index scores? I know of several students who have a lower Overall Score than my daughter’s (1450), but they have higher Selection Indexes. She is likely to miss the cutoff in Ohio since she’s at a 217, and it’s just going to be irritating if someone gets NMSF with a lower overall score. lol
    Thank you!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Only Selection Indexes matter for National Merit. Students receive 3 subject scores (8-38) on the new PSAT — Reading, Writing, and Math. NMSC uses each of those scores as an equal portion of the Selection Index (summed and doubled). On the other hand, College Board went back to a 1600 scoring system (well, 1560 on the PSAT) that combines Reading and Writing into a single score. This difference creates the frustrating situation that you describe. A student with a lower Total Score may have a better SI than a student with a higher Total Score.

  • Jay says:

    Art, what will be the criteria for finalist? With a SI 227 and SAT 1590, what is the chance to qualify for finalist. Thanks.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Well, you’ve got the confirming score down pat. 😉 You’ll need to complete the application that Semifinalists receive, and you’ll need the endorsement of your school. I’ll assume that you meet the citizenship criteria to be an NMSF. The academic component is the most nebulous because NMSC takes a holistic approach. Students with mostly A’s should have no problems. C’s can harm a candidate’s chances. Most Semifinalists become Finalists, but you are in the best position to know your standing at your school. Your high scores won’t benefit you at the Finalist stage (other than clearing the SF cutoff and confirming score hurdles), but they work in your favor at the Scholar stage.

      • Jay says:

        Thank you Art. My wife and I are first generation immigrants with my daughter US born. We live in Utah now and my daughter enroll in a small private school here. She is a straight A student up to this moment. Any way, we are happy what our daughter did so far and merit award will be just a bonus to have. Thank you again.

  • Jane says:

    Hi Art,
    We are in NY and my son has a 222 on the Qualifying Score (1490/1520), so we are hopeful. Regarding the confirming SAT score, he spent more time on ACT tests and prep and only took the SAT once, scoring 1450 or 216 when scored as they do for the PSAT qualifying. Do you think this will be enough to make finalist… he has all the other stuff, grades, rigor, etc… We don’t know if he should be spending more time to increase his SAT confirming score? He has a lot to do with essays right now and his ACT and SAT2 scores are close to perfect.

    i thought I read somewhere that last year you had to have a 1450 on the SAT, but when I called the NMS offices they said last year’s confirming number was 206. Any advice appreciated. Thanks, The office also said they could not tell us if they would be setting the confirming minimum before the application deadline or after… and we do not want to cut it close as his top choice school offers very generous scholarships for National Merit Finalist status.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I’m getting a bit of conflicting information about this year’s and last year’s confirming scores, but I can assure you of two things:
      1) The confirming score is based on an SAT Selection Index in the same way that Semifinalist qualification is based on a PSAT Selection Index. The total score (e.g. 1450) should not be considered.
      2) There is no way that the confirming score will be above 216.

      Thank you for passing along the information from your call. That differs from what folks were told last fall (my understanding was that the confirming score was 209 for the class of 2017) and doesn’t completely jib with what an earlier poster was told recently. That’s why I’m cautious about making declarative statements. Except for this one: I can guarantee that your son’s 216 will not fall short of the confirming level.

  • Ohsusanna says:

    Hi Art,

    It’s my understanding that the letters with the names of the semifinalists were mailed today to high schools. Are you going to start a new blog post when we start compiling the information as to each state’s cutoff, or will that be found here?


    • Art Sawyer says:

      I will update the top of my post with any score info so that people don’t have to scroll all of the comments. This post is the one that most students and parents reach from Google, so it’s the best place to release the information.

  • Randy says:

    Mr. Sawyer – we are trying to process the realities of merit based scholarships and are feeling a bit bewildered. We live in a very rural area in Oklahoma and our son is the first NMSF at his school in at least 11 years. His Selection Index is 224, and I am trying to extrapolate how competitively placed he will be for merit scholarships at institutions like Vanderbilt, Washington University, etc. We can not afford any of these schools without a generous award. Our local guidance counsellors are “unaccustomed” to this situation – can you offer any advice?



    • Art Sawyer says:

      That’s tremendous that your son was able to not just be the first NMSF in 11 years but to do it in such a definitive way. Financial aid falls outside of my area of expertise, but I can give you some basic advice. First, buckle-in — there will be a lot of work to do. Second, shoot high — there have never been more scholarship and financial aid opportunities. You will want to make sure that your son qualifies as a National Merit Finalist (if he hasn’t already done well on the SAT, sign up now). This will open up scholarship opportunities that are designed specifically for NMFs.

      Vanderbilt and WUSTL are good examples of how schools handle things in different ways. Vanderbilt has awards for NMFs (it looks like they are $5,000 per year). NM scholarships are about the only ones that will depend exclusively on PSAT scores. Most other awards — including those at Vanderbilt — will use SAT/ACT scores, GPA, and other factors. WUSTL does not have college-sponsored National Merit awards. They do have a policy of meeting need without students incurring debt. So just because a student doesn’t qualify for a merit-based award (and WUSTL has a variety of programs) does not mean that the college is out of reach. I encourage you to contact the financial aid offices (some colleges have special liaisons for National Merit Finalists) and find out more. The financial aid forum at College Confidential is also a great parent-to-parent resource.

      Your son can’t receive financial aid if he doesn’t get admitted, so that will be his priority. Test scores alone can’t predict that — although there are some schools where NMF is essentially an admission ticket — so he’ll need to work with his counselors to define an appropriate range of colleges.

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