The National Merit Scholarship Program awards monetary grants to around 8,000 students from across the United States every year based primarily upon academic achievements. What all these students have in common is how they enter the National Merit program at the very beginning: by receiving high scores on the PSAT, a standardized test students usually take in 11th grade.
In order to move forward to Semifinalist status and beyond in the National Merit Scholarship competition, you’ll generally need a PSAT score that’s within the top 1% of scores in your state. However, the exact score cutoff you’ll need to meet varies from state to state and from year to year. Here’s what you need to know to assess your chances of qualifying for a National Merit Scholarship and to guide your PSAT preparations.
Who Can Compete for National Merit Scholarships?
A wide range of students can take the PSAT, but not everyone who takes the PSAT is eligible for National Merit. In order to be eligible, you’ll need to meet several additional criteria.
To compete for a National Merit Scholarship, you must typically be enrolled in high school in the US at the time you take the PSAT. (Homeschool is permitted.) If you’re enrolled in high school outside the US, you must either be a US citizen, have official Permanent Resident status in the US, or be in the process of getting your citizenship as soon as you can.
You’ll need to take the correct version of the PSAT, namely the one that’s labeled the PSAT/NMSQT (for National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test). The PSAT 8/9 and PSAT 10, which are test versions some students take earlier for practice, do not confer eligibility for National Merit.
When you take the PSAT is also important. National Merit requires that you take the PSAT/NMSQT “no later than the third year in grades 9 through 12, regardless of grade classification or educational pattern.” For most students, this means that 11th grade is the appropriate testing year. (If you plan to complete high school in more or fewer than four years, or if your educational schedule is otherwise unusual, this may vary.)
You’ll take the PSAT at your own high school with your classmates on a particular date, generally in October. In order to enter the National Merit Scholarship competition, you’ll need to receive a particularly high score. Exactly how high depends on the state you live in and the year in which you’re taking the test. Below, we’ll go over the details of how your score is evaluated
The National Merit Process and Required Scores
After you take the PSAT, you’ll receive a score report listing your test score out of a possible 1520 points. However, that’s not the scoring system that matters for the purposes of National Merit eligibility. Instead, National Merit takes your Math, Reading, and Writing subscores from the PSAT, adds them up, and multiplies them by 2. The resulting number, which falls between 48 and 228, is known as your Selection Index (SI).
Your SI allows National Merit to more easily compare you to other students who took the PSAT in your state and throughout the country. Students who meet a certain SI cutoff (as well as the other eligibility requirements) are able to progress in the National Merit Scholarship competition. However, the SI cutoff varies by state and by year.
The first round of selection by SI generally includes the top 3-4% of scorers on the PSAT, and these students enter into the National Merit Scholarship Program. Not all of these students will become National Merit Scholars; they’ll have to go through several more levels of competition first.
Most of the students in this top 3-4% will be named Commended Students, which is an honor in itself, but won’t progress further in the competition. About 16,000 qualifiers, however, will be recognized as Semifinalists. These 16,000 usually represent approximately the top 1% of scorers on that year’s PSAT, and they are the ones who will continue on in the competition.
Like Commended Students, Semifinalists are selected based on SI, and SI cutoffs vary from state to state and year to year. Some states in some years will be more competitive than others. This makes it tricky to state what minimum score is required to qualify for National Merit, a problem that’s compounded by the fact that the central National Merit organization doesn’t release this data directly to the public.
While official data isn’t available, those in the field of college admissions have been able to make educated guesses about SI cutoffs based on years of experience with students competing for National Merit recognition. It’s always best to try and get as high a score on your PSAT as you can, but these predictions can be helpful in determining the competitiveness of your state and roughly what scores you’ll need to achieve.
Below, you’ll find a chart of best estimates for the SI cutoffs that determine National Merit Semifinalist status for the most recent version of the PSAT. The average SI cutoff is around 218, out of a possible 228, but as you can see, there’s quite a bit of variation. While, as we’ve mentioned, these SI cutoffs can change and vary, they usually don’t change very much within a year or two, so you can use this data as a guide for your PSAT planning.
|State||National Merit Qualifying SI for Semifinalists|
What Happens Next?
If you’re named a National Merit Semifinalist, you’ll be given the opportunity to submit additional application materials in order to advance in the competition, including your SAT scores. Based upon these applications, about 15,000 Semifinalists move on to become Finalists.
Each year, around 8,000 of the Finalists end up receiving scholarships and becoming National Merit Scholars. Some of these scholarships are awarded by the main National Merit organization. Others are awarded by corporate sponsors, who may choose their scholars based on affiliation with the sponsor, interest in the sponsor’s field, or other criteria.
Doing well on the PSAT is not the only challenge you’ll have to meet in order to eventually receive a National Merit Scholarship. It’s also important that you score well on the SAT, maintain a high level of academic performance, and take care in putting together your National Merit application when it comes time to do so.
However, the first step toward a National Merit Scholarship is taking PSAT, and you can’t move forward in the competition without earning a PSAT score in roughly the top 1%. Below, we’ll go over some steps you can take to improve your chances of scoring at that level.
How Can You Get a National Merit Qualifying PSAT Score?
1. Know Your State’s Approximate SI Cutoff for National Merit Semifinalists
This is the score you’ll need to match or beat to progress in the National Merit program. Some states, such as New Jersey and Massachusetts, are known to be particularly competitive, so where you live matters when assessing how likely you are to become a National Merit Semifinalist.
Unfortunately, National Merit itself doesn’t publish information on past years’ SI cutoffs publicly, and exact cutoffs for the October 2018 administration of the PSAT have not yet been determined. However, as we’ve gone over above, those in the college admissions world have been able to glean some information through practical experience over time, so you can use these as a guide.
2. Explore and Invest in Test Preparation
It’s a known fact that test prep makes a difference when it comes to standardized tests like the PSAT, SAT, and ACT. You absolutely should set aside time to study for your PSAT, and later your SAT and/or ACT, in a targeted and organized way.
There are tons of different prep options available to today’s high school students. You can study on your own using books, online programs, and apps, or you can seek out group study options or formal prep classes. You might also choose to make use of individual tutoring programs, whether in person or online.
3. Take Practice Tests Early and Often
Success on standardized tests like the PSAT isn’t just about knowing the material. It’s also about being comfortable with the testing experience and format, including time constraints, pacing, and the physical form the test materials take. The best way to prepare for these aspects of the PSAT is to take practice tests.
Since practice tests don’t count, you can take as many as you want (pending availability), as early and as often as you want to take them. Regularly spaced practice tests throughout the PSAT prep process can help you track your improvement and identify areas that need more work.
For added realism, enlist a parent or friend to act as a proctor for your practice test. They can keep track of timing, enforce all the testing rules, and otherwise make sure your practice test truly prepares you for the real testing experience.
To learn more about the National Merit Scholarship Program, its mission, its rules and regulations, and fun facts like notable National Merit alums, visit the official National Merit website. For more information on the PSAT and preparing for the test, visit the PSAT/NMSQT page on the College Board website.
Looking for more of CollegeVine’s expert advice on approaching the PSAT? We’ve got you covered. Check out these posts for our best prep plans, testing strategies, and all the other tools you’ll need to do your best.
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