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How to Become a National Merit Semifinalist

Posted by Rebecca Safier | Mar 21, 2017 10:00:00 PM

PSAT Info and Strategies, College Admissions



When October rolls around, over 1.5 million students across the country take the PSAT. Juniors who score in the top 1% achieve the distinction of being named National Merit Semifinalists. Most of these students move on to become National Merit Finalists and win scholarship money for college.

Being named a National Merit Semifinalist is a huge achievement along the path to college. Let’s take a look at what you need to do to become a National Merit Semifinalist.


Basic Entry Requirements for National Merit Semifinalists

To become a Semifinalist and be eligible for the National Merit Scholarship, you must meet the following four requirements:

  1. Be enrolled as a high school student, progressing normally towards graduation. (This just means that you’re taking a normal number of classes, passing them, and expect to graduate on time.)

  2. Plan to enroll full-time in college starting the fall following high school graduation. (So you can’t be planning to postpone college to spend a year abroad, work full-time, or something like that.)

  3. Be a U.S. citizen or lawful U.S. permanent resident planning on becoming a U.S. citizen.

  4. Earn a top PSAT score. 

What PSAT score do you need? Keep reading, because in the next section we explain exactly how high your PSAT score needs to be to qualify you for Semifinalist status.


To be eligible for National Merit, you must plan to start college in the fall following high school graduation. 


National Merit Semifinalist Qualifying Scores 

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation uses its own Selection Index to determine which students qualify as Commended Students and Semifinalists. Students who score in the top 3% to 4% are named Commended Scholars, while students who score in the top 1% are deemed Semifinalists. 

NMSC compares students on a state-by-state basis using its own Selection Index. This Selection Index ranges from 48 to 228 and is based on PSAT section scores. There are three PSAT section scores, each of which ranges from 8 to 38. 

How can you calculate your Selection Index? All you need to do is add your three PSAT section scores together and multiply by 2. Let's say you got a 28 in Reading, a 32 in Writing and Language, and a 34 in Math. To get your NMSC Selection Index score, you'd add your section scores together: 28 + 32 + 34. Then, you'd multiply the sum by 2. Your Selection Index score would be 188. 

As you'll see in the chart below, a Selection Index score of 188 isn't quite high enough to become a National Merit Semifinalist. Instead, you'll need a Selection Index of 209 or higher, depending on where you take the test. 

Based on reports from individuals around the country, we've put together a comprehensive list of qualifying Selection Index scores on the redesigned PSAT. Check out the most recent state cutoffs for National Merit Semifinalist in the chart below. These were used to pick out Semifinalist from the October 2015 administration of the PSAT.

State Selection Index Cutoff
Alabama 215
Alaska 213
Arizona 219
Arkansas 213
California 221
Colorado 218
Connecticut 220
Delaware 218
District of Columbia 222
Florida 217
Georgia 219
Hawaii 217
Idaho 214
Illinois 219
Indiana 217
Iowa 215
Kansas 217
Kentucky 215
Louisiana 214
Maine 214
Maryland 221
Massachusetts 222
Michigan 216
Minnesota 219
Mississippi 212
Missouri 216
Montana 210
Nebraska 215
Nevada 214
New Hampshire 216
New Jersey 222
New Mexico 213
New York 219
North Carolina 218
North Dakota 209
Ohio 217
Oklahoma 213
Oregon 219
Pennsylvania 218
Rhode Island 217
South Carolina 215
South Dakota 209
Tennessee 218
Texas 220
Utah 215
Vermont 215
Virginia 221
Washington 220
West Virginia 209
Wisconsin 215
Wyoming 209
Average 216


As you can see, scores vary depending on where you take the test. Cutoffs regularly vary a few points between years, so if you haven't taken the PSAT yet and are aiming for National Merit, you should set your target Selection Index about 2 to 5 points higher than the predicted cutoff for your state. 

After you take the PSAT, there's nothing more you can do to be named Semifinalist until the results are announced. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation notifies eligible students in September of the following school year. 


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What Are the Steps to Becoming a National Merit Semifinalist?

So, you know the requirements for becoming a National Merit Semifinalist, and you have a plan to get a top PSAT score, but what are the actual steps to becoming a Semifinalist? The process begins early on in your junior year and can potentially last as long as the end of your senior year. Below is an outline of all the key steps.


Junior Year

October: Take the PSAT

You’ll take the PSAT on a Wednesday or Saturday in October of your junior year. About 1.6 million juniors take the PSAT each year.


December: Receive PSAT Scores

You’ll typically receive your PSAT scores in early December, about six weeks after you take the test. While you’ll be able to see how well you scored and if you met the most recent National Merit Semifinalist cutoff for your state, the cutoffs can change year to year, so you won’t know if you’re for sure a Semifinalist until your senior year.


Winter/Spring: NMSC Determines High Scorers

During this time, the National Merit Scholarship Committee is determining the 50,000 high scorers who quality for the National Merit program.


Senior Year

September: Semifinalists Announced

In early Septemeber of your senior year, you’ll finally learn if you’re officially a National Merit Semifinalist. Of the 50,000 high scorers determined by the NMSC, 16,000 will become Semifinalists, and the remaining 34,000 will be recognized as Commended Students but won’t move forward with the National Merit Program.


Fall: Apply to Be a Finalist

After you’ve been recognized as a Semifinalist, you’ll begin the Finalist application process.To apply you’ll need to submit:
  • Your high school transcript
  • SAT scores (must be received by December 31st)
  • Information about your activities and leadership roles
  • A personal essay
  • A recommendation from your high school principal or someone the principal designates as a school official
  • Information about your school’s curricula and grading system

There’s no official cutoff for SAT scores or GPA, but the NMSC is looking for strong grades and test scores to prove your PSAT scores weren’t just a fluke.


February: Finalists Announced

15,000 of the 16,000 Semifinalists learn that they have become Finalists and can now apply for National Merit Scholarships.


March: Scholarship Winners Announced

7,500 of the finalists learn that they are Merit Scholarship winners and will receive a $2,500-a-year National Merit Scholarship, a corporate-sponsored scholarship, and/or a college-sponsored scholarship.




How Do You Get the PSAT Score You Need to Become a National Merit Semifinalist?

Alright, so you’re going to need an amazing score on the PSAT in order to meet the National Merit Semifinalist cutoff. Getting that score can be tough, but follow these three steps as you prepare in order to get your best PSAT score.


Take Practice Tests

Doing well on the PSAT is all about preparation. Studying the content and format of the test is the best way to bring your score up. Some people may be natural test-takers; others may stress under pressure. But regardless of how you react to timed tests, preparing with high quality, relevant materials is the best way to position yourself toward top scores.

Since College Board makes the PSAT, its online practice questions are a great place to start. Below are the two best official practice PSATs to use, and you can find more free and official PSAT practice tests by reading our guide.

Official PSAT Practice Test 1  — Score Your TestAnswer Explanations

Official PSAT Practice Test 2  — Score Your TestAnswer Explanations

Take these practice tests under typical test conditions. Work in a quiet area with few distractions, and time yourself as the PSAT will be timed. Taking timed tests is a skill, and practicing this skill will help you get better and better. Understanding the format of the test will also help you eliminate careless errors.


Identify and Strengthen Your Weak Areas

It’s not enough, however; to just take one practice test then immediately move on to the next one. As you’re studying and answering practice problems, identify your weaknesses. Do you see any patterns? Do you need more practice with Critical Reading questions? Grammar? Vocabulary? Algebra? Probability? Figure out where you need to focus your attention to really strengthen your overall score.

At the same, you may also be able to push up your overall score by playing to your strengths. NMSC considers your composite score, rather than how you did in each section. If you score a 650 on the math section of a practice test, it may be easy to push that up to a 750+. If you’re strong in Reading and Writing, you may be able to add more points to your composite score by focusing your energies there. You can’t have any low section scores on the PSAT if you want to become a National Merit Finalist, so you should be strong across all areas of the test.


Set Goals and Track Your Progress

Becoming a National Merit Semifinalist is a lofty goal, and in order to make sure you’re on track to meet it, you need to know early on what PSAT you should be aiming for and how much progress you should be making. Use the above chart to figure out what the cutoff is for your state. You may want to add a point or two just to be safe and take into account any increases in the cutoff score that may occur.

Once you have your overall goal score, set yourself smaller goals to accomplish throughout your studying. These can be monthly or weekly goals, depending on what works best for your schedule.

Potential ideas could be that you want to have a better understanding of algebra questions by the end of the week or that you want to raise your score 20 points by the end of the month. Regularly check to see if you’re meeting your goals and, if not, what you can do to improve (such as studying more often or changing your study methods). Setting regular goals will help you stay motivated and help you make sure you’re making the progress you need to be.



How to Stay Motivated for the PSAT

In addition to planning how you'll prep for the PSAT, you should ask yourself another important question: how will you stay motivated? Staying motivated is key to sustaining your studying. Why do you want to do well on the PSAT? What drives you? 

Some reasons to strive to become a National Merit Semifinalist are academic recognition, scholarship money, and getting into college. What are your own personal reasons? Write down your ideas, and look back at this list for inspiration whenever you feel your motivation lagging.

Since the PSAT is closely linked to the SAT, any studying you do now will definitely pay off when you take the SAT. Plus, it’s probably easier for you to find free time now than when you’re immersed in college applications senior year.

Achieving a qualifying score or higher takes a lot of hard work. The benefits of this hard work don’t end when you get your certificate in the mail from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation recognizing you as a semifinalist in September of your senior year.

You can prove to yourself and others the depth of your commitment and drive, and that you can put hopes into action and dreams into determination. After all, this focused, purposeful effort is the key to achieving success in anything that you do.


What's Next?

Being named Semifinalist is just the first step. Learn what it takes to become a National Merit Finalist and how to increase your chances of winning.

Did you know there are four kinds of National Merit Scholarships and over 8,000 are awarded? Learn more about the various scholarships here.

Want to score a perfect SAT score? Read our guide on how to do that, written by an SAT perfect scorer.


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Rebecca Safier
About the Author

Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.

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