Are you gearing up to rock the PSAT this fall and wondering what score you need to qualify for National Merit? This guide will give you 51 different answers to that question.
Don't worry, it's not a complicated response. It's just that the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) compares test takers on a state-by-state basis. To become a National Merit Semifinalist, you have to score in the top 1% of students in your state.
This guide will fill you in on all qualifying cutoff scores from coast to coast (plus Alaska and Hawaii) for the PSAT. But first, let's review exactly who qualifies for National Merit.
Who Is Awarded National Merit?
Students who are US citizens, who plan to go to college, and who take the PSAT/NMSQT in their junior year are eligible to receive National Merit distinctions and scholarships. They also have to do really, really well on the PSAT.
The top 3-4% of scorers are named Commended Scholars—an impressive distinction to put on college applications. The top 1%, or about 16,000 students across the country, are named National Merit Semifinalists.
This is an honor in itself, and it also means you could go on to be named a Finalist and receive scholarship money. Some colleges also award their own merit scholarships to National Merit Semifinalists.
To determine who qualifies for National Merit, NMSC uses a scale called the Selection Index. To get this, NMSC adds your Math, Reading, and Writing section scores, which each fall between 8 and 38, and then multiplies that sum by 2. Thus, the PSAT NMSC Selection Index ranges from 48 to 228.
Using reports from individuals around the country who took the 2019 PSAT, we've compiled a full list of National Merit qualifying scores. (Note that since National Merit cutoffs don't vary much from year to year, this list should still be fairly accurate for those who take the 2020 PSAT!)
Students who take the PSAT in their junior year are eligible for National Merit distinction.
PSAT NMSQT Qualifying Scores for 2010 and 2020
Selection Index cutoffs compare the scores of test takers in each state. You'll probably get national percentiles on your PSAT score report, but state percentiles are the ones NMSC uses to award students.
The chart below shows the National Merit Selection Index cutoffs for students who took the PSAT in October 2019 and were named Semifinalists in the fall of 2020:
The average of all the PSAT NMSQT qualifying scores is 215. Apologies to those students in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Washington, DC: you'll have to aim significantly higher and get a Selection Index of at least 222.
Any American students studying in international schools abroad will also have to meet whatever the highest state's cutoff score is (so 222 for this year). As for boarding school attendees? You'll be measured against a regional cutoff; it usually equals the highest cutoff of the state within your regional grouping.
Again, these Selection Index cutoffs are estimates, and there's some fluctuation from year to year. To account for this, you should aim 2-4 points higher than your state's cutoff score.
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Stellar PSAT scores don't happen by accident, and the PSAT requires a good deal of preparation to master. If you're aiming for National Merit, how can you achieve the top PSAT scores you need to qualify?
How Can You Achieve PSAT Scores in the Top 1%?
Like with the SAT, anyone can improve their scores on the PSAT with dedicated and effective preparation. Besides helping you qualify for National Merit, studying for the PSAT will prepare you for the SAT! The three steps below lay the groundwork needed to qualify for National Merit.
Step 1: Know Your State's (Approximate) Cutoff Score
It's important to find your state's cutoff, figure out what scores you need, and aim even higher in case the qualifying score increases (remember, there is slight variation year to year).
Before you even begin studying for the PSAT, look at the chart above to find your state's cutoff score. For example, let's say you're taking the test in Tennessee. According to our chart, Tennessee's Selection Index cutoff is 219, which roughly translates to a PSAT score of 1460. Since the cutoff score could rise slightly, adjust your goal score to be a little higher as well—let's say 1490 instead of 1460.
After, write down your PSAT target score as well as your goal of being named a National Merit Scholar on a piece of paper. Tack this sheet up on your wall and look at it as you study to help you stay motivated.
Step 2: Read PrepScholar PSAT Study Guides
Once you've figured out your goal score, spend some time learning about the test by reading our various PSAT study guides. Our articles offer expert help with designing your study schedule and making the most of your prep.
Step 3: Take Official Practice Tests
Finally, you'll want to take official practice tests to help you prepare for test day. The College Board offers two PSAT/NMSQT practice tests, along with online practice questions for each section on the PSAT.
Two tests isn't that many, though, so I also suggest taking official SAT practice tests or using Khan Academy's SAT prep program. Since the PSAT and SAT are such similar tests, you'll get a ton of extra help by taking SAT practice tests (though expect them to be slightly harder).
In addition, you can use old PSAT practice tests, as long as you focus on relevant question types and ignore the ones no longer on the test, such as sentence completions. A lot of the fundamental skills and knowledge on the PSAT didn't change much during the 2015 revision, so you can still use older practice tests and materials to practice effectively if you familiarize yourself with the changes and adapt your approach accordingly.
National Merit might be hard to get but the distinction is well worth it and could lead you to some handy scholarship money. Plus, it communicates a lot about your academic commitment on your college applications!
What should you do once you get your PSAT scores? This guide fills you in on your next steps.
Not only is the PSAT important for National Merit, but it can also predict how you'll score on the SAT. Learn how to use your PSAT scores to predict, and plan to improve, your SAT scores.
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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.