Each year about 1.6 million juniors take the PSAT in the hopes of qualifying for the National Merit Scholarship Program. But what score do you actually need to earn Semifinalist distinction? In this guide, we'll tell you what PSAT score you need in order to qualify for Semifinalist status in your state and potentially move on to win a National Merit scholarship.
What's a Good Score for the National Merit Scholarship?
The exact PSAT score for National Merit consideration varies from year to year and by state, but it's always the top 1% of students (about 16,000 juniors) who qualify as Semifinalists. Around 15,000 students in this group then move on to become National Merit Finalists, and about 8,000 of these students eventually win scholarship money.
To be named a Semifinalist, you need to score in the top 1% of your state—not the whole country. So what scores do you need to qualify?
To answer this question, you must first understand how the PSAT is scored.
The PSAT is scored on a scale of 320-1520. In addition to that composite score, your score report will tell you your individual test scores for the Math, Reading, and Writing and Language sections. These scores fall between 8 and 38. For National Merit eligibility, these section test scores are the most important score types.
The National Merit Scholarship Corporation adds each section test score together and then multiplies that sum by 2 to create a National Merit Selection Index Score. The resulting Selection Index score determines your National Merit eligibility.
For example, let's say you got a 31 on Math, a 32 on Reading, and a 30 on Writing and Language. The sum of these scores comes out to 93. You would then multiply this by 2 to get your Selection Index Score: 186.
In equation form, it looks like this:
(31 + 32 + 30) * 2 = 186
Unfortunately, a Selection Index of 186 would not qualify you for National Merit Semifinalist status. What score do you need, then, to achieve this recognition? Read on for the full list of National Merit cutoffs in each state!
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Qualifying Score for National Merit Semifinalist by State
We've compiled a list of the qualifying Selection Index scores for National Merit Semifinalist by state. These cutoffs applied to students who took the PSAT in the fall of 2018.
|State||Selection Index Cutoff||State||Selection Index Cutoff|
|District of Columbia||223||North Dakota||212|
As you can see, qualifying scores vary depending on where you take the test. National Merit Index Selection Cutoffs regularly vary a few points between years, so aim to achieve a score at least 2-5 points higher than the predicted cutoff for your state.
What Should Your Target PSAT Score Be?
If you haven't taken the PSAT yet, then you can use the above chart to set target PSAT scores.
Let's say you live in Nebraska. To be named a Semifinalist, you'll need a Selection Index score of 216. What score do you need on each section of the PSAT to achieve this score?
As you read above, your Selection Index equals the sum of your three section test scores (each on a scale of 8-38) multiplied by 2. To figure out what section test scores you will need based on your state's cutoff, simply work backwards.
Since you're a Nebraska resident, your first step will be to divide Nebraska's cutoff score by 2:
216 / 2 = 108
Next, all you need to do is divide 108 by 3:
108 / 3 = 36
To get a Selection Index of 216, you'd need a 36 on each of the three sections (Math, Reading, and Writing and Language).
Of course you don't have to set your target scores equally among the three sections. If you have especially strong verbal skills, for example, you could instead aim for a 38 on both Reading and Writing and something lower like a 32 on Math.
Once you have a sense of what scores you'll need to meet your state's cutoff score, distribute them however you like based on your own academic strengths and weaknesses.
As mentioned above, the state cutoffs vary slightly from year to year depending on how students do on the PSAT. If you're really serious about getting named National Merit Semifinalist, then you should aim to score a little higher than the most recent year's cutoff.
By setting a goal for each section and devoting some time each week to prepping for the PSAT, you can achieve your goals and put yourself in the best position to earn a National Merit distinction.
Are you taking the PSAT this year or next year? Learn all about the structure of the test.
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As an SAT/ACT tutor, Dora has guided many students to test prep success. She loves watching students succeed and is committed to helping you get there. Dora received a full-tuition merit based scholarship to University of Southern California. She graduated magna cum laude and scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT. She is also passionate about acting, writing, and photography.