by Dan Marlin
Everything you need to know about the PSAT in 2022
As we approach the start of the school year, students may start hearing about the PSAT and National Merit. (The PSAT is also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, or NMSQT.) As a rule, students take the PSAT in their high school in their 10th and 11th grade years, with the 11th grade score determining whether they qualify for National Merit. Notifications about National Merit status come out around the start of a student’s senior year.
A note before we start: typically, we advise that only high-scoring juniors do PSAT prep, as a high PSAT score can lead to National Merit recognition. A score below the National Merit Commended Student threshold (more details on this below) will likely not affect a student’s college or scholarship prospects one way or the other.
The College Board lists the following dates for PSAT administration this fall, which are in line with prior years:
Primary test day: Wednesday, October 12
Saturday test day: October 15
Alternate test day: Tuesday, October 25
Unlike the SAT and ACT, students can only take the PSAT once in their junior year.
Students in 10th grade and younger should note that this is the last administration in which the PSAT will be given in paper-and-pencil form. The test will be fully virtual starting in Fall 2023, so the information that follows here might change rather drastically next year. So far, we don’t have many details about what the virtual PSAT will look like, but it will almost certainly follow in the SAT’s footsteps and become a shorter exam.
I tell my students that the PSAT is like a “mini-SAT” – its structure is almost identical, just with fewer questions per section and slightly easier questions and passages.
48 questions, 60 minutes
52 questions, 65 minutes
44 questions, 35 minutes
17 questions, 25 minutes
20 questions, 25 minutes
31 questions, 45 minutes
38 questions, 55 minutes
While many sophomores and nearly all juniors will take the PSAT, the exam’s purpose may feel a bit opaque. You may know that PSAT scores are used to determine whether you qualify for National Merit, but the different levels of recognition and chances of getting an actual scholarship through the program might be confusing. We’ll try to clear up some of that muddiness here.
Most students are familiar with the top scores they can achieve on standardized tests: 36 on the ACT, 1600 on the SAT. The PSAT works a little differently. Yes, there is a top score (1520 – 760 on Reading/Writing, 760 on Math). But what’s more important for National Merit purposes is the Selection Index, which is the score the PSAT uses to determine National Merit eligibility. We’ve discussed the Selection Index in previous posts about the PSAT, but as a refresher:
Divide each section score by 10.
Multiply the Reading/Writing score by 2.
Add the Reading/Writing and Math scores to get the Selection Index (maximum of 228).
So, the Selection Index for an example student who scored 1400 overall, with 720 in Reading/Writing and 680 in Math, would be calculated as follows:
Reading/Writing score: 72. Math score: 68.
New Reading/Writing score: 144.
Selection Index: 144 + 68 = 212.
You might notice that this appears to advantage students with stronger verbal abilities because the Reading and Writing sections are counted separately, but the Math sections are grouped together – and you’d be right. Here’s the Selection Index for the same composite score of 1400 but with the Reading/Writing and Math scores from the previous example flipped:
Reading/Writing score: 68. Math score: 72.
New Reading/Writing score: 136.
Selection Index: 136 + 72 = 208.
National Merit Qualification
There are several score cutoffs along the way to receiving a National Merit Scholarship.
1. The first level of recognition is National Merit Commendation. Approximately 50,000 PSAT-takers reach this level or beyond, with about two-thirds (34,000 or so) receiving commendation. The cutoff for the Class of 2023 (the rising senior class) is 207, which remains unchanged from the previous year. However, Commended Students are not eligible for National Merit Scholarships.
2. Approximately one-third of Commended students (historically, about one percent of all PSAT-takers) qualify as National Merit Semifinalists. This level of recognition is determined on a state-by-state basis, meaning the threshold for qualification in Wisconsin is different than it is for students in New York or California or Wyoming. (This does not apply to students at boarding schools, who are grouped with other boarding school students in their region of the country.) For the Class of 2022, the Semifinalist cutoff for Wisconsin was 214, a one-point increase from the prior year. It’s nearly impossible to know if that Selection Index will increase, decrease, or stay the same for the Class of 2023, or for the students in the Class of 2024 (who will be taking the PSAT this fall). Commended students and Semifinalists will be notified of their status sometime soon (usually early-to-mid September), when the cutoffs are announced.
3. Semifinalists then have the opportunity to become a National Merit Finalist and be considered for a scholarship. There are two requirements for Semifinalists: 1) fill out the National Merit Scholarship Application, and 2) take an SAT or ACT to “confirm” their PSAT score. (Last year’s information is here.) Nearly all Semifinalists go on to become Finalists, but only about half of the Finalists will receive one-time National Merit Scholarships of $2,500. There are also 1,100 Special Scholarships available, which are sponsored by corporations or colleges; these range from one-time payments of $2,500-$5,000 to renewable awards or stipends of $500-$10,000 per year.
More information on specific types of scholarships can be found in the official PSAT/NMSQT student guide. The list of scholarships, with criteria and corresponding monetary amounts, is located on page 9.
So, to sum up: you must 1) clear the Semifinalist Selection Index threshold, 2) submit an application to become a Finalist, and 3) be selected as a Finalist to have a better than 50 percent chance of receiving a National Merit Scholarship. But even without a scholarship, the various types of National Merit recognition can bolster your applications.
These levels of recognition (Commended, Semifinalist, Finalist) represent the standard path to National Merit recognition. However, there are two other ways to achieve it.
1. Alternate Entry. Students can attempt to qualify for National Merit if they were unable to take the PSAT (for example, if they were sick on test day) by submitting an SAT score instead. The Selection Index through Alternate Entry works the same way as with the PSAT, but the SAT section scores are capped at 760 (instead of 800) to match the PSAT’s scale. Students applying via Alternate Entry are not included in the pool of students that determine the Selection Index cutoffs for Commendation and Semifinalist status.
2. College Board National Recognition Programs. These programs allow students who are African American or Black, Hispanic American or Latinx, Indigenous, or attend school in a rural area or small town to achieve recognition based on their PSAT (or AP) scores. This link lists the criteria required to attain such recognition. However, these are not scholarship programs, but rather “academic honors that can be included in college and scholarship applications.” The College Board also notes that colleges can reach out to qualifying students with scholarship opportunities.
A strong PSAT performance can bolster your applications and lead to scholarships. Students with high scores on the ACT or SAT (if they’ve taken those exams already) or last year’s PSAT might want to consider spending some time preparing for the PSAT this fall. You can speak to one of Galin’s college counselors about opportunities to benefit from National Merit, sign up for PSAT tutoring with your tutor if you’re already doing test prep with us, or inquire about the short PSAT class we are offering in September and October. We at Galin can help!