By Dan Marlin
While many sophomores and nearly all juniors will take the PSAT, the exam’s purpose may be a bit opaque. You may know that PSAT scores are used to determine whether you qualify for National Merit (after all, it is also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, or NMSQT), 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.
Before we get going — a note on 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.
Now, on to the details. There are several cutoffs along the way to receiving a National Merit Scholarship.
1. The first level of recognition is National Merit Commendation. In the past, approximately 50,000 PSAT-takers reached this level, but that number might be different this year because the pandemic affected access and fewer students took the PSAT. The PSAT announced in April that the cutoff Selection Index for Commendation for the Class of 2022 is 207, which is two points lower than it was for the Class of 2021, which means it could be slightly easier for students to qualify. 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. For the Class of 2021, the Semifinalist cutoff for Wisconsin was 213. It’s hard to know if that Selection Index will dip in concert with the Commended Student cutoff, or if it will stay the same, or even increase; it will depend on the population of students who were able to take the PSAT. Commended students and Semifinalists will be notified of their status in September.
3. To become a National Merit Finalist (and be considered for a scholarship), Semifinalists must do two things: fill out the National Merit Scholarship Application and take an SAT or ACT to “confirm” their PSAT score. (Due to the pandemic, students in the Class of 2021 were not required to submit an SAT or ACT score, but this requirement appears to be reinstated for the Class of 2022.) Nearly all Semifinalists go on to become Finalists, but only about half of the Finalists (approximately 7,600 students) 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.
The levels of recognition I’ve laid out 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 not able to take the PSAT by submitting an SAT score instead. This route likely was popular for the Class of 2022 because so many students weren’t able to take the PSAT in their junior year. 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.
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% chance of receiving a National Merit Scholarship. But even without a scholarship, the various types of National Merit recognition can bolster your applications. We at Galin can help you prepare for the PSAT and improve your chances!