While the exam occurs during October for many juniors, the scores do not get released until December. The release of these scores tend to be accompanied by a score report that details your score. Of course, you may still have many questions on what your score means or if you qualified for anything that would be significant for college applications.

The PSAT is scored between 320-1520, combining the scores from Reading, Grammar, and Math sections. The Reading and Grammar sections are scored together as a combined score between 160-760 while the math section is scored out of 160-760 on its own. Your math score is combined between the no calculator and calculator math sections. This structure of exam scoring is also present on the SAT so if you intend on taking the SAT as your college entrance exam, it will seem feel and score similarly to the PSAT.

The scores of the exam are converted from your raw score. The raw score is calculated based on the number of questions answered correctly. Each question is worth one point regardless of the level of difficulty. That raw score corresponds to an ETS determined scale score. Points are not deducted for incorrect answers. Your raw score is simply how many questions you answered correctly, and this raw score corresponds to a set number of points known as the scaled score. These conversions do tend to vary slightly over the year, so it is best to wait for your official score to be able to see what you scored.

Now after you have learned your score, you may be asking what is means in regard to the National Merit Scholarship or what the process looks like to qualify. First and foremost, if you scored within the top 1%, this does not automatically make you a National Merit Scholar unfortunately. This makes you a National Merit Scholar Semifinalist. Students may be recognized as a National Merit Scholar if their score is within the Selection Index which is used to determine what score qualifies for scholarly recognition.

Additionally, if you score within the top 3-4%, you may also be recognized as a Commended Scholar which is still very impressive and great to add once you are applying for college.

What is the index and how do you determine it?


Well, for starters, the index is a system in place to weigh and evaluate scores to see what your score may land and what recognition will come from that placement.

To calculate your Index score, start by looking in the “Test Scores” section.

Combine your Reading and Writing and Language score, then multiply them by two. Then add the Math score and you will have an index score.

This would make a student scoring a 23 in Reading, 20 in Writing and Language, and 26.5 in Math would have a score of 112.5 in the index. The index score ranges from 48-228.

The equation for the example students scores listed above will look like this: (23+20) x 2 + 26.5 = 112.5

Now, the most important part of knowing your index ranking is determined by the index for your state. California has had a steady increase in cut off scores, raising about 1 point every year or two. For the class of 2020, the score is set at 222. For future classes, aiming a point or two higher than this score is wise since there could be potential increases.

One of the best ways to determine if you will make it into the cut off is determining what your current score is. Finding your score will begin to help you learn where you might need to improve. There are a few practice exams on College Board’s website. Once you have your score, it may be difficult to determine where the error is. Maybe it is hard to focus on the tiresome reading passages, maybe it’s difficult to understand where you actually need a comma, or maybe it is hard to do so many math problems all at once.

Breaking down the exam and really understanding the core of the exam is highly important. While the exam is asking you to answer a lot of questions, what it really is asking for is for you to focus on an exam for long periods of time. Start slow, make sure you understand the content behind each section. Working on problems you really know how to do and giving educated guesses for problems that are more difficult may be may help you do better. Or you could give us a call at 858-617-8615 for a free consult and a practice exam.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Selection Index?

The index is your component score weighed to determine what you may qualify for and what you might be recognized for within the National Merit Scholarship process.

How is the Selection Index calculated?

The Index is calculated by a combination of your Reading, Writing and Language, and Math scores from your score report. As illustrated in the Score Report listed above, we see that the student scored a 430 in Reading and Writing and Language while scoring a 530 in math. When we look at the individual test scores, located under the overall Reading score, we are able to determine our Index score. Simply, add our Reading and Writing and Language scores. In this case, a 20 and a 23 which we would add together and multiply by 2. Then we would add in our math score and that would be the subscore. Our equation for this student would look like (20+23)x2+26.5=112.5.

Why is the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (ERW) twice as important as the Math?

Within the history of ETS, it has been pretty commonplace to prioritize these sections. Since there are 2 separate tests, as College Board does not view them as the same exam, the scores are doubled.

I’ve already received my PSAT scores; how can I find out whether I will qualify for recognition?

Unfortunately, high schools are the ones that receive the nominations around September of the following school year. Essentially, you will most likely find out around September of your senior year through your school.

Will I qualify as a Semifinalist if I am in the 99th percentile for Selection Index according to my score report?

Percentile scores are, unfortunately, a bit too inaccurate to determine eligibility. Regularly checking cut off updates for your state may be a much more accurate way to determine if you will be a Semifinalist.

Why do some states have more Semifinalists and Finalists than other states?

Honoring students nationwide has two processes. For Commended Scholars, the cutoff is based on a national score while Semifinalists are determined in proportional cutoff to their specific states’ number of graduating students. This is why more students in California would get this nomination as opposed to Arizonan students.

Why are Semifinalist cutoffs so much higher in some states than in others?

Well, there are a number of reasons. One is how many students take the exam. In some states, this exam is not required for high school juniors so the only students who are looking for the potential scholarship might take the exam making the cut off for the state lower. While states with extremely competitive students tend to end up with higher cut-offs. It should be noted that no state will be able to have a cutoff smaller than the cutoff for Commended students nationally.

How are Semifinalists set for homeschoolers, boarding school students, or U.S. students studying abroad?

Homeschooled students will be treated like any other student in the state taking the PSAT. Boarding school students have a different system for their cut off system. They are determined differently in each region, meaning that whichever region you live in you must meet the highest cutoff for any of the states in your region. Finally, studying abroad students must meet the highest cutoff in the country.

Do I have to be a U.S. citizen to participate?

Yes, but there are a few factors to consider. If you are within the US or US territory, then yes. If you are studying abroad but are a US citizen, yes. If you are a lawful permanent resident of the US or have applied and not been denied and plan on becoming a US citizen as soon as possible, then yes.

Will NMSC notify me if I become a Semifinalist?

Unless you are homeschooled, no. This information will be given to a school and will only be told to you after they have released their list of finalists.

When will my school tell me?

September, typically. Usually, most schools wait until the NMSC has officially released students’ names during the second week of September.

Will being a Semifinalist help get me into my first-choice college?

While an impressive title, on its own, it will not make a large impact on your chances for admission. Your scores on the SAT and ACT bare more weight than the PSAT does. Sometimes schools do care about having a large number of Semifinalists, but it does not always matter. Put it on your application with all of your other awards and factors that would be ideal for getting into your dream school, do not solely rely on being a semifinalist.

Do I need to take the SAT to become a Semifinalist?

No. The only determinate is what your index score and the cutoff scores for the PSAT to become a Semifinalist.

What happens after I am named a Semifinalist?

If you are a semifinalist, you will be given the login info for your Finalist application online. You will have to answer background questions and submit an essay. Once your school gives you a recommendation, you will need to submit your application by the second week of October.

What is the National Merit Finalist essay prompt?

As of now, the prompt has been unchanged for the past few years, but it may change, this is all determined by the NMSC so we will not know definitely until the applications are announced. The prompt is listed below for the class of 2020.

“To help the reviewers get to know you, describe an experience you have had, a person who has influenced you, or an obstacle you have overcome. Explain why this is meaningful to you. Use your own words and limit your response to the space provided.”

There is not a word limit specified, but the essay must fit within the provided space. Expect to keep your essay to 600–650 words.

Do I need to take the SAT or ACT to become a Finalist?

Unlike the requirements for being a semifinalist, to qualify for consideration of a finalist you must complete either the SAT or ACT and get a “confirming score”. This score confirms your high score from your PSAT.

Can a high ACT score be a confirming score?

Starting for the class of 2020, yes.

How high of an SAT score do I need for a confirming score?

Like the PSAT index score, the confirming score is calculated in the same way. Unlike the PSAT, it is only set nationally and not per state. The cutoff score tends to be a similar score to that of the cut off for Commended students.

When do I have to take the SAT or ACT for the score to be ‘confirmed’?

Anytime the SAT or ACT is offered until December of your senior year. While you may be able to take these exams in December, it is not recommended. It is recommended to take the exam around your PSAT (some students even take it before) to get their confirming score more quickly.

How do I submit scores to NMSC?

You can submit your scores in the same way you would for a college. The code for NMSC on the SAT is 0085 and the ACT code is 7984. You may submit your scores as many times as needed as they will only keep your highest score.

Can I superscore SAT or ACT dates in order to reach the confirming score cutoff? Or if I have achieved a confirming score, is there any reason to shoot for a higher score?

No, since you only are using your highest score as a confirming score there is no need to attempt to superscore. It should be noted that your score does factor in when they are evaluating how big of a scholarship you may receive so aiming higher maybe a better option.

Can sophomores qualify for National Merit recognition?

No, unless you are graduating a year early, you do not qualify for the scholarship until you are a junior. If you are graduating early, talk to your school and see what the next steps are.

Is it hard for a Semifinalist to become a Finalist?

Due to the process that it takes to become a Finalist, it may seem difficult. After working through the application, confirming citizenship, and get a confirming score from either the ACT or SAT approximately out of the 16,000 semifinalists, only 15,000 will become finalists. Keeping up with completing all of the requirements is where it takes the most focus.

When will I find out if I am a Finalist?

February of your Senior Year.

Do all Finalists receive scholarships? What is a National Merit Scholar?

Not all Finalists become Merit Scholars, only about half do. Finalists can receive one of the three types of scholarships with their own specific standards to be met. These awards will only be given to the college that the students write on their application, thus making them non-transferable. Awards can be from about $500-$2,500 that are renewable. There are also potential corporate sponsors that are awarded but typically only to the children of employees from that corporation.

I’ve heard about colleges that provide full-ride awards. Why are college-sponsored awards only listed as $500–$2,500 per year?

Colleges determine if they choose to award Finalists with additional scholarships which cannot be considered as National Merit Scholarships. This depends on the colleges and their scholarship programs for Finalists.

Are scholarships available to Commended Students and Semifinalists?

Many students who are recognized as Commended Students or Semifinalists are potentially able to receive other scholarships from affiliated corporations. This is typically determined if you have some relationship with the company giving out the scholarship but there are some special cases. If you are a Commended Student or a Semifinalist, you will not be able to receive the National Merit Scholarship itself.

When will I find out if I receive a scholarship?

During your senior year, you should be notified anytime from March to June. To use the scholarship for your top pick for school, remember to write in your school on your application for the scholarship. If you are uncertain or still deciding through schools, it is best to write in that you are undecided in place of the name of the school as to not lose out on scholarship money that would be applied to another school.

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