National Merit PSAT Scores: How to earn $300k in 3 hours with a great test score

Bonus Material: Check if your math skills are strong enough for National Merit

The National Merit Scholarship Program is one of the most widely-recognized scholarship contests in the United States.

National Merit students can win money directly from the program, from US companies, or from colleges. Some colleges even offer automatic full-ride scholarships to National Merit finalists!

Many schools target recruitment of National Merit finalists.

Students can compete for National Merit awards by scoring very highly on the PSAT in the fall of their junior year.

Cutoff scores vary by state — if you take the test in a more competitive state, you’ll need a higher score to qualify for National Merit!

I was in the top 1% of scorers on the PSAT years ago, and this helped me win over $300,000 in scholarships offered by top schools like the University of Chicago. I was fortunate to win admissions to every college where I applied, including Ivy-League schools like Princeton. At the time I found the National Merit process a little mystifying, so I’ll explain here all the things I wanted to know back then.

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In this post we’ll cover:

What is the PSAT?
What is National Merit?
What’s a good score for the PSAT?
What PSAT score do you need to qualify for National Merit scholarships?
National Merit qualifying scores by state
How to take the PSAT
How to prepare for the PSAT


What is the PSAT?

The PSAT/NMSQT, or Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test and National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, is sometimes known as the “practice” SAT. 

The SAT is one of two tests (along with the ACT) used for college applications in the US. Most students take the SAT several times their junior or senior years. The PSAT, on the other hand, is taken only once in the fall of junior year.

(Some students may also take the PSAT as a sophomore, but this doesn’t count for the National Merit program.)

student studying for SAT with online tutor

The PSAT is a little bit shorter and a little bit easier than the SAT, but otherwise it’s the same test with the same format. The PSAT tests reading comprehension, grammar and clear writing, and math skills from Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II. The whole test lasts a bit less than three hours. We introduce the PSAT in more detail here.

The PSAT is also scored in the same way as the SAT, but with slightly lower numbers. The two sections, Math and Evidence-Based Reading & Writing, are each scored on a scale from 160–760. This means that a “perfect” PSAT score is 1520. 

In 2023, the PSAT will change significantly to match the big changes coming to the SAT.


What is National Merit?

The National Merit Scholarship Program is one of the most widely-known and prestigious scholarship competitions in the US. 

Administered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, a private, not-for-profit organization, the National Merit Program recognizes high-achieving students across the country.

Back when I was in high school, I was a National Merit scholarship recipient. I won a scholarship directly from the program, and if I had chosen to attend certain colleges I could have had a full scholarship from the school.

Honestly, when I was a student I found the steps of the National Merit program a little confusing. We’ve tried to clarify it here:

The contest begins in the fall of a student’s junior year, when they take the PSAT through their high school. Approximately 1.5 million students take the PSAT and, by doing so, automatically enter the National Merit Scholarship Competition.

Students who score very highly on the PSAT have a shot at recognition from National Merit. Usually this means only missing a handful of questions on the entire test.

While students usually get their PSAT scores back in December, they have to wait nearly a full year before they hear if they’ve made the cutoff for National Merit!

There’s always some uncertainty about the cutoff scores because they’re different in every state and change slightly each year. We present past cutoff scores by state below.

In September of their senior year, 34,000 students across the country receive a Letter of Commendation recognizing high achievement on the PSAT. These students scored in approximately the 97th or 98th percentile on the PSAT. Commended students are not eligible to continue on in the competition, but this is a great award to include in college applications. They may still be eligible for some special scholarships provided by corporate and business sponsors!

At the same time, 16,000 students are notified that they have achieved Semifinalist status. These are the very highest scorers in each state, roughly the 99th percentile of students taking the PSAT.

The 16,000 Semifinalists are then invited to submit applications for the National Merit Scholarships. These applications are a little like college applications, and include high school transcripts / GPA, extracurriculars, and an essay.

In February of their senior year, 15,000 of the Semifinalists advance to Finalist status. This is an amazing achievement, and is a definite boost on college applications!

Finally, roughly half of the Finalists are awarded scholarships and become National Merit Scholarship winners. There are three types of scholarships:

  • The 2,500 highest-achieving students are awarded a one-time prize of $2,500 directly from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.
  • More scholarships are awarded by approximately 340 different corporate sponsors. In order to be eligible for one of these, typically a student has to both be a Finalist and also have a parent who is employed by one of the sponsors. The prizes range from $2,500 to $5,000 one-time or $1,000 to $10,000 annually. You can see a list of the companies here. 
  • Many colleges and universities will also offer a scholarship to students who are both admitted and also achieve Finalist status. Prizes range from $500 to $2,000 annually. 
National Merit diagram

Of course, these are only the scholarships that are offered via the National Merit Program. There are many other colleges that offer larger scholarships to National Merit Finalists. Schools tend to compete to see how many of the National Merit Finalists they can attract, and some will even offer full-ride scholarships or guaranteed admission to National Merit students.

Some schools offering full-ride scholarships to National Merit students include:

  • University of Texas at Dallas — in addition to free tuition, UT Dallas also gives National Merit students room and board, a $4,000 per semester stipend, and a one-time $6,000 stipend for international study
  • Florida International University — their international business program is ranked #2 in the nation
  • University of Alabama — full tuition for five years for undergraduate and graduate studies, four years of on-campus housing, a $3,500 annual stipend for four years, $2,000 for summer research or international study, and $2000 book scholarship
  • University of Oklahoma — full tuition for five years (undergraduate and graduate), $5,500 freshman housing scholarship, $5,500 annually for fees, books, room and board, $5,000 cash stipend, $1,000 technology and textbook stipend, $1,000 research and study abroad stipend
  • Fordham University
  • University of Maine
  • Oklahoma State University — they offer free tuition for five years, a $5,500-per-year scholarship for room and board, and $19,000 in additional scholarships
  • University of South Florida
  • Washington State University
  • University of New Mexico

In short, for high-achieving students there can be a lot of money on the line with the PSAT! 

National Merit piechart

We advise students in the 95th percentile and above to take PSAT studying seriously. If that might apply to you, set up a free test prep consultation with our team.


What’s a good score for the PSAT?

The definition of a “good” PSAT score is subjective, really.

Each section on the PSAT is scored on a scale from 160–760. This means that a “perfect” PSAT score is 1520: 760 Math and 760 Evidence-Based Reading & Writing.

The College Board has set “benchmarks” to college readiness for each of their tests. For the PSAT/NMSQT, those numbers are 460 for Reading & Writing and 510 for Math. Students need to hit those benchmarks in order to be “ready” for college.

According to College Board, the average PSAT score is roughly a 920, and a score above 1210 puts you in the top 10% of test takers.

A PSAT score is a good predictor of a student’s SAT score if they don’t do any further studying or preparation.

Bear in mind: in order to be a competitive applicant for the Ivy League, students will need SAT scores of at least 1500.

Average SAT scores for the Ivy League

If we broaden that list to the top 50 colleges and universities in the US, students need SAT scores of 1390 (700 Math and 690 Reading & Writing) to be competitive.

Want more data? Read our deep-dive into average SAT scores at different schools.

If your PSAT score still falls below those cutoff scores, don’t worry! It’s absolutely possible to raise your scores through studying and practice. Our students commonly see a score raise of 100–300 points on the PSAT and SAT after working with our dedicated tutors.


What PSAT score do you need to qualify for National Merit scholarships?

Students qualify for National Merit scholarships by scoring very highly on the PSAT. 

The cutoff score for National Merit Semifinalist status depends on the state. To be competitive for National Merit Semifinalist status, students need to score about 1400 on the PSAT in less competitive states like Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota . . . or about 1470 on the PSAT in more competitive states like Connecticut or New Jersey.

However, the National Merit program doesn’t use the 320–1520 PSAT scores to calculate the cutoffs.

Instead, they compare your PSAT scores with those of other students in your state using their own Selection Index, which falls on a scale between 48 and 228. 

The Selection Index is calculated by adding each of the three section raw scores (Math, Reading, and Writing) together and then multiplying by 2. Each of the raw scores goes up to 38, and students earn separate raw scores for Reading and for Writing.

The upshot of this is that your Math score counts less for National Merit than it does for your straight-up PSAT or SAT score, where your Reading and Writing scores are averaged. 

For example, consider the following examples:

Ava scored a 740 Reading & Writing and a 700 Math on the PSAT. Her total PSAT score is 1440. Her Selection Index is (36 Reading + 38 Writing + 35 Math ) * 2 = 218.

Liam scored a 700 Reading & Writing and a 740 Math on the PSAT. His total PSAT score is 1440. His Selection Index is (36 Reading + 34 Writing + 37 Math) * 2 = 214.

Ethan scored a 760 Reading & Writing (a perfect score!) and a 680 Math on the PSAT. His total PSAT score is 1440. His Selection Index is (38 Reading + 38 Writing + 34 Math) * 2 = 220.

Aubrey scored a 700 Reading & Writing and a 700 Math on the PSAT. Her total PSAT score is 1400. Her Selection Index is (34 Reading + 36 Writing + 35 Math ) * 2 = 210.

The National Merit program will then look at the 48–228 Selection Index scores for each state and choose two cutoff numbers for that state that will result in approximately 3% of students (for Commended) and 1% of students (for Semifinalist). Every score at and above that cutoff number qualifies.

student

Cutoff scores vary by state, and they’re slightly different each year. Small differences in the set of students who take the PSAT nationwide, the difficulty level of that specific test, or even a few extra students guessing correctly on a problem can move the cutoff scores by a point.

While students receive their PSAT scores about 4–6 weeks after they take the test, the cutoff scores aren’t announced until almost a year later, in the fall of their senior year. That’s a long time to wait, especially for students who are right on the edge!

However, we can make some estimates based on past years. A student with a 225 Selection Index score can be fairly confident of being named a National Merit Semifinalist (and continuing on in the context to compete for Finalist status and scholarships). A student with a 220 Selection Index score can be confident that they’ll make the cutoff if they live in a less competitive state like Wyoming, but not if they live in a tougher state like New Jersey.


National Merit qualifying scores by state

The best way to estimate whether you’ll make the cutoff for National Merit is to look at the most recent data. Here are the qualifying scores by state for the past three years:

PSAT cutoff scores for National Merit

There was some disruption to the test due to the pandemic in 2021, which led to some unusual cutoff scores for that year.

Many students want to ask us which states are the toughest for National Merit. Here’s a map of the most competitive states, based on last year’s data! 

map PSAT Selection Index cutoffs by state

In recent years, the toughest states for National Merit have been:

  1. District of Columbia, New Jersey (tie)
  2. Maryland
  3. Connecticut, Virginia (tie)
  4. California, Massachusetts, Washington (tie)
  5. Illinois, New York, Texas (tie)

The easiest states to win National Merit have been Wyoming, Montana, and West Virginia. In those states, the Selection Index needed to become a Semifinalist and continue on in the scholarship contest is the same Selection Index as Commended status in other states.

If you’re living in a more competitive state, you’ll have to earn a higher score to qualify for Semifinalist! Fortunately, our Ivy-League tutors have helped students even in the toughest states to score very highly on the PSAT and SAT. Reach out to us to schedule one-on-one tutoring.


How to take the PSAT

Whereas the SAT can be taken most months of the year, the PSAT is typically offered once a year in mid-October

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The PSAT is taken through the student’s school, and there’s often no cost to students since fees are paid by the schools. Students typically register for the test directly through the school.  Check with your school to confirm if they offer the PSAT.

It’s possible for homeschooled students to sign up for the PSAT at a nearby school; families should contact the school at least four months in advance to register.


How to prepare for the PSAT

If you’re an ambitious student who often scores in the top 5% on standardized tests, you’ll want to take the PSAT seriously, since you have a serious chance of winning impressive scholarships. 

If you’re not in the top 5%, you can approach the PSAT more like a practice SAT — but you still may want to prepare for it so it’s a positive experience, and so that you can get the most out of the practice.

Fortunately, because the PSAT is nearly the same as the SAT, any prep for the PSAT also prepares students for the SAT. It’s often helpful for students to prepare for the SAT on the earlier side, anyhow, to avoid the stress crunch at the end of their junior year (when grades and AP tests are very important) and in their senior fall (when they’re focused on college essays).

The best way to prepare for the PSAT is by practicing, but it’s important to practice in the right ways in order to make effective progress. 

Our Ivy-League PSAT tutors help take a lot of the stress out of the PSAT and SAT process and make sure students are practicing effectively. Our experienced tutors provide students with targeted study materials and guide students in using them correctly

In addition, there are many strategies and tricks that can make the test easier. A good PSAT and SAT tutor can share these tricks with students and guide them through implementing test strategies.

For students who have already taken the PSAT, know that it’s absolutely possible to raise your score on the SAT with the right practice and preparation!

To start one-on-one PSAT and SAT tutoring today, set up a short free consultation with our team.


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Bonus Material: Check if your math skills are strong enough for National Merit


Emily

Emily graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University and holds an MA from the University of Notre Dame. She was a National Merit Scholar and has won numerous academic prizes and fellowships. A veteran of the publishing industry, she has helped professors at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton revise their books and articles. Over the last decade, Emily has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.