Parents and teens frequently want to know if they have to take it, what it’s for, and if colleges see the scores. In this blog, we’ll answer those questions and cover the following:
- How the PSAT is scored
- Steps in the scholarship determination process
- Types of National Merit scholarships available
The exact PSAT score for National Merit scholarship consideration varies from year to year and by state, but it’s always the top 1% of students taking the test as juniors who qualify as Semifinalists. Approximately 15,000 students in this group then move on to become National Merit Finalists and earn scholarship money.
First, let’s understand how the PSAT/NMSQT is scored. Each test question is initially scored as either correct or incorrect. There is no penalty for guessing, so attempting all questions is encouraged. Students receive a total score, which is the sum of their scores on the two main sections of the test: (1) Reading and Writing and (2) Math. The range for the total score is 320-1520 and the range for each section is 160-760.
The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) uses what’s called the Selection Index score as an initial screening for potential scholarship recipients. The NMSC Selection Index score is calculated by doubling the Reading and Writing score and adding it to the Math score. The Selection Index is this sum divided by 10. For example, a Reading and Writing section score of 610 and Math Section score of 550 would result in a Selection Index score of 177.
Qualification levels for scholarships vary by state. In recent years, the majority of states set 207 as the qualification cutoff. Students who miss the Semifinalist cutoff will be recognized as Commended Students as long as they have Selection Indexes at or above 207. Note that qualifying levels are higher in competitive states such as California, Connecticut, Maryland, and Massachusetts, which were all above 221 for the Class of 2024. New Jersey has set the highest cutoff at 223, which then is applied to students in Washington DC and US students studying abroad.
If you plan to study to maximize your PSAT score, first calculate the average score you’ll need per section. Calculate your target PSAT score by inputting your anticipated score for Reading and Writing and Math sections into the following equation and solving.
It’s helpful to know the target section score you need in order to achieve the Selection Index that corresponds to your state. Based on your personal strengths, set goals by section and develop a study plan.
The process to select National Merit Scholarship winners has five stages.
1. 1,300,000 test takers / entrants. High schools, rather than individual test centers, administer the PSAT. Each school decides when to give the test to its students, choosing between the primary and alternate test dates offered by the College Board, which writes both the PSAT and SAT. Nearly all of the approximately 1.6 million students taking the exam will be juniors planning to enter college the year following their high school graduation. For example, juniors who took the PSAT test during the October 2023 testing window are expected to enter college in 2025. NMSC uses PSAT/NMSQT Selection Index scores to determine 50,000 high-scoring participants who qualify for recognition.
2. 34,000 Commended Students. In September of the year following the test, more than two-thirds of the 50,000 high scorers will receive Letters of Commendation, recognizing their academic promise. However, these students will not continue in the competition for National Merit Scholarships. The good news is that some of these students may be candidates for Special Scholarships (described below) provided by corporate and business sponsors.
3. 16,000 Semifinalists. Also in September of the year following the test, nearly a third of the 50,000 high scorers will be notified that they have qualified as Semifinalists. Semifinalists are the highest-scoring entrants in each state. Semifinalists are apportioned by state based on the number of entrants by state. NMSC notifies high schools of semifinalists at their school and provides scholarship application materials explaining requirements to advance in the competition for National Merit Scholarships.
4. 15,000 Finalists. In February, sixteen months after taking the exam, semifinalists who meet academic and other requirements will be notified that they have advanced to Finalist standing.
5. Approximately 7,880 Scholarships. In March, seventeen months after the test, scholarship winners are named. In April, May, June, and July, NMSC will release names of Merit Scholar designees to news media for public announcement.
Four types of scholarships are offered based on the PSAT/NMSQT® Selection Index score:
- National Merit® Scholarships,
- Corporate-Sponsored Merit Scholarships,
- College-Sponsored Merit Scholarships. and
- Corporate-Sponsored Special Scholarships.
In 2025, roughly 7,140 merit scholarships (national, corporate-sponsored, and college-sponsored) and approximately 740 corporate-sponsored special scholarships will be awarded. These 7,880 awards will have a combined value of over $35 million. Different types of scholarships will be offered, but no student can receive more than one monetary award from NMSC.
National Merit® $2500 Scholarships
All Finalists compete with all other Finalists in their state. All National Merit Scholarship winners (Merit Scholar® awardees) are chosen from this group of Finalists based on their abilities, skills, and accomplishments.
Corporate-Sponsored Merit Scholarships
In 2023, the National Merit Program saw the generous participation of 160 corporations, company foundations, and businesses. They collectively contributed over $13 million to fund scholarships. This financial support translated into approximately 840 corporate-sponsored merit scholarship awards, which were granted to either the children of employees or accomplished students meeting sponsor criteria.
Finalists were identified based on the information provided in their semifinalist scholarship applications. Scholarship recipients were chosen from this pool based on their demonstrated abilities, skills, and accomplishments. Scholarship names typically revealed the grantor’s identity, such as the National Merit XYZ Company Scholarship.
College-Sponsored Merit Scholarships
Annually, colleges and universities support approximately 3,800 Merit Scholarship awards for Finalists who have been admitted to and will attend their institutions. Finalists who plan to attend a sponsor college and have informed NMSC that the sponsor college is their first choice may receive a scholarship from that college. College-sponsored awards are renewable for up to four years of undergraduate study at the sponsor institution and provide stipends that range between $500 and $2,000 per year.
A listing of the sponsoring colleges, universities, and corporations can be found on the National Merit Scholarship Corporation website.
Corporate-Sponsored Special Scholarships
These same organizations and institutions will offer scholarships to some high-performing program participants who were not Finalists but who meet the sponsor’s criteria. In 2023, there were 740 Special Scholarships awarded. A list of participating organizations can be found here.
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