PSAT: How It's Scored and What It Means for Scholarships | Winward Academy


PSAT: How It’s Scored and What It Means for Scholarships

Each year in high schools across the country, many sophomores and almost all juniors take the PSAT.  Not only does the PSAT provide familiarity and practice for the SAT, it is also the basis for qualifying for the National Merit Scholarship Program.

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

PSAT Scoring

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. About 15,000 students in this group then move on to become National Merit Finalists and win scholarship money. 

First, understand how the PSAT is scored. Students receive a score between 8 and 38 for each section of the test: Math, Reading, and Writing and Language. To create its National Merit Selection Index Score, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) adds each section test score together and then multiplies the sum by two. For example, let’s assume you received a 34 on Math, a 33 on Reading, and a 36 on Writing and Language; your Selection Index Score would be calculated as:

(34+33+36)*2 = 206

Qualification levels for scholarships vary by state, with the majority of states in recent years setting a 207 as the qualification cutoff. Note that qualifying levels are higher in competitive states such as California, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, recently around 217.

If you plan to study to maximize your PSAT score, first calculate the average score you’ll need per subject. Calculate your target PSAT scores by dividing your goal in half and then splitting that quotient into three scores. If your goal is a 210 Selection Index, divide 210 by 2, then divide that result by 3:

210 / 2 = 105            105 / 3 = 35

To achieve a Selection Index score of 210, you will need to average 35 on the three PSAT sections.  Based on your personal strengths, set goals by section and develop a study plan to prep.

Selection Process

The process to select National Merit Scholarship winners has five stages.

  1. 1,600,000 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 on October 10, 2018 are expected to enter college in 2020. 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 8,600 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.

Scholarships Offered

Four types of scholarships are offered based on the PSAT/NMSQT® Selection Index score: National Merit® Scholarships, Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarships, Corporate-sponsored Special Scholarships, and College-sponsored Merit Scholarships

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

Approximately 410 independent organizations and institutions sponsor more than 5,500 of the National Merit Scholarships offered each year. Criteria for these awards can include children of employees, residents of specific communities, specific college majors, or planned careers.

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.

College-sponsored Merit Scholarships

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.

A listing of the sponsoring colleges, universities, and corporations can be found on the National Merit Scholarship Corporation website.

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About Winward Academy – Winward Academy is one of the world’s leading innovators in the online education space, providing web-based academic support that enhances students’ knowledge, confidence, and competitiveness in middle and high school academics and in college applications. We help thousands of students every year by providing personalized, comprehensive ACT and SAT test preparation and extensive math curriculum support. The Winward Academy learning platform honors over 40 years of education and cognitive psychology research, incorporating proven techniques that promote effective learning.

Winward Academy’s unmatched reputation is wholly attributable to our students’ exceptional success and to the trust earned among students, parents, and schools around the world.

Jennifer Winward, Ph.D.

Dr. Jennifer Winward is a renowned college instructor, a distinguished 20-year veteran of high school tutoring, and the founder and lead instructor of Winward Academy. She earned her Ph.D. specializing in adolescent brain development and adolescent learning. She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude with highest distinction honors. Dr. Winward has been widely recognized for her academic success, published research, and philanthropic efforts with awards from the President of the United States, the California State Assembly, Rotary International, the Marin County School Administrator Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Science Foundation.