We received the PSAT score. What does that mean and what do we do now? Part 2

The results from last October’s Revised PSAT results are out, and it’s causing our parents and students a lot of anxiety, especially as it relates to the National Merit Scholarship and college admissions testing.

All students graduating in 2017 or after will take the “Revised PSAT” in October of their junior year. We will try to answer all the lingering questions about the test through the next series of blogs:

Part 2: What is the National Merit Scholarship, and what does the PSAT have to do with it?

In our previous blog, we learned about PSAT and a little bit about the National Merit Scholarship (NMS). The PSAT is a practice test for the SAT, one of the two most widely used standardized college admissions tests. National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT) is a national competition to find the top PSAT performers in each state, who are then given National Merit Scholarships. While the PSAT/NMSQT is administered through College Board (www.collegeboard.org), the makers of the SAT family of tests, the National Merit Scholarship process is governed through the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (www.nationalmerit.org).

The PSAT/NMSQT is administered once a year in October. Sophomores and Juniors in high school are invited to take the test (through their schools), but only the results from the Junior test counts towards qualifying for NMS. For students graduating high school in 3 or 5 years instead of 4, there will be different requirements.)

PSAT Schedule and Qualifying Numbers

Here is the breakdown of the schedule and qualifying numbers. We will use 2015 October PSAT/NMSQT as a reference:

Date Timeline of Events # Students
2015 October
(around 15th)
About 3.5 million students take the PSAT/NMSQT each year in the United States.

Of the 3.5 million students, 1.5 million students meet all program requirements (must be in 11th grade, must be a US citizen or legal resident, etc.).

2016 January
(around 7th)
PSAT/NMSQT Scores are released to the students and made available online.

Schools distribute paper reports by the end of the month (around Jan 29th).

2016 September 34,000 students (top 3-4%) are “Commended Students” and receive “Letters of Commendation” in recognition of their outstanding academic achievement; however, they do not continue in the competition for NMS.

16,000 students (top 1%) are “Semifinalists,” the highest-scoring entrants in the U.S. NMSC notifies students through their schools and provides scholarship applications.



34,000 + 16,000

2017 February Out of the Semifinalists, about 15,000 students who meet academic and other requirements advance to “Finalist” standing. 15,000
2017 March If you get to this point, your odds are about 1 in 2 of being awarded one of 74,000 National Merit Scholarships, which are given based on students’ abilities, skills, and accomplishments. There are three different types of NMS: National Merit $2500 Scholarships, Corporate-sponsored scholarships (amount varies by sponsor), and College-sponsored scholarships ($500-$2000 per year for 4 years in college).


In addition, Finalists who did not qualify for one of 74,000 National Merit Scholarships may be chosen to receive one of 1,200 “Special Scholarships” given by corporate sponsors.



So why should a student make the effort to try to qualify for the National Merit Scholarships?

First, qualifying to be one of the Commended Students or Semifinalists is a big accomplishment in itself, and colleges look at these honors very favorably when they are deciding which applicants to admit. In addition, some colleges give scholarships specifically based on being a NMS Semifinalist or Finalist, even up to half or full tuition .These awards can add up to be a considerable amount over the course of 4 years of college.

Cutoff (Selection Index) Scores

The last puzzle piece is understanding the “cutoff” scores to qualify as a Semifinalist. A student’s Individual Test Scores on the PSAT/NMSQT (see previous blog for how it’s calculated) are converted to a “PSAT/NMSQT Selection Index score.” The Selection Index score is calculated by adding up all three test scores and multiplying that sum by two. For example:

Figure 1: Sample result from one of our students

Source: Collegeboard

Source: Collegeboard

The above student’s Selection Index score would be (34 + 35 + 37) * 2 = 212. Since a Test Score ranges from 8 to 38, the minimum and maximum Selection Index score would be 48 to 228, respectively. Students’ Selection Index scores are then compared to other students’ results in the same state, and a number of students with the highest scores in each state are chosen to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. Each state is allocated a number of Semifinalists based on the percentage of that state’s graduating seniors out of the nation’s total. Therefore, different states have different “cutoffs” for the National Merit Scholarship.

Last year the cutoff score was 215 out of a total of 240. But because of the redesigned PSAT with its new maximum total of 228, the cutoff is not yet known, and the calculations are still in process at the College Board. Our best guess at this point is that the cutoff will be somewhere between 212 and 220. If you’re interested in reading more about the details, please read about detailed calculations below: Estimate of 2016 Selection Index.

In the next blog, we will explore what the PSAT says about a student’s college admissions, and how one can use the test results to better prepare for college, regardless of whether he or she qualifies for the National Merit Scholarships.



Estimate of 2016 Selection Index

Before this year’s redesigned PSAT, the maximum selection index score was out of 240 points as a maximum, instead of 228, representing a shift of 12 point, so an appropriate concordance between last year’s and this year’s scores cannot accurately be made (we’ll know by September of 2016), but here’s an estimate. Last year’s (class of 2016) qualifying scores, compiled by FairTest.org, shows Illinois’s cutoff Selection Index of 215. With a shift of 12 points on the new scale, we can reasonably estimate that Illinois’s cutoff Selection Index for the class of 2017 could be anywhere between 201 to 205 (203, give or take 2 points).

On the other hand, College Board’s preliminary PSAT/NMSQT concordance table shows that last year’s 215 out of 240 corresponds to 1440 out of 1520 on the “new” scale for this year’s tests (class of 2017). They unfortunately do not show the breakdown of individual Test Scores, but assuming a student has done equally well among the three subjects, we can estimate the following as an example:

Figure 2: Calculations of PSAT Scores to Selection Index

Source: MoreThanSAT

Source: MoreThanSAT

For the sake of our students, we hope that the actual Selection Index score for Illinois students will be closer to 203 rather than 212 to 220 range. My guess is that it will be somewhere in between, around 209, give or take a few points. We’ll just have to wait until September for the final numbers when College Board has it finally figured out — the fact their Concordance Table is described as “Preliminary” shows it’s still a work in progress.

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