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Why take the PSAT, and what are National Merit Scholarships?


Relationship of the PSAT and National Merit Scholarship Explained.

In mid-October, high school sophomores and juniors across the country will sit down to take the preliminary SAT (PSAT), a test that assesses students’ math, reading, and grammar capabilities. The PSAT offers students a preview of the SAT’s format and content and serves as a low-stakes introduction to standardized testing. It gives students a starting test score which allows them to see where they need to brush up on content before taking the official SAT or ACT. For high scoring juniors, the PSAT is linked to the National Merit Scholarship Program.

The PSAT is graded on a scale of 320-1520. The top score for both the Evidence Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) Section and the Math Section is 760 each.  The scale for the PSAT is slightly different to that of the regular SAT because the SAT assumes students will have had an additional year of school and therefore includes more challenging content, particularly on the math section.  The SAT is scored on a scale of 400-1600.

What is the National Merit Scholarship Program?

The National Merit Scholarship Program seeks to identify top-performing high school students in the United States, based largely upon students’ junior year PSAT scores.  The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) recognizes students at a number of levels: Commended, Semifinalist, and Finalist. These students have all scored in the top 4% of PSAT scorers in their states. The NMSC awards a small group of Scholars (selected from Finalists) $2,500.00. Students at all levels may be eligible to receive corporate scholarships.

What is a student’s “Selection Index Score” and why does it matter?

National Merit awards are based on a student’s “Selection Index Score,” which can range from 48-228.  A student’s Selection Index Score is derived by doubling his or her Evidence Based Reading and Writing scaled score and then adding the math scaled score.  For example, a student who receives a PSAT score of 1480 (750 EBRW and 730 Math) would have a selection index of 223. (Drop the 0 on both the EBRW and Math score before adding to get the selection index score (i.e. 75 + 75 + 73 = 223).  If the scores were reversed (730 EBRW and 750 Math) the section index would be 221 (73 + 73 + 75 = 221).

What is the difference between Commended, Semifinalist, and Finalist students?

Commended students must have a Selection Index Score that exceeds the NMSC’s determined cut-off. This cut-off can change from year-to-year. For the class of 2020, the cut-off was 212. Approximately 35,000 students receive recognition at this level each year.

Semifinalists must achieve a Selection Index Score that exceeds a cut-off determined by each state.  A state’s cut off score represents a score in the 99th percentile for that state. Cut off scores vary from state to state. For example, the cut off score in Idaho for the Class of 2020 was 215 whereas in New Jersey, the cut off score was 223.  For the class of 2020, the cut-off scores for Maryland, DC, and Virginia were 222, 223, and 222, respectively. (Scores for the Class of 2021 were a little lower across all states due to the pandemic and may not be as accurate a guide for future test-takers.) The number of Semifinalists recognized by beach state is proportional to its percentage of US high school graduates produced each year. In September, approximately 16,000 students across the United States receive Semifinalist recognition. A student who takes the PSAT in October of her junior year, therefore, will learn she is a semifinalist almost a year after taking the test.

Approximately 15,000 students are named Finalists, and, up to half of those Finalists, may receive an NMSC scholarship.

I’ve been named a Semifinalist! What do I do now?

In order to become a Finalist, a Semifinalist must fulfill a number of requirements. These requirements include an endorsement by an official at a student’s school, a consistently high academic record throughout 9th-12th grades, a completed application, and a confirmation test score.

In the past, Semifinalists have been required to take the SAT in order to confirm their PSAT performance. Starting with the class of 2020, Semifinalists were given the option of taking either the SAT or the ACT. This can be important for those students who prefer the ACT, even though they did very well on the PSAT!

With planning and preparation, The PSAT doesn’t have to have stressful!  If you would like to a schedule a free consultation with a tutor at Marks Education, please contact us!

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