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How to Qualify for National Merit Semifinalist 2025

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

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For the class of 2025, the minimum score needed to qualify for National Merit recognition, known as the Commended cutoff, is 208. This is the highest it has been in the last four years.

To those who are wondering why you haven’t heard back from your schools, cutoff scores for Semifinalists aren’t announced at the same time as the Commended cutoff. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) needs to gather detailed information on student eligibility from schools first. Unlike the nationwide Commended cutoff, Semifinalist cutoffs vary by state and require more time to calculate.

High schools receive the names of Semifinalists at the end of August and then notify the students in early to mid-September. The letters for Commended Students are not sent to schools until after the Semifinalists are announced.

What Does a Cutoff Mean?

In the context of the National Merit Scholarship Program, a cutoff is the minimum Selection Index score that students must achieve to qualify for National Merit honors. The Selection Index is a combined score derived from the PSAT/NMSQT. Here’s a breakdown of how cutoffs are determined and their significance:

National Commended Cutoff

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) sets a national Commended cutoff score to identify the top 52,000 to 54,000 students who will receive some form of honors. This cutoff is determined to approximate the target number of national honorees.

National Merit Semifinalist Cutoffs

Unlike the national Commended cutoff, Semifinalist cutoffs are set on a state-by-state basis. NMSC allocates the 16,000 Semifinalists among states based on the annual number of high school graduates in each state. For example, California typically has around 2,000 Semifinalists, Michigan around 500, and Wyoming about 25.

In each state, the NMSC calculates the cutoff score that most closely matches its target number of Semifinalists. If 1,900 students in California score 222 or higher and 2,050 students score 221 or higher, the cutoff would be set at 221, assuming the target number is exactly 2,000. Because of the dense clustering of scores at certain levels, even small changes in performance can lead to shifts in the cutoff.

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Additional Details

  • Each state’s Semifinalist cutoff can be at least the national Commended level.
  • The cutoffs for the District of Columbia and U.S. students studying abroad are set at the highest state cutoff, typically New Jersey.
  • For U.S. territories and possessions, the cutoff matches the national Commended level.
  • Boarding schools are grouped by region, with each region’s cutoff set at the highest state cutoff within that region.

The number of top scorers can vary each year due to several factors:

  • The number of students taking the PSAT/NMSQT may fluctuate.
  • Test scaling issues can also affect cutoff scores. Previously, a single test form was used widely, which could influence cutoffs if there were any issues with that form. The new digital PSAT uses multiple forms, with scores based on specific problems’ characteristics, theoretically leading to more stable results.

Despite these changes, some uncertainty remains, especially concerning the reliability of scoring at the higher end (700-760 range) on the new, shorter digital test.

PSAT NMSQT Qualifying Scores 2025

State Class of 2025 (Most Likely Estimate) Class of 2025 (Estimated Range)
Alabama 212 210 – 216
Alaska 212 209 – 215
Arizona 217 214 – 220
Arkansas 212 209 – 215
California 221 219 – 223
Colorado 217 215 – 220
Connecticut 221 219 – 222
Delaware 220 218 – 222
District of Columbia 223 222 – 224
Florida 216 215 – 219
Georgia 219 216 – 220
Hawaii 217 215 – 220
Idaho 214 210 – 216
Illinois 219 217 – 221
Indiana 216 213 – 219
Iowa 213 210 – 216
Kansas 215 213 – 218
Kentucky 214 210 – 217
Louisiana 214 211 – 217
Maine 214 211 – 217
Maryland 222 219 – 223
Massachusetts 222 220 – 223
Michigan 217 215 – 220
Minnesota 218 215 – 220
Mississippi 211 209 – 215
Missouri 215 212 – 218
Montana 210 208 – 214
Nebraska 213 209 – 216
Nevada 214 210 – 218
New Hampshire 215 213 – 219
New Jersey 223 222 – 224
New Mexico 211 208 – 214
New York 220 218 – 222
North Carolina 218 215 – 220
North Dakota 208 208 – 210
Ohio 216 214 – 218
Oklahoma 211 209 – 215
Oregon 217 215 – 220
Pennsylvania 219 217 – 221
Rhode Island 216 213 – 219
South Carolina 213 209 – 217
South Dakota 211 208 – 214
Tennessee 216 214 – 219
Texas 220 218 – 221
Utah 212 209 – 216
Vermont 213 210 – 217
Virginia 221 219 – 222
Washington 220 218 – 222
West Virginia 208 208 – 210
Wisconsin 214 212 – 217
Wyoming 208 208 – 210
​U.S. Territories 208 208

PSAT NMSQT Figures Since The Revised PSAT

Class of All PSAT Juniors Percentage Number Commended
Class of 2023 1,484,000 3.00% 43,985 207
Class of 2024 1,460,000 3.00% 43,575 207
Class of 2025 1,490,000 3.40% 50,600 208

The new PSAT, which will be shorter, online, and adaptive, is expected to be less disruptive than the big changes made eight years ago. Back then, both the test content and scoring were changed. This time, the main change is in Reading and Writing content, but the score range (320-1520) and the Selection Index calculation will stay the same. The Selection Index still gives more importance to Reading and Writing scores compared to Math scores.

Young woman talking to an interviewer.

However, state cutoffs for Semifinalists are likely to change. Historically, about one-third of state cutoffs stay the same each year. Because state cutoffs can be unpredictable, students should look at a range of score estimates rather than just one number. These estimates are based on past performance and current national trends, which can differ from state to state.

Changes in cutoffs are more noticeable in states with fewer test-takers and National Merit Semifinalists. In the last decade, large states’ cutoffs have mostly stayed within one point of the previous year’s cutoff 88% of the time.

This stability is less common in midsized states (73%) and small states (53%). No large state has seen a cutoff increase of more than three points in a year, but small states have had changes of up to six points. Higher scores tend to be more stable, with smaller changes being less frequent; for example, moving from 221 to 222 is rarer than moving from 212 to 213.

When are National Merit Semifinalists Announced?

By the end of April, the Commended cutoff becomes unofficially known. However, the actual lists of Semifinalists are not sent to high schools until the end of August.

NMSC (National Merit Scholarship Corporation) sets a press embargo on the official announcement of Semifinalists until mid-September. Despite this, high schools are permitted to inform students of their Semifinalist status before the public announcement date. It is also around mid-September that NMSC sends out letters to Commended Students.

National Merit Semifinalist 2024-2025 Release Date:

  • September 2024: Students will be notified if they are Commended or Semi-Finalists
  • February 2025: Semi-finalists will be notified if they are Finalists
  • March 2025: Merit scholarship winners will be notified

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Do State and National Percentiles Indicate Whether I Will Be a National Merit Semifinalist?

No, state and national percentiles are not reliable indicators for determining if you will be a National Merit Semifinalist. While about 1% of test takers qualify as Semifinalists each year, and a 99th percentile score might seem sufficient, there are several reasons why percentiles are not a good measure:

  • Percentiles are calculated based on section scores or total scores, not the Selection Index, which is used to determine National Merit status.
  • Percentiles are rounded, and there’s a big difference between being in the top 0.51% and the top 1.49% when it comes to National Merit qualifications.
  • Percentiles show the percentage of students at or below a certain score. The “at” part is crucial because the NMSC focuses on the specific cutoff scores.
  • The number of Semifinalists is based on the number of high school graduates in a state, not the number of PSAT takers.
  • Percentiles do not reflect the current year’s scores. They are based on data from the past three years and are set before the current test is even administered.

For a more accurate prediction, it’s better to look at the historical National Merit cutoffs rather than percentiles.

Who Is Awarded National Merit?

The National Merit Scholarship Program awards honors based on a special PSAT score called the Selection Index, which ranges from 48 to 228. This score is the sum of your Math, Reading, and Writing and Language test scores.

To become a Semifinalist, your Selection Index score must meet or exceed the cutoff set for your state. These cutoffs vary widely. The qualifying score for the 2022 scholarship cycle was 207 on a national level, but since the program selects Semifinalists based on their state, the required score depends on where you live.

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What’s a Good Score for a National Merit Scholarship?

A good score for the National Merit Scholarship varies each year and depends on your state. Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know:

Minimum Qualifying Score

  • For fall 2020 test-takers, the minimum qualifying score, known as the Selection Index, was 207. This score can change annually because it is based on the top 50,000 PSAT scores nationwide.

Commended Students

  • Commended students meet the national minimum qualifying score but do not advance to the Semifinalist level. Out of the 50,000 recognized students, around 34,000 are Commended Students. For the 2022 scholarship cycle, the national minimum qualifying score was also 207.

Semifinalists

  • Semifinalists are the top 16,000 scorers who meet their state’s qualifying score cutoff. These cutoffs vary widely by state, ranging from 207 to 224. Semifinalists must complete an application process to advance to the finalist stage.

Finalists

  • Around 15,000 of the Semifinalists become finalists. This requires SAT or ACT scores that meet or exceed the national Selection Index cutoff. Of these finalists, about 7,500 are awarded National Merit Scholarships.

Tips on How to Achieve a High PSAT Score

  • Check your state’s cutoff score and aim higher to account for potential increases.
  • Read PSAT study guides to design an effective study plan.
  • Practice with official PSAT and SAT tests to prepare thoroughly.

Achieving a high PSAT score not only helps you qualify for the National Merit Scholarship, prepares you for the SAT, and most importantly, makes your college applications stand out!

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Final Thoughts

Achieving the National Merit honors involves hard work and smart studying. If you want to be a National Merit Commended Student or a Semifinalist, the skills you build will also help you with the SAT and college applications. So keep track of the latest cutoff scores, use good study materials, and take practice tests to improve. Earning National Merit recognition can lead to scholarships and make your college applications stronger, making all your effort worth it.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the National Merit Semifinalist Scholarship Program and how do you join?

The National Merit Scholarship Program (NMSP) is run by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation in partnership with the College Board. It recognizes high-achieving high school seniors. Some recognitions are based solely on junior year PSAT/NMSQT scores, while others require additional qualifications. The NMSC awards about $50 million in scholarships annually, and many colleges offer reduced or free tuition to recognized students, greatly increasing the value of National Merit recognition.

2. How is the Selection Index calculated?

The Selection Index is calculated by doubling your Reading and Writing (RW) score, then adding your Math score, and dividing the total by 10. For an easy method, drop the last zero from your section scores, double the RW score, and add the Math score. For example, if you have 690 in RW and 720 in Math, your Selection Index would be 69 x 2 + 72 = 210. Remember that you can’t calculate the Selection Index directly from the Total Score (320-1520). For students entering with an SAT score, each SAT section is capped at 760 for the Selection Index calculation.

3. How can you increase your chances of a National Merit Scholarship?

Start by taking a PSAT practice test to see where you stand. Create a study plan to improve your score, focusing on the test format and common questions. Identify your strengths and weaknesses to target areas for improvement. On test day, use good test-taking strategies. When you get your PSAT scores, check your Selection Index against recent qualifying scores in your state to see your chances of becoming a Semifinalist.

4. What if I didn’t score high enough to be recognized?

If you didn’t score high enough for National Merit recognition, don’t worry. The National Merit Scholarship isn’t a large financial award, and there are many other merit scholarships available. Many colleges offer substantial merit awards to impressive students. Applying to schools where your profile is stronger than the average applicant can help you secure these valuable scholarships.

5. How does the PSAT impact my college chances?

Your PSAT score doesn’t directly affect college admissions. However, doing well on the PSAT can earn you National Merit recognition, which boosts your college application. Finalists and National Merit Scholars receive the most significant boost, but being a Commended Scholar or Semifinalist is also impressive and can positively impact your application.

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