PSAT Scores and NMS

Students taking the PSAT in October 2017 (NMS Class of 2019) are now receiving their scores (December 11-13), and many families eagerly await the scores in order to assess the student’s chances for a prestigious National Merit Scholarship.

Here is a map showing the regions of the nation, by PSAT release date.

There are six data categories and corresponding scores for each. All have valuable information, but for National Merit aspirants, four are especially important:

The scaled total score: This score has one part for evidence-based reading and writing and another part for math, similar to the SAT. One difference is that the maximum score on the PSAT is 1520, not 1600. The scaled total score does not determine eligibility for a National Merit Scholarship, but it can show the overall percentile of a student’s scaled total. The NMS is typically associated with the top 1% of test takers. The 99th percentile for the PSAT is 690 for evidence-based reading and writing and 720 for math, yielding a total score of 1410. The 99th percentile is somewhat misleading, however, since there are several levels of 99+ percentiles as well, and those overall scores are higher. In practice, most National Merit Scholars would have a PSAT scaled total higher than (sometimes much higher than) 1410. So the scaled total score is only a rough yardstick for eligibility.

The raw scores: These scores represent the actual number of correct answers the student recorded in each of three sections, math, reading, and writing/language. The maximum raw score for math is 48, for reading 47, and for writing/language 44. The raw scores are not strictly determinative, but they do provide the basis for the two most critical parts of a student’s score.

The section test scores: These scores are the raw scores scaled to a maximum score of 38 in each of the three sections measured by the raw scores above. Please note that the maximum section test score is 38 for each section even though the maximum raw scores vary from 48 to 44.

The selection index score: This ultimately deciding score is derived by adding up the section test scores and then multiplying the total by two. Example: section test scores are 36 for math, 35 for reading, and 34 for writing/language. 36 + 35 + 34 = 105; 105 x 2 = 210. The 210 total is the selection index score. The maximum selection index score would be 38 + 38 + 38 = 114; 114 x 2 = 228. (The commended selection index score in 2018 was 211; this score was also sufficient for NMS semifinalist status in a few states with the least competitive scores.)

SO, there is not one nationwide score that determines National Merit eligibility. That eligibility is determined on a state by state basis, with the top 1% of selection index scorers in each state becoming eligible for National Merit Semifinalist status.

For example, for the National Merit class of 2018, students in a few states achieved semifinalist status with selection index scores of 211, the same as the national commended score level. On the other hand, students in New Jersey, the District of Columbia, and those living abroad had to achieve selection index scores of 223.

BUT of the 16,000 students (~top 1%) who become semifinalists, about 15,000 become finalists, most often because some semifinalists have a few bad grades, or a poor essay, or do not have sufficient SAT confirming scores (see below). And only about 7,500 actually become National Merit Scholars. One reason: many National Merit Scholars choose to attend one of the many prestigious colleges that do not offer any merit scholarships. For example, Harvard might have 250 National Merit Scholars in a given freshman class, but none will receive a merit scholarship of any kind.

The SAT “confirming” score: In order to become a finalist, a student must take the SAT no later than December of senior year, but taking it no later than early November is wiser. Earlier tests taken as a sophomore or later may also be used. Superscores are not allowed. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation must receive your SAT scores by December 31. This only leaves about a week to make sure of the notification if you take the SAT in December. 

According to the NMSC, the “SAT Program will not report your scores to NMSC unless you request it, and you cannot substitute a photocopy of the score report sent to you or your school for the official report. Send all testing and score reporting fees directly to the SAT Program.”

The ACT does not count for confirming purposes. And, you guessed it, the SAT for purposes of NMS eligibility also has a selection index. 

The SAT selection index differs from the PSAT selection index. Because the SAT has a maximum score of 1600 versus 1520 for the PSAT, the maximum section scores for the SAT selection index are higher. The maximum scaled section score for the SAT is 40 (versus 38) and the maximum selection index score is 240 (versus 228). (But below is the recommended “simple” way to calculate the SAT selection index (SSI).

Another difference is that, for the SAT, the confirming score is national, one SAT selection index total for everyone, regardless of state or location of residence. In the past, an SSI score that equals the PSAT selection index score for commended students has been the minimum acceptable SSI. The good news is that very high scorers on the PSAT should be very likely to meet the “commendable” threshold of the confirming SAT.

Students in states where the commendable PSAT score is the same as the seminfinalist qualify score, and who just did make the commendable score, may have to take the SAT more than once to confirm. Taking the SAT multiple times to reach a confirming score is well worth the effort given the many advantages that come with NMS status.

Example: PSAT selection index score is 2011 = commended student.

Student A has an overall SAT score of 1430, with an evidence-based reading and writing (EBRW) score of 710 and a math score of 720. (These SAT percentiles are 96 for EBRW and 95 for math.)

The simple formula for the SSI is to drop the zeros from the scores, thus making the above scores 71 and 72, respectively. Then multiply the EBRW score by 2, and add the math score.

Example: 71 x 2 = 142; 142 + 72 = 214. An SSI of 214 exceeds the PSAT SI score of 211 and should be sufficient for confirming purposes.

You can also calculate the SSI by doubling the total EBRW score (710 x 2), adding the total math score (720), and dividing the total sum by 10.

Example: 710 x 2 = 1420; 1420 + 720 = 2140; 2140 / 10 = 214.

Here is an excellent description of all six PSAT data categories and scores.

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