National Merit Scholarship Overview

Approximately 1.5 million high school students take the PSAT each year.  Of those, 50,000 (3.3%) are Commended Scholars, and 16,000 (1.1%) are chosen as National Merit Scholar Semifinalists.  There is a nationwide cutoff for Commended Scholars, but Semifinalists are chosen according to state-by-state cutoffs.  According to the National Merit website, these state cutoffs “ensure that academically talented young people from all parts of the United States are included in this talent pool.”

The PSAT exam is taken in mid-October, and students receive their score reports by early December.  However, Semifinalists are not announced until the next September (11 months after taking the test) and Finalists are notified by mid-February of the next year (16 months later).  National Merit Scholars are notified by the beginning of April (18 months later).  Those who took the test in October of 2013, for example, will learn if they are Semifinalists in September 2014, and if they are National Merit Scholars in April 2015.

In practical terms, this means that students who apply to college by the standard December 31st deadline will know only if they were a Semifinalist and not if they actually won.  Therefore, the Semifinalist label is especially important.

Of the 16,000 Semifinalists, about 15,000 (94%) become Finalists by meeting basic academic criteria like high GPA and a record of having later taken the SAT.  These 15,000 are then evaluated in a process similar to college applications—based on an essay, transcript, extracurricular activities, and recommendation—to choose 8,300 $2,500 scholarship winners (55% of Finalists).  The National Merit website describes this process in detail.

Being a NMS Semifinalist comes with meaningful status conferment and financial perks.  Over 200 colleges and universities offer automatic scholarships for National Merit Finalists. For example, the University of Oklahoma, which boasts the largest number of enrolled National Merit Scholars, automatically offers a tuition waiver for five years of college if you become a Finalist (UO says the fifth year is for the first year of grad school or a second major), and the vast majority of Semifinalists become Finalists. Many corporations also offer scholarships to the children of their employees who are Finalists.

The state-specific cutoffs employed by the NMSC directly determine whether or not you qualify as a Semifinalist. Qualifying as a Semifinalist does not assure that you will become either a Finalist or a scholarship winner. However, not qualifying as a Semifinalist assures that you will not be a Finalist or scholarship winner.

Because the NMSC doesn’t report students’ PSAT scores to any college, students are only left the relatively crude signal of qualifying as a “NMSC Commended Scholar” and as a “NMSC Semifinalist.”  The Acadium Scholar certification helps high-scoring students from both high-cutoff states and low cutoff-states to better signal their achievement:

  • A NMS Commended Scholar from New Jersey (cutoff of 224 in 2012) with a score of 223 can be certified to say that he is a “48-state Acadium Scholar.”
  • An NMS Semifinalist from Wyoming (with a relatively paltry cutoff of 203) who scored a 223 can distinguish herself from the 2-state qualifiers by being certified to say that she is a 48-state Acadium Scholar.

Both students are, in different senses, victims of the NMSC’s refusal to certify differences in PSAT achievement.

Race and Other Demographics

These state-specific cutoffs vary substantially: Wyoming’s cutoff in 2012 was 203—one of two states with the lowest cutoff—while Washington D.C. shared the highest cutoff, 224, with two other states.   Consequently, students attending high school in Washington, D.C. failed to qualify as Semifinalists even though they had higher scores than students in Wyoming who did become Semifinalists.

Moreover, these state-specific cutoffs have troublesome correlation with state demographics.  The state cutoffs are positively correlated with the percentage African-American, Hispanic, and Asian in the state population.  This means that the larger the percentage of racial minorities in a state, the higher the state’s cutoff tends to be.  You can download an Excel file with these correlation calculations here.

The positive correlation between the cutoffs and the minority population percentages does not mean for sure that the cutoff discrimination makes it harder for minorities to qualify as National Merit Scholar Semifinalists.  We cannot know if lowering the cutoff from 223 to 216 in Washington D.C. would in practice increase the minority share of National Merit Finalists.  It may, instead, simply award more accolades to wealthy, white students near the top of the score distribution.  The demographics of Semifinalists can radically diverge from the demographics of a state.  For example, The Oregonian newspaper reported in 2013 that more than one-third of Oregon’s National Merit Scholars live in a single, wealthy ZIP code.

But at a minimum, there is no credible, publicly available evidence to indicate that the state-specific cutoffs are well structured to track social or economic disadvantage.


Acadium Scholar is not affiliated in any way with the National Merit Scholarship Corporation or the PSAT/NMSQT.


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