December 3, 2020

It’s not too late for National Merit! Here’s an alternate entry route into the Competition.


This alphabet soup of an acronym stands for “Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test” and is one of the most important things to know for high school juniors. 

Any freshman or sophomore in high school can take the PSAT/NMSQT — to prep for the SAT— but only juniors can qualify to enter the National Merit Scholarship Competition. Out of the 1.5 million-or-so students who participate in the program every year, about 7,600 are selected for a Merit Scholarship award. These accolades range from cash payments to one-time designations to renewable college scholarships.

But here’s the rub: COVID-19 has obliterated a host of norms this year, and the PSAT/NMSQT is among them. Usually, the test is administered in October, but due to cancellations, a January date was added this year. However, it’s unclear whether health conditions will be safe enough to confirm the upcoming January date. If all this sounds deflating, fear not: Students can still qualify for the competition, only now through an alternative route. Here’s how.

A Move in the Right Direction

Juniors can enter without PSAT scores by using the competition’s alternative route. Since the SAT is still happening now and until the spring (using social-distancing guidelines), students can take the SAT and submit those scores in place of official PSAT scores. Swapping out the tests isn’t unique to the exigencies of 2020. Eligible students have long been able to opt to take the SAT instead of the PSAT for sundry reasons (sickness, emergencies, class cancellations, and so on). This measure has just been especially important this year.

So, Juniors: If you get to take the PSAT in January, you’re automatically enrolled in the competition. But, if you’re venturing down the alternative route, you need to fill out this application by April 1, 2021, and take the SAT sometime between August 2020–June 2021. Make sure you request that the College Board SAT Program send a report of your SAT scores to NMSC (code 0085). Please, please note that the SAT program will not report your scores unless you request it.

How Your Scores are Scored

If you thought “PSAT/NMSQT” looked funny, check out this equation: [2(R + WL + M)]. That’s basically a way of showing how the NMSC (or National Merit Scholarship Corporation) calculates how you did on the SAT. They tab up your reading (“R”), writing and language (“WL”), and math (“M”) totals and multiply that number by two. That new sum is your Selection Index score, which the NMSC uses in lieu of what would’ve been your PSAT score had you not gone down the alternative route.

As we mentioned earlier, about 1.5 million students enter this competition each year. Only about 3% (or 50,000 students) qualify for recognition. Even these high scorers subdivide into Commended Students — roughly 34,000 young scholars who receive letters in September lauding their academic potential — and Semifinalists, the 16,000 highest scorers in their respective states. For the 2021 National Merit Scholarship Program, Class 101 has 17 Semifinalists across the country. 

Simple, Right?

Yeah, not exactly. From taking the (P)SAT to being named a Merit Scholar— it’s a journey, and Class 101’s college planners can equip students and families with the resources you’ll need to qualify for the alternative entry option, as well as guide you through all of the new requirements for 2021 and beyond. 

Ready to make test day the best day? Email to register for our SAT Prep Course or request more information. Just remember — it’s not too late for the National Merit.

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