Test Prep Advice Post

The SAT or ACT "Confirming Score" for the PSAT/NMSQT and National Merit Scholarship Competition: what it is, how is it calculated, and the state-by-state semifinalist cutoffs for the class of 2020.

Did you know that in order to become a National Merit Scholar Finalist, you must not only score high enough on the PSAT Selection Index to reach or exceed the semifinalist cutoff for your state, but you must also achieve what’s called a “confirming score” on the SAT or ACT?  Although this requirement is mentioned in the guide to the PSAT/NMSQT published by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, nowhere in the official materials or NMSC website does it specifically indicate how one's confirming score is calculated.

Well, after some extensive internet research (and finally, a phone call to the NMSC just to verify what I had gleaned from third-party sources, since the NMSC's official written materials are non-specific), I’ve determined the exact methodology for converting an SAT or ACT score to a confirming score.

A confirming score is simply an SAT or ACT score with a Selection Index that is equal to, or higher than, the national commended cutoff, which is the same each year regardless of state (the commended cutoff, which can change from year to year, is currently 209 for the class of 2021). Practically speaking, this means that anyone who qualifies as a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist (PSAT scores of 1400/1520 and up, depending on the state of residence) should be able to easily achieve a confirming score (SAT scores as low as 1320/1600, and ACT scores as low as 26/36), especially given multiple attempts.

So, why is converting an SAT score to a confirming score Selection Index so much more forgiving than converting a PSAT score to the PSAT Selection Index?  Since the SAT has 1600 points per test and the PSAT only 1520, there are a total of 240 Selection Index points available on the SAT, versus only 228 on the PSAT (for some reason the College Board does not adjust the scores to account for this difference, which works in your favor).  In addition, the confirming score only requires that you meet or exceed the "commended" cutoff, which is always the lowest bar of them all, and is most likely easier than becoming a semifinalist in your state. 

UPDATE: While the NMSC apparently does put an upper limit of 228 on any Selection Index scores earned on the SAT, all this means is that SAT SI scores of 229-240 are officially counted as a 228 Selection Index, which makes no meaningful difference at all. 

The Selection Index can be determined by taking your Reading/Writing score on the PSAT or SAT, dividing by 10, then multiplying by 2. Then, divide your Math score by 10, and add that answer to the previous result.

So, for example, if I scored 740 on Verbal and 720 on Math, then my Selection Index would be [(740/10) x 2] + (720/10) = 148 + 72 = 220.

Converting an ACT score to a Selection Index (SI) is a little trickier, but it can be done.  First of all, throw out the Science score entirely, since the SAT doesn’t have a comparable section.  Then, convert the ACT English + Reading score to the SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (ERW) score using Table C2 of the official SAT / ACT concordance tables published by the College Board and ACT, Inc..  Do the same with the ACT math score using Table B2, then add the scores together using the same procedure outlined in the paragraphs above, giving the verbal score twice the weight as the math score.

Of course, in order to become a National Merit finalist, you must first become a semifinalist by meeting or exceeding the state-by-state cutoffs on the PSAT/NMSQT, which is the (much!) tougher task because you only get one try, and there are fewer SI points available (228).  Below are those cutoffs for the Class of 2020--although the commended cutoff for the Class of 2021 has recently been announced (April 2020), we will have to wait until September 2020 to find out the semifinalist cutoffs for next year's graduating class.

The highest cutoff (223): Washington DC, Massachusetts

The lowest cutoff (212): West Virginia, Wyoming, US Territories

Alabama 216


Arizona 219

Arkansas 214

California 222

Colorado 220

Connecticut 221

Delaware 220

District of Columbia 223

Florida 219

Georgia 220

Hawaii 219

Idaho 215

Illinois 221

Indiana 218

Iowa 215

Kansas 218

Kentucky 217

Louisiana 215

Maine 215

Maryland 222

Massachusetts 223

Michigan 219

Minnesota 219

Mississippi 214

Missouri 217

Montana 214

Nebraska 216

Nevada 218

New Hampshire 218

New Jersey 223

New Mexico 213

New York 221

North Carolina 219

North Dakota 212

Ohio 218

Oklahoma 214

Oregon 220

Pennsylvania 220

Rhode Island 218

South Carolina 215

South Dakota 214

Tennessee 219

Texas 221

Utah 215

Vermont 216

Virginia 222

Washington 221

West Virginia 212

Wisconsin 216

Wyoming 212

U.S. Abroad

U.S. Territories 212

Commended 212

UPDATE, 12/9/19:  According to the NMSC website, it is possible to qualify for the NMSQT even if you miss your scheduled PSAT administration, by writing to the NMSC and asking to instead take the SAT as your NMSQT make-up test.  Again, this presents a huge opportunity and an obvious loophole, since 1) the SAT has more available SI points than the PSAT, and 2) on the SAT you are given multiple attempts:

Please note that the conversion method to a Selection Index is different for National Merit Qualifying Test purposes than it is for confirming score purposes.  Since the PSAT is out of 1520 points, the maximum raw score you can earn on any section of the SAT is capped at 38 (or, if it's easier, the maximum Verbal and Math scores are capped at 760 instead of 800).  This means that any section scores above 760 in the SAT are irrelevant for NMSQT Selection Indices.  In other words, although these points are helpful for your confirming score SI, they cannot be "banked" or used toward your Selection Index for National Merit Semifinalist qualifying purposes.

Is it weird that there are two different ways of calculating a Selection Index from the same SAT score?  Yes, yes it is...but the College Board is known for this type of nonsense.  It's just my job to stay on top of it all. 

For more, please see this official "Alternate Entry to the 2021 National Merit Scholarship Competition" document and application form.


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