How to interpret PSAT-11 scores for National Merit Scholarships

By Rajkamal Rao  

Image Courtesy: Rao Advisors LLC

If you're a rising 11th grader or a parent of a rising 11th grader who is about to take the PSAT/NMSQT, this post is a must-read! It is also a must-read for students who have already taken the PSAT-11 test. If you are interested to know more about the financial benefits of becoming a National Merit Scholar, read our separate post here.

There's a lot of confusion about what exactly the PSAT is. For starters, it's the Preparatory SAT, so it gives students a chance to test-drive the actual SAT with a look and feel that's identical. The exam environment, the proctoring of the test, the questions, answer choices, the balancing of the degrees of difficulty across various questions, the sections, the scoring, the reporting - every aspect of the larger SAT is replicated on the PSAT with great care.

The PSAT tests skills in reading, comprehension and math using questions in Science, History/Social Studies, Expression of Ideas, Standard English Conventions, Algebra, Problem Solving, Data Analysis and Advanced Math - skills that high school students learn throughout their careers. It is refreshing to note that at least one nationalized organization recognizes these skills in our teenagers.

There are some important differences between the two tests. The SAT is on an 800 scale but the PSAT is on a 760 scale. The SAT's essay is optional; the PSAT has no essay.

The PSAT in many ways is a lot more important to school districts than it is to students. Just like the STAAR test is an indicator of a district's performance in demonstrating that children have learned basic math and reading skills, the PSAT is a test which school districts covet because it allows them to brag about how well-prepared their students are to pursue college. After all, SAT (or ACT) scores are still needed at most colleges, so a good PSAT score is evidence of a likely good future SAT/ACT score, which means you're likely a good candidate for college. At least, this is the theory.

To the 9th and 10th grade student, other than the "test-drive" features of the test, the PSAT score is not of much consequence. The PSAT score cannot be used in college admissions. Every student is mandated to take the test, so there's no differentiation that one student can claim over another.

If you're a PSAT student who will complete your high school diploma in the United States, your citizenship or Green Card status should not matter. Students on dependent visas (H-4, L-2) can qualify for NMSQT awards. But if you're living abroad, you can only qualify for NMSQT awards if you are a US Citizen or Green Card holder.

The PSAT Recruitment

For the 11th grader, a good PSAT score can mean significant advantages in the college admissions process for elite universities. Although long known among professional counselors, the recent Harvard case threw additional light on how elite colleges use the PSAT. Students with high PSAT scores are sent "Recruitment" letters which are invitations to students to apply. According to the New York Times, in the fall of 2013, white and Asian-American men had to have scored at least 1380 on the SAT (converted from the equivalent on the PSAT), and black students and other underrepresented minorities had to have scored at least 1100.

The PSAT score is the first "academic" factor that Harvard looks at in a long line of factors by priority - Athlete (A); Legacy (L); Director’s List (D) (Royal child); Children of faculty (C); Sparse country; PSAT invite. The ALDC students form 30% of all freshmen admits. 

Harvard's PSAT Recruitment Letter

What is remarkable is that 60% percent of admitted freshmen received a recruitment letter - which means that doing well on the PSAT is almost a prerequisite to be considered for admission. Either one must be an ALDC student or must have received a PSAT invite letter. These two groups form 90% of the admitted freshmen class.

Most elite schools follow admission policies that are close to Harvard's. Yale, Stanford, Princeton, and Columbia also send out recruitment letters to high PSAT scorers.

The NMSQT Scholarships

The PSAT-11 test also serves as the NMSQT and assumes enormous significance, more important than the SAT/ACT.

Nearly 1.6 million 11th grade students took the PSAT in 2018. Only 16,000 high scorers, about 1% of the total, qualified for the NMS Semifinalist recognition.  While the NMS Semifinalist determination is based only on the Selection Index Score (SIS), the Finalist and Scholar recognition are through further filtration. 

About 15,000 were classified as NMS Finalists based on other academic accomplishments, including class rank and GPA, and extracurricular activities/leadership and principal recommendations.

NMS Finalist Award Letter, Courtesy: NMS Corporation.

And about 8,000 will qualify for the NMS Scholar recognition, about 0.5% of the total.

How SIS Scores Are Calculated

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation piggy-backs on the exhaustive/expansive testing infrastructure of the College Board to use the same PSAT-11 scores to determine its awardees. The NMSC is a non-profit that lobbies thousands of private companies to dole out merit scholarships to merit-worthy students.

The SIS, which the NMSC generates, weights a student's "Reading and Writing" skills as 67% important whereas Math skills are rated as only 33% important. A future NMSC could change the SIS computation to make the two sections equally weighty, or even switch the weights given the world's gravitation to STEM fields. But for 23 years, the non-profit has stayed with its current bias towards reading and writing.

Suppose a student has a PSAT score of 1480, broken down into 730 on the "Reading and Writing" section and 750 on the Math test. The SIS is calculated as [730+730+750]/10 = 221. In Texas, the National Merit Scholar Semifinalist cutoff for the freshman college class of 2020 (students who took the PSAT-11 in 2018) was 221.

The bias in the SIS computation can mean that two students with identical PSAT scores could see different NMSC outcomes.

Suppose a different student had a 720 in Reading and a perfect 760 in Math. Her PSAT is 1480, just as the student above. But the SIS would be calculated as [720+720+760]/10 = 220. In Texas, this student would fail to qualify for the NMS.

The ranking of the Semifinalist winners is not performed nationwide but within each state. So, while a Texas student with a 221 SIS made the cutoff for the 2018 NMS awards, he would have failed to make it in California where the cutoff was 223. In Arkansas, the cutoff for the same year was 204.

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