PSAT and National Merit Scholarship Scoring, Explained

The PSAT is often a high schooler’s first interaction with the world of SAT/ACT standardized testing.  While that should mean the PSAT is straightforward and easy to understand, unfortunately it does not. In fact, the PSAT has one of the strangest scoring systems of any major test, especially when you add in the layer of complexity that is the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT).  So, we’re here to set the record straight and give the definitive explanation of what the PSAT/NMSQT scoring actually means.


The PSAT is nearly identical to the SAT, but instead of having a maximum score of 1600 like the SAT, the PSAT’s maximum is 1520 (760 for Reading/Grammar and 760 for Math).  The PSAT is structured exactly like the SAT: the order of the sections, difficulty level, and timing constraints are all the same. So why the 80 point difference in scoring?  No one really knows. 

National Merit Scholarship:

The National Merit Scholarship is open to all high school juniors who take the PSAT in the fall (usually October).  It’s extremely selective, but if you are able to qualify as a National Merit Semifinalist or Finalist, you will have a significant advantage over other students when you apply to colleges. The actual scholarship amount given by National Merit varies by state, but many colleges will give additional, generous scholarships to students who are semifinalists or finalists.  

PSAT and National Merit Scholarship Scoring:

With a lot of potential money on the line, it’s important to understand how you can actually qualify for a National Merit Scholarship.  The National Merit Scholarship uses your PSAT score and converts it into a score with a maximum of 228. How do you get a maximum of 228 from a test that has a maximum of 1520?  Good question. A full breakdown is below, but basically you drop the zeros from the PSAT, giving you a maximum of 76 for each section. Then, you double the reading/grammar score and add that to your math score, giving you a maximum or 228. (One thing you’ll notice is that National Merit puts more weight in the Reading/Grammar section than it does in the Math section, so keep that in mind as you’re studying).

PSAT Reading/Grammar Maximum: 760
PSAT Math Maximum: 760
Total Maximum: 1520

National Merit Reading/Grammar Maximum: 76 x 2 = 152
National Merit Math Maximum: 76
Total Maximum: 228

As mentioned, the National Merit Scholarship is extremely selective, so in order to qualify, your score will need to be in the 99th percentile.  The exact scores vary by year and by state, but, typically, you need to score around 220 in order to be considered.  So we’ll look at a breakdown of one way that could happen.

Student PSAT Reading/Grammar Score: 730
Student PSAT Math Score: 740
Total score: 1470

National Merit Reading/Grammar Score: 73 x 2 = 146
National Merit Math Score: 74
Total Score: 220

As you can see, it’s difficult to get in the 220 range and qualify for National Merit Scholarships; you need to have nearly perfect scores. However, since the payoff can be so significant, it’s usually worth taking the time to study if you think you have a chance.  

Feel free to reach out to us if you have any questions at all.  Span Test Prep has helped many students qualify for National Merit Scholarships, so we’d be happy to do the same for you.