What’s a National Merit Scholar?

If you know anything at all about the PSAT, then the current conservative media hysteria charging the elite Virginia high school with “withholding announcement” of National Merit awards makes no sense at all. Before I heard about this brouhaha, I knew 90% of everything about the PSAT. Figuring out how to explain that this hysteria is absurd  required me to learn the other 10%, which I’ll now share with you, dear readers.

The PSAT is formally known as the PSAT National Merit, Scholarship Qualifying Test, or PSAT/NMSQT. Back in the dark ages, from 1959 to some point in the 19990s,  the test had a legitimate function as an initiation to the SAT proper. Juniors took the PSAT and seniors took the SAT in October, which was SAT Day. By the time I began tutoring in 2002, “SAT Day” had already moved back to March of junior year, per College Board recommendation. Before the pandemic, competitive students began taking the SAT much earlier in their junior year. So as a practice test, the PSAT long ago lost its utility.

The real value of the PSAT comes from its association with the National Merit awards.  Originally, the Scholarship Qualifying Test was a different entity that identified top students as semifinalists,  who then “confirmed” their SQT score with an SAT. But tests are expensive to write, so in 1971 the two organizations joined forces and the PSAT became the qualifying test.

National Merit qualification is the PSAT’s reason for existence these days. For students, qualification permits recognition that has otherwise been erased from the modern era–and by modern, I don’t mean the current post-Floyd “tests are bad” phase but going back to the 80s or even earlier. All you need for National Merit recogntion is a  really high PSAT test score that puts you in the top 1% of all testers. The SAT has no equivalent. There’s no official SAT 1600 Club, no “Top 1% Score” label students can include in their CV.

So a major point of the PSAT–arguably its only real value–is to identify the top 1% and giving them bragging rights. Since Asian immigrants and months or years of prep broke the tests, the labels aren’t as impactful as they once were. But to Asians, they are particularly important because the scores can’t be gamed by state discrimination. While states with high Asian populations have higher cut scores, the scores themselves are the only way to play. No one is culling out Asians or making them meet a higher standard. The single standard is so essential to the National Merit qualification that, rather than change this, a national recognition category was defined for the lower scoring ethnicities.

If, as I claim, that’s the primary feature of the PSAT, one might wonder why other kids not in the top 1% would bother taking the PSAT at all, given the wide range of SAT test prep and the complete lack of value the PSAT has in their lives. Hard truth: Most kids are only taking the PSAT to provide a decent-sized mountain for the winners to sit atop.

To keep the PSAT tradition alive despite the fact that the nearly three hour tet has little benefit for the other 96%, the College Board gives complete control to high schools.  Students don’t register for the PSAT with the College Board (as they do for the SAT). High schools administer and own the PSAT. They decide what day to run the test (Tuesday or Saturday). They decide if the test will be limited to their students or if they will sell seats to kids from other schools. They decide whether or not they will require their students to take it.The scores and notifications are sent to the schools, not the students–these are precisely the circumstances that created the TJ hysteria currently in the news. While the SAT registration fee increases almost every year, the PSAT is just  $18–very affordable to states who might want to pick up the tab.

In short, we still have the PSAT because the College Board uses the National Merit awards  to increase their cachet and in exchange gives control and affordability to high schools, who have various reasons for wanting their student population to take college admissions tests, from bragging rights about national merit to ensuring they aren’t missing bright unmotivated kids to..whatever, I haven’t gamed out all the advantages. Otherwise, it’d be long gone.

The essential category achievement in National Merit  ranking is “semifinalist”.

National Merit Semi-finalists are, roughly, those receiving the top 1% of PSAT scores. Designation isn’t an exact science, because the finalists are apportioned by state. Different states have tighter (California, Virginia) or looser (South Dakota) cut scores, but it’s basically the top 1%.

Most semifinalists go on to be finalists.  Not all do–for example, I was a semi-finalist whose school didn’t even bother to tell me there was paperwork to apply for the next step because my GPA was a 3.3 and I had something like 4 Ds so didn’t have a shot at finalist. But most.

The scholarships themselves aren’t all that big a deal. There are three categories of scholarships: NM corporate, NM university, and National Merit itself. Awards are far more subjective. The corporate scholarships are usually limited to students whose parents are employees, or living in a particular region. The university scholarships aren’t even offered by most schools but are used by less prestigious schools to offer full-rides to smart kids if they commit. The NM-sponsored scholarships are for $2500. So not that much money and–crucially–determined in late spring, long after college offers have been made. No application gloss factor.

So for all practical purposes, semi-finalists are the ball-game. They’re declared in September, and are a pretty reliable indicator that the student was in the 99th percentile for his state.

Prior to the TJ story, that’s what I knew.

The TJ story has various iterations but makes this charge:

Last fall, along with about 1.5 million US high school juniors, the Yashar teen took the PSAT, which determines whether a student qualifies as a prestigious National Merit scholar. When it came time to submit his college applications this fall, he didn’t have a National Merit honor to report — but it wasn’t because he hadn’t earned the award. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation, a nonprofit based in Evanston, Illinois, had recognized him as a Commended Student in the top 3 percent nationwide — one of about 50,000 students earning that distinction. Principals usually celebrate National Merit scholars…

To those of us generally familiar with the PSAT, there are two unfamiliar terms that immediately jump out: Commended Student and National Merit scholar.

The other fact that jumps out is the 3%. Remember, semi-finalist is top 1%.  So Commended Student is way downstream from the only important category. Basically, a participation trophy. I thought the term might be relatively new, but I found mention of it going back 30 years, so it’s not new–just unimportant. In fact, I think my own son must have qualified and DAMN NO ONE TOLD ME EITHER.

Then I dug into “National Merit Scholar” and learned that it is the formal term for kids who make it all the way through to a scholarship from the organization.  No one uses the term “National Merit Scholar” for anything less. And as I said, the actual scholarship winners aren’t as big a deal as the semi-finalists, which is why I hadn’t heard the term. (On the Advanced Placement side, AP Scholar has far more significance.) Here’s a University of South Florida campus celebrating the presence of eight National Merit Scholars on campus. USF Petersburg gives each student a full ride on tuition and board in exchange for the student openly committing to the school. This is not a list of semifinalists, even, as can be seen by the declaration of major.

So again: Semi-finalist status is coin of the realm. Commended is also-ran, Finalist is status too late to matter, Scholar is more status too late, but also some money.

So that’s nearly 1300 words on the National Merit and PSAT.

In Part II, I’ll explain why the l’affaire TJPSAT is not just nothing, but a really embarrassing nothing. Hint: everyone retweeting this story either genuinely thinks or is perpetuating a lie “commended” is “scholar”.


About educationrealist

29 responses to “What’s a National Merit Scholar?

  • The C Man

    NMS Commended (top 3%) existed in the mid-1980s. I was one. The College Board mailed a little certificate on heavy paper stock (similar to a wedding invitation) to your school. Your school would then give you the certificate in the manner it saw fit.

    Two other members of my (fewer than 25) class also got them. We considered them as participation trophies, and ignored them thereafter. Putting “Commended” on a college application wouldn’t have occurred to any of us.

    • educationrealist

      Exactly. You know when Commended would matter? In a little rural school in West Virginia,when a kid with a B average and no prep got in the top 3%. Or a kid from the barrio or inner DC. Getting that score today in an area with no prep and no support would be big news. For the average child of professionals, it’s irrelevant.

  • Karen

    This isn’t right. When I applied to college (in the early ’00s), it was completely normal to put Commended status on a college app. We knew it wasn’t as good as Semi-Finalist, but top 3% in a relatively competitive state is also a good sign for you when everyone at every competitive high school in that state is taking the test.

    In my class of ~500 people, we had 2 semi-finalists and around 5 commended students. If the commended status didn’t matter, that’s basically like saying that no one but the valedictorian and salutatorian would put their class rank on a college app, but you KNOW that’s not true. Even by this time, those of us applying to selective schools were looking for every angle we could find. I remember listing totally absurd stuff like “top 2% of graduating class” on my college app. Now, you could reasonably ask, does any college actually give a damn about commended status? That I couldn’t tell you. But you can’t say that students and college applicants don’t believe it matters, especially at an insanely competitive school like TJ where, if you are honest, you know that the Asian majority needs to produce MORE objective evidence of excellence than everyone else.

    • educationrealist

      ” We knew it wasn’t as good as Semi-Finalist, but top 3% in a relatively competitive state is also a good sign for you when everyone at every competitive high school in that state is taking the test.”

      But the top 3% is nationwide. So if you are in a competitive state and made Commended it’s proof you weren’t in the top 1% in your state. Kind of ho-hum.

      “In my class of ~500 people, we had 2 semi-finalists and around 5 commended students.”

      Well, that’s a different story. Your school wasn’t very good, had only 2 semi-finalists, so made a big deal of its commended students.

      But no, most college applicants don’t believe it matters. Some do, clearly, but they’re kidding themselves. That said, I didn’t say you shouldn’t mention it, or that students don’t have a right to mention it. I’m just saying that this fuss is not about Commended.

      Also, I’m saying they were notified. And if kids care as much as you say they do, then the parents didn’t need to be notified.

      • Karen

        Top 3% nationwide is even better! The CJ story says neither the parents nor the kids were notified before the ED deadlines. Isn’t that the story here? I agree, it’s not the major civil rights violation of our time or whatever extreme accusation the moms in the story allege, but if the question is strictly, is this information that students believe could be valuable for their college chances that their high schools should not withhold from them, then sure.

        As to whether current college applicants believe it matters, you can check the beliefs of actual college applicants at College Confidential, which was where I (from my mediocre high school of few NM Semi-Finalists) first learned about how to apply for college from hyperventilating super-dweebs more than 20 yrs ago, and which amazingly still exists. There, the meaning of these different statuses seems to be regularly debated, but you can see people listing commended status, eg, here: https://talk.collegeconfidential.com/t/official-northwestern-class-of-2023-rd-results-thread/2043603/7. (Picked a random school results thread via Google, you could dig deeper. Plus, if you think NM Commended status is a lame thing to list on a college app, this thread will give you new insight into just how deep students are willing to dig for something resembling an honor or award!)

      • educationrealist

        “Top 3% nationwide is even better! The CJ story says neither the parents nor the kids were notified before the ED deadlines. Isn’t that the story here? ”

        The story says no such thing and the story wasn’t rported. It’s an op ed piece.

        I’m not disputing that kids are desperate, no do I care that they list it. I’m saying iut’s an also ran participation trophy and the parents were notified anywy.

  • Dave

    I had a NM corporate in the 70’s from my moms employer, it covered almost all my expenses at a state school. One side benefit was my mom got a lot of attention and opportunities from her bosses.

  • jb

    Of possible interest: Way back in early 70s my family screwed up somehow and I missed the PSAT. (Kind of bizarre, as my mother was a teacher!) However it turned out that you could take a regular SAT and submit that score instead, which I did, and qualified as a semifinalist. (I never saw any money though, so maybe we screwed up a second time?)

    Also, “CJ” (i.e., “City Journal”), not “TJ”.

    • jb

      Oops, I see you are referring to TJ high school, not CJ City Journal. Nevermind…

      • educationrealist

        Oh, good. both are in the piece but I think I got them straight.

        My family absolutely fell apart my senior year in high school. Definitely affected what my college choices were. Didn’t know that about the SAT.

        However, at the time, my math scores were in the 80% range. My verbal scores were off the charts. Then as now, not a great lot of options for people with lopsided verbal.On the plus side, I’ve learned how to learn math, so now my math scores are 98%ile.

      • jb

        I scored 99% in both math and verbal, which should have augured great things in life. Alas, it didn’t…

  • Michael Watts

    Why is semifinalist status supposed to be significant? It’s determined, as you note, solely by your PSAT score. On a college application, you’d also be listing your SAT score, which is the same information again. The semifinalist designation is completely redundant.

    • Derek

      I’m late to the party, but . . . semi-finalist status matters because it’s a trigger/gateway for many scholarships. Consider Texas A&M, a good school that I know well, which gives automatic $3000/year scholarships to semi-finalists. 95% of semi-finalists become finalists, and finalists get $10,500/year. https://aggie.tamu.edu/financial-aid/types-of-aid/scholarships/undergraduate-scholarships/national-scholars.

      That covers almost all of a student’s tuition and fees, and they’re still eligible for other scholarships on top of that.
      Plus, either award qualifies the student for in-state tuition, which is an even bigger savings for out-of-state students.

      • educationrealist

        Actually, that’s what *finalist* status means, but semifinalists and schools have a lot to do in order to get moved from semi to finalist. And yes, I agree that semifinalist is the ballgame.

  • Karen

    The story says:
    “On September 16 of this year, National Merit sent a letter to Bonitatibus listing 240 students recognized as Commended Students or Semi-Finalists. The letter included these words in bold type: “Please present the letters of commendation as soon as possible since it is the students’ only notification.” National Merit hadn’t included enough stamps on the package, but nevertheless it got to Bonitatibus by mid-October—before the October 31 deadline for early acceptance to select colleges. In an email, Bonitatibus told Yashar that she had signed the certificates “within 48 hours.” But homeroom teachers didn’t distribute the awards until Monday, November 14, after the early-application deadlines had passed. Teachers dropped the certificates unceremoniously on students’ desks.”

    That may not be true, but you don’t seem to be disputing it in your post, or offering counter-evidence here. Are you? You seem only to be arguing that NM commendation doesn’t matter for anything b/c no one cares about it. But clearly some people *do* care about it, as demonstrated by the College Confidential hyperventilators. Then you imply, well, these are foolish people b/c it’s a participation trophy. I mean, what’s the cut score for foolishness? Participation trophies go to all participants, not the top 3% of them.

    • sukhun

      Hysterical: “what’s the cut score for foolishness?” This blog post is arrogant, condescending and full of misinformation and most of all assumptions about what matters in a kid’s life. Principal doesn’t spell g-o-d. The principal had no right to withhold critical educational information from parents.

      • educationrealist

        Should at least mention you’re the mom author who wrote the article.

      • Asra Nomani

        It’s obvious. And I am not just “the mom” who wrote the column. I am an award-winning investigative reporter with 30 years of professional experience, having investigated murders, terrorism and corporate crime. I am a former professor of journalism at Georgetown University who has written three books. I have testified before the U.S. Congress four times. I have never been sued for libel or defamation, nor faced any such charges. So, yeah, I’m “the mom” who wrote the column. It’s a badge I wear with honor.

      • educationrealist

        Well, next time avoid the sockpuppeting. As for your impressivef history, you’ve done a good job riding your identity politics, given how frequently you whine about them. Whatever teachng jobs you had they weren’t with a PhD.

      • Derek

        C’mon, Asra. You know full well that any student or parent who cared about the possibility of Commended status was already registered to get their PSAT results via email. Like you: https://twitter.com/JenniAgitator/status/1610444832333524993?s=20&t=aYGY5tAQ-upRiueCFfLyQA

        So, since you knew how to get your scores in 2017, why did it take you “two years to after the fact” in 2020 to learn that your son had received a Commended designation? Are you lying now, or were you just incompetent then?

  • Clark Coleman

    From the story you linked:

    “But homeroom teachers didn’t distribute the awards until Monday, November 14, after the early-application deadlines had passed. ”

    In your comments, you claim that no such thing was said in the story.

    • educationrealist

      The awards aren’t the notification. The email is.

      • Clark Coleman

        The only mention of emails in the article was that an email was sent to an account that was rarely used. I don’t know the story behind that. But “equity” was the motivation for withholding the certificates, this family claims that they were unaware of the honor until they got the certificate on November 14. It is hard to conclude that leftist equity nonsense was not largely to blame for the problem.

      • educationrealist

        ” I don’t know the story behind that. ”

        I do. The notification was sent to the student’s official district email.

        No, “equity” was not the motivation for withholding the certificate for the simple reason that the certificates weren’t withheld. If the student didn’t bring the certificate home then the family *still* wouldn’t know about the “honor” (it’s not, for TJ) because the student not bringing the certificate home is identical to the student not checking the email.

        The fact is, commended is something only communicated to students because it’s not a big deal, and “equity” is not why they don’t celebrate.

      • Shawnna Yashar

        My son and his 2023 classmates who were Commended Scholars did not receive any email notification of their award. If you are going to be rude and dismissive of children’s accomplishments, please have the decency to do so under your own name. Mocking children is disgusting. I can’t believe you are an educator.

      • educationrealist

        Your son wasn’t notified this year due to an oversight probably caused by the late delivery. Administrators live their lives by the calendar, and the fact that the certificates were a month late probably led to them sitting on a desk for too long because, frankly, they weren’t important enough at a school like TJ where the administrators have *real* work to do getting the top 1% students forms entered.. But normally, the students do get notified by email before they get the certificates. Nomani lied when she said that the administrators “withheld” the notifications.

        As you yourself acknowledge in your emails, your son didn’t even bother to tell you about the certificate when he got it because he–correctly–didn’t see it as that big a deal. He’s a student who successfully gained entry to a competitive admissions high school in which nearly half the class is in the top 1% and it’s largely assumed that the rest are in the top 5%, so who the hell cares that it’s 3%? And there are no scholarships available to Commended students that aren’t available to any other non-semifinalist.

        So now you’re going to piss and moan and demand that the PARENTS get notified of Commended so that you can control one more aspect of your kids’ lives and make sure one more meaningless little honor is stuck on the admissions and then send out one more irritating Nomani-authored article declaring victory and pretending that it was always about the parents getting notified and how the schools just hated your kids.

        I’m better known as Ed than I am under my real name. I don’t hate kids. I like them a lot. I also think top 3% is a perfectly terrific achievement. My own son made Commended, alhough I wasn’t notified and I didn’t spend 18 rounds of “bitch out an administrator” much less make a national case out of it.

        What I don’t like is liars, and you and Nomani are lying because you are hoping you’ll win your lawsuit. I suspect you won’t, though. Your track record for success is low. Your annoyance factor is high, though, so pat yourself on the back.

  • Just Another Fairfax Parent

    Former Commended Scholar here from an extremely competitive private school, the kind that was considered on par with TJ in the 90s.

    Commended means nothing to kids like that. In the 1990s NONE of us put it on our applications and somehow we’re all accepted into highly competitive schools.

    In the highly competitive college admissions game, I know this is shocking, but the admissions officers know what a top 3% score looks like. Sorry to blow your minds, “parents rights” rabble rousers, but you’re being ridiculous.

    I am so tired of watching TJ parents act as though they are the only parents with children in Fairfax County Public Schools or that they are the only ones with inefficiencies in their schools. These people are highly invested in their children’s accomplishments, which is great, but it’s more than a little creepy how much of their own identity they seem to derive from their kids’ intellects.

    I sincerely hope their children are loved for more than their accomplishments, because the status consciousness and entitlement of their parents is highly off putting. What’s more, this kind of BS is exactly what colleges DON’T need. Don’t think that admissions committees don’t check social media. And don’t delude yourselves that your antics won’t affect them in the admissions game.

    And when your kids don’t get in, are you going to form a coalition and sue MIT, Caltech, UVA, and Harvard? Schools don’t want to deal with that nonsense and highly endowed schools don’t want to waste their money on it. They know that these parents have wasted taxpayer money on bogus school board recalls and politically motivated lawsuits and they don’t want anything to do with this kind of circus disguised as “advocacy.”

  • How Were TJHSST Commended Students Harmed? | educationrealist

    […] Part II:  (Part I: What’s a National Merit Scholar?) […]

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