With the October PSAT just around the corner, a lot of parents and students are asking, “What score do students need to get National Merit recognition and/or scholarships?”

Well, it’s a little complicated . . .

First of all, it’s impossible to know exactly what the cutoff is until after the scores are released because the top 3.33% of scorers are eligible for recognition, so the threshold score changes from year to year. Also, because the National Merit Scholarship Program recognizes the top students in every state, the threshold score varies from state to state.

In years past, students could get a pretty good idea what a qualifying score would be based on the previous year’s threshold score for their state. But this year there’s a new test scored on a new scale. Actually, there are two scales. (I said it was complicated.)

When they announced the new SAT and PSAT, the College Board claimed they would be simplifying things by putting them on the same 1600 point scale. But later, they dropped the PSAT top score down to 1520. They also added a separate selection index score on a scale of 8-38. To make matters worse, the Reading and Writing & Language scores are averaged for the overall score, but not for the selection index score. Simple, right?!

The big picture is a little easier to grasp if you start with the selection index scores. Each section (Math, Reading, and Writing & Language) is scored on a scale of 8-38. (Going from 0 to 30 makes more sense to me, but I wasn’t consulted.) Here are some hypothetical scores:

M: 28

R: 32

W&L: 30

The selection index is the sum of these scores multiplied by 2:

(28 + 32 + 30) x 2 = 180

The highest possible selection index score would be (38 + 38 + 38) x 2 = 228.

Okay, so much for the selection index score. What about the composite score?

The composite score can be calculated by first averaging the selection index scores of the two verbal sections and then multiplying the result by 20. The math Selection Index score is also multiplied by 20. These two scores are then added. For our hypothetical student, we get:

Verbal: [(32 + 30)/2] x 20 = 620

Math: 30 x 20 = 600

Composite: 1,220

The highest possible composite score is 1,520.

Note that the Math score counts for only one-third of the selection index, but one-half of the composite score. Or, in other words, each of the verbal sections counts for 25% of the composite score, but 33% of the selection index. Bottom line: if you’re competing for National Merit recognition, don’t neglect the Writing and Language section. It counts just as much as the other two, and it’s the easiest section to improve.

That’s all fine and good, you might be saying, but what score does a student need to shoot for to get National Merit recognition? What’s the magic number?

As stated above, no one–not even the College Board–knows at this point, but our (fairly conservative) anticipated threshold for National Merit recognition in Texas is 210.

So how many questions do you have to get right on each section to hit this target?

Reading: 42+

Writing & Language: 40+

Math: 39+

Of course, since all sections count equally, if you ace one of them, you’ll have a little more leeway on the other two. As stated above, students tend to get the biggest return on investment on the Writing & Language section since most of these questions test grammar rules that are fairly easy to master. Becoming a better reader or mathematician will require significantly more practice.