Three seniors named National Merit Finalists

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Recently, three seniors–Lauren Howard, Logan James, and Franklin Wei (yours truly)–were pulled out of class by a very happy counselor. They were told that they’d been selected as Finalists in the National Merit Scholarship Competition, the culmination of a more than yearlong process.

Less than one percent of the nation’s high school graduating seniors will qualify as Semifinalists.”

— National Merit Scholarship Corporation

National Merit status is largely based on performance on the PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualification Test), which is administered in the fall of junior year and has a maximum score of 1520. Requirements vary from state to state, but in general the competition requires very high scores before a student can be selection as a Semifinalist. In fact, the requirements are so high that the National Merit Scholarship Corporation states that “less than one percent of the nation’s high school graduating seniors will qualify as Semifinalists.”

The three Finalists this year all received scores of 1490 or above, indicating that they missed just two or three questions on the entire test.

It seems, however, that none of the three Finalists took the test very seriously.

“I kind of winged (the PSAT), honestly,” James said. “I felt like it was (based on) common sense, rather than just knowledge. It was more applying skills that we’d already learned versus raw information recall.”

Howard, like James, also said that she didn’t prepare for the PSAT.

James was also rather surprised to have been named a Semifinalist.

“When I took the PSAT, they say it’s the PSAT/NMSQT–and I just ignored the NMSQT part–and I thought it was just the Pre-SAT,” James said. “But when they told me I was a Semifinalist, I was like, ‘Cool!’”

James and the other Semifinalists then had to submit an online scholarship application to continue in the competition. He kept his expectations low.

“I submitted my application, and I didn’t really hear anything back,” James said. “(I thought that) it was one of those things that they say happens, but nobody ever actually gets it. But then Mrs. Lucas came and handed me the certificate.”

Although the three are now Finalists, they are not guaranteed to win money. National Merit states that of the roughly 15,000 Finalists each year, only about half actually receive scholarships, which can range from a one-time $2,500 grant from National Merit itself to larger, corporate-sponsored scholarships. Additionally, some colleges offer substantially reduced or even free tuition to Finalists.

Even though the completing the process doesn’t guarantee scholarship money, James still said he found it helpful, since the scholarship application required an essay, which–conveniently–is similar in style and form to college application essays.

“It’s really the same thing as a college essay,” James said. “I wrote about my mission trip to Guatemala. I think it’s important to show something that’s individual and not something that many people have experienced–and something that either posed a challenge to you, or something that changed your life in some way.”