National Merit Semifinalist Status Earned by Twelve MSMS Seniors


Courtesy of Julia Morrison

From top left to bottom right: Alex Whitwam, Aidan Dunkelberg, Griffin Stewart, William Johnson, Gary Nguyen, Jim Zhang, Sarah Swiderski, Christina Comino, and Emily King. NOTE: Semifinalists Kevin Liao, Leah Pettit, and Vivienne Tenev are not pictured.

Dev Jaiswal, Copy Editor

In early September, twelve members of the MSMS senior class learned that the scores they earned in October of their junior year on the PSAT had qualified them for the semifinals of the National Merit Scholarship Contest. Christina Comino, Aidan Dunkelberg, William Johnson, Emily King, Kevin Liao, Gary Nguyen, Leah Pettit, Griffin Stewart, Sarah Swiderski, Vivienne Tenev, Alex Whitwam and Jim Zhang are the recipients of this honor.

Mrs. Lauren Zarandona, one of four mathematics instructors at MSMS, congratulated the semifinalists for their hard work and grit, recognizing that success is not entirely dependent on some innate smartness or giftedness.

“The reality of it is that those kids had to work really hard in order to do well on that test – and that hard work paid off,” Zarandona stated.

Mrs. Zarandona is also the supervisor for the MSMS Standardized Test and Examination Preparation Club. Mrs. Zarandona explained how the club builds community and how it is interesting to see kids band together over this common goal of practicing. 

The Preliminary SAT (PSAT) / National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT) is a standardized test administered by the College Board. Taken by high school juniors, the PSAT challenges students in subject areas such as reading, writing, language, and mathematics. Scores range from 320-1520, and the nation’s top 16,000 scorers qualify as semifinalists. National Merit Semifinalists can then apply to become finalists. Some 15,000 finalists are selected, and around 7,500 of the finalists are selected to receive one of three Merit Scholarship Awards: a National Merit $2,500 Scholarship, a corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship, or a college-sponsored Merit Scholarship. 

Dr. Heath Stevens, one of MSMS’s two academic counselors, explained the finalist application process. “The application involves an essay, a teacher recommendation, and a high school transcript to be sent to the National Merit Corporation by the first part of October.” Dr. Stevens further explained that the semifinalists are required to take the SAT within one calendar year of their PSAT scores to be eligible for finalist consideration.

When asked about their feelings on their recent accomplishments, the semifinalists espoused sentiments of accomplishment, honor, and happiness.

“It shows that a lot of us put in effort to get to where we are now,” said semifinalist and Student Government Association President Gary Nguyen.

While the National Merit Semifinalists are not announced until the September after the testing date, students are notified of their scores in about two months after taking the exam.

Semifinalist and Philosophy Club President Aidan Dunkelberg reminisced on the December morning he learned his PSAT score junior year. “The morning I woke up and saw what my score was, I ran down to the 3rd floor lobby . . . It was a good morning,” expressed Dunkelberg. “If I hadn’t come to MSMS, I don’t think I would have even known about the PSAT or known that I had the ability to take the test and get National Merit.”

Like Dunkelberg, every semifinalist proudly asserted that MSMS classes and the encouraging teachers contributed immensely to their success.

When asked if MSMS helped him prepare for the PSAT, William Johnson answered, “Definitely, we had access to practice tests here and the practice session at the beginning of the year . . . there are helpful teachers, go to them.”

Semifinalist and Astronomy Club Co-President Griffin Stewart explained how the challenges of the MSMS curriculum helped him improve his test scores. “I think MSMS helped a lot mostly just because I got much more involved in math class and I finally got enough math to feel really comfortable with standardized test math. I think my analytical skills got a little bit better probably mostly through history class. MSMS classes were really at a level that I think prepared me.”

College decisions are fast approaching for the National Merit Semifinalists. When asked if the knowledge of their PSAT scores affects their college decisions in any way, most semifinalists explained that their status does not drastically influence the idea they have about what college could be for them. However, their scores do provide a confidence booster and the assurance that they can effectively compete for scholarships and college admissions.

Slightly more distanced from the inevitability of their college decisions, the junior class will begin their quest for National Merit by taking the PSAT on October 11. This year’s National Merit Semifinalists had to make time in their busy schedules to practice for the PSAT. Semifinalist Vivienne Tenev explained one strategy that helped her prepare for the exam.

“Practice, really, but don’t just blindly practice. When you are preparing, you want to make sure that you are understanding what areas you’re not good at. You want to see what trips you up and work on those,” Tenev said. 

Dr. Heath Stevens also recommended that students check out the Khan Academy and College Board’s joint website. “You can take a diagnostic test and then it will give you direct videos to help you specifically tailor to what you need to work on. In short, my advice is practice, practice, practice.”

In terms of tips for preparing for the PSAT, Mrs. Zarandona had lots to say. She encouraged students to look back over the practice test they took during orientation week and to come to teachers for help if they do not understand why they missed what they missed. Recognizing the reality of frustration, Mrs. Zarandona also recommended that students formulate a system to solve the questions they can answer quickly and correctly first and then move on to the time consuming and harder questions.

“Be open to thinking beyond what you know. We get focused in one direction and on the PSAT in particular, they’re going to ask you things differently from what you’re used to. Be open minded to say, ‘Oh I may know something that is helpful, but I needed to just stop and think about it for a second,’” Zarandona advised.

The junior class will take the Preliminary SAT / National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test on Wednesday, October 11. S.T.E.P Club will host one final meeting on Wednesday, October 4, one week before the examination. The meeting will cover strategies and preparation for the calculator-allowed section of the PSAT for students who wish to attend.

As a closing note, Zarandona wished to remind students that the whole world is not contingent upon test scores.

“Don’t think of the PSAT as a make-or-break test. Try your best, and be done with it. We can’t judge our worth on the test score. We judge our worth on the effort we put in, and if we have an awesome result like the finalists, that’s awesome. But we’re not always going to have that awesome result, and that is okay, we just move on.”