By Diego Mountin, Staff Writer
Four Acalanes seniors were recognized by the National Merit Scholarship Program as some of the highest scorers of the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT).
This past September, seniors Lauren Kim, Chris Mickas, Conor Sasner, and Eric Sirott were confirmed as semifinalists for this year’s National Merit Scholarship competition based on test scores from the PSAT administered in October 2013. Less than 16,000 seniors around the nation earn the recognition every year.
Started by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation in 1955, the National Merit Scholarship Program uses the College Board administered PSAT to determine eligibility and qualification for recognition and scholarships. Approximately 1.5 million juniors in 22,000 U.S. high schools take the test, which serves as an initial screening for program entrants. If a student scores well, normally in the top 4 percent of all test takers, they are recognized as a commended scholar by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.
Of these entrants, some 16,000 semifinalists are designated on a state representational basis in numbers proportional to each state’s percentage of the nation’s graduating high school seniors. Semifinalists are normally in the top one percent of test takers for their respective state.
Semifinalists must then fulfill additional requirements to advance to the finalist level of the competition and be considered for a scholarship. Approximately 15,000 of the 16,000 semifinalists advance to finalist standing by sending a laundry list of information: SAT scores that confirm the earlier PSAT/NMSQT performance, an outstanding academic record, and an endorsement/recommendation from a high school official.
They must also submit an application that includes high school courses and grades, extracurricular and volunteer activities, and a self-descriptive essay. The information that is collected about each semifinalist is used later in the process to choose scholarship winners.
All finalists receive a Certificate of Merit in recognition of their outstanding performance in the competition. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation then rewards 2,500 National Merit Scholarships of $2,500 to finalists in each state judged to have the strongest combination of accomplishments, skills, and potential for success in rigorous college studies. At this point, finalists, and in some cases semifinalists, are eligible for scholarships and awards from many colleges and foundations.
Besides the four semi-finalists, have nineteen commended scholars this school year. Joan Karr, Acalanes College and Career Center advisor, said these are rather typical numbers for the school.
“It is a really lovely academic award to include on your college résumé,” Karr said. “It’s a big deal. It’s a really prestigious reward.”
Since the screen for this award is simply the PSAT score, the only real common factor between students who become National Merit Scholars is their generally high GPA. Everything else, especially what sorts of activities they do in and outside of school, ends up being very broad and diverse.
Blueprint interviewed the four semifinalists, all of whom shared a sense of surprise and humbleness over receiving the recognition, as well as a feeling of accomplishment. Each is also a great example of some of the many interesting and impressive activities that Acalanes students are a part of.
“I was actually really surprised I got selected. I didn’t think I had done that well on the test,” Kim said, “It was really shocking.”
Besides being Online Editor-in-Chief of Blueprint, and second-time captain of the Acalanes varsity girl’s golfing team, Kim is also the co-president of Acalanes’ Model UN club, and a member of SAGE club. She is devoted to working volunteer hours, dedicating some of her time volunteering at John Muir hospital in Walnut Creek. Every Saturday since about sophomore year, Kim has been voluntarily working at the hospital for three hours, and doing things like lab runs, delivering food, and talking to patients.
“It’s a commitment… The hospital just gets kids from high schools to come in and help,” Kim said. “I’m really honored and proud of myself.”
Waffle Wednesdays, a band made up of Acalanes seniors, started the Homecoming Rally with the pop song “R U Mine?” by the Arctic Monkeys. The band’s guitarist is none other than Chris Mickas, one of the National Merit Scholarship semifinalists.
Mickas is by no means restricted to playing in a garage band, he is also an Acalanes varsity baseball player, volunteer at “Bus Stop” tutoring service in Walnut Creek, and has gone on trips over the past two years to work at medical clinics in Guatemala.
Going into the PSAT last October, Mickas never foresaw the future call to the office nearly a year later that would give him the news he was a semifinalist.
“I had taken the test the year before,
so I had a good idea about what was going to be on the test,” said Mickas. “But I was surprised that I did as well as I did.”
Not everyone can stand to watch paint dry, but Conor Sasner can.
Sasner volunteers for Habitat for Humanity, an international non-profit organization that builds low-income housing for the poor.
“You’re supposed to be over 18 to do it, but I managed to get in by only painting the houses, as I’m not actually allowed to build them,” said Sasner. “I’ve done them in Martinez, but it’s all around the nation.”
But that’s not all Sasner has done. He’s played tennis since he was eight and has been on the Acalanes varsity tennis team since freshman year. Passionate about music, he learned to play piano when he was five, but has branched out and now produces originals on his computer. Sasner is also part of Model UN at Acalanes, which he joined sophomore year.
When the time came to take PSAT last fall, Sasner wasn’t nervous about the test.
“I hadn’t prepared at all really for the PSAT. I wasn’t really thinking that it was going to be very important how I did,” Sasner said. “I was more worried about taking the actual SAT.”
However, he’s glad he did well and received recognition for his accomplishment
“I think it’s good that they give recognition to people and that they give the commendations to everyone too,” Sasner said.
Sometimes it’s the second time that’s the charm.
Eric Sirott first took the PSAT sophomore year for practice, and didn’t perform as well as he expected. Later, in his junior year, he took the test again and had a huge increase in his score compared to the previous year.
“It jumped up like 35 points,” said Sirott, “It was a big jump. I was not expecting to get as good as the score I got.”
Sirott thought there was a solid possibility of becoming a semi finalist after seeing his score in December.
“I was thinking, ’there’s a good chance,’ because it was that much of an improvement,” Sirott said.
Besides doing very well in National Merit Scholarship Program thus far, Sirott is also proud of many of his other activities over the years.
He’s been a part of the Walnut Creek Soccer Club since he was in third grade and is now captain of the Acalanes varsity boy’s soccer team. He’s been a swimmer for many years and is part of the Acalanes music program.
Sirott expressed great enthusiasm over the possibility of achieving a finalist rank in the competition.
“I’m pretty hopeful for that,” said Sirott, “It’ll be really awesome. It’s not so much the extra money you could get, but it’s the fact that you got it. I’m pretty pumped about it.
While there are no guarantees that these seniors will become National Merit Scholar finalists, the odds are stacked in their favor. It is likely that when results are sent to Acalanes this spring.