How’d They Do That?

National Merit Scholar semifinalists offer tips on acing PSAT

Staff Writer

Autumn is a busy time for students all over the country. During this season, juniors in high school anticipate the PSAT, a standardized test that will determine their futures as National Merit scholars, one of the highest honors in education.

According to the College Board website, it is impossible to study for the PSAT. It’s a reflection of hard work and education, showing who takes challenging courses and asks a lot of questions. Despite this, many scholars work on sections they know they need improvement. 

“I started studying in August using Khan Academy SAT practice for math and reading,” senior Swetha Sirigineedi said. She liked that the program was free and included any section she may need to practice. 

Most schools across the country only administer the PSAT to sophomores and juniors. At Haas Hall Academy, though, seventh- through 11th-grade scholars take the test.

Administered at school on a single weekday for almost three hours, the PSAT holds three distinct sections: writing and language, reading and math. Each section can earn the test-taker a score somewhere between 160 and 760, later being combined to find the overall score between 320 and 1520. Scores, once calculated, will determine if juniors who took the test qualify for National Merit scholarships. 

Started in 1955, the National Merit Scholarship Program recognizes students with high test scores on the PSAT and excellence in learning.

Out of all of the students who take the test across the country, only about three percent are recognized for the program. A portion of the 3 percent of students who are chosen actually don’t reach semifinalist levels. These students are commended, not going further in the National Merit competition, but still getting letters praising their academic achievements that open scholarship opportunities to them.

The last third of pulled students are semifinalists for National Merit scholarships. These are the students who had the highest scores in their state, usually the 99th percentile, and can continue on to being finalists if they meet the set requirements. 

“I wasn’t sure if I would meet the cutoff, but I did feel good about the test,” senior Caleb Bodishbaugh said. 

Many of the scholars from Haas Hall who received the title of National Merit semifinalists seemed to feel this way. 

“I thought I would score high because I finished on time,” Sirigineedi said. “And I like the amount of time it gives you.”

Budgeting time is a skill that scholars need to learn through taking the test multiple times.

“I felt confident that I did the best that I could, but I was also worried that I was overconfident,” senior Isaac Hopwood said. 

To be a finalist, the semifinalists must be fully endorsed by the principal of the school, write an essay, complete the National Merit application, take the SAT before December, hold an advanced academic record and continue to meet program requirements while providing additional documents if needed, according to the National Merit website. 

“I’ve only taken the SAT once before, but I’ll be taking it again in November,” senior Owen Young said. 

Most scholars had only taken the SAT once before, making their National Merit qualifying SAT test only their second ever. 

From the finalists, winners are selected based upon skills and accomplishments, besides prior awards they may have earned. Many documents are submitted to prove these achievements.

Scholarships are given out to the pool of finalists, ranging anywhere from National Merit scholarships to college and corporation based scholarships. The title of being a National Merit scholar also carries prestige with it to inspire other scholarships down the road.

The PSAT test can sound daunting to many, but there are a lot of techniques to increase performance. 

“Practice on a fixed schedule,” Sirigineedi said, backing up Young’s tip to study.

“Pay attention in class and actually try on the practice tests,” Bodishbaugh said, encouraging the College Board website’s tips. 

“Find a way to relax and get your mind off of the stress,” Hopwood said. “Do the best that you can, a score doesn’t define you.”

Haas Hall Academy’s 2017 National Merit Scholar semifinalists are, from left, Isaac Hopwood, Owen Young, Jack Branca, Emma Kate Henry, Rhett Owen, Swetha Sirigineedi, Caleb Bodishbaugh and Aubin Payne. Not pictured are Nathan Friede and Shiloh Beeler.