National Merit Scholarship
Who's Eligible: High school juniors
Award Amount: Up to $2,500
Due Date: October
No essays, no teacher recommendations, no submitting your high school transcript—the National Merit Scholarship sounds like a breeze! Don't be fooled. To apply for this elite scholarship program, students have to take the PSAT—also called the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT)—during their third year in high school. Score high enough and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation will simply hand you a check. The good news is that even if you are not in the 15,000 finalists chosen every year, landing in the top 50,000 will win you a National Merit commendation that can be sent to two colleges or universities of your choice. You can prep for the PSAT over here.
When I was a junior in highschool, I had to write a 500 word essay as part of the process of becoming a National Merit Finalist (remember the PSAT?). This is still o still one of my favorites:
The Magical 4.0
As I walked to the front of the class and began to read, I found it impossible to think; I could only read each word one at a time. It was the last day of finals, and I was presenting my narrative project to my English class. Only four days earlier, my dreams had been shattered. I had lost my 4.0. Struggling for an “A” throughout the quarter, it had come down to the very last test; I needed to get a 98. When the teacher returned my test, an 89.5 glared in red at the top of the page. Even more painful was the inner questioning that had immediately followed. My narrative project became my analytical tool as I struggled to make sense of my loss. Re-telling the event in the third-person, I shoved my emotions aside and asked the questions I previously had not dared to face.
As the quarter had progressed everything else had faded except this goal of maintaining my 4.0. Every spare moment had been spent studying Chemistry, or revising my World Literature essay. My friends had become strangers. Because I had been consistently going to bed after midnight, my performance in Track had suffered–I no longer had any chance of running in the State meet.
But how could I distill this experience into a narrative? Could I adequately describe the effort that had gone into my 4.0, or how close I had come to getting an A, only to see it pulled just out of my reach on the very last test? Would my audience even care? Would they understand how hard I worked for perfection, how I expected perfection–how I was used to perfection? Would they understand what it meant to lose perfection?
I labored over my narrative to shorten it–every time I started typing it would just grow and grow. The ending was the biggest challenge; it wasn’t until I started typing the last paragraph that I came up with the idea of a happy-ever-after ending, the ending I almost had, where I scored a 99 instead of an 89.5.
Not until after my presentation, as I shared my reflections on the experience, did I reveal to the class that I had really gotten the 89.5. Afterward my English professor would write, “This was one of my favorite moments of last year, Jeff. Maybe best of all was the brilliant move to have the ending different than what actually happened in your life, and then reveal that ‘real’ ending in your comments. The entire room was transfixed by your revelation; I could feel it. You both criticized yourself and elevated yourself by so bravely doing that.”
The contrast between the two endings–the dream and the reality–underscored what my narrative project had made me realize was my only question: Had I overvalued perfection? Even if I had achieved the 99, would my 4.0 have been worth so much sacrifice?