National Merit Commended Scholar Process Scrutinized Across Northern VA

PSAT/NMSQT symbol from the college board website. Below the story name West Potomacs 11 Commended Students.

Phoebe Schultz

PSAT/NMSQT symbol from the college board website. Below the story name West Potomac’s 11 Commended Students.

Numerous Northern Virginia schools, including West Po, Langley and Westfield in FCPS, along with schools from Loudon, Prince William and Stafford counties, neglected to inform PSAT National Merit Corporation (NMSC) commended students by email of their recognition in time to include it on college applications. The reports were made after an opinion piece in The New York Post accused Thomas Jefferson High School of purposefully withholding certificates from 261 commended seniors. Though West Po’s commended students didn’t receive official emails about their status, both semifinalists and commended students were listed in the Fall Academic Awards brochure and those who attended the ceremony on November 8 were given certificates.

“Although we were able to mark this achievement with a celebration of these students in early November, we understand that the notification happened later than we would have hoped,” Dr. Millard wrote in an email to parents. West Po had 11 commended students this year: Gavin Carpenter, Lorelei Dean, Hanna Finn, Luke Giglio, Charlotte Jurta, Zewen Liu, Ryan McManus, Nicholas Ray, Tyler Siegfried, Tabitha Sydow, and Callie Walsh. The West Po administration has notified all impacted families of this delay and has worked to contact all of the colleges where these students have applied to inform them of their commendations. “I think it was a silly mistake to make but they’re handling it appreciably well. I’m not angry,” Luke Giglio, senior, a commended student, said.

Superintendent Reid sent an email on January 20 stating that she had spoken with College Board and the NMSC CEO’s to devise a solution and prevent future issues. “This solution must incorporate electronic notifications to each recognized student, their family, and school division central offices, which do not exist in the NMSC process today,” Reid wrote. “In the meantime, we have already started to draft guidelines and protocols that will standardize our own notification processes. We anticipate this will be ready to share in April.”

When high school juniors take the PSAT, depending on their score, they may be able to qualify for scholarships or national recognition. According to the Princeton Review about 50,000 out of 1.4 million students each year qualify for some type of recognition. About 15,000 whose scores are in the 99th percentile of their state become National Merit Semifinalists, and this year, West Po had two semifinalists: Fionn French and Saira Nagda. About 34,000 of the students across the nation who qualify for recognition receive letters of Commendation and though the commended students are not included in the same scholarship offered by most universities, they can apply for some limited special scholarships. Students can list the recognition on a college application.

Both UVA’s dean of admission, Greg W. Roberts, and Virginia Tech’s associate vice provost for enrollment management, Juan Espinoza, told The Washington Post that the commended status would “never” make an impact on admissions.

However, one college, Liberty University, awards full tuition scholarship to commended students. When asked how long they have been offering full tuition scholarships for commended students, Jonah (last name withheld), a residential admissions counselor from Liberty University, stated that it’s unknown. He also noted that they were unaware of the FCPS commended students issue and did not know how it affected the admissions rates at Liberty this year.

Governor Youngkin, who called on Virginia’s Attorney General to start an investigation, stated that Virginia law should require schools to inform students of PSAT recognition, according to The Washington Post. Students are generally notified in September so that they can add it to college applications. The Fairfax County Times reported that Alexandria City High Schools (ACHS) staff notified their Commended Students on Sept. 23, 2022.

Not all students are aware of the NMSC awards, “I think [it would be helpful] just telling people more information about what national merit is because most kids are clueless. [Students] are so deep into their schoolwork they don’t have time to go and research something that they don’t even know is so important,” sophomore Chloe Bratten said.