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In September, the nonprofit National Merit Scholarship Corporation announced the names of the 16,000 students who have qualified as National Merit Semifinalists. Among the 100 area high school students selected, seven of them attend Fort Worth Country Day — seniors Aya Alame, Jamie Davidson, Sarah Goetz, Earl Hoover, Patricia Mays, Spencer Shaw and Marshall Stouffer.

Kristin Vaughn, director of college counseling at Country Day, said the school was very pleased upon hearing the news that the students had been recognized for their academic excellence.

“To be in that level of recognition is wonderful from a national perspective,” Vaughn said.

Every October, Vaughn said Country Day’s sophomore and junior classes are given the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Vaughn said all students in the 10th and 11th grade levels are required to take the test, which is offered by the College Board, though students are not eligible for National Merit Scholarship qualification until their junior year.

The National Merit Scholarship program creates Selection Index scores, comprised of the sum of the critical reading, mathematics, and writing skills test scores of each student, to determine the 50,000 highest scorers who qualify for program recognition.

Vaughn said of those 50,000 students, 34,000, or more than two-thirds of the high scorers, receive a Letter of Commendation but do not continue further in the competition to become a National Merit Scholar. The remaining 16,000 students are recognized as National Merit Semifinalists and move one step closer to becoming National Merit Scholars, she said.

Vaughn said students recognized as Commended are based on the national population of high school students who took the test, while Semifinalists are based on state population, making it even harder to qualify.

Besides the seven students recognized as Semifinalist, Vaughn said 14 additional students were recognized as National Merit Commended and four more were named National Hispanic Scholars. The latter students are selected by the College Board through the National Hispanic Recognition Program, which identifies nearly 5,000 outstanding Hispanic/Latino students each year through the use of PSAT scores and other qualifications, she said.

Vaughn said when the number of students recognized was released, she was most excited for the opportunities that it could bring each of the Semifinalists in terms of after the students leave Country Day to go to college.

Senior Jamie Davidson said he was thrilled to learn that he had become a National Merit Semifinalist after all the hard work he had put into his preparation.

“It was a huge relief when I learned the news because it had been a goal of mine since I had started my prep work a year earlier,” Davidson said.

Fellow senior and semifinalist Spencer Shaw said he was very excited at the prospect of exploring all of the opportunities that becoming a Semifinalist and possibly a Finalist had opened to him.

Vaughn points out that while intelligence is importance students must also possess good motivation and decent test taking skills.

“I would say that they are not terribly exceptional,” Vaughn said. “I think they are much like every other student at Country Day. I just think these students did well on a test on a given day.”

Vaughn said she attributes the seven Semifinalists’ success to the effort and time the students dedicated in order to prepare themselves for the PSAT. She said with the immense talent pool at Country Day, she believes if everyone had taken the steps to preparation like some of the recognized students, the school would have had even more success with having students named Semifinalist. Vaughn said she also believes that the preparation of some students helped to enhance their test-taking skills, an important element of success.

“I would say they are good test takers, and I think there is something to be said for being a good test taker,” Vaughn said. “Some kids aren’t, and some kids do really well in that environment and can pace themselves.”

Vaughn said the academic rigor and the level of the course work at Country Day can also be credited in part for what often gives the school’s students a competitive edge for doing well academically and specifically on tests. She said she credits Country Day’s for helping prepare the students for the basic concepts that make up the PSAT.

Another key element in the success of some of the recognized students has been their enrollment in prep courses. Currently, Country Day offers their students a PSAT Skills Development course where students are taught basic strategies and skills in order to maximize their PSAT experience and test performance. Vaughn said what sets the school’s program apart from others is that students have the opportunity to interact with actual teachers from Country Day whom they already know, giving them more than they might have with an instructor whom the students does not know.

Shaw was one of several students that participated in the course. He said taking Country Day’s PSAT Skills Development course offered him several benefits.

Shaw said because of the course he was able to enter the actual test unstressed and having the knowledge of what to expect.

While not everyone choose to enroll in Country Day’s prep course, these students have found other alternative prep courses to use. Davidson said while he opted out of the prep course Country Day offered, he did take two different types of prep courses.

He took his first course between his freshman and sophomore year, a summer course at Paschal High School, where Davidson said he was exposed to the expectations and fundamentals of the tests. The following summer leading up to the test, Davidson said he worked with a local tutor who assisted him with specific concepts that he was having trouble with.

“Overall, test preparation proved critical to my success,” Davidson said.

Vaughn said test prep in today’s world is huge. She said companies such as Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions and the Princeton Review have built centers in Fort Worth where students of all ages can go to receive instruction and advising regarding standardized tests. While test prep might not be for everyone, Vaughn said, she does advise most if all students to seek some form preparation before the test even if all it involves is purchasing a test prep book.

“Test prep is here to stay,” she said.

With test prep such a central theme in the success of the majority of students at Country Day, the numbers speak for themselves. Over the past three years, Vaughn said, the number of National Merit Semifinalists from Country Day has remained consistent, with six in 2009 and nine in 2010, in addition to students recognized as National Merit Commended and National Hispanic Scholars. This has created an even greater draw for prospective students looking to enroll at the school.

Barbara Jiongo, director of admissions at Country Day, said one of the primary reasons families apply to Country Day is because of its reputation for academic excellence due in part to academic success stories of students such as the seven semifinalists. Jiongo said this year’s recognized students continue to show that Country Day students are ready not just for college and the world, but the future as well.

“Each year approximately 28 percent of the senior class is recognized by National Merit, Achievement or National Hispanic Scholarship Programs,” Jiongo said.
Jiongo said while the demographics for kindergarten have fluctuated some over the last two years, applications for middle and upper grades have increased as have applications for third and fourth grade. She said this past year the school received about 320 applications for enrollment in grades K through 12.

“We are hearing more and more from students and parents that they are looking for a program that is more than just academics, they want to explore the fine arts and have the ability to participate in athletics,” Jiongo said. “From prospective students we often hear that they want to be challenged,” she said.

Jiongo said at the beginning of this academic year Country Day’s enrollment was listed as 1,112 students for grades K-12, with 400 students enrolled in the Upper School, a new record for Country Day.

Currently Country Day has 99 seniors and 104 freshmen.

Next up for the seven Semifinalists: qualifying as Finalists in February. In order to possibly move on to the next leg of competition, Vaughn said, the students will be required to complete an essay, fill out an official application, and have a letter of recommendation written on their behalf by a counselor.

She said about 15,000 or 80 percent of Semifinalists end up becoming Finalists.

“I think among these seven you will see that they make it all to Finalists,” Vaughn said.

Davidson said he thinks he has a good chance to become a National Merit Finalist since historically a large number of Semifinalists become Finalists. As of right now, he said he is keeping his options open to which college he plans on attending after graduation, but he is considering several schools that offer scholarships to Finalists.

Shaw said based upon numbers from the past, he too is confident in his chances of getting to the next round. His first choice college is Brown University, but as of now he has no irreversible plans.

Vaughn said students who become Finalists have the opportunity to be recognized as a National Merit Scholar if they receive scholarship money from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. She said regarding the National Merit Scholarships students have the opportunity to receive three scholarship types: corporate-sponsored, college-sponsored or the $2,500 National Merit Scholarship.

As this academic year’s group of students prepared to take the PSAT, Vaughn said her best advice for kids going into the test this year and for years to come is just to do as well as they can and to have confidence in their skills.

Looking back on his own academic career up until this point, Davidson said it is important for students looking to follow in the footsteps of the Semifinalists to remember that the PSAT is just one test in a sea of many that students will take in their academic career.

“It’s great if one becomes a National Merit Semifinalist, but life goes on if you don’t,” he said.

Davidson said that aside, he still believes that students taking the PSAT during their junior year should take the test seriously because of the opportunities that it can open up and the great preparation it can provide for taking the SAT later on.

No matter what the outcome in February, Vaughn said, the school as well as the entire Country Day community remains proud of the accomplishments that their students have achieved and continue to achieve each year.

“We couldn’t be happier,” she said.