Record 54 earn Merit semifinalist distinction

Sarah Novicoff

A record 54 students, almost 20 percent of the senior class, were named National Merit Semifinalists this year, the highest number in school history. Those students represent almost 2.7 percent of California’s 2,028 semifinalists, ranking the school fourth in the state in number of semifinalists and second in percentage of the senior class.

“It’s a very high number for one school,” upper school dean Rose-Ellen Racanelli said. “It’s extraordinary. I don’t think you are going to find numbers like that elsewhere. You have a sense that this class was a good and talented group in the sense of ability. It’s a wonderful increase over what we had last year, especially when the cutoff is now 223. It’s really exciting.”

The previous school record occurred in 2004, when the Class of 2005 had 52 semifinalists. This year the school was second in the state in senior class representation to the Harker School, a private school with a senior class of approximately 170 students in San Jose. Harker also placed above Harvard-Westlake in number of semifinalists along with Mission San Jose High School, a public school with approximately 540 seniors in Fremont, and Monta Vista High School, a Cupertino public school with more than 600 seniors.

Approximately 16,000 semifinalists were selected nationwide based on PSAT scores from October 2012 and represent the top one percent of each state. California had the second highest selective index in the country this year with a cutoff of 223, tied with Maryland and behind Massachusetts, the District of Columbia, New Jersey and international schools, each with a cutoff of 224. Last year, when the California cutoff was 221, Harvard-Westlake had 29 semifinalists.

In order to be qualify for finalist status, semifinalists will need to submit a high school transcript and a letter from their dean as well as plan to enroll full time in college in the fall of 2014 and receive SAT scores that confirm PSAT performance on a test including or prior to the Dec. 7 test date. The full application, including an essay regarding a significant influence and a list of extracurriculars, is accessible online with a National Merit login and is due Oct. 9. Finalists will be notified Feb. 6.

“Typically we find that unless there has been a drastic change in course work or something has happened or the student chooses not to fill out the application, semifinalists become finalists,” Racanelli said. “It’s an honor, not a monetary designation. There are, however, corporations and scholarships that support this.”

Racanelli and upper school dean Vanna Cairns both expected that this would not dramatically affect college admissions decisions.

“It’s a two-hour test,” Cairns said. “I’m not going to put too much stock into it. This is a two-hour test, and this particular year, more kids than ever did well on this test. It’s three and a half years as opposed to two hours.”

Four students were separately named National Achievement Semifinalists, a program designed to recognize black American high school students, according to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. One student was designated both a National Achievement Semifinalist and a National Merit Semifinalist.