Iowa City schools announce semifinalists for National Merit Scholarship Program

Nearly three dozen students from the school district were designated as semifinalists, with students from Iowa City High School, Liberty High School, and Iowa City West High School receiving the designation.

Virginia Russell, News Reporter

The Iowa City Community School District announced 32 students as Iowa National Merit Semifinalists Sept. 14.

West High School has the highest number of semifinalists this year in the state of Iowa. The National Merit Scholarship Program is an annual academic competition that recognizes high school students with the highest Preliminary Scholarship Aptitude Test (PSAT) scores. If selected as finalists, the students are eligible to receive various scholarships.

Maxwell Thompson, a semifinalist and senior at Liberty High School in North Liberty, said he hopes to study environmental engineering in college.

“I was very excited and really honored,” Thompson said upon receiving his acceptance letter.

One of seven students selected from his high school, Thompson’s experience began through the PSAT. Taking the test and hitting a certain percentile with their scores makes students eligible for the National Merit Program and other college scholarships, according to the College Board Website.

As a junior, Thompson took the PSAT to be considered for the scholarship program his senior year.

Awards are offered in the spring of a student’s senior year, and students who take the test their junior year do not hear back on their selection until the fall of their senior year, according to the The National Merit Scholarship Program.

For Thompson, the wait was especially daunting because of his Selection Index scores, which are used to determine who is selected for the program. His scores were on the edge of the cutoff for the state of Iowa.

“I was kind of anxiously waiting for it but I was really excited when I got the email,” Thompson said.

As a Liberty High School student, Thompson expressed his pride in being a part of a successful academic institution. He said he hopes the school can become a place that welcomes even more National Merit Scholars.

“It’s our sixth year of existence, so we’re kind of still building that culture as one of the better academic high schools, kind of like building a reputation similar to West High’s,” Thompson said.

Maya Chu, a senior at West High School in Iowa City, said she intends to double major in economics and public policy in college. She is one of 24 students in her school selected as a semifinalist. For Chu, the program was always present in her mind.

“I always kind of knew it was a thing, and I was like, ‘okay, I’m definitely gonna study for that and try to get it’,” Chu said.

Like Thompson, she also took the PSAT test her junior year of high school but did not originally plan to. According to Chu, most students at West High School take the exam their sophomore year. On the day of her exam, however, school was canceled as a snow day.

“They couldn’t make it up, which was kind of upsetting because I was looking forward to that as a practice session, because I had never had experience with standardized tests like that before,” Chu said.

Chu believes the reason her school had so many finalists the year was because of the emphasis Iowa City West puts on academic success.

“Academics, I feel like, are really prioritized at West High, and I think we’re constantly being pushed to work harder and do well academically,” she said.

For Chu, who said she always put academics first, the encouragement was helpful in getting her on the road to becoming a semifinalist.

“I guess that creates the perception that academics are really highly valued at our school, and I think that definitely helped with getting there, just because we have great teachers who push us and also great counselors who tell us about opportunities like this and make sure we’re all prepared for that stuff,” Chu said.

According to the National Merit Scholarship Program Website, the 2023 winners will be announced in four statements beginning April 26 and ending July 10.