Three seniors named National Merit Finalists

Around 15,000 finalists are named from a pool of over 1.5 million entrants


By Kathy Habiger

Seniors Ben Wieland, John Fraka and John Lehan were recognized Wednesday, Feb. 11 as National Merit Finalists.

Ellie Basgall, JAG reporter/photographer

Over 1.5 million juniors from 21,000 high schools entered the 2021 National Merit Scholarship Program—a United States academic scholarship competition for recognition and university scholarships administered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC)—and 15,000 finalists were named this week. Among those finalists were Mill Valley seniors Ben Wieland, John Fraka, and John Lehan.

“Being a National Merit Finalist serves as recognition of the dedication with which I have pursued my studies, and to a lesser extent, growth within my life in general,” Lehan said. “I have already been offered a scholarship to Texas A&M University based partially on my Finalist standing (and based partially on my leadership within extracurriculars and community involvement). Although other National Merit scholarships exist, no Finalist can garner more than one. I feel extremely honored and privileged to have won such a scholarship and plan to continue my academic success at Texas A&M while contributing to a wonderful community.” 

To become a finalist, the semifinalist and a high school official must submit a detailed application, which includes the semifinalist’s academic record, participation in school and community activities, demonstrated leadership abilities, employment and honors as well as awards received. Applicants must also write an essay, have an outstanding academic record and be recommended by a high school official.

National Merit Scholarship winners of 2021 will be selected from the group of finalists with the winners being announced beginning in April. Merit Scholar designees are selected based on their skills, accomplishments and potential success. These scholarship recipients will join some 353,000 other distinguished students who have earned the Merit Scholar title. 

“I would be very honored if I was selected as a National Merit Scholar, and it’d be nice. But, for me, the difference between being a Finalist and a Scholar is practically negligible when it comes to life after high school. So, I’m not too concerned either way right now,” Wieland said. “It just opens a lot of doors that weren’t previously available. A National Merit Finalist selection is a great feather in your cap for college applications, and it earns you partial or full scholarships at dozens of universities.”

Of the finalists, about 7,600 will be named this spring; with the selection coming just around the corner, both Wieland and Lehan are planning their future plans and what their finalist standing—and potentially selection—means to them.

“Realistically, although Finalist status requires good standing and an essay, performance on the NMSQT/PSAT defines the process. Truthfully, I take more pride in my extracurricular involvement than my test-taking ability,” Lehan said. “Nonetheless, to become a National Merit Finalist requires near perfection on the qualifying test, so my performance represents the focused attitude and self-discipline I learned through extracurriculars. Consequently, although technically the achievement only encompasses my academic success, I wouldn’t have developed the mindset to qualify without my extracurriculars. Ironically, if I had only studied throughout high school and not pursued extracurriculars, I likely wouldn’t have achieved Finalist status because I would have lacked the broader experience required to succeed.”

Lehan is honored to have already received a scholarship from Texas A&M University to major in Computer Science, due to both his finalist standing and leadership within extracurriculars and community involvement; Wieland, however, is still in the process of deciding on a college to attend.

“I’m not entirely certain at this point,” he said. “I plan to major in psychology with a minor in political science, but I’m still unsure about which university I will attend.”

Both exceptionally honored to even receive the standing as finalists in the program, Wieland and Lehan have recognized and accepted their standing and hope to be selected in the future; however, Wieland plans to keep his stress at minimum throughout the process.

“The award is very prestigious and it would be an honor to be selected. However, I’ve already received most of the benefits of the program just for qualifying as a finalist, so I’m not going to stress myself out if I am not selected as a National Merit Scholar,” Wieland said.

Lehan is content with his rewards merely for being selected as a finalist, yet still believes it would be an exceptional honor to be selected in the spring.

“Finalists can earn corporate scholarships or the official National Merit $2500 scholarship if they haven’t accepted a college scholarship,” he said. “Since I have accepted a college scholarship, I have effectively already “won” and become a “National Merit Scholar,” although the competition isn’t actually designed in a direct competitive fashion because Finalists can earn many kinds of scholarships at different times.”

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