The Ivy Coach Daily

January 16, 2023

The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology National Merit Scandal

The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a magnet school ranked as the #1 public high school in America by US News, recently got caught failing to notify its students who performed well on the PSAT that they had earned National Merit awards.

And TJ isn’t the only school within the Fairfax County Public Schools that failed to notify students of the recognition: Langley High School “mistakenly” didn’t share the news with its students either. So, why did these administrators fail to notify students of these awards, and does the PSAT even matter?

Two High Schools Didn’t Report National Merit Awards in Spirit of Equity

A portrait of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States.
TJ administrators withheld National Merit honors from the school’s students.

While it’s hard to know why TJ and Langley’s administrators didn’t share the National Merit recognitions with its students, it’s logical to conjecture that administrators chose to withhold the release of the awards in the spirit of equity. In a war on merit climate in which “everyone’s a winner,” maybe the administrators didn’t want to overemphasize the importance of the PSAT for those students who didn’t perform as well.

But for Langley administrators to dismiss not notifying students as “a mistake” is disingenuous when more than one high school within the Fairfax County Public Schools failed to release these awards for years. TJ administrators merely apologized and said they’d notify the colleges to which its current applicants applied of the recognition.

Some Parents at One of These Schools Have an Axe to Grind

While administrators at TJ and Langley should never have withheld these honors and should have taken greater accountability, TJ, in particular, is under pressure from some of these same parents for changing the TJ admissions process to eliminate standardized testing.

These parents essentially argue that eliminating standardized testing in the TJ admissions process — to boost the number of low-income, Black, and Latino students at the school — will hurt Asian American students, the majority of the school’s population. Some of these parents even filed suit against TJ, and a final decision is still pending in the courts. So, it’s little surprise that these parents would make such a brouhaha about the school not releasing the honors.

The PSAT as a Factor in Elite College Admissions

But let’s be real. In our book, earning National Merit is not a significant difference-maker in the elite college admissions process. Do we encourage including it on applications? Sometimes, yes. We like for students to list it because it often leads admissions officers to think students received little tutoring for the SAT or ACT if they did well on the PSAT.

Listing National Merit as An Honor Isn’t Always Necessary

There are only five available slots for honors in The Common Application. So, often, it doesn’t make the cut for our students at Ivy Coach to include — not when they’re Regeneron ISEF winners, Lincoln-Douglas debate champions, or The Diana Award designees. The same goes for AP Scholar with Distinction. It’s an excellent way to reiterate, outside of the AP testing section, that a student got top AP scores — but this award alone is not a difference-maker. And, in fact, awards alone are rarely enough for elite colleges to be wowed. It’s about having special activities, taking the most rigorous coursework, having great letters of recommendation, compelling essays, and so much more.

Ivy Coach’s TJ Students Regularly Earn Admission to Their Dream Colleges

At Ivy Coach, over the last 30 years, we’ve worked with more students from TJ than any other high school in the world. Some years back, one of our students made headlines for earning admission to each of the eight Ivy League schools along with Stanford. We might not have noticed over the last few years if TJ students didn’t include the National Merit honor on their applications because they had many other significant awards. And the fact that these students still earned admission to their dream schools speaks volumes about whether or not including the National Merit honor matters much.

The PSAT is a Great Way to Prepare for the SAT or ACT But Don’t Stress

Beyond National Merit commendations, the PSAT carries no weight in elite college admissions. Applicants, after all, don’t even report their scores to colleges. Parents and students should thus think about the PSAT as an opportunity to prep for the SAT or ACT under actual testing conditions. A student earning National Merit? That’s just gravy (if the student’s school even bothers to tell them).

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