The 2024 National Merit Finalists: Starting from top left, Michael Emerson, Audrija Ghosh, David Hawiger, Rajeshwar Jaladi, Serena Liu, Aristuto Paul, Norah Rutkowski, Santosh Sahoo.
The 2024 National Merit Finalists: Starting from top left, Michael Emerson, Audrija Ghosh, David Hawiger, Rajeshwar Jaladi, Serena Liu, Aristuto Paul, Norah Rutkowski, Santosh Sahoo.
Raj Jaladi

Eight seniors named 2024 National Merit Finalists

Eight seniors advanced as finalists in the 2024 National Merit Scholarship Program. The National Merit Scholarship Program (NMSP) is a nationwide academic competition and the largest of its kind. It is awarded based on academic talents and performance on the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT). Finalist standing is awarded to 15,000 students annually, representing less than one percent of U.S. high school graduating seniors.

“I’m consistently impressed and proud of the achievements of our students. To have eight students be named National Merit Finalists is amazing,” Assistant Principal Mario Pupillo said.

Students go through multiple steps to apply. The student’s guidance counselor must complete part of the application, which requires a recommendation letter alongside the principal’s endorsement. In the last 20 years, comprehensive counselor Jennifer Wibbeneyer has helped several students in the process.

I’m very excited for the students. We had a great group of Semifinalists. [These students] have consistently demonstrated high marks and a dedication to their learning so it is great to see them recognized and awarded for their efforts,” Wibbenmeyer said.

Numerous factors contribute to the students’ impressive results, according to Pupillo. 

“Among those [factors], two stand out to me. The first is our teaching staff’s dedication to providing a top-quality education for our students. Every day, they put students in a position to be successful. The second is the commitment of our students, both as individuals and as a community,” Pupillo said. “I am often in classrooms and see our students working together to explore, discover and push each other’s learning to great heights.”

The school’s tradition of strong results in the NMSP spans decades. Fifteen students were awarded finalists in the year 2023, 12 students in the year 2022 and 13 in the year 2021

“It makes me proud that we consistently have a high number of Semifinalists each year enter [into the competition].  I think it is a real testament not only to the students and the efforts they have put into their studies but also to our teachers, who have guided and pushed them to excel in their education,” Wibbenmeyer said.

Additionally, Wibbenmeyer has noticed some trends in the results in recent years.

“I feel like the competition has gotten tougher. With such stiff competition between so many high-caliber students, it is coming down to the most minute details to determine who moves on to finalist standing. Students with very high GPAs and strong grades in challenging courses are not being moved forward, which I think speaks to the overall talent nationwide,” Wibbenmeyer said.

Both Wibbenmeyer and Pupillo advise future applicants to start early.

“My advice to applicants would be the same as I would give to any student. Starting day one of ninth grade, work hard, take advantage of opportunities and consistently work to put yourself in a situation where you can excel. For example, do all of your homework, take advantage of AcLab time, form study groups and perhaps most importantly — don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Pupillo said.

Senior Michael Emerson
Senior Michael Emerson
  1. How did you feel when you heard that you were the finalist for the National Merit Scholarship?

I felt good both for the accomplishment and for the opportunity to receive the scholarship amount.

  1. What are some characteristics you believe helped you achieve this award?

I don’t think that any of my personal skills helped me get the award. I think it mostly preparing and taking a good number of practice tests over the summer before.

  1. What is your academic area of passion and why?

Social studies, because to me, it is the most applicable to real life.

  1. What are you planning to pursue in college?

I am planning to pursue economics.

  1. What did you choose to write about in your main essay for the National Merit application? And why was it meaningful to you?

I wrote about getting cut from the baseball team during my freshman year of high school and how that forced me to find a new identity beyond baseball.

(Wagner)
Senior Audrija Ghosh
Senior Audrija Ghosh
  1. How did you feel when you heard that you were the finalist for the National Merit Scholarship?

I was pretty happy.

  1. What are some characteristics you believe helped you achieve this award?

I believe my dedication to lifelong learning and just making the most of the opportunities presented to me at school helped me achieve this award. 

  1. What is your academic area of passion and why?

I am really passionate about using AI in the financial sector. I believe it has a lot of potential in predicting market fluctuations since that is partially just a combination of data and human behavior. I would love to make a positive impact by utilizing smart and ethical technology to provide stability and growth to the economy, as well as channel capital towards sustainable development and inclusive projects. 

  1. What are you planning to pursue in college?

A combination of computer science, financial engineering, and statistics … for now, but that might change as I discover new passions [and] majors.

  1. Do you know where you are going to college?

Yes, either Cornell University or Georgia Institute of Technology, but I am leaning towards Cornell.

  1. What did you choose to write about in your main essay for the National Merit application? And why was it meaningful to you?

I chose to write my essay about how I play Sudoku every day as a sort of morning ritual. In my essay, I discussed how this habit has become a guide for my life, teaching me to take risks and be patient with success. Not only was this a very meaningful and personal topic since I do a Sudoku every day, but it also allowed me to be a bit more creative and unique with my personal essay, as I talked about a game that some may consider a “trivial” activity, but has great personal value to me.

(Wagner)
Senior David Hawiger
Senior David Hawiger
  1. How did you feel when you heard that you were the finalist for the National Merit Scholarship?

I was happy because I get free college now at Mizzou, along with the possibility of getting a National Merit Scholarship.  

  1. What are some characteristics you believe helped you achieve this award?

I studied for the PSAT.

  1. What is your academic area of passion and why?

Medicine: I’ve really enjoyed shadowing at Spark!

  1. What are you planning to pursue in college?

Premed, biology 

  1. What did you choose to write about in your main essay for the National Merit application? And why was it meaningful to you?

I wrote about fishing and how it has helped me learn more about myself.

(Wagner)
Senior Rajeshwar Jaladi
Senior Rajeshwar Jaladi
  1. How did you feel when you heard that you were the finalist for the National Merit Scholarship?

I felt excited and proud of the accomplishment.  

  1. What are some characteristics you believe helped you achieve this award?

Test-taking skills and being persistent with the process. 

  1. What is your academic area of passion and why?

Law. I like how policy and law have to evolve to the changing landscape of technologies so we can all enjoy our freedoms.

  1. What are you planning to pursue in college?

I am planning to pursue computer science and law.

  1. What did you choose to write about in your main essay for the National Merit application? And why was it meaningful to you?

I chose to write about my community work with students who have dropped out of school, helping them take courses in coding and assisting them with their job search. This is meaningful to me because it helped me clear several misbeliefs we carry in society about students who drop out of school and the reasons for dropping out. Working with students firsthand helps understand the problem and create better solutions.

(Wagner)
Senior Serena Liu
Senior Serena Liu
  1. How did you feel when you heard that you were the finalist for the National Merit Scholarship?

At first, I was very tired because I was out of town when I found out that the results had come out, so I checked my portal in the middle of the night. But I was still super excited to see I was a finalist. I’ve worked really hard on my academics and I am proud that my effort was reflected. 

  1. What are some characteristics you believe helped you achieve this award?

I enjoy reading and writing in my free time, which has definitely helped me with standardized testing. I also try to manage my time and put first things first.

  1. What is your academic area of passion and why?

My academic area of passion is journalism. I enjoy being able to use my voice and to highlight other people’s stories. 

  1. What are you planning to pursue in college?

I am planning to major in sociology and computer science. I also want to write for campus publications.

  1. What did you choose to write about in your main essay for the National Merit application? And why was it meaningful to you?

I wrote about growing up raised by immigrant grandparents and how I came to accept my own identity through founding our school’s Asian Based Celebrations Club.

(Wagner)
Senior Aristuto Paul
Senior Aristuto Paul

This finalist declined the interview process.

(Wagner)
Senior Norah Rutkowski
Senior Norah Rutkowski
  1. How did you feel when you heard that you were the finalist for the National Merit Scholarship?

I was really excited.

  1. What are some characteristics you believe helped you achieve this award?

I work really hard in school and my other activities. I was also lucky to do well on the PSAT. 

  1. What is your academic area of passion and why?

My favorite subject is math because I enjoy the process of problem solving.

  1. What are you planning to pursue in college?

I’m undecided, but am thinking about math or environmental studies.

  1. Do you know where you are going to college?

I will go to Swarthmore College.

  1. What did you choose to write about in your main essay for the National Merit application? And why was it meaningful to you?

I wrote about my state swim meet in my junior year. I know sports are generally a bad topic for essays, but it was a good learning experience and helped me learn how to cope with disappointment.

(Wagner)
Senior Santosh Sahoo
Senior Santosh Sahoo
  1. How did you feel when you heard that you were the finalist for the National Merit Scholarship?

 I was very excited to hear the big news. It was a huge moment for me because my hard work and dedication paid off. 

  1. What are some characteristics you believe helped you achieve this award?

My strong academic record, community service, and leadership activities have helped me achieve this award. 

  1. What is your academic area of passion and why?

My area of passion is computer science. I am intrigued by the logistical and analytical approach needed for developing new technology. Coupled with my strong mathematical base, computer science is a good fit for me.

  1. What are you planning to pursue in college?

In college, I will pursue computer science with a concentration in either Artificial Intelligence or Cybersecurity.

  1. What did you choose to write about in your main essay for the National Merit application? And why was it meaningful to you?

“March 24th, 2023 marks a very important day in my life. I helped my school team win second place at state. More importantly, I persevered through extreme circumstances and played with integrity. I stayed true to my values. I exited the room as a winner, not only at chess but at the game of life.”

This was the closing paragraph of my National Merit finalist essay. I chose to write about the Missouri State Chess Championship Tournament, where my challenging final round was a testament to my core values.

(Wagner)
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About the Contributor
Raj Jaladi, Newsletter Editor/Data Analyst
Pronouns: he/him Grade: 12 Years on staff: 4 What is your favorite piece of literature? "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets." Who is your hero? Ghandi. If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be? Mac & cheese.
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