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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Four local students awarded National Merit scholarships

Sep 21, 2020 11:39AM ● By Julie Slama

Brighton High’s Jacob Simmons learned he was a National Merit scholar the same day he was accepted to Harvard University and Duke University. “A really incredible day,” he said. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Simmons)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Senior Emily Zhang, who attends Hillcrest High in Midvale, face-planted into the fence during a tennis match, splitting her lip up to her nose. It wasn’t her proudest moment on the court, but it became an inspiration for writing an essay about overcoming an obstacle.

“That match was so mentally draining,” she recalled.

The essay was for the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, which invited Zhang, after earning a top score her junior year on the PSAT standardized pre-college exam and a 36 on the ACT standardized college exam, to submit an essay, a letter of recommendation, her extracurricular activities, her experience in community service (regularly volunteering at Alta View Hospital), and transcripts which highlighted her 4.0 while taking international baccalaureate classes for consideration of the National Merit scholarship. 

She learned during the soft closure of schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that she was awarded the scholarship.

“I’m basically relieved,” said Zhang, who plans to study at the University of Utah where she also received the school’s Presidential Scholarship. “It helps cover tuition, fees and other costs associated with college. I’m just excited.”

Zhang is joined by three other area scholarship winners: Camryn Young, Corner Canyon High in Draper; Ariane Kovacsovics, Waterford School in Sandy; and Jacob Simmons, Brighton High in Cottonwood Heights.

The 65th National Merit Scholarship Program awards $2,500 to each of its scholars, who were selected from a pool of more than 15,000 finalists. They are judged by a panel of college admission officers and high school counselors on their academic record, including difficulty level of subjects and grades; scores from the PSAT and SAT or ACT standardized tests; contributions and leadership in school and community activities; an essay and a recommendation letter from a high school official.

Initially, 1.5 million students were in the selection pool when they took the PSAT their junior year. About 7,600 finalists earned the merit scholar title and received a total of more than $30 million in college scholarships.

In addition, several corporate-sponsored scholars were named, including Silas Barber, who attended AMES in Murray.

Simmons remembered receiving his notification that he was a National Merit Scholar.

“That was the same day Harvard and Duke results came out, so I was super nervous,” he said. “The news that I won that scholarship was exciting and made me feel a little better. When I finally opened up the Duke and Harvard results (letters of acceptance), it ended up being a really incredible day.”

Ultimately, Simmons selected Deep Springs College in California on a full ride for the two-year program after turning down Harvard, Duke, Washington and Lee and other colleges and scholarships, including the national Presidential Scholarship. After Deep Springs, he hopes to attend Princeton or Harvard to finish his degree.

“Both (Presidential and National Merit) recognitions are particularly meaningful because the applicant pool is essentially the entire class of 2020, which includes millions of students,” he said. “Being recognized among the top several hundred is obviously a huge honor and meeting some of the other students in these programs has been both humbling and inspiring.”