EVHS Senior Becomes 2021 National Merit Finalist

Aahana Chowdhuri, an EVHS senior, became a finalist of the prestigious scholarship this February.

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Aahana Chowdhuri

Aahana Chowdhuri scored high enough on the PSAT to be selected for consideration in the NMSC’s competition in 2020.

Duc Than

When Aahana Chowdhuri checked her email on an ordinary day in February, one in particular surprised her. 

She had been picked as a National Merit Scholar Finalist. 

Beginning in 1955, the College Board and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation have held an annual “academic competition” to determine the winners of a $2,500 annual college scholarship from the NMSC, monetary awards from corporate sponsors, and/or scholarships from colleges and universities across the country. 1.5 million high school juniors annually put themselves in the running for the competition by taking the Preliminary SAT (PSAT). Students who score high enough to qualify in their state then become a Semifinalist and are given the material needed to apply for the coveted scholarship. To be a Finalist, one must have and maintain a “record of consistently very high academic performance” and receive a recommendation from the school principal, among other things

Chowdhuri prepared for the SAT, and by extension, the PSAT, from early in her high school career. “My dad reminded me to study SAT vocabulary in 5th grade,” she said, “and he sent me an email when Khan Academy partnered with College Board to host official SAT questions. My mom also urged me to study — both wanted me to do well.”

Her parents weren’t the only source of motivation, however. “I had a goal for myself. I wanted a good score because people would say a good score meant a good college,” Chowdhuri reflected. 

Khan Academy’s partnership with the College Board helped her learn the ropes of the exam; she found herself on the site often, answering as many questions from the 2000+ questions the website offered. However, there were a lot of times when Chowdhuri got worried that she was “plateauing”, or when “I would get a high but not perfect score. It’s frustrating, especially when I am hard on my mistakes. It can be really rough.” However, with a bit of her mother’s “tough love,” she was motivated to get back on track and focus. Her mother “pushes me a lot because she knows I’d succeed,” she says. “She gets mad, and it’s tough, but it’s reinforcement.”

Over the summer of sophomore year, Chowdhuri took her effort up a notch. She attended Elite, an SAT prep school, which would cost her family around $2000 total. According to her, it was a waste of money.

“It’s a big regret. I didn’t learn much there, and the only thing they did was that they gave me a specific time to focus. I wouldn’t recommend it, but my mom was worried that I wouldn’t pay attention,” she lamented. 

Her focus paid off. When she took the SAT at the beginning of her junior year, she received a score of 1590 out of 1600. 

“Aahana deserves it completely,” says Melan Penglin, a fellow senior and close friend of Chowdhuri. “She told me that she had been grinding a lot for those and studied hard for them. She put in the work and she got results.”

Even though Chowdhuri got a big boost of confidence from her SAT score, the PSAT was still stressful as it approached. She only had one chance to take it, and if she didn’t meet the cutoff score or the score that distinguishes a mere commendation from Semifinalist status, it was over. The test day came and went, and she had gotten a 1500. This translated to a 226 on the Selection Index, which was well over the cutoff score of 221. 

Chowdhuri learned that she was a Semifinalist in August of the next year through one of her friends. “She told me my name was on the official press release, so I checked it,” she admitted. Although she knew she would pass the cutoff, what she didn’t know was the difference between Commended and Semifinalist. 

“Now, I was gunning for the whole thing,” she said. 

She talked to Principal Kleckner, who “was pretty nice” and agreed to write her recommendation letter. Next was a personal essay of 500-600 words, where she had to write about something significant in her life. As the deadline of October 7 came and went, she submitted her application and slowly forgot about it. That is, until February. 

The email notification came “out of nowhere,” according to Chowdhuri. She was pleased when she received the news that she was a finalist, but she did not feel as happy as she did half a year ago. “I was like ‘yay!’ and then I moved on,” she said, “but I was still really happy.”

Chowdhuri plans to attend the University of Southern California, which had given her half off her tuition, in the fall of 2021. She had gotten a full-ride scholarship to Arizona State University and a $25,000/year scholarship to Boston University (where the tuition is $50,000) but ultimately chose USC due to its location. While she is grateful for the PSAT and SAT for providing her with the opportunity to get good deals out of colleges, she is surprisingly not fond of standardized testing. 

“I don’t like them at all. People assume since I’m good at them that I like them but they’re annoying,” she remarked.