National Merit Scholars: three named semi-finalists


Photo by Karen La

by Tiffany Liu

Photo by Karen La

In the midst of a bustling scene with students painting posters and practicing instruments, three seniors hunch over a textbook as they eagerly discuss plans for college.

Being the only three students in the Montebello Unified School District to advance to the semi-finals in the National Merit Scholarship Program has boosted the hopes of seniors Destinee Hung, Luis Martinez-Banegas and Mitchell Saisho win scholarships and increase their college options.

“I was not even aware that I had received the award until noon on the day the results were released. I was incredibly surprised that I had been selected and overjoyed at the opportunity I had been offered,” said Saisho. 

Last October, interested high school juniors participated in the Preliminary SAT/NationalMerit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT), which determined their eligibility for participation in the scholarship program. Out of approximately 1.6 million entrants, the highest scoring 50,000 qualified for the program. From those individuals, about 34,000 became Commended Students, while 16,000 moved on to the next round as semi-finalists, according to

Out of a maximum score of 1520, Hung and Martinez achieved scores of 1490 while Saisho attained a score of 1500. In hopes of qualifying, many students could be seen preparing for these standarized exams while juggling homework and other activities.

“My friends can attest to the fact that I always carry a prep book with me a week or two before exams such as the PSAT or SAT. I study during class, lunchtime and even when I brush my teeth,” said Hung. “Some people put their effort into sports or clubs, but I do that with academics. Since studying is one of the few things I am good at, I might as well try to do well in it.”

To become a finalist, semi-finalists must submit an application along with their academic transcript, evidence of demonstrated leadership abilities, participation in school and community service, employment and honors or awards received. They must also be recommended by a high school official, compose an essay, have an exceptional academic record and report SAT scores that substantiate their earlier performance on the PSAT/NMSQT.

After careful review of applications, which the three submitted Oct. 11, approximately 7,500 become finalists. They are then eligible to be awarded various types of scholarships. Some receive a single payment $2,500 National Merit scholarship, while others are awarded corporate or college-sponsored grants that have varying amounts and may be renewable.

“I am very honored to have been chosen and really hope to become a finalist,” said Martinez-Banegas, “My mom has always told me that no matter what, all I had to focus on was getting good grades and going to a good college.”

As they continue to improve and excel in their studies as seniors, the three hope that underclassmen will not hesitate to work hard and take advantage of given opportunities.

“For underclassmen taking tests, make sure you have a general knowledge of the subject and get enough sleep.” said Saisho, “Above all, do not panic or overthink, and you should do well.”

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