To earn National Merit honors, these Valley Stream seniors top the test-taking heap


National Merit Scholar is a title that lends its recipients instant name recognition among the nation’s top colleges and universities. To even be in the running for the title, a student must test in the top one percent of test-takers for the PSAT/ National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.

That’s only the beginning: students must also be academically accomplished, write persuasively about themselves, and demonstrate involvement and leadership in extracurricular activities.

It is an extremely competitive and rigorous competition. Yet, even those who do not make it past the initial rounds receive letters of commendation as “Commended Students.” A designation that, by itself, can open the doors to scholarship opportunities and catch the attention of college recruiters.

Two seniors in Valley Stream South High School, Emily Nothdurft and Ethan Fazal, joined the rarified rank of Commended Scholars this year. One student from Central High School, Saajed Yaseen, advanced further as a Semi-finalist where he joined 16,000 high achievers nationwide and will have a shot at becoming a National Merit Scholar.

The judging criteria assign a score to each contestant based on the student’s application which includes the applicant’s stellar grades and SAT scores, which should reflect the same high marks as the PSAT, with softer metrics like extracurricular participation and a personal essay.

The finalists are expected to be announced in February, 2024. Of those finalists, more than half will receive scholarship money totaling 31 million dollars. 

The one score that rules them all

Your place on the contest’s achievement rungs boils down to one metric above all others: your score on the PSAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. As the ‘P’ in preliminary suggests, the PSAT is the lead-up test for the SATs, held nationwide in October of a student’s junior year.

All three students came within striking distance of the PSAT’s perfect score of 1520, making them eligible for National Merit status.

Nothdurft and Fazal earned test scores of 1380 and 1440 respectively. Yaseen, who has been homeschooled her entire life up until the 10th grade, edged even closer with a 1470. When asked about how they each prepared for the test, their approaches varied but among their top resources were Khan Academy courses, taking practice exams, and getting feedback from a math teacher. 

“The most helpful way I prepared for the test was by math tutoring students,” said Yaseen, a senior who teaches from the kindergarten level to eleventh grade. “If you can explain even foundation-level math concepts, you retain the knowledge much better.” 

The secret of exceptional test-takers?

One thing was shared by all three students, something hard to grasp for those who, no matter the age, wring their hands at the thought of sitting through a standardized exam: having fun.

The students saw the test as less of a nerve-wracking ordeal and more closely akin to a problem-solving game. Not only in the literal sense of answering problem-solving questions but devising strategies to successfully maneuver their way through the test’s set of recurring question types and other predictable testing patterns. 

“There are a lot of trends that you can notice with the questions and so the more you practice, the more you start to notice that there are things that repeat and there are certain things that you can just memorize,” said Fazal. “How questions are worded can help clue you into the correct answer.”

“I enjoyed figuring out the types of questions on the PSAT and SAT math section,” said Nothdurft. “I took full-length practice tests to prepare me to sit for a three-to-four-hour test.”

“Taking the test was calming for me because I forgot about everything else around me and was there to prove myself,” said Yaseen. “It’s standardized. There are very clear instructions on what you have to do. There’s a procedure to follow.” 

Have an opinion on this article? Send an email to