The 2021 National Merit Scholarship Competition was a great year for Houston-area high school seniors. There were 438 area students who scored in the top 1% on the PSAT to earn the celebrated “Semifinalist” designation. Versus 386 Semifinalists in the previous year, there were 13% more brilliant students in Houston this go around.

A National Merit Semifinalist (NMSF) is a high school student who scored in the top 1% of Texans on the PSAT their junior year (October of 2019 for this year’s winners). The number and percentage of awardees is one of the only statistics that is cross-comparable between private and public high schools.

With approximately 17% of their senior class qualifying as Semifinalists, St. John’s School in River Oaks maintained its reputation as the top Houston-area school–public or private–where the smartest kids choose to go. This year’s 29 winners is an impressive 17x higher than the national average and a minor increase versus the previous year.

Houston ISD’s (HISD) Carnegie Vanguard High School scored big this year with 18 Semifinalists or 11% of its senior class. This impressive result places Carnegie behind St. John’s School but ahead–by nearly double–of every other Houston-area public school including Medical Center rival DeBakey and the suburban districts.

HISD’s Bellaire, DeBakey, and Kinder HSPVA also posted strong results, which equated to between 4% and 6% of their senior classes scoring in the top 1% on the PSAT.

The Awty International School continued its steady climb into the ranks of Houston’s elite private schools; approximately 5% of its senior class earned the Semifinalist designation. Kinkaid’s similarly strong performance with 5% rounds out the top 3 Houston-area private schools.

The suburban high schools in Sugarland and Katy posted very strong results.

85 or 19% of the Houston-area total Semifinalists hailed from Katy ISD of which 47 are at Seven Lakes High School (~5% of the senior class).

Similarly, 66 or 15% of top scoring seniors came from Fort Bend ISD (Sugarland), and half of those students came from Clements High School (5%).

At the statewide, public boarding school Texas Academy for Math and Science (TAMS), 57 seniors were National Merit Semifinalists or well over 30% of the class.

Top College Majors for Smart Students

The plurality of Houston’s top students want to be engineers, particularly bioengineers and aerospace engineers. However, when combining bioengineering with biosciences, the plurality of Houston’s brightest, future leaders want to do something with biology.

(A student’s intended major is designated by the three digit code in front of their name in the table below. Click here for the full description of these college majors.)

  1. Engineering – 19% of Semifinalists
  2. Computer Science – 14%
  3. Biosciences – 11%
  4. Health Professions – 8%
  5. Business Management – 5%

National Merit Scholarships Can Mean Free College

Approximately 1.5 million students across more than 20,000 US high schools participate in the National Merit Scholarship competition beginning the fall of their junior year. Juniors compete by sitting for what is essentially an abbreviated, practice SAT (PSAT).

Semi-Finalists, the most important designation, represent the top 1% of the approximate 1.5 million test-takers. National Merit Semi-Finalists generally qualify for scholarships that can range from full tuition at certain public colleges to $5,000 and $10,000 scholarships at prestigious, private universities.

Texas colleges offering full-rides include the University of Houston, UT Arlington, UT Dallas, UT Tyler, UNT Dallas, Abilene Christian, and Lubbock Christian.

To win the coveted “Semifinalist” designation in Texas, students must have earned a “selection index” score of 219 out of 228 (down from 221 for the previous year), which is roughly equivalent to a 1460 out of 1600 SAT composite score.

Approximately 15,000 out of 16,000 semi-finalists then go on to be designated finalists. Finalists are typically chosen in accordance with their school grades and ACT or SAT test scores. However, due to the global pandemic, ACT and SAT scores are not required for the 2021 competition.

​Lastly, a little over half of the finalists are designed “Merit-Scholarship” recipients, meaning that they get the fancy title and one-time $2,500 cash payment. Scholarship winners are selected “based on their abilities, skills, and accomplishments.”

These NMSF figures are particularly attractive, versus SAT and ACT scores, because they’re publicly available from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation; conversely, schools do not have to disclose the SAT and ACT scores of their students. And when private schools do disclose SAT/ACT scores, it’s often presented in a way that’s difficult to read and/or compare.

Key Takeaways From the 2021 Semifinalists Announcement

  1. Carnegie Vanguard is the smartest Houston-area public school
  2. St. John’s School is the top Houston-area private school for the academically inclined
  3. The suburban school districts in Katy and Sugarland are huge talent magnets

Names of National Merit Semifinalists

This list includes Houston, Bellaire, Humble, Katy, Kingwood, League City, Pasadena, Pearland, Sugarland, and The Woodlands. Click here for the original press release from National Merit Scholarship Corporation, which contains the names of all winners in the state of Texas.

Note that the three digit number before a student’s name is their self-selected “College Major Career Code.” 999 means undecided; click here to download the explanation to all codes.

This article was last updated on September 14, 2020

wdt_ID City School Student
1 Bellaire The Post Oak School 000 Ogorman, Liam M.
2 Bellaire Bellaire H.S. 000 On, Bryson P.
3 Bellaire Bellaire H.S. 000 Sun, Raymond C.
4 Bellaire Bellaire H.S. 000 Wang, Devin
5 Bellaire Bellaire H.S. 000 Zhou, Christopher P.
6 Bellaire Bellaire H.S. 000 Zhu, Annie
7 Bellaire Bellaire H.S. 160 Fan, William G.
8 Bellaire Bellaire H.S. 160 Lai, Thomas S.
9 Bellaire Bellaire H.S. 161 Kai, Mizuki
10 Bellaire Bellaire H.S. 161 Yennu, Meghna D.
City School Student

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