By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Program Director, Political Science at American Public University
Every year, approximately three million seniors graduate from high schools in the United States. Of them, only 141 qualify to be recognized as Presidential Scholars.
Presidential Scholar Program Background
The United States Presidential Scholars Program was established in 1964 to recognize and honor America’s most distinguished graduating high school seniors. In 1979, the program was extended to recognize students who demonstrate exceptional talent in the visual, creative, and performing arts.
Students can be selected either on the basis of broad academic achievement or talent in the visual arts, performing arts, or creative writing.
The initial selection of approximately 3,000 academic candidates generally is made based on SAT and ACT scores. Test scores in each of the states are reviewed, and the total SAT score is compared to the ACT sum of standard scores. In each state, scores are ranked from high to low. Approximately 20 females and 20 males are selected as candidates from each state, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and from families of U.S. citizens living abroad. In addition, each chief state school officer (CSSO) may nominate up to three male and three female candidates residing in the CSSO’s jurisdiction based on their outstanding scholarship. Application is by invitation only; therefore, students may not apply individually to the program, nor may their schools nominate them.
A review committee of qualified individuals that are experienced in secondary and post-secondary education evaluates candidates on their academic achievement, personal characteristics, leadership, and community service activities. Approximately 560 candidates are named semifinalists and forwarded to the commission for further review.
In April, the commission reviews the applications of all semifinalists based on the same criteria used by the review committee. An additional assigned essay is also considered; this essay is the key discriminator between those selected to be Presidential Scholars and those that are not, given that everything else is fairly similar between semifinalists.
The Commission selects up to 121 academic scholars and up to 20 arts scholars. All scholars are honored for their accomplishments during a recognition weekend, held each June in Washington, D.C. There is no scholarship money associated with this recognition — only the free trip to D.C. and bragging rights.
How Qualified Students Stand Out
To begin, the vast majority of candidates maxed either the SAT (2400 points) or the ACT (36 points). Once in the competition, teenagers need to separate themselves from the other highly-qualified candidates.
The program application form allows students to identify their academic aspirations are; classes taken and of interest; athletic endeavors (particularly those showing leadership); and community service projects completed. Semifinalists are primarily determined from this form. Those candidates whose applications come up short are dropped from further consideration.
The key for semifinalists to make the final cut is an essay of a related photo. This is where the candidate needs to come up with a great story that catches the attention of the members of the commission. A recounting of successes in high school or in the community will not be enough; students need a unique angle.
My expertise with this honor comes from my daughter, who was selected as a Presidential Scholar for academics in 2013. In the case of my daughter, she looked through the family tree to see where she acquired her interest in space physics. Almost everyone in the tree was an artist of some sort. The only scientist was her great grandfather on her father’s side, William. He was a professor of mathematics at the University of Illinois. He had done work for Albert Einstein during the Manhattan Project. As such, my daughter’s essay revolved about her connection to her great grandfather over time, using a photo of him in his 20s on top of which was laid his golden pocket watch. Clearly, it was good enough as she was selected as a Presidential Scholar for 2013.
While not all qualified students will become a Presidential Scholar, the program is a unique opportunity to gain recognition. Being invited to compete is worthwhile for every student’s self-esteem and should be noted on college applications.
About the Author:
Dr. Schwalbe, Program Director of Political Science at American Public University, retired from the Air Force in 2007 as a colonel after 30 years of active duty service. He has a Bachelor of Science degree from the Air Force Academy; a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Golden Gate University; a Master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School; a Master’s degree from the Naval War College; and, a PhD from Auburn University in Public Policy.
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In 1979, President Carter expanded the program to honor up to 20 students selected by the Commission through an artistic competition. In 1980, a compendium of Scholars’ essays, poems, and musical compositions was published, following a performance by the Scholars in the National Academy of Sciences’ auditorium.
In the 1980s the selection process was refined to emphasize the key elements of leadership and community service. The Horace Mann Learning Center produced a collection of Scholars’ essays on ways to improve the nation’s education system.
In 1981, the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts was created and its Art Recognition and Talent Search program began to conduct the annual artistic competition.
In 1983, the Distinguished Teacher awards were created, and the twentieth year celebration of the program included an Alumni reunion and a performance by the Scholars at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
In 1994, The American Association for Gifted Children published its second working paper, “The Presidential Scholars: A Portrait of Talent and Its Development.” The theme that emerged from the study suggested that the talents of these Presidential Scholars came forth in part because of the encouragement of teachers and parents and in part because their experienced built upon, rather than impeded, their abilities.