Thirty-eight PA students, the largest total of any high school in Massachusetts, joined the ranks of over 16,000 National Merit Scholarship Semifinalists from across the country last week, qualifying them to compete for thousands of corporate-funded merit-based scholarships through the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) of Evanston, IL. This year’s number of semifinalists reflects an over 80 percent increase from last year’s total of 21 and is Andover’s best showing in five years, the College Counseling Office said. Students enter the program by taking the Preliminary Scholastic Achievement Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT), which Andover students usually take during their Lower and Upper years. Those who score high enough are recognized as semifinalists. The National Merit Scholarship Program is an academic competition designed to identify talented high school students and provide merit-based scholarships, ranging from $2,500 in value to much larger corporate-sponsored awards. The awards almost exclusively go to finalists — a designation to which less than half of semifinalists advance. Qualification for semifinalist status is decided on a state-by-state basis, with minimum qualifying scores varying from state to state. Mississippi has the lowest Selection Index, requiring a minimum score of 204, for example. The qualification system can make things even harder for Phillips Academy students seeking to attain semifinalist status. Due to rules governing the participation of boarding schools, Andover students must compete against other boarding schools in the Northeast instead of the general Massachusetts high school population, John Anderson, Director of College Counseling, said, making semifinalist status harder to attain. Anderson said that though 38 semifinalists is a large number for one school, such a performance is fairly common at PA. In fact, the annual number of Andover semifinalists has not dipped below 21 in the past five years, according to statistics issued by the College Counseling Office. Anderson said, “Andover students are good test-takers. Their SSAT scores were considered during their admission [to PA]. And while they’re here we add to their academic ability. PSAT stresses critical reading, and we do a great job prepping them for that especially.” Though a National Merit Scholarship adds prestige to any resume, it will aid applicants to less competitive universities more than it will help students seeking admittance to top tier schools such as the Ivy League, Anderson said.