National Merit Semifinalists by School and Surname

A reader sends me press releases from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation with the names of semifinalists sorted by high schools in California, Texas, Florida, Virginia, and Indiana.

The 16,000 semifinalists nationally scored in the top 0.5% of the PSAT test. However, minimum scores to be a semifinalist vary by state, with the highest cutoffs in Massachusetts and D.C., and the lowest in Wyoming.

Looking at the California semifinalists announced in 2009, well, holy moly, there are a lot of East Asians. You wouldn't think I'd be surprised after all these years, but I still am. For example, there are 36 semifinalists with the last name of Kim and 49 named Wang. Other Asian names: Nguyen, which is now one of the 100 most common in America (12), Chang (35), Chen or Cheng (56), Tang (8), Yang (15), and Zhang (20).

There are three Guptas and three Singhs. What other common Indian names are there?

My reader, who is Jewish, points out the decline in Jewish names from our day back in the 1970s. For example, in the entire state of California, only one semifinalist has a name beginning with "Gold...". Other common Jewish names also show up only rarely among the semifinalists: Cohen (1), Levy (1), and Kaplan (1).

So, in the state of California, there was one Cohen who was a semifinalist, but 49 Wangs. Wow.

According to Wikipedia, the most common surnames in the U.S. in 2000 were, among white-black names, Adams (3 semifinalists in California), Johnson (3), Williams (3), Brown (6), Jones (7), Miller (2), Davis (1), Wilson (2), Anderson (3), Taylor (3), Thomas (1), However, this Wikipedia list of top 100 surnames is, for unexplained reasons, missing Smith (7).

Among highbrow WASP names, there are two Clark(e)s. (People named Clark or Clarke are descended in the male line from somebody who was a clerk -- i.e., literate -- seven centuries ago. I know it sounds ridiculous, but Nathanael Weyl found Clarks over-represented in intellectual fields in the late 20th Century.) No Huntingtons or Eliots.

Among common Hispanic names found in the top 100 most common names of all types in the country: Garcia (1 semifinalist), Rodriguez (0), Lopez (0), Martinez (0), Hernandez (1), Gonzalez (1), Perez (0), Sanchez (0), Ramirez (0), Torres (2 -- is that a Sephardic name, as in Dana Torres, the Jewish Olympic swimmer from Beverly Hills?), Flores (1), Rivera (0), Gomez (0), Diaz (0), Reyes (0), Cruz (0), Morales (0), and Ortiz (1).

In California, high schools with the most semifinalists include Troy in Fullerton (80), University High in Irvine (60), Lynbrook in San Jose (58), Mission San Jose in Fremont (55), Monte Vista in Cupertino (53), Harker School in San Jose (50), Torrey Pines in north San Diego (48), Harvard-Westlake in North Hollywood (42), Palo Alto (46), Henry M. Gunn in Palo Alto (42), Palos Verdes Penninsula (36), and Arcadia (31). Most of these are public schools, with the exception of Harker and Harvard-Westlake.

Basically, having a lot of semifinalists is now all about having the East Asians. For example, among famous LA schools, Beverly Hills H.S. has eight, Loyola of Los Angeles six, Marlborough of Los Angeles four, Milken of Stephen Wise Temple ten. The semifinalists at Harvard-Westlake on Coldwater Canyon are a little less than half East Asian, but, still ... the school's two campuses (the other is just off Sunset Boulevard) is at the historic center of what had been the largest, richest Jewish community in the world outside of NYC

It would be interesting to calculate a sort of GINI score of inequality by high school for semifinalists. Some of these public schools have more semifinalists per year than most public schools in California could be expected to have in a century at recent rates. For example, in contrast to Troy H.S. with 80, the city of Los Angeles (not counting the San Fernando Valley) has a total of five public school semifinalists: three at magnet high schools and one each at Venice HS (at the beach) and one at Eagle Rock HS (next to Pasadena).