Scoring Merit Awards

This page details the judging procedures and scoring process of the AFSA Merit Awards Competition. Only graduating high school seniors of Foreign Service employees who are AFSA members are eligible to apply for these one-time only awards. Academic Merit Winners receive $2,500 awards and "Honorable Mention" winners receive $1,000 awards. From the Academic Merit Award applicants, a token $500 best essay award is selected. AFSA also bestows an Art Merit Award at $2,500 and up to three $1,000 Art Merit “Honorable Mention” awards. Students can also compete for a $2,500 Community Service Award.

  1. General Information on Judges
  2. Panels
  3. Academic Merit Criteria
  4. Selecting Academic Merit Winners
  5. Art Merit Scoring
  6. Feedback
  7. Parent Membership

I. General Information on Judges

Approximately 24 people participate as judges (20 for Academic Merit and 4 for Art Merit). Members of the AFSA Scholarship Committee also serve as judges of the Merit Awards along with others connected to the Foreign Service community. All judges are AFSA members. To help with continuity of scoring, each year AFSA has “returning” and new judges. With the Art Merit Competition, all judges have expertise in at least one of the four art categories: performing arts, musical arts, visual arts or creative writing.

II. Panels

Since 1997, the AFSA Scholarship Fund has supported Academic and Art Merit Awards program. Approximately 80 students apply for AFSA Academic Merit Awards each year. All Academic Merit applications are divided into 4-5 panels based on the student's standardized test scores and unweighted GPA. To make the panels fair, each panel has a range of students with high, medium and low standardized test scores and high, medium and low GPA's. Community Service Award applicants are divided among the academic merit panels. Each judging panel is comprised of four judges. Judges are placed on panels so there is a mix by gender, returning versus new judges, agency, and age. Between 15-20 Art Merit applications are submitted each year. One panel of four individuals also scores the Art Merit applicants.

Finally, all judges, whether new or returning, attend a 90-minute Merit Awards judge orientation session each year before the Merit Award judging begins so that they may learn/review the scoring procedures.

III. Academic Merit Criteria

There are eight criteria (unweighted GPA, standardized test scores, high school activities, any awards won, two page essay, one letter of recommendation, rigor of courses taken while in high school, and special circumstances, if any) on which the students are judged; not all criteria are weighted equally. The Scholarship Committee each year reviews the weight/points assigned to each criteria and tweaks the system, if need be. In the 2015 program the points are as follows:

Academic Merit Scoring Criteria Points
Grade Point Average (GPA) 25 points
Standardized Test Scores 25 points
Rigor of Courses Taken/Compared to What is Offered 5 points
Any Awards won/Honors bestowed 5 points
Extracurricular Activities 15 points
Essay 15 points
Recommendation Letters 5 points
Special Circumstances 5 points (if applicable)
TOTAL 100 points


AFSA uses unweighted GPA’s on a 4.0 scale and will convert GPA’s to a 4.0 scale if a school uses another point system. In addition, all weighted GPA’s are converted to unweighted GPA’s.

Standardized Test Scores

Students can submit SAT or ACT tests. In the SAT scoring, AFSA does not take into consideration the “writing” score. The student's SAT verbal and math scores are summed, and the student is assigned points based on this total. AFSA uses the composite ACT score. The higher the standardized test score, the higher number of points are awarded. Students may submit either standardized test. AFSA does use the SAT “super-scoring” where the highest verbal and math score are taken even if over several test dates.

Rigor of Courses Taken

The typical AFSA Academic Merit applicant has taken a number of higher level classes and AFSA needs a way to recognize such accomplishments. Students are awarded points based on the rigor of the advanced, honors, gifted AP and IB courses they take in their sophomore, junior and senior years of high school.

Any Awards Won/Honors Bestowed

The student will be awarded points for national, regional, state, local or any other honors bestowed or awards won.

Extracurricular Activities

With the "activities" score, the judges look at the following activities: academic activities, sports activities, other extra-curricular activities/employment, volunteer activities, etc. Judges give points for evidence of sustained effort, real achievement in one or more fields, social/character-building/intellectual value of activities, and leadership in one of the above areas.


Students write a 500-word essay on the following topic: "Describe your most memorable Foreign Service experience and why." Judges score on following directions, grammar, essay structure, analytical skills, conclusions drawn, and especially the "why" part of the essay. (12-point font, double-spaced.)

Letters of Recommendation

In the "letters of recommendation" category, students have an email sent to the person he/she inputs into the application site and an email is sent to the recommender. That person clicks on a link that takes them to the Fluidreview application site where that individual answers 3-4 questions on the student. Recommenders can cut and paste their answers into the document or answer by typing in their responses. Parents cannot submit a letter of recommendation on their child.

Special Circumstances

Under the "special circumstances" area, students may receive points for unusual conditions/circumstances which have affected the student’s life in their high school years. Points can be awarded for post evacuation, a disability, a traumatic illness, rigorous high school the student has attended, chronic health problem, divorce or death in the immediate family, numerous high school transfers, etc. It is totally up to the judges to allocate any points in this area.

IV. Selecting Academic Merit Winners

Again, all Academic Merit applicants are divided into balanced panels. Once the students are individually scored by each judge, the 4-person judging panel meets. Then the judges’ scores for each student are then summed. The two highest-ranking students from each panel become automatic winners. The next two students in the next highest scoring positions (3rd and 4th position) then become finalists. Judges always looking at the next two students (in the 5th and 6th position) to make sure they have not missed anything as those students will not receive awards. Each panel puts forth two finalists (those in the 3rd and 4th position) who are re-evaluated all over again, using the same criteria but this time only by the members of the Scholarship Committee who choose the remaining winners and then the honorable mentions winners. Those scoring the highest in the competition received “named” scholarships. Please note, when the judges meet they undertake a careful review of students in the 5th position and downward (there are 18-22 students in a panel) to make sure they did not miss something on these students since the judges know these applicants will not be in the running for any prize. If a panel makes any significant changes in scoring, they document why an applicant's score was changed and all panel members need to agree on any scoring change. The AFSA Scholarship Director and Senior Scholarship Associate are present during all panel meetings to take notes and to ensure fairness in the judging process.

V. Art Merit Scoring

The Art Merit scoring follows the same general format of the Academic Merit scoring. However, standardized test scores and GPA's are not factored into the Art Merit scoring (other than to verify a 2.0 GPA) since this award was instituted to recognize students who excel in the arts but are not necessarily academically gifted. The Art Merit panel judges score individually the student's application and submitted art. Then the four-person judging panel meets as a group to review their scores. The scoring criteria used in 2016 will be:

Art Merit Scoring Criteria Points
Essay 15 points
Letters of Recommendation 5 points
Special Circumstances 5 points (if applicable)
Other Awards Student Has Won/Programs Attended/Art Talents 10 points
Submitted Art Work 60 points
TOTAL 95 points

With funds for only one Art Award and up to three Art Honorable Mention Awards, AFSA understands it is a difficult task to compare the different art forms.

VI. Community Service Award Scoring

Judges review up to three of the applicants’ service activities where the applicant is asked to submit 150 words on each describing the activity and why it was important. They take into account the duration of the activity, longevity of the activity, leadership level the student has taken in the activity, level of interaction with any recipient(s), and impact on student.

VII. Feedback

After the scoring is finished, all judges are asked to complete an evaluation of the Merit Award Competition and make suggestions on how to improve the program. Since 2011, AFSA has begun surveying merit applicants for their feedback too. Judging the applications is a long and involved process, and AFSA does not compensate the merit judges. Each year after the feedback has been collected; the AFSA Scholarship Committee reviews and tweaks the application process and scoring system based on input from the merit judges and applicants.

In sum, all student winners are very accomplished. AFSA wishes there were more monies available to honor more of these young people. AFSA has tried to set objective criteria in sometimes subjective areas. The AFSA Scholarship Committee is open to suggestions on how to improve this competition.

Contact Us!

  • Lori Dec, Scholarship Director, (202) 944-5504