Towards the end of my time at BYU, a friend mentioned to me that he knew some Benson scholars (today we would say Hinckley scholars, or more generically, presidential scholars), and that they were all stuck up and full of themselves. I told him, to his surprise, that I too was a Benson scholar, which goes to show that I can deceive even friends into thinking I’m a down-to-earth, non-snooty person.
The Presidential Scholarship is the most prestigious academic scholarship granted by BYU to incoming freshmen. When I was a senior in high school, I spent many hours researching, writing, and formatting the written application. In the spring of 1989, BYU flew me and 29 other male finalists to campus (and 30 women the next week) for three days of interviews and evaluations.
The interviews were an overwhelming experience. “Competitive” is not the right word to describe them, as much as the objective was to winnow 30 finalists down to 12 scholarship recipients. We were run through a battery of interviews, small-group discussions, and evaluations in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. Given the talent and preparation of the other finalists, the standard of accomplishment was quite high, and I felt a lot of pressure. Once I was back in California, BYU was slow enough in contacting me that I gave up hope of hearing good news. I felt pretty crummy for a day, but I’m pretty good at finishing second. When BYU called the next day to inform me that I had been selected me as a Benson Scholar after all, I was thrilled. In a year of almost-but-not-quite moments, it was one victory that did not remain forever out of reach.
While winning was nice, the greatest impact on me was neither academic nor financial. There was a handful of good students in my high school class in Southern California, but I was the only Mormon among them. But during the interviews in Provo, I was with 29 others who were from distant places but like me in a way that was entirely new. Despite the similarities, there were always surprises: during one free moment, I was comparing experiences as a distance runner with one finalist (hah! I was faster), only to find him the next minute giving an impromptu Chopin recital (note to self: do not touch piano). People I met during those three days became friends and roommates while I was at BYU and are still friends sixteen years later. Other finalists, that year and in other years, forged similarly close friendships.
Many of the other finalists I met, and many that I saw my last two years at BYU as a student representative on the Presidential Scholar selection committee, were recruited by the best colleges in the country. I think that BYU is correct to attempt to attract these students, many of whom will go on to earn prestigious awards and fellowships or otherwise increase the university’s reputation. A few presidential scholars will come for the money, although the financial benefit is quite modest as far as these things go. A few will come for the prestige, although there is almost no recognition for presidential scholars once they enroll, no event or institution around which to form a group identity. I would guess the most important factor for some who decide to accept BYU’s offer was the friends they made in three intense days. (In my case, BYU wasted its financial aid: apathetic about where to go to college, I didn’t apply anywhere else; BYU could have had me for a much lower price than it paid–although I appreciated the scholarship nonetheless.)
This doesn’t happen anymore, though. For the last few years, there has been no final round. Applicants fill out a paper application, send it in, and are notified of the outcome in April. While I was on the selection committee, there was talk every year that the process could be made more efficient by simply taking the top twelve based on their ACT/SAT scores and written applications and foregoing the interviews. Now the committee uses just that process to select the top twenty-five men and women among freshmen applicants. It’s probably cheaper and more efficient, but I can’t help but think that something important has been lost. A paper application doesn’t compare to a first experience with air travel, individual interviews with university faculty, and friendships forged in the heat of competition.
Then there is the small matter of the current application, which is an abomination. The application in 1989 asked for serious responses to serious questions. The current application asks for a short essay concerning jellybeans. The old system played to the strengths of a budding Jared Diamond, the new one to the talents of an embryonic Maureen Dowd. As a tool to attract serious students to BYU, I’m skeptical about its effectiveness. I can only assume that the people in the BYU Scholarships Office, who have more experioence with this kind of thing than I have, know what they’re doing.
Not just as Mormons, but as Americans we have a terrible reluctance to admit academic achievement. As often as not, it attracts resentment rather than admiration. Bryce I. has compared admitting liberal tendencies to coming out at BYU, but he should know better. The biggest taboo was letting anyone find out about your scholarship. (Do I feel bad for outing Bryce? Since he has already outed his own cousin, no.) The smoothest way I’ve ever seen to covertly announce your membership in the ranks of BYU presidential scholars is the admission that one had a scholarship for which women at one time were not eligible; he that hath ears to hear hath heard!
I know there are more than a couple presidential scholars who post or comment regularly. (Your secret is safe, as long as you think it’s something that needs to be hidden, and as long as you keep your payments coming in on time.) What was the experience like for you? How did it affect you? If you were a finalist but not ultimately selected, was it the kind of experience you never recover from? If you have any experience with the presidential scholar program at all, what are your impressions? Or are you firmly convinced that BYU presidential scholars are all snooty, stuck-up snobs who don’t need another ounce of positive reinforcement?