Scoring Merit Awards

Since 1997, the AFSA Scholarship Fund has supported Merit Awards for high school seniors. This page details the 2024 judging procedures and scoring process for AFSA’s Academic and Art Merit Awards and Community Service Awards.

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

I. General Information on Judges

Approximately thirty AFSA members participate as judges (20 for Academic Merit, five for Community Service, and five for Art Merit). Judges include members of the AFSA Scholarship Committee and AFSA member volunteers appointed by the Scholarship Committee. To help with continuity of scoring, each year AFSA has both returning and new judges. All judges attend a Merit Awards judge orientation session each year to learn/review the scoring process. Children of current judges are ineligible to apply for AFSA scholarships.

II. Panels

Typically, 175 to 200 students apply for AFSA Merit Awards each year. In 2023, there were 107 Academic Merit applicants, 22 Community Service applicants, and 29 Art Merit applicants. Academic Merit applications are divided randomly between four panels. In addition, there is one panel for Community Service applicants and one panel for Art Merit applicants. Each judging panel is comprised of approximately five judges.

III. Academic Merit Criteria

There are eight criteria (unweighted GPA, 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 criterion and tweaks the system, if need be. Please note that because many colleges are no longer requiring standardized test scores, AFSA will no longer require standardized test scores for its Academic Merit Award application. In the 2024 program the points are as follows:

Academic Merit Scoring Criteria Points
Grade Point Average (GPA) 40 points
Rigor of Courses Taken/Compared to What is Offered 10 points
Any Awards won/Honors bestowed 5 points
Extracurricular Activities 15 points
Essay 15 points
Recommendation Letters 5 points
Special Circumstances 10 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.

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: "In celebration of the Foreign Service and AFSA's centennial, describe what you believe to be the single most significant achievement of the U.S. Foreign Service in the past 100 years." 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 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

In 2024, AFSA will award 33 Academic Merit scholarships. The Academic Merit applicants are divided randomly between the four panels (20-25 applicants per panel). After the students are individually scored by each judge, the five-person judging panel meets. The judges’ scores for each student are then summed. The six highest-ranking students from each panel become automatic winners (producing 24 winners from the four panels). Each panel also identifies the four students in the next highest scoring positions who then become finalists (producing 16 finalists) and one finalist for best essay. The AFSA Scholarship Committee then meets to select 8 winners from the 16 finalists and to select the best essay winner.

V. Art Merit Scoring

In 2024, AFSA will award six Art Merit scholarships 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 2.75 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 2024 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 65 points
TOTAL 100 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

In 2024, AFSA will award six Community Service scholarships. Judges on the Community Service panel review the applicants’ service activities where the applicant is asked to submit 150 words on each describing the activity and why it was important. They consider 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 also surveyed merit applicants for their feedback. Each year, the AFSA Scholarship Committee reviews and tweaks the application process and scoring system based on input from the merit judges and applicants. The AFSA Scholarship Committee welcomes suggestions on how to improve this competition.

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