Investigation into National Honor Society


Each fall, students flock to apply for the revered and respected National Honor Society. The NHS program, in its near century existence, has enticed and motivated millions of students to strive for educational integrity and integrated community service. However, the North Central chapter attracted complaints from several of its applicants.

Following the 2016 selection process, several students complained after they were not selected for the organization. Although selectivity is typical among prestigious organizations, the students who were turned away from NHS believed their resumes and communal service to be exceptional. Senior Lucy Wehlage, who applied as a junior, was one of these applicants.

“[I applied] to be known as a model student. Someone who people looked up to, someone who was known for academics rather than just being a fun high schooler,” Wehlage said, “Someone who cared about the community and cared about the people in it, and helped as much as they could.”

Wehlage, the co-president of Counterpoints, and a regular volunteer for organizations like Habitat for Humanity,  Neighbors to Neighbors and The Food Link, was shocked by her elimination from the applicant process.

“The reason I didn’t get in was because of my leadership [category]. A lot of my leadership talked about [choir] and things through my church. I also talked about being a lead in a play, and was rejected because it was not considered leadership. As the lead in a play, it’s not just the title of the lead, you’re much more of a leader than those not in theater understand. Everyone in the cast has to accept you and follow your lead,” Wehlage said.

Although Wehlage’s use of theater as a leadership position is debatable, it is not the only reason that students have been rejected. In some cases, students are given no grounds for their rejection. Junior Faathih Haider was rejected from NHS without an explicit reason. Haider is a member of the tennis and robotics teams, and active participant in several service organizations. Haider is also an IB student who has a 4.7 GPA. Haider was surprised at the ineptitude of NHS during the entirety of the application process.

“I know people who got rejected who had their parents appeal, and those students were just put in [the organization]. I didn’t want to be a person that was bugging [the organization],” Haider said, “I want NHS to tell [students] why they got rejected. This year they struggled because they let a lot of students turn in the packet late, because they sent the wrong letters out.”

Upon further investigation, the selection process for candidates may be partially to blame. Each year, a faculty committee of five teachers reviews each application. After consideration, the committee votes, and a candidate who receives at least three votes is accepted. Sally Ernstberger, the primary teacher sponsor for the organization, also has the opportunity to appeal the decision before it is final.

“There are national guidelines, having the five people making a vote is a national guideline,” Ernstberger said, “Having [qualifications] be service, character, leadership and academics is a national guideline. On the website it does list some of the things that don’t count. It has to be, and this is subject to change for next year, an actual office for leadership of an established club or captain or co-captain of a sport or team. We keep trying to be very specific [for service].”

Nevertheless, complaints still frequently reach the ears of those who operate the association. Jonathan Schwartz and Erin McMath, the respective president and vice-president of the organization, frequently mediate the discontent of other students. However, neither individual is allowed to provide their input on potential candidates.

“We should have some say in [the decision],” McMath said, “We often know the students better than the teachers, especially when it comes to how honest [applicants] are being with their service or their leadership. Also we can be a credible source. If we think they’re a really great leader but maybe their grades aren’t up to par, it can justify that [the applicant] should still be in the society because they put forth their very best.”

Although it may seem logical for these student leaders to have some say in membership authenticity, the current NHS system suggests otherwise. The national administration stipulates that students are not to be involved with the application process, and the school’s chapter simply complies with their regulation.

Despite these pitfalls, the most recent NHS leadership has entered their office with aspirations to transform the society. Among their proposed modifications is an interview process for applicants.

“I think that [an interview] would be a really helpful thing to add to the application process,” Schwartz said, “I think that it might be a little bit difficult, logistically, because we have at least 200 applicants each year, but it’s not impossible, and I think that would add a lot of fairness to the process.”

Over time, complaints have also begun to plague the individual members of the NHS. Among them, many have come to question the incentive for some students to apply to NHS. The organization is not meant solely for the purpose of improving the chance of college admission. Despite these expectations, several students apply to NHS exclusively to boost their prospects for college.

“I think that [the issue] is something that we’re trying to balance, because [college] is obviously something important to high school students, and it’s something that we’ll never be able to eliminate, but on the same token, it’s unquestionable that a majority of our members don’t really think of anything more of [NHS] than it being a [college] application piece,” Schwartz said.

However, Schwartz and McMath have already started their attempt to encourage members to be passionate about their service.

“[Upon] entering NHS, you’re really excited to be able to go out and help the community and have opportunities and be able to say ‘I’m in National Honor Society.’ I think that as you continue through the year, it kind of starts to fade away,” McMath said. “However, our committee chairs are all pretty driven to help and change. I see that they are always really adament of coming up with new ideas about what we can do to better our programs and improve our events. I especially see that initiative in our committee chairs. I don’t think that as a group [students] look at [NHS] as an application, but [the organization] is what you make it, and some people make it only a piece of their college application.”

Adjustments, although ongoing, have not yet permanently altered the chapter’s structure. It is difficult for NHS to establish long term goals, usually because their student members and leaders are largely replaced at the completion of each year.

Although NHS is still one of the most recognizable organizations at the high school level, its admittance and member inaction have caused some students to reject its competence as an effective organization.

“I thought about [reapplying] this year, but I just had a bad taste in my mouth. Which is sad, because I still do community service, I’m just not a part of NHS,” Wehlage said. “I still got into college [without NHS], and I was still fine; it wasn’t a complete tragedy.”

Although impossible to tell, more qualified students like Wehlage may choose to refrain from applying to NHS. Despite the reconstructive intentions of leaders, the authority to greatly impact the chapter ultimately reside among its faculty supervisors. History indicates that politicians, the atomic bomb, and an infantry of other establishments have gradually allowed their name to be tainted by malevolence. If not addressed promptly, the National Honor Society may begin to join its ranks.

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