Boston — Academic performance (and athletic prowess for athletic scholarships) is generally the most important factor in winning a college scholarship, but one program awards more than $200,000 a year to selected high schoolers without looking at a grade or test score.
Cosponsored by Shell Oil Company and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), the Century III Leaders program judges some 300,000 high school seniors on their leadership abilities, community involvement, and awareness of current events.
It is an outgrowth of Shell's 1976 Bicentennial Seniors program, which had students writing historical vignettes in the form of ''Bicentennial Minutes.'' The winning minute was read on television by its author, who also collected the top scholarship of $10,000.
Shell agreed to continue funding the program after 1976, and the NASSP revised it to look to the future rather than the past.
The selection process begins at the school level, where applicants are judged in five areas: extracurricular activities, personal activities and hobbies, work experience, a current events quiz, and choice of a topic for a ''projection'' on innovative leadership.
A committee of students, a faculty member, a parent, and a community leader select the school winner, who then develops his or her projection of a major challenge America will face in its third century and how that challenge should be met.
Some winning topics: restoring the family structure, revitalizing inner cities, involving the elderly, and dangers of genetic research.
Selection committees in each state and the District of Columbia narrow the field to state finalists, and use extensive interviews to choose two state winners. (Two alternates are also selected, and receive $500 scholarships.)
The 102 state winners each receive a $1,500 scholarship and an all-expenses-paid trip to Williamsburg, Va. There they meet, exchange ideas, and select national leaders. They are being judged as they participate in the conference, and they must discuss at length the problems they addressed in their projections.
''You can't smooth-talk your way through it. They really probe you about your topic,'' said Shelley Smith, the 1976 national winner who read her Bicentennial Minute on television.
A student's motives seem very important in the final evaluation process. Nan Roberts, 1980 Century III national winner, said she was ''shocked to win, and sat down to figure out why.'' She decided it was her attitude: It was evident that she was sincerely interested in improving things, not merely after a scholarship.
The 1981 national winner, Marie Miranda, agrees. ''You can't go into the Century III program trying to win money. They weed out people like that.'' She adds that the Williamsburg experience was invaluable in itself. ''Of the 102 people there, there are at least 95 that I really want to see again and again.'' Other Century III participants from various years who were contacted voiced similar feelings.
They very well may see each other again. Terry Giroux, director of student activities at the NASSP, says a tenth anniversary reunion is a distinct possibility. And past participants receive a newsletter that tracks some of their current activities.
It has contained a lot about 1979 national winner Daniel Voll, whose projection dealt with teen drug abuse. ''Operation Snowball,'' a peer prevention program for teens that he started while in high school, is now the primary program in 29 Illinois communities and was recently commended by the state legislature.
The convention also helps broaden career horizons for the participants. Coming from a small town in New Mexico, 1976 winner Tom Paterson said he tended to think simply in terms of ''doctor-lawyer-teacher'' before his Williamsburg experience. He is now studying agricultural economics and law in a joint doctoral program.
Past Century winners may compete, after graduation, for six one-time grants of up to $5,000 each.