Stillwater student gets top score on national entrance exam

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Tessa Harmon at home with her dogs Primrose and Msaka, on Thursday in Evergreen. Harmon, a student at Stillwater Christian School, earned a perfect score on the ACT. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Seventeen-year-old Tessa Harmon earned a perfect score of 36 on her first attempt taking the ACT.

She can count herself among one-tenth of 1 percent of students taking the ACT who earn the highest possible score, according to

“I expected a good score, but not a perfect score,” said Harmon, who will be a senior at Stillwater Christian School in the fall.

The ACT is a national standardized college entrance exam that covers English, reading, science and math. Each subject is scored on a 1 to 36 scale. Using the same scale, students are also given a composite score, which is the average of the four subjects.

Although she got the highest possible score — “I technically got one question wrong on the test,” she said. “That’s really frustrating for me because I had the right answer and changed it to the wrong answer. I was going to change it back to the right answer when timer ran out.”

The test also has an optional writing component, which Harmon took, that is graded differently and does not factor into the composite score.

To prepare, she purchased a test prep guide targeted to students looking to earn a top score and studied it in the two months preceding the test.

“I was not using it to aim for the perfect score, but it worked,” she said with a laugh, acknowledging that natural ability was a big factor.

“I think you can study for it, but I think I’ve been blessed with a quick mind,” said Harmon, who currently has a 4.0 GPA.

A perfect score doesn’t necessarily come from cramming in the days or weeks preceding the test, but draws from knowledge absorbed over years spent in the classrooms.

“It’s a lot about critical thinking, making sure you’re paying attention,” Harmon said.

Harmon said she’s also a student who prefers to go into a test over-prepared, arming herself with dozens of pencils, for example, to quell any pre-test jitters.

“When I get in there — I get into the zone and it’s all about the test,” Harmon said.

In addition to the ACT, Harmon has taken the SAT, another standardized national college entrance exam.

“I got a good score, but not as good as I’d like, so I will be taking it again,” she said.

Harmon has applied to two out-of-state colleges, so far, and plans to apply to more.

“I’ve heard from one and have been admitted. I’m waiting for a decision on the other one,” she said.

She is thinking about studying pre-law, noting that one of her favorite classes at Stillwater is rhetoric or “the art of speaking and writing effectively.” Within the program, she enjoys rhetorical arguments.

“I mean it sounds odd, but I like arguing,” Harmon said.

And it’s not the type of arguing one might imagine as a shouting match, but a “well-informed conversation with one another,” she said.

Harmon is a member of the National Honor Society, math club and choir. She also serves in a student leadership role as one of the school’s “house captains.” These captains help lead groups of 30 students who are assigned to a “house” for the duration of their high school experience. She currently works a summer job at Glacier Shave Ice.

She is the daughter of Mike and Sandy Harmon of Kalispell.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or

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