Marriotts Ridge High School senior Tianhao Gao approached taking the SAT with one primary objective: score well enough to prevent needing to take it a second time. To say she accomplished that goal is an understatement.
The Ellicott City resident, who also goes by Tina, scored a 2370, just 30 points from an overall perfect score and including perfect scores (800 each) in the math and reading categories.
Her efforts were enough to draw the attention of the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars, appointed by the president to annually award students with one of the nation's highest honors for academic or artistic achievement.
This week, Gao learned she was among 141 students named a 2014 U.S. Presidential Scholar. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced Monday the list of students, which included at least one female and one male from each state, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and among families living abroad.
More than 3,000 students annually are identified by the commission after they either score among the best in their respective states on the SAT or ACT or demonstrate top-flight artistic prowess; the finalists are chosen from that pool. Students apply for the honor with essays, self-assessments and transcripts.
The Presidential Scholars Program was established in 1964 and has since honored more than 6,500 students, Department of Education officials said. The department said this year more than 3,900 students were recognized.
The award comes with an expenses-free trip to Washington for a ceremony next month.
"I was totally taken by surprise. I never expected all of this," said Gao, 18, who was born in China and moved to the U.S. with her parents when she was 3. She and one other student — Hueyjong Shih of Montgomery Blair High School in Montgomery County — were Maryland's lone recipients.
Gao said that before this year, she had scant knowledge about the program; she knew someone in the county had earned the honor a few years ago. She said a friend applied last year.
"Beyond that, I wasn't very clear about the program," said Gao. "They just sent me a letter saying that I had qualified for the application process."
In addition to her high SAT marks, Gao is a member of Voices for Change, a county youth-based organization focused on issues that affect young people. She is also a member of the Marriotts Ridge High School's Model United Nations Club, a group of students that simulates the makeup of the United Nations to probe international current events.
"My favorite class is comparative government and politics," Gao said. "I'm fascinated about how nations work to help people."
Gao is the first Presidential Scholar from Marriotts Ridge, which opened in 2005. In Howard County, she is the third student overall (and second from a public school) to receive the honor since 2010.
"This is a high honor. I'm thrilled for her, and I think she is the prefect representative of our school and our school system," said Marriotts Ridge Principal Adrianne Kaufman. "Tina is an academically and artistically gifted student. She is passionate about learning, kind to others and always giving of herself."
The honor became possible when Gao outdid herself on the SAT. "I was actually very surprised. I think there's a huge amount of luck in it," Gao said about her SAT efforts.
She is far from unaccustomed to high achievement, but she said she entered the SAT with trepidation.
"It's like the first really big standardized test that students go through. I was really nervous," said Gao, whose mother is an accountant and father is a scientist. "My family, my friends and my teachers were very supportive and encouraging. They helped me motivate myself."
The result was not only the Presidential Scholars honor, but admission into the University of Pennsylvania, where she said she hopes to study business.
"I guess it all turned out really well," Gao said.