Millicent Schwartz, a recent graduate of Red River High School, was more than a little surprised when she learned had received a perfect score on the ACT college entrance exam.
She’s one of two North Dakota high school graduates to hold the distinction. She and Seth Benson of West Fargo are among 7,282 high school test-takers in the state who earned a perfect composite score.
Schwartz received a 36 on the comprehensive exam that assesses students in English, mathematics, science and reading. The scores in each area are compiled together into a composite score which has a range of 1 to 36.
“Honest to God, I thought I scored in the mid-20s,” she said. “It was a bit of a shock.”
Only about one-fifth of one percent of ACT test-takers earn a perfect score, according to the ACT.
Schwartz, 18, is heading this fall to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where she’ll major in mechanical engineering and minor in aerospace engineering.
Earning a perfect score on the ACT is no guarantee of college admission.
“It helps less than you think,” Schwartz said. “A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, you got 36, Harvard is waiting.’ The ACT score is kind a foot in the door.”
For schools with very low acceptance rates, “everyone who’s applying there has 34 or higher,” she said. The perfect score “is a good thing to have but it’s not like a skeleton key.”
A teacher’s impact
Schwartz moved here with her family from North Carolina in the summer of 2015 after her father, Gary Schwartz, accepted a position at UND. Her mother, Monica Lamm, works at Altru Health System. She is the oldest of four children.
Of his daughter’s success, Gary Schwartz said, “I’m delighted. I couldn’t be prouder.”
He is pleased, too, with the Grand Forks school system, he said. “She’s had excellent teachers here.”
Millie Schwartz credits one teacher, in particular, for his influence. Allen Janes taught Enriched Pre-calculus and Advanced Placement Calculus at Red River High School. He retired in spring 2018.
“I think the reason I did so well in math on the ACT was because of Mr. Janes,” she said. “His teaching is what convinced me to keep going in math.
“When I moved here, I thought I was pretty bad at math,” she said. “Math is one of those things that builds. If you miss one topic, it can be really bad for you later on.”
One poor teacher, early on, could derail a student from a career that requires extensive math skills, she said.
But Janes “was just so patient and so kind.”
With deflated confidence in math, she might have stopped pursuing it, she said.
“I had enough math credits in middle school so, as an underclassman, I could have quit taking math. Mr. Janes made me realize I was actually good at it and enjoy it.”
But don’t peg her as a “math nerd”.
“I love English, I love writing,” Schwartz said. “If not for Mr. Janes, I might have been an English major or something.”
A well-rounded student, she’s also been involved in extracurricular activities such as Vex Robotics, Science Bowl, and the theater arts program in high school.
“I did the puppetry for ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ ” she said.
She also enjoyed the AP Psychology course taught by Kevin Carney, she said.
A ‘rare feat’
Achieving a perfect ACT score is “a rare feat,” said Superintendent Terry Brenner.
About one-fifth of one percent of the 1.9 million students who took the ACT in 2018 achieved a perfect composite score, according to the ACT.
Schwartz’ perfect score is to her credit, “but the support of her family and the instruction she had here certainly helped her along the way,” Brenner said.
“She’ll be starting at Cornell with a pretty good head start on her college education, by having lots of college credit under her belt already.”
Brenner described Schwartz as “an absolute self-starter who initiated much of her own learning at the advanced level.”
On arrival in Grand Forks, “she asked how many AP courses she could take,” he said. “She also accelerated her educational pathway by taking classes at UND.”
Her quest to find the right college was not without discouragement though. Even with a perfect ACT score, “I still got rejected by plenty of schools,” she said. But “that does not bother me at all.”
“I’m still very happy I got into Cornell. They have the biggest and best engineering program in the Ivy Leagues.”
And, after college, she’s set her sights even higher.
“My dream is to work for the space program,” she said.