A good day for golfer Ryan Howell is shooting a low score when he's on the course playing for Collegedale Academy's prep team.

But today, the 17-year-old senior is among an elite number being honored for achieving some of the highest scores in the country on the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.

Ryan is one of 19 regional high school seniors announced Wednesday as National Merit Program semifinalists by the National Merit Scholarship Corp. Semifinalists are the highest-scoring test entrants in each state, a ranking that includes fewer than 1 percent of all U.S. high school seniors.

"I was surprised and honored," said Ryan, son of Rob and Angela Howell. "Math has always come easy for me, and reading from an early age helped me understand how grammar works. But I'm surprised at how well I did because I hadn't prepared for the test."

Maggie Meller, a 17-year-old senior at Signal Mountain Middle-High School, said being a semifinalist is an honor that she's always dreamed about "but never really expected, so it was really cool to find out I was a semifinalist.

"I've never been a 'perfect test-taker,' but this was one I studied for. I used a prep book that a friend's mom got for me," said Maggie, daughter of Amy and Steve Meller. She is one of three semifinalists from SMMHS.

The process of becoming a semifinalist begins during the junior year of high school when students take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.

More than 1.5 million juniors in 21,000 high schools across the nation took the test last year, according to the National Merit Scholarship Corp. Of those, 16,000 reached semifinalist status.

In addition to 16 semifinalists in Chattanooga schools, there was one North Georgia honoree and three in Northeast Alabama schools.

Sofia McDonough, 17, a senior at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, plans to major in science in college, but is undecided on what campus that will be. She said she's applying to 12 colleges and universities.

Her recognition as a semifinalist, in combination with a well-rounded resume, just became a game-changer in that college admissions process. Sofia plays viola in the school orchestra, is a member of Model UN, the mock trial team and has played volleyball for the school since her freshman year.

"I think Sofia has always strived to be the best she can be," said CSAS Principal Jim Boles. "She's been doing everything she can to build that resume. She's an awesome student all the way around."

All National Merit semifinalists now have the opportunity to compete for $31 million in National Merit Scholarships, which will be awarded in spring 2020.

"I was just really excited when I found out I was a semifinalist," said Sofia, daughter of Travis and Teresa McDonough. "My parents were pretty excited, too."

Contact Susan Pierce at or 423-757-6284.





Sardis High School in Boaz: Sadie Ross

Scottsboro High School: Benjamin Gossett, Mason Sharp



Gilmer High School, Ellijay: Nathan Jones




Baylor: Thomas Nimon, Mark Schadt

Chattanooga Christian School: Stephen Halvorson

Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences: Sofia McDonough

Collegedale Academy: Ryan Howell

Girls Preparatory School: Komal Patri

Grace Baptist Academy: Adam Havens

McCallie: John Arrowsmith, Seth Keylon, Yuxi Long, Riley Parker

Notre Dame: Nora Bauer

Signal Mountain: Jackson Cannon, Margaret Meller, Gabriel Williams

Source: National Merit Scholarship Corp.