The words “college scholarships” caught Rachel Tunney’s attention as she looked at the poster on the back of a restroom stall.

That was how she was introduced to the Distinguished Young Woman of America competition, which stakes its claim as the largest and oldest national scholarship program for high school girls.

Tunney, a Mount Pleasant native, decided to enter, and she represented South Carolina at the national competition in Mobile, Ala., this past weekend. Tunney was first runner-up, and that’s the best any South Carolina competitor ever has placed.

“For her to finish that high speaks volumes about who she is,” said Vicki Hudson, South Carolina’s chair of the program. “I knew that she was the total girl, and that she had enough personality to sell herself down there.”

Nicole Renard of Kennewick, Wash., was the winner, and Ciera Horton of Orlando, Fla., was second runner-up.

Both Tunney and Hudson were quick to say this was not a beauty pageant. Contestants don’t compete in swimsuits, and no score is based on their appearance. The judging scale is a combination of their academics, interviews, fitness, self-expression and talent. Many girls often have one area that’s not as strong as the others, Hudson said.

“Rachel was going into this competition being very, very strong in all five areas,” she said. “That is a little unusual.”

Tunney was named the state winner last summer, and she spent the past year visiting sites statewide and talking about the program’s message of “Be Your Best Self.”

She’s been in Alabama for the past two weeks with the rest of the states’ representatives doing team-building activities and service work. They got to know each other, and Tunney cheered on her new friends throughout the competition. Perhaps that’s one reason she got the spirit award, which is voted on by the rest of the contestants as the person who embodies the spirit of the competition.

“You just see so much talent and so many beautiful minds,” Tunney said. “These are some of the most amazing girls from across the country. I never thought I’d make it as far as I did.”

Tunney placed in the top five for her fitness, which is a routine the group performs together, and in the top five for her talent, which was dance. Tunney choreographed a contemporary jazz piece that involved a traditional classical piece of music that later was remixed with a modern beat. She’s part of the Charleston Dance Project and has been part of the Footlight Players Theatre.

She said she wanted to hear her name called at least once during the competition, but she heard it five times. When she was named first runner-up, she said it was a mix of emotions. She was excited to place and yet a little down to know she was so close to winning.

“It kind of throws you, and you don’t know how to feel,” she said.

The Academic Magnet High School graduate had planned to pursue communications at DePaul University in Chicago, but she’s reconsidering where she’ll go to college. She’s won more than $22,000 in cash scholarships, and she’s received offers for either full-tuition or major scholarships to a number of universities, including the University of Alabama and Auburn University. She said she’s sending in her applications and transcripts now, and she’ll re-evaluate her decision once she knows all of her options.

“It’s just been such a terrific journey, and it has taught me so much,” she said. “

Tunney is the daughter of Fran and Sharon Tunney.

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.