Success Story – ZACH

How Zach set out to change the world.

Zach came to us after hearing about our service from a former student. He and his mom were nervous that Zach wasn’t on the right track with his applications. As soon as we met, Zach listed all the wonderful things he had done up to this point. He was heavily involved in music, tutoring, writing research papers, planning a trip to Cambodia and numerous other activities, all in different areas. The list was endless. Despite Zach’s enthusiasm, it was clear there was a lack of focus.

Zach had been told by his former SAT instructor that to be successful in his college applications he must show he was – you guessed it – ‘well-rounded’. Zach had gone all guns blazing, joining everything to show he was a stellar all-rounder. He was exhausted.

So we sat down with Zach and asked him the golden question: “What do you want out of life?” Zach and his mom were stunned, they had been trying so hard to ensure Zach was good at everything – they hadn’t stopped to think about what his passion was, or where his true talent lay.

The 3 most important questions

We explained to Zach and his mom that Admissions Officers want to know three things:

  1. What do you want from life?
  2. Why should we pick you over the other 50,000 applicants?
  3. Why do you want to come to our school?

These three life-changing questions are about one thing: your theme.

If you know who you are and what you want – the questions are very easy to answer. If you are scattered to the four winds with no direction – the questions will be tough for you.

The only way to answer these key questions properly is to create a clear and compelling theme. The flawed idea behind creating a well-balanced application is to show that the student has no glaring weaknesses, that he/she is talented at everything. It’s a nice idea, but it doesn’t work. In fact, what that idea creates in the end is a boring student. A student who looks like every other student.

Zach was having trouble answering these questions – he needed help. But with his activities spread all over the place – it would be hard to create a strong theme. So, working closely with Zach, we started to tease out what really inspired him.

Natural Born Leader

After a month of intense consultation, we really got to know Zach. We understood how passionate he was about making a difference in the world. He was conscientious and cared a great deal about charities like Amnesty International. Zach wanted to be in a position where he could influence others to make changes for the better. He was a natural born leader.

With this insight into Zach’s personality, we created a Leadership Theme. We advised him to jettison all his activities not related to this one topic and, instead, encouraged him to run for School Council President. He also took over as Red Cross President and started an Amnesty International club at his school. He was finally on track.

In the meantime, we focused on Zach’s test scores. In spite of his best efforts, Zach’s SAT I score stayed below 2000. His GPA was increasing and stable at a 3.9. So his overall Academic Index looked decent, although not brilliant. We knew we had to really push Zach’s leadership theme to win over the Admissions Officers.

After a month of intense campaigning, Zach was elected Student Council President. His natural charisma, well thought-out strategies and hard work had paid off. He spent 25-30 hours a week on the three main activities set out in his Leadership theme. We encouraged Zach to develop skills as a servant leader – one who doesn’t brag or show off, but serves others to create a better society.

Fast forward to application time and Zach was deferred from Penn – his first choice. We applied to all schools that look for leaders and students involved in service activities.

In April, Zach told us he was waitlisted from Penn. So we swung into action and wrote a detailed letter outlining his desire to go to Penn. We updated the committee on recent accomplishments, for example, he had recently held a cookie drive and got over 200 signatures for an Amnesty campaign supporting free speech in China. Finally, we attached a recommendation from the Dean of Students at his school.

Two weeks later, we were told that Zach had been accepted to Penn. His talent for leading others had led him to his goal.

Zach’s Theme Summary



Zach didn’t have the best numbers. His SAT was a 1950, but his unweighted GPA was a strong 3.9. His school didn’t have many challenging courses but he did take all the APs (5) available to demonstrate his academic strengths. He also scored a 700 on SAT II Math IIc, 680 on SAT II US History and 700 on SAT II Biology.


Extracurriculars – Leadership

Three core activities were student council, Red Cross and Amnesty International. Zach wrote his extracurricular essay on the failures and successes of launching Amnesty at his school, while his main essay focused on what he learned as a servant leader through his experience leading his three main clubs

Extracurriculars – Scholarship

Zach spent a great deal of any extra time he had preparing for the SAT I. When it became clear his score was not improving, we decided to shift to augmenting the scholarship side of his theme development work. He worked with Yohan, one of our Senior Mentors who focuses on political activism, and wrote a 12-page paper on the history of armed conflict in the Congo region of Africa. The paper very well-researched and well-written and was chosen for publication in the high school academic journal, Review of Human Rights.

Competitions and Achievements

The only competition or achievement-type activity Zach had was his research paper. However, it was a big one. Research papers can be sent along with the applications, discussed in the college essays and be submitted to journals for publication.

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