Date: Sunday, June 11, 2006
Byline: By Erinn Hutkin firstname.lastname@example.org 981-3138
Summary: Zach Zimmerman was first in his high-school class, with a 4.6
GPA, 1410 on the SAT and a loaded resume. Did he sail into the college
of his choice? You might be surprised.
The e-mail was waiting in his inbox when he got home.
He didn't tell anyone. He wanted to be alone.
There it was -- from Harvard University. The subject line: "Admissions
Acceptance letters already came from Virginia Tech, the College of
William and Mary and University of Virginia.
Thick envelopes mean you're in -- this much Zach Zimmerman knew. But
there is no certainty when the letter comes in the form of an e-mail.
Harvard was the college the William Fleming High School senior really
wanted, something prestigious to put on his resume.
He was, after all, first in his senior class of 273, holding a 4.6 GPA,
and scoring 1410 of 1600 on the SAT.
He is one of nine Fleming students at the prestigious Roanoke Valley
Governor's School, taking Advanced Placement statistics, mathematics
research and physics.
At 17, Zach Zimmerman has a resume longer than some business
filled with theater productions and research projects. His science fair
entry this year, "The Impact of Initial Ratio of the Convergence to Phi
by a Fibonacci Sequence," was named the most significant contribution
the field of math by the Virginia Junior Academy of Science.
He plays Fleming's mascot, the Colonel -- a 6-foot cross between
Yosemite Sam and a bobblehead -- who snaps his fingers and shakes his
rump. He was nominated for homecoming king at the Roanoke school,
clapping for the young man who won the title and a gold scepter. This,
all while working at Denny's, where this Ivy League hopeful serves
burgers and breakfast during the midnight shift.
But when the Harvard e-mail came, it was too much. He couldn't open it
right away. Instead, he played around online, trying to pretend the
message wasn't there.
Curiosity wore him down after an hour.
Zach clicked on the e-mail. He began reading the words on the screen.
Quest of the best
Certain grades, certain test scores, holding an office in certain
In the past, they were passports into the nation's top colleges.
Now, being the best is often not good enough anymore.
"There is no GPA or SAT combo that guarantees admission to this place,"
said Henry Broaddus, dean of admissions at the College of William and
Valedictorians are no longer handed a ticket to the Ivy League. The
University of Pennsylvania turned away nearly 400 of 1,000
first-in-their class students this year.
The situation means today's students must make themselves stand out
among standouts. Not just students like Zach, but the 272 others in his
class with hopes of going to college.
This is a year colleges saw record numbers of applicants while places
such as Dartmouth, Penn and Brown accepted fewer students than ever.
But to ensure they get in somewhere, teens often apply to at least six
colleges. Zach followed the trend by trying for seven.
Many schools also now decide who is admitted based on holistic review,
looking not only at grades and test scores, but student service,
The fall class at William and Mary, for instance, includes a freshman
who raised $180,000 for cystic fibrosis; a research assistant at the
world's only underwater lab; a competitive clogger and someone who
listed "belching on command" on his resume.
Zach was accepted to William and Mary. He also applied to Virginia Tech
-- his "safety school" -- and to Ivy League institutions Cornell,
Harvard and Princeton.
Who's this superstudent?
Zechariah Tyler Zimmerman was born in Roanoke on July 15, 1988, to
and Frank Zimmerman. He is the second of four children in a family
Dad, 47, is service manager at Duncan Acura and Mom, 42, waits tables
Red Lobster while selling anti-aging products on the Internet.
Zach was home-schooled for kindergarten and first grade. By the time he
moved to William Fleming as a freshman, Zach was taking pre-calculus.
He's been first in his class ever since.
So when it came to colleges his senior year, Zach tried getting into
So did others just like him.
Harvard University's director of admissions, Marilyn McGrath Lewis,
nearly 90 percent of this year's applicants were capable of doing the
Today's parents and students, she said, are more sophisticated about
what it takes to get into college, knowledge she attributes to
guidebooks and counseling services.
Zach may not know that Harvard accepted only 9 percent of this year's
He may not know that in the past three years, only 26 to 38 Virginians
All Zach Zimmerman knew was that he wanted to be among them.
At 11:20 on a January night, Zach sat with his laptop in his kitchen --
his Denny's nameplate still on his shirt -- finishing his online
application to New York University, which was due at midnight.
Everyone in the darkened house was sleeping, except for his mother,
Patty, who threatened to "beat his butt" for procrastinating.
"How long do I have," Zach asked, gazing at the clock from the edge of
Forty minutes to finish four short essays. Ten minutes per question.
He began typing, writing answers that could determine his future as
easily as most people compile grocery lists.
According to the Wall Street Journal, 75 percent of today's college
applications are completed online, making it convenient for students to
apply to more colleges.
Meanwhile, the Journal reported, the number of high school graduates is
expected to rise by 2012, while the number of students admitted to
colleges has stayed roughly the same.
Zach typed as the clock ticked, the tap-dance of computer keys the only
sound in the room.
Question No. 2: What did he do last Sunday?
"Not only did I put off completing this application, I also managed not
to complete several other urgent homework assignments," he wrote.
"Unimportant acts are quickly forgotten in the mind, while
memories are forever stained in our consciousness."
Zach moved to question No. 3: Apart from location, what attracts you to
He began writing about an upbringing with conservative teachers,
Republican parents and "good ol' fashioned" values.
"I have not been exposed to a variety of people and ideas." He paused.
"Whether the school will alter me completely, to the point of being
disowned by my parents, or reaffirm the traditional values of my heart,
I do not know. ... The excitement from the prospect of change enflames
It was 11:52 p.m. when Zach began question No. 4.
It was 11:59 p.m. when he finished and clicked "submit."
"Your supplement has been successfully submitted," said a pop-up on
"Sweet," Zach declared. His tense face broke into a grin.
Zach was on his cellphone with his mother when his father tried calling
"I'll call you back, Patty," Zach said, referring to his mom by first
"I don't want to be holding a phone in my hand."
It was the Monday in March after Zach returned from the University of
Virginia, spending the weekend on campus as a Jefferson Scholar
"Oooh, there it is," Zach winced as he sat at the computer in his
There it was: An e-mail telling him whether he would go to college for
Zach was among 800 teens nationwide nominated by their high schools for
the scholarship. Thirty to 35 winners each year receive a stipend for
tuition, housing and books -- a four-year package totaling $66,000 for
Virginians and $130,000 for those out-of-state.
Ninety-six finalists visited Charlottesville for interviews, exams and
panel discussions coupled with bacon-wrapped steak in the campus
and parties every night.
There, Zach sat with finalists from San Francisco to Pittsburgh at
lunch, eating stir-fry from china plates and cracking a fortune cookie
reading, "A good start is only the beginning."
A committee of university faculty and alumni choose winners based on
leadership and scholarship.
"Part of what makes it so hard to pick these kids is that they're all
great," explained Alex Inman, an associate director of the program.
talent level is so high, you could easily make a case for everyone in
Among this year's finalists, 43 percent were projected valedictorians
salutatorians. One was published in the Journal of Molecular Structure.
There was a professional playwright, a national karate champion, the
winner of an "Iron Chef" competition.
Zach thought his interview went well, but the e-mail would tell him for
Zach opened the message.
"I especially regret to inform you ..." it read.
His mom called again.
"I didn't get it, Patty," Zach said. "I'll talk to you later."
He re-read the e-mail, highlighting words, forwarding it to friends. He
clicked on the computer's calculator and did the math -- he was among
percent who did not win.
"I'm not really used to losing anything," he sighed.
His father arrived home a few minutes later, asking Zach if there was a
chance he was an alternate.
"It's over. Just drop it," Zach said. He walked into his room and lay
April 1 was days away, the date colleges send infamous thick or thin
Zach could still attend UVa -- just not on full scholarship. An
acceptance letter to William and Mary also arrived that same day.
But what did this mean for Harvard?
Zach's friend Mason is headed to Rochester Institute of Technology. Pal
Samantha is going to a Christian school; buddy Lewis to a Bible
Sitting at dinner at Applebee's -- where these future graduates passed
time by blowing straw wrappers at one another -- Zach was the only one
in his group of friends who did not know where he was going to college.
But he did have options. Letters were trickling in with words printed
bold, "Welcome," and "Congratulations!"
On March 30, Zach came home and found the e-mail from Harvard.
"Dear Mr. Zimmerman," it began. "I am very sorry to inform you that it
is not possible to offer you admission to the class of 2010."
The wording made Zach feel like "an evil disease that can't go on
campus." But he was not as upset as he expected. Losing the Jefferson
Scholarship cushioned the news.
McGrath Lewis, Harvard's admissions director, said those accepted
included published novelists to mathematicians, talented musicians and
shepherd who taught himself astronomy while tending sheep in the field.
Many of those turned away, she said, were as strong as those admitted.
In the following days, more acceptance letters came, from Cornell, NYU
NYU offered Zach $7,000, and he traveled to Princeton during spring
Before the May 1 deadline, Zach made up his mind about college.
He will major in math at the fourth-oldest university in the United
States, an hour outside New York City. A campus of castles whose alumni
include James Madison, Jimmy Stewart and John Nash -- subject of the
movie "A Beautiful Mind."
Everything he needs is right there -- a post office, a Foot Locker, a
train he can ride south to Lynchburg.
He's getting a grant -- $36,735 -- each year, slightly short of the
university's $42,200 tuition.
On the afternoon of May 1, Zach waited in line at Cloverdale's post
office, holding a stack of letters telling colleges he would not attend
Sending the slips was not required, but it was polite.
With postage paid, off they went: Letters to Virginia Tech, NYU,
and Mary, Cornell and University of Virginia.
One was missing -- a postcard reading "Class of 2010 Admission
Zach turned the card into the admissions office weeks before when he
There were yes or no boxes after the sentence, "I plan to enroll at
Zach checked the box marked "yes."