An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Ari Worthman, director of college counseling

Since my last piece for Inside Lakeside, some parents and guardians have asked for examples of students who demonstrated exceptional “learning orientations” and were admitted to the most selective colleges (those with admit rates of 10% or below). Based on that understandable curiosity, I’ve pulled together three case studies of Lakeside alumni who graduated between 2017-2019.

These students (I have not used their real names) did not fill any institutional priorities of the schools to which they were accepted: they were not recruited athletes, legacies (children of alumni), development cases (children of parents who had donated generously to the college), talented artists flagged by colleges’ art departments, first generation college students (applicants whose parents did not graduate from college), or racially underrepresented students (Black, Indigenous, or Latinx students). Many students who filled institutional priorities also demonstrated exceptional learning orientations, and it was the coupling of the two that made them compelling. In the case studies below, I have selected students whose applications were not also bolstered by filling an institutional priority.

(Note: In addition to students’ names, certain details have been changed or withheld to protect students’ privacy.)

Case Study 1: Maggie

Raised by parents – one of whom was a former civil rights lawyer – who emphasized equity and inclusion, Maggie grew up hearing stories of the cases her dad argued in court. Wanting to teach Maggie the importance of fighting for equity and inclusion, they brought her to civil rights marches and protests from a young age. For Maggie, fighting for equity and inclusion is a way of life – and this came across potently in her essays and recommendations.

At Lakeside, she was a member of some of our affinity groups. She volunteered at organizations that helped marginalized groups. Aside from being co-leader of a Lakeside club, Maggie never held traditional leadership positions.

Maggie was a strong student: she had a mix of As and A-s, even an occasional B+. She took challenging classes but didn’t take every honors science or math class. In senior year, she chose English and history electives that focused on marginalized groups and even took two languages because she was curious about other cultures.

Maggie had strong testing, which included a 35 on the ACT (out of 36) but didn’t submit any SAT Subject Tests with her applications. She had 5s on Advanced Placement (AP) exams in Spanish and Calculus BC. 

The college Maggie attends told us that they were impressed by her commitment to equity and inclusion, which resonated throughout her application: her background and experiences growing up (conveyed in essays and her counselor recommendation), her engagement in activities related to equity and inclusion, even her choosing to take senior electives focusing on marginalized groups. Woven together, these pieces told an authentic, convincing, and compelling story of a young woman committed to learning about and working toward equity and inclusion.

Case Study 2: Jacob

Jacob loves animals. Throughout his life, he rescued and sheltered dozens of dogs and cats, and spent months nurturing them back to health. He developed such love for the animals that, according to a friend, he’d often cry when passing them on to a permanent owner. The way Jacob wrote about this in his essay was powerful and demonstrated great empathy.

Jacob’s empathy also came across in his recommendations. His counselor wrote that peers and teachers admired Jacob “for his profound empathy, a compassion for the plights of others, the pain of which he feels as his own, and for his deep authenticity.” Teacher recommendations shared anecdotes demonstrating his empathy for peers: one recounted how Jacob would tell classmates he’d earned lower scores on tests (though he usually had very high scores) because he didn’t want struggling classmates to feel bad.

Jacob participated in an array of activities. As a senior, he was co-captain of one sport, though he lacked the talent to be recruited. There was nothing unusually exceptional about his extracurricular involvement.

Jacob was a strong student: he earned all As and A-s, but did not have a perfect 4.0. His testing was strong: Jacob had a 35 ACT and submitted two strong SAT Subject Test scores just shy of 800, along with a handful of 5s on AP tests.

Jacob asked his counselor whether submitting additional Subject Tests would enhance his application. His counselor said “no” and explained that his 35 ACT and two strong scores already conveyed his mastery of material. More tests wouldn’t provide any additional information that colleges needed.

And Jacob’s counselor was right. The college he attends told us they were struck by his kindness and empathy – that they were palpable in almost every piece of his application (essay, counselor recommendation, and teacher recommendations). By being genuine and allowing himself to be guided by ideals and values rather than credentials (i.e. more SAT Subject test scores, obsessing over perfect grades, etc.), Jacob’s qualities organically shined.

Case Study 3: Serena

Serena loves to write, especially poetry. “Poetry is Serena’s oxygen,” her counselor wrote. In her free time, she writes. Looking for writing experience, Serena secured an internship writing for two publications – at one she even became a part-time editor. She was also an editor for Tatler, Lakeside’s student newspaper, and a frequent contributor to Imago, our literary magazine.

One of the ways Serena developed a talent for writing was reading, her favorite pastime. In many cases, her leisure reading included graduate-level theoretical texts.

Serena also developed an interest in feminist and gender theory. On her own, she read about the subject voluminously. Desirous to draw connections between the theory and the world around her, she constantly chose related topics for Lakeside writing assignments where she could connect theory to literature, history, and even foreign language. Serena loves exploring ideas, especially bold ones, and she never feared venturing into unknown intellectual territory. As a result, her thoughts and writing were so strong that one Lakeside teacher described an assignment as “the beginnings of a doctoral thesis.” (The teacher also talked about this paper in their recommendation). In her college essay, Serena wrote eloquently about her own identity, drawing upon theory to elucidate her thinking. As a result, her counselor also wrote about the profundity of her thinking.

Serena was a mostly-A student with a 36 on the ACT. But that was the only score she submitted. In addition to her internships and writing for the newspaper and literary magazine, she was a member of a Lakeside sports team. She was co-leader of a campus affinity group for one year, the only leadership position she ever held at Lakeside.

The college Serena attends was wowed by her intellect and thirst for knowledge. They loved her genuine desire to learn, which resonated in every facet of her application: her high grades, essay, and recommendations. They imagined she would add vibrancy to their classrooms by challenging assumptions and by taking intellectual risks.


Each of these students had strong “credentials” – grades, curriculum, test scores, and resumes – that conveyed their potential to achieve and contribute at high levels to a college. But the credentials alone didn’t make them stand out. Adding more credentials (more AP and SAT Subject Tests, activities) would have reinforced their potential, but wouldn’t have shared anything the colleges hadn’t already discerned.

Imagine taking and passing a driving test three times, each with a very high score. Would passing it a fourth time tell the driving instructor something they didn’t already know? No!

What made these students stand out was their clear demonstration of a learning orientation – their ability to show what they can do by thinking imaginatively, creatively, boldly, and empathetically. This emerged in their essays, interviews, and recommendations. Students’ interests and learning orientations weren’t engineered; they were the result of teachers and families that encouraged them to explore, take intellectual risks (with the understanding that some might result in failure), pursue what intrigued them, and be true to themselves. That’s the only recipe to be a strong applicant.

Ari Worthman is Lakeside's director of college counseling. Reach him at