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The news site of Ludlow High School

The Cub

The news site of Ludlow High School

The Cub

Ludlow Lion Becomes Ivy League Bound: How She Did it and How You Can Too.

Senior Mary Zachara is headed to Brown University

Picture this: You are an admissions officer for an elite university. You open the next applicant’s file and peruse the content in front of you. The first thing you notice is a pristine 4.0 GPA and a perfect 1600 SAT score. Your eyes scan further: President of the National Honors Society, captain of the varsity soccer team, and a member of the art club. Impressive, no doubt. As you delve into the applicant’s essay, it describes how scoring the game-winning goal in the Western Mass Finals solidified their love for soccer. You reject them without thinking twice and close their admissions file.

Believe it or not, this textbook example of what many consider a “perfect” candidate would get rejected at most if not all prestigious universities they would apply to. With colleges and universities across the nation receiving more applications than ever before, universities seek not just high achievers, but individuals who will bring diverse perspectives, innovative thinking, and a unique sense of purpose to their campus.

For senior Mary Zachara, the college application process seemed to just click.

Mary’s Passion for Learning

Mary knew from a young age that she wanted to attend a prestigious university. Her parents placed immense value on education and an emphasis on enacting positive change in the world around her, fostering in her a genuine passion for knowledge and learning. As Mary’s bus buddy in elementary school and now one of her closest friends, I can attest to her insatiable curiosity about the world and her unwavering determination to understand it.

Mary got accepted into 10 colleges and universities up and down the East Coast including not one, not two, but three Ivy League institutions. The most notable amongst these included Wesleyan University, Boston College, Tufts University, Amherst College, the University of Pennsylvania, Brown University, and Princeton. This fall, she is considering Brown, with a concentration in neuroscience on the pre-medical track. Before she commits, however, she is waiting to hear how much money Princeton is offering. 

How did she do it?

When I asked Mary about what it was that she believes got her into so many prestigious universities, she responded, “Being a well-rounded applicant and having a definitive ‘spike’ in my application were what I believe to be my two greatest strengths.” 

While these points may seem contradictory to one another, colleges review each application holistically, taking into consideration all aspects of your conveyed character, while simultaneously valuing a consistent theme in who you are as a person, signifying true passion and drive.

“You must be a competitive applicant in all aspects: grades, extracurriculars, test scores, letters of recommendation, and essays,” said Zachara. ”Ensure that you devote relatively equal efforts to each aspect as they are all essential to your success in the application process.”

As for her “spike,” Mary applied to each college as a neuroscience, or synonymous major and planned to pursue a pre-medical track with the future intent to become a doctor of medicine. “Upon reading my supplemental essays or glancing over my extracurriculars, the overarching theme of advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves through health, medicine, and general wellbeing are abundantly clear. Find your life’s motivation and pursue it” advises Zachara.

Maintaining a Work-life Balance

Mary took full responsibility of her education and relished every opportunity that was presented to her. Mary found joy in taking multiple Advanced Placement courses, dual enrollment classes at Westfield State University and Elms College, and Virtual High School classes as it challenged her not only as a student, but as a person. “I always enrolled in the most rigorous classes available to me and found ways to deepen my academic schedule when it, literally, seemed impossible,” said Zachara.

Outside of the classroom, Mary was involved in a multitude of extracurricular activities that spoke to all interests and sides of her. Whether it be working at a local nursing home during the weekends, forming an app for public download, or even presenting at the Basketball Hall of Fame on the District Attorney’s Youth Advisory Board, Mary found joy in serving her community. These are just a few examples of the many activities Mary found her enthralled with.

While balancing a rigorous course load with an abundance of extracurriculars may cause some to quit and prioritize sleep, Mary’s relentless determination prevailed. “There were days, even weeks, where I was only sleeping for three, four, or five hours a night. Looking back on this now, I am well aware that this is unhealthy and thoroughly advised against, but, at least I was involved in courses and extracurriculars that brought me joy as opposed to superficial involvement for the prospect of a college acceptance.”

Despite her lack of sleep, Mary maintained strong relationships with her friends and family. Involved students often have a reputation for lacking a social life, but Mary disproves this stereotype. “Recently, I’ve been obsessed with playing pickleball, but I also enjoy the little things like going on an aimless drive with friends or getting a sweet treat. A work-life balance is critical to preserving your mental health and preventing academic burnout.”

Choosing an Essay Topic

What is often regarded as the most daunting task of a college application, selecting an essay topic, was no exception for Mary. Zachara explains that she found her best ideas when she was simply “living her life” instead of hunched over a computer screen: “I saved each idea into the notes app on my phone, and many ideas that were not used for my college essay ended up being perfect for my supplemental responses.” 

Mary ended up writing her personal essay about the harrowing reintroduction to her Polish culture after dismissing it for the large portion of her childhood in her intent to conform to American standards and beliefs. “A college essay can be just about anything as long as it’s personal,” says Mary. “My most bizarre supplemental response was probably about the junk drawer in my kitchen, full of stationary broken at the hands of my childhood curiosity. I connected this to my unrestrained, undying, and changing desires for the acquisition of knowledge throughout the unique, distinctive stages of my lifetime. Be unique; just relax; and don’t be afraid to ask for advice.”

Mary’s Teachers

English teacher Mr. Cangemi and Chemistry teacher Mrs. Valentine are an infamous junior-year duo to whom many students find themselves in the fall of senior year returning to to ask for letters of recommendation for college. These two teachers were not only the teachers of Mary’s all-time two favorite high school classes, but they were also the two teachers who wrote her a letter of recommendation.

When asked what stood out about Mary, Cangemi responded, “Mary put 100 percent effort into everything she did. Everything. She never settled for anything but doing her best…she has humility and takes nothing for granted. She embodies the aphorism ‘how you do anything is how you do everything’ and she does everything to the best of her ability.”

Mary had an especially deep connection with Mrs. Valentine, a teacher who she described to me as her “guiding light” over the past few years. 

“I was always impressed with not only how hard Mary worked but that she always maintained a good balance between all her academic work, her extracurricular activities and her personal life,” says Valentine. “She was also always pleasant to be around. I appreciated hearing random stories (or lore) about things going on in her life, work, and her academic challenges. She showed and inspired me to see that determination and hard-work can go a long way.”

Mary’s tight-knit relationships with Mr. Cangemi and Mrs. Valentine highlights not only her academic dedication and personal integrity but also the profound impact that a committed student can have on their teachers.

What makes an Applicant Stand out?

I decided to go to veteran guidance counselor and another letter writer of Mary’s, Mrs. Dionne, to gain insight on how students can differentiate themselves from others in the college application process.

“I find that students that step up and out of their comfort zone to participate in unique outside-of-school activities make a difference within the community. Every top student in the country is in the National Honors Society, volunteers, does sports, school activities, and participates in student government etc..Ivy schools look for the students that stand out above all of that” said Dionne.

Mary’s other letter writers seemed to be in agreement with Dionne.

“The students who make it to the best colleges actually love to learn and they are super curious. Of course, working hard and getting high grades is a must, but genuine curiosity and a passion for knowledge puts some students over the edge” states Mr. Cangemi.

Mrs. Valentine replied with a similar response: “Being not only academically strong but also being a very well-rounded, conscientious person, who has interests and passions and one who is not afraid to break the mold of a ‘traditional student’ will help students differentiate themselves from their peers.”

Mary’s Advice

Mary puts it best when describing the number one thing an applicant should do when applying to colleges: “Do what everyone else isn’t.”

“Ensure that everything on your application, especially your extracurriculars and essays, is personalized to you. You want to stand out among the tens of thousands of applications that these colleges receive.” You are conveying your passions and personality through your application, so be different.” says Mary.

“I hate to say it, but consider how many people applying to a prestigious university are president of a school club or captain of a sport? All of them. Find what makes you passionate, put a unique spin on it, and make impactful change through leadership in your town, community, state, or country.” she states.

However, Mary stresses that admissions officers can see through superficial extracurriculars. If all of your extracurriculars began during your senior year of high school, admissions officers may consider if your interest is genuine or not. 

With that in mind, Mary advises applicants against lying about their accomplishments and passions to pad their application. “Don’t exaggerate the impact you had through an extracurricular, the time you invested, or the positions you held. Much of this information can be verified through a quick Google search or conversation with a school official.” Prestigious universities will not risk their reputation on granting degrees to fraudulent students. Institutions like the Ivy Leagues have more than enough capable applicants to admit, so if they sense inconsistencies or lies within an application, they may check in addition to the random verifications they complete on incoming students. “The possibility of having your acceptance revoked or degree discarded long after you graduate is simply not worth it” says Zachara.

The last piece of advice Mary wishes to leave applicants with is “while it may seem frightening now, all of your efforts will be rewarded in the end. Please do not hesitate to contact me for peer-to-peer advice or school staff for assistance. Everyone is here to support you, and place you on the best track for future triumphs. You got this!”

Mary’s story goes to show that attending an Ivy League or comparable school is possible from a public school in a small town of Western Massachusetts. You don’t need to attend an expensive boarding school, have generations of family members attend a specific university, or be the child of a celebrity. Mary is proof that if you set your mind to it, anything is possible.


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About the Contributor
Jack Favata
Jack Favata, Staff Writer
Jack Favata is a part of the Class of 2025 at Ludlow High School. He is passionately devoted to philanthropy, and actively involved in aligned extracurricular activities. Jack serves on several notable boards and councils, including the Alumni Leadership Council of Project 351, the Hampden County District Attorney’s Youth Advisory Board, and the Ludlow CARES Coalition’s Student Advisory Board. Within LHS, Jack enjoys being involved in both sports and clubs, including the ski team and student council, where he serves as the President of the Class of 2025. Post high school, Jack aspires to major in a business or communication field at a four-year college and is considering law school after graduation. He looks forward to contributing to The Cub and engaging with its readers!  

Comments (5)

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  • S

    Sonny FreitasJun 4, 2024 at 12:43 pm

    Wow, this is a very well organized article with pristine facts about a fellow student who exemplifies the unique qualities that these Ivy League schools are looking for! Hey way of getting through application processes is very interesting and should be taken into account by many.

  • E

    EnaJun 4, 2024 at 10:37 am

    This article is well-written and is such an inspiration! Well done, Jack!

  • E

    Esther CoelhoJun 4, 2024 at 10:34 am

    Great article!

  • T

    Taylor ColbergJun 3, 2024 at 12:26 pm

    Thank you for sharing this! A lot of this will help me for my upcoming senior year!

  • C

    Caitlyn DayJun 3, 2024 at 10:09 am

    Great article! Super helpful for college admissions