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Zachary Laufer, incoming senior at Park City High School. Lifetouch Studios.
Zachary Laufer, 17, smiles and sits uneasily in his wooden chair at the dinner table. He grabs his right shoulder with the opposite hand, nervously running it up and down his arm. His mother, Cece Laufer, sits at the counter, looking down at him with admiration as she takes a sip from her coffee mug.

Zachary is entering his senior year at Park City High School, and he has already worked up quite the college application. The soft-spoken teenager hesitates to broadcast his accomplishments, but his proud mother divulges.

"He has just always been incredibly driven and self-motivated," said Cece. "He has a solid 4.0 GPA, but not because his father and I are cracking the whip; that is something he wants to achieve for himself."

Cece is a stay-at-home mother, but she earned a degree in mathematics and worked as an actuary before then. Her husband works for the "financial, corporate" side of American Express, so it is no wonder that Zachary excels in and enjoys the areas of math and science.

A telescope sits by the large windows in the living room, poised to look out at the stars. Santa gave it to Zachary in third grade, a visible display of his fascination with a subject that requires an affinity for math and sciences.

"It's something that I've always been interested in," said Zachary. "That's why I'd like to go into either theoretical physics or engineering in college."

Fulfilling that aspiration is why he was displeased with his initial score.


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A student's composite score on the ACT is the average of four test scores: English, mathematics, reading, and science reasoning. While most students would be more than happy scoring a 35, Zachary did his research and found out that the colleges he wants to go to require an even better score.

His scores in math and science the first time around averaged out to 34, and students who are accepted into the undergraduate programs he is interested in receive an average of at least 35.

"The [admissions boards] look at the breakdown of your score, so I knew I had to take the ACT again and do even better," said Zachary, "so I took an online course, took practice tests on there, and just went into it wanting to do as well as I could."

Zachary learned that he was one of less than one-tenth of 1 percent of high school students to earn a top score while he was attending a Stanford University cosmology and physics summer camp. He says he tried his best to conceal a smile while looking at his score on the computer, because he didn't want his friends to view him any differently.

"I'm happy I did well, but I guess I just don't think it's as big a deal as my parents do," said Zachary. "I just see it as one more step toward college."

The humble and ambitious student's top four choices for college are Stanford University, the University of Southern California (USC), the University of Michigan, and the University of Chicago. All four have stellar engineering or physics programs, but Zachary has a very personal connection to USC.

The two older Laufer brothers were excellent students as well, according to Cece, and they are currently students at USC. Zachary contemplates following in their footsteps.

However, college remains a year away, and until then, Zachary will be just another high school senior, looking forward to his 18th birthday in January, staying active in the National Honor Society, continuing his Advanced Placement classes, and starting up a chess club.

"He kind of took me by surprise in high school, to be honest," said Cece. "But he has always been a good kid who works hard and has plenty of self-discipline."