For a guy who aced the SAT and ACT college entrance exams -- a feat accomplished by a minuscule number of students across the country each year -- Aseem Jha is quick to urge caution about what that actually means.
"There are many, many students who think in many different ways and have different learning abilities and different learning styles," said Aseem, a 17-year-old incoming senior at Naperville North High School.
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Aseem JhaAge: 17
School: Naperville North High School
Who inspires you? My parents and my grandmother. They are immigrants who worked very hard and managed to be very successful.
What's on your iPod? Everything from classical to Norwegian death metal, Indian, Spanish, Arabic. I like to listen to all sorts of world music.
What book are you reading? "Dracula" by Bram Stoker.
The three words that best describe you? Focused, diligent and sincere.
"Maybe that's the idealist in me, but we should have more unique, more customizable education, so all students can be learning. Many of my friends, I see them struggling. I'm fortunate that my mindset works well with the system."
It certainly does.
Only 360 students across the nation earned a perfect 2,400 score on their SAT last year, out of 1.6 million who took the test, according to press.collegeboard.org. That's just 0.022 percent of test takers.
Similarly, only 781 out of more than 1.66 million students earned a composite score of 36 in 2012, said ACT spokeswoman Katie Wacker. On average, fewer than one-tenth of one percent of ACT test-takers earn the top score, she said.
Aseem, who lives in Lisle, said he was happy about acing his tests but kept his accomplishment under wraps as much as possible.
"I don't like to brag too much; you lose a lot of friends that way. To a certain extent, I've been trying to downplay this," he said.
Just a few days ago, the teen found out he also got perfect scores on his math and chemistry SAT subject tests.
Still, he was sad to find out he got "only" a 770, out of a possible 800, in the Spanish SAT subject test, he said.
"When I get a bad grade on assignments, I feel awful about it. I try to reflect and see what I can do better for next time," Aseem said.
What Aseem calls "bad grades" is anything less than an A. As far as final grades go, something less than an A has happened for Aseem only one time -- when he received a B in driver's ed two years ago. "The simulators were ancient, from the 80s. It was impossible to get more than a 70 percent," he quipped.
Aseem's perfect scores took people at Naperville North somewhat by surprise, Principal Kevin Pobst said. Although he's an outstanding student with a 4.75 GPA, Aseem never came across as intensely focused on standardized tests, Pobst said.
"He's a very caring and conscientious kid. He has varied interests, and he's very pro-social in his behavior," Pobst said.
Aseem was a peer tutor his sophomore and junior years and volunteered to be a leader -- a sort of teacher's assistant -- for PE class, Pobst said.
"That's not something you usually associate with a 2400 or a 36 (top score)," he said. "He always seemed other-oriented. It never crossed my mind that this might be a big deal in his life."
Aseem also is a member of the scholastic bowl team, speech team, math team and Spanish honor society. He's on the cross-country team and was on the track team his freshman and sophomore years. Last year, he joined the school's gymnastics program.
"I had no experience and very poor flexibility. That was just an adventure I was throwing myself into," Aseem said. "It was a very humbling experience, but I enjoyed it very much."
He's also musical, as he plays the cello and takes vocal lessons in North Indian classical music.
Still, his main job is to be a good student, he said.
"My goal has always been to have the hardest schedule possible. Last year, I had six (Advanced Placement) courses. Surprisingly, it wasn't that bad," he said. "Intelligence gets you to a certain level, but I don't think there's any substitute for hard work."
This summer, Aseem is taking a summer history class "just for fun" and to make sure he doesn't lose his school rhythm during break. He purposefully picked the 7:30 a.m. class to have more time to get stuff done throughout the day, he added.
History teacher Kermit Eby said Aseem is one of the best students he's taught in 30 years.
"He's known around our department as someone who likes to pose ethical and moral conundrums and discuss them," Eby said. "He's honestly one of the most sincere and really bright, motivated kids I've ever had."
Aseem devoted his Christmas break to studying for the SAT and ACT, with rigorous preparation that included taking three practice tests in one day. "It took nine hours. It was brutal. In hindsight, I think it paid off," he said.
So what are his study tips for the exams?
First, apply yourself in school.
"Make sure you're learning everything that you have to," he said. "There's not a way to study for it. You can only learn the way (the tests) ask the questions. The content, you have to learn by yourself in school."
Second, use the tests' official study guides to get a sense for the exams.
Third, do the practice tests. "Don't get lost in worrying about the work that has to be done. Just sit down and go through the practice tests," he said.
Fourth, time yourself. "The ACT is very time-driven, especially the reading and science sections," Aseem said. "You must keep pacing yourself, so (practicing with) a stopwatch is essential."
Aseem insists he's not obsessive about his academics.
"I'm a fairly relaxed person," he said. "I don't get very high-strung about things. Sometimes my mother thinks that I laze about a bit too much."
Aseem's mother, Anupama Jha, said she and her husband, Anil, were elated when they found out Aseem had aced the ACT. But when another perfect score came in for the SAT, it seemed almost too good to be true.
"I was in a meeting, and (my husband) sent a text message saying, 'Aseem aced the SAT.' I said, 'Are you sure? Did you check properly?'" she said.
The Jhas met in their native Calcutta, India, and came to the United States in the 1980s as students. Aseem's paternal grandmother is also part of the family, along with his younger sister, 7-year-old Amisha.
His parents taught him to value education, said Aseem, who also speaks Hindi, Gujarati and Spanish and is learning Portuguese on his own.
"My parents were always quizzing me. For example, in the second grade, my dad would sit there with a stopwatch," he said.
Over the years, he's become so self-motivated his parents no longer check his grades.
Aseem plans to visit a few East Coast colleges in July, including Harvard, Yale and Princeton. He wants to study engineering and go to law school, but his long-term plan is to get into politics.
"Politics just fascinates me. There's so much wrong with the system. I might be an idealist, but I think I could do some good," he said. "I just think we need some honest voices, some sincere voices in government that are advocating the needs of the American people."
His platform: the U.S. government should respect people's privacy; legalize marijuana and gay marriage; value undocumented workers' contribution to the economy; and rein in the costs of health care and education.
Aseem said he's been fortunate to have great teachers but hates the notion that many of his peers don't get the same opportunities.
"You have better teachers in the advanced classes," he said. "That might create more problems, because students who might need that more advanced teaching become trapped under all these layers."
• Elena Ferrarin wrote today's column. If you know of a young person whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to firstname.lastname@example.org.