My name is Hamza Tariq Chaudhry. I’m attending the London School of Economics on a 140% scholarship. That single sentence of less than a dozen words encapsulates a journey of over two years, one with school, and the other with an up-and-coming College Counseling Firm, Dignosco.

In my last year of A Levels, back in 2015, it seemed as if everything was set. I was Head Boy of LGS Paragon with a full scholarship, and had become the first person in the school’s history to make it to the Pakistan Debate Team. The school had given me everything; the opportunity to gain acclaim in debates, music, sports and academics. I soon learned however, that the College Application process is so much more than what you’ve done; it’s also critically about how well you can show it. Like many top-level private schools, my school had a stellar academic faculty, but less focus was dealt towards College Counseling. The counselors that were involved were experts in the field, but the office was hopelessly under-staffed to deal with a plethora of almost 200 students.

Perhaps that’s symptomatic of a larger problem in South Asian society; we tend to make a logical leap between doing well in school and getting into college, completely bypassing a critical college and financial aid process which lies in between. The oft-uttered words ‘My son has 13 A’s, he’s going to get into Harvard’ is one of the many examples of ignorance of this intricate process. I became a victim of this ignorance, running through college essays as if they were a mere afterthought and spending less than a day on my financial aid application. The result was that I got rejected or waitlisted from every college I applied to that year. I got into LUMS, but my inner narcissist told me that there must be something more out there for that kid with 13 A’s.

I heard about Dignosco from a few friends from the Debates Circuit, and ventured into the office one day in the summer. In the first meeting, I was given a reality check unlike any other my ego had ever received; that my grades and activities were average compared to the international standard, and that I’d have to work for months on my apps to have a decent chance of getting into a good college. At the very least, it was different. I wanted to sign up the next day. The only problem was the cost involved; I’d heard from friends all over that Dignosco wasn’t just elite in the educational sense – coming from a single-parent family where both my sister and I had to sign up, we simply wouldn’t be able to afford it. When I discussed this issue at Dignosco however, I was surprised to find that they had a need-blind policy, specifically designed to allow merited students from low-income families access to quality counseling. My sister and I enrolled immediately.

The words from the meeting echoed in my head from the moment I started coming to the Office. Most ‘good’ students live in a bubble of self-contentment, reinforced by only the meager competition they face from their own schools. Dignosco had not only pooled talent from Lahore but had also uniquely brought together the best and brightest from across Islamabad, Karachi, and even Dubai. As I was exposed to actual nation-wide competition for the first time, I instantly realized that I had a long way to go before I could match the best of that Office, providing an incentive that just doesn’t exist in any single school. We started on my UK and US applications, and the process was almost revolutionary for me, and yet at the same time eerily similar.

Like we used to do at Pak Debate Camp, the counselors would first conduct research over my file and the colleges I was targeting, and then follow up with extended brainstorm sessions where we debated ideas that could be utilized as the main narrative for my essays. Activities were equally important, and they’d almost made it formulaic, giving me several set possibilities within which I could perform community service, internships etc while giving space for innovation on a case-to-case basis. A similar process existed for the SAT, as they showered me with SAT advice and a whopping 13 books, which helped boost my score by 200 points.

Dignosco often talked about ‘concentration of social capital’ at their centers, but I never got a real sense of what that meant until I enrolled in their program. I worked with and forged friendships with fellow clients from the highest echelons of business, politics and society, an experience otherwise impossible in my own limited social circle. This wasn’t just limited to Lahore; I visited Skardu to help with the local Balti community, and Karachi to get a taste of the South. The geographical exposure was on a whole different level.

Most of all, I got to achieve my dream, of going to one of the world’s best colleges on a scholarship. Similarly, my sister gained admission to Trinity College in the US with a whopping $65000 financial aid package reducing her yearly contribution to 2 lacs – a fraction of what most people pay for even leading Pakistani universities. On deadline days, we often use to stay late at night in the office and make fun of the organization’s name – What kind of name was Dignosco? Its literal Latin translation is to distinguish or differentiate. With a bit of money, and a lot of faith, Dignosco had done exactly that; to help me stand out from the rest. And that ain’t no joke.

Hamza Tariq Chaudhry has worked as a Debate Coach at LGS Defence and a Counselling Fellow at Dignosco, and currently studies at London School of Economics.

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