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Arturo Ballesteros, 17, is pretty excited — all the hours of diligent study and hard work have finally paid off for the Chicago high school junior.
He is one of 100 students — out of a total of 189,658 — who got a perfect score on his Advanced Placement exam on Spanish language and culture.
“I saw I had gotten a perfect score and was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Ballesteros told NBC News, recalling his reaction when he read a letter the College Board sent to his home. “I was blown out of the water.”
High school students take a test after completing a rigorous AP class on a particular subject. Colleges and universities use AP scores to determine a student’s knowledge of a subject and whether they should grant them college credit for the class.
Prestigious and competitive universities look at high AP scores as an indicator of a student's success.
Ballesteros, who took the exam in the spring, said he “didn’t have time to reflect” on his answers. The almost three-hour exam was as much a test in stamina as it is in Spanish proficiency. It included 65 multiple choice questions, a persuasive essay, a two-minute impromptu verbal presentation in Spanish about having pets and a conversation about pursuing a career in law.
After he got the news, Ballesteros told his parents, but did not alert anyone else.
“I told my parents because I owe my accomplishments to them,” he said of his mother and father, who hail from Mexico. “But I don’t like to randomly talk about myself like that or come off as arrogant.”
Luckily, the College Board passed along the news to his school, Back of the Yards College Prep, which is located on Chicago's Southwest side.
“Everyone is so excited for him. I don’t think anyone is so much surprised as they are thrilled and want to celebrate his accomplishment,” the school's principal, Patricia Brekke, said. “He is a good young man, and very humble. This is great for him.”
Back of the Yards College Prep opened in 2014 in response to a lack of neighborhood school options. The school includes a rigorous international baccalaureate (IB) program — which Ballesteros participates in.
But last spring was the first time the school offered the AP course that he took.
In order to prepare for the exam, Ballesteros said he completed all the work his teacher, Benita Arguellez, assigned, and focused his studying on reading and synthesizing passages. He also made sure to familiarize himself with the different cultural traditions of other Spanish-speaking countries, which is a major component of the exam.
“Spanish is a really great language. It’s the second most spoken language in the world,” said Ballesteros, who grew up in Pilsen, a predominantly Latino neighborhood. “So I would say to students and young people who come from Spanish-speaking families to embrace that and learn from a young age, because it will be useful in your professional and academic life.”
As he finishes up his junior year, Ballesteros has his sights set on attending the University of Chicago, one of the nation's most prestigious schools. He hopes to eventually teach at a high school which serves low-income communities.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without my teachers,” he said. “They’ve done so much for me and I want to pass it on and help other students.”