Jabr Abu-Halimah Jr. was already excited.
A day earlier, he received his acceptance letter from the University of Chicago, which is ranked among the Top 10 colleges by U.S. News & World Report, and now that was followed by an email informing Abu-Halimah he was among the semifinalists for the Presidential Scholars Program.
"When I saw that, I just ran down to my mom," recalled Abu-Halimah, who is known as J.J. by friends and family.
The two embraced.
He called his father, Dr. Ahmad J. Abu-Halimah.
The entire family was universally excited.
Abu-Halimah was invited to apply for the Presidential Scholars Program based on his ACT score of 36.
"We got 11 36's in our grade and it was a like a club at that point," said Abu-Halimah, whose goal was to score 34 or better.
He said the application was estimated to take 16 hours and included writing multiple essays intended to "provoke your thoughts," including one essay in which applicants were asked to write about a meaningful photograph.
He had applied to 24 colleges, so he was able to modify and repurpose some of his previously written essays to fit the new writing prompts.
Abu-Halimah is one of 14 semifinalists from Tennessee and the only semifinalist from Rutherford County.
Next month, two finalists — one male and one female — will be chosen from each state along with international selections, STEM, arts and additional selections from major metropolises like New York and Los Angeles.
Finalists will be invited to visit the White House.
"It would be pretty cool to be one of the 161 who get invited to the White House," Abu-Halimah said. "I've never been inside."
Abu-Halimah's decision for college came down to Chicago and New York University.
He chose Chicago because of its ranking — NYU is currently ranked 29 — and because smaller class sizes allow for more one-on-one instruction. He also noted the rigor and opportunities offered in Chicago.
Like his father, a cardiologist, Abu-Halimah will major in biochemistry and eventually plans to attend medical school.
He could end up attending NYU at that point and is also looking at medical schools at Harvard University and University of Connecticut along with Chicago.
NYU is attractive because it offers free tuition.
Abu-Halimah hopes to become an orthopedic surgeon, a decision he came to after suffering a knee injury — a radial meniscus tear — that kept him off the track team his sophomore year of high school.
Classes are expected to begin at Chicago Sept. 28, but he is planning to move a week earlier to be there for orientation.
In the meantime, Abu-Halimah is preparing for his final AP tests.