Meet Do Something Awards Finalist Jason Shah

Jason was inspired by a 15 year old he tutored in West Philadelphia who couldn’t spell the word “ball.” How would this kid ever go to college? Jason could help him with school, but what about the SAT? So Jason started INeedaPencil.com, a free online tutoring system designed to help underprivileged youth prepare for the SAT. INeedaPencil.com has helped over 30,000 students increase their SAT scores, by an average of 200 points.

Jason answered a few questions for us:

DoSomething.org: What person or experience sticks with you from the beginning of the process?

Jason Shah: Sitting in my sister’s Teach for America classroom with a student who struggled, on multiple occasions, to spell the word ball. I’ll always remember that.


DS:How did you feel when you first learned of the problem you’re addressing?

JS: I first learned of the problem after that experience in my sister’s classroom. I looked online at the published stats for SAT performance across income levels. As income levels increase ($30,000 to $50,000, $70,000 to $90,000), so do the SAT scores, without deviation. There was a sinking feeling my stomach.


DS: How do you feel about it now?

JS: Now I feel a lot more optimistic. Getting emails from students, communicating with educators, and seeing score differences makes me think that there is hope for a relatively level playing field.


DS: Who is your inspiration to keep going?

JS: The students who email in with gratitude, and the educators who keep telling me how much their neighborhoods need INAP.


DS: Can you describe the moment you knew you were actually making a difference?

JS: An INeedAPencil.com student Facebook messaged me to say she would be a member of the Harvard class of 2013. That was it for me.


DS: What was the most difficult roadblock you faced when you tried to start your project?

JS: Getting people to adopt this service was, and still is, difficult. Between the red tape in schools and the tendency for people to criticize ideas, it was tough to gain traction.


DS: What about when you were trying to grow your project?

JS: Maintaining strong relationships with all of the partners grew more challenging since time and a capacity for emailing are both limited.


DS: What’s been the biggest lesson throughout the process?

JS: The biggest obstacle to change can be yourself. This process has showed me that if there’s an idea, the only way it will happen is by putting aside fears and pride and just doing it.


DS: What has surprised you the most about the journey that has taken you here today?

JS: It’s fun. Making change doesn’t have to be grueling and depressing. It’s not some sort of sacrificial offering. Making a difference can be fun and even self-beneficial.


DS: What advice do you have for other kids who are having a tough time getting their ideas off the ground?

JS: Just do something. Build whatever it is you want. Whether it’s a website or playground, make some progress. Maybe the website will be ugly at first or the playground is just one tire swing, it has to start somewhere.


DS: If you could have done one thing differently based on what you know now, what would it be? Why?

JS: Getting more people involved at an earlier stage. I’ve done almost everything on my own. Not without help but mainly alone. Teams nurture and strengthen ideas, and I missed a lot of that.


DS: What’s next for your project?

JS: We just launched a digital SAT prep book with a partnering non-profit. Now we’re redesigning our website for the first time since launching in 2006. We’re looking forward to incorporating an easier-to-use interface and more social components. From there, we look to get more college and scholarship programs on as sponsors, and even more schools on board.