Gifted students have learning differences that separate them from their peers. These students often want to learn at a pace and comprehension level asynchronous with their age-mates. Placed in unchallenging classrooms and sometimes ridiculed by classmates and teachers, gifted students can experience extreme frustration and a diminished sense of self.
Early college entrance most commonly means entering college without graduating from high school and younger than age 17. It is also also called early admission (not to be confused with “early action” or “early decision”) or early enrollment. Beyond colleges with programs for early entrance, students may apply to any college and ask for special consideration. The increase in home-schooled students, who can easily be off-schedule with their age-mates, has blurred the issue of age qualification.
While grade skipping acceleration is controversial, it is an established practice to place gifted students with their academic peers. Early college entrance becomes a meaningful option for students as young as age 13. This article offers advice to students and their families considering early college entrance.
- research early college entrance
- exhaust every possible alternative to early college entrance
- consider colleges specifically designed for students your age
- meet with an admission officer
- address the challenges facing an early college entrant
- apply if it is your parent’s idea — and not your own
- overlook your readiness to meet college’s multiple demands
- assume giftedness means you are going to the Ivy League
- discount the impact of repaying student loans
- be afraid to apply
Quite a bit has been written about early college entrance, including the associated social and emotional issues. The Institute for Educational Advancement’s Gifted Resource Center and the Davidson Institute’s Gifted Database are excellent resources. Noteworthy writers include Razel Solow, Nancy Robinson, Michelle Muratori and Paula Olszewski-Kubilius. College at 13 is a very good longitudinal study of students who entered college after middle school. Additionally, many gifted organizations maintain websites that share current information on early college.
Early college is one option among many for a gifted teenager. First, since early college entrance comes with some risk, you should consider alternatives. Second, you will need to make a compelling case for early entrance. Traditionally-aged applicants address the question of, “Why this college?” Younger applicants also must address the question of, “Why enter college early?” You must show that you have made good use of available resources. Dual enrollment in high school and community colleges increase a student’s academic challenges without creating social challenges.
While AP classes are not always respected in the gifted world, they are an important currency in college admission work. If your high school does not have many, it is best to take some online. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) offer college coursework taught by professors at many universities including Harvard, Stanford, Johns Hopkins and Princeton. Volunteer work, independent research projects, mentorships and jobs can supplement a gifted student’s education. A gap year also offers a student time for maturation and exploration.
There are typically 25 American colleges each year with programs specifically designed for accelerated or radically accelerated students. These schools or programs are meant for students your age and welcome applications for students beginning at age 13. Leaders in this field include Mary Baldwin, University of Washington and Bard College at Simon’s Rock. These schools understand you, and their mission is to educate younger students.
If you are applying to a college without an early entrance program, always request an interview. A few recommendations include:
- The student should take the lead in the meeting.
- Bring a “comprehensive transcript” to the meeting. Gifted students usually have a hodgepodge education across schools, summer programs, online classes, activities, studio work and independent study. You must explain what you know and how you learned it.
- Get to know the campus before the meeting. Read their website. Talk with people affiliated with the college. Walk around and talk to people, not just the admission office guides. Be specific in the meeting about how you could fit in.
- Gifted students often have intense feelings about their environment. Would you be comfortable here?
- Early college entrants should waive their FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) rights, so admission officers can get the most candid evaluations.
Admission officers at colleges without early entrance programs will sometimes be so impressed with an early entrance applicant that they will pass the application along to the dean responsible for student life. While it may be clear that the student would benefit from and contribute to the college’s academic life, lack of appropriate housing is the reason most often given for rejecting an early entrance applicant.
Student life administrators often believe that younger students require additional supervision not available on campus. Living at home and commuting to campus is the most common solution. Families can be creative addressing this challenge. For example, one family enrolled their very young daughter in a college six hours away and rented an apartment near campus for the girl. Mother, father, grandparents, close family friends, and aunts and uncles took turns living in the apartment for one or two weeks.
Supportive parents are fundamental to a successful early college entrance. Those parents understand the needs of their children, and help their children discover and pursue their unique interests in a way that best supports the child. These choices must be child-centered. Students with secure self-images are best equipped for early entrance. Sadly, some parents will exploit their child’s gifted identity for self-gratification. Acceleration at any age should be comfortable and productive for the child, and not an opportunity for parental glorification. A discerning college admission officer will distinguish between student-driven and parent-driven applications.
Gifted students sometimes have imbalanced preparation—exceptionally strong in one area, which can fuel the early entrance application, and less so in other areas. It is not wise to enter college early and immediately need remediation. It is also not wise to enter college early without well-developed study skills. A young and exceptional applicant is attractive, but a young and immature applicant is not. Can you meet deadlines without close supervision? Can you walk away from a video game?
It is also important to keep in mind that if students begin college and do not like it, they can return to high school at any time. This is not uncommon.
Gifted students often hear, “You are so smart. Of course you’re going to Harvard.” This is simply not true. Selective colleges can many times over craft freshman classes with a good population of exceptional students drawn from high school seniors, and they have the luxury of time to wait for you to grow older. All colleges are mindful that younger students can be liabilities on campus, especially because of excessive alcohol and drug abuse. This has become a major problem on college campuses, and colleges that can avoid this liability will do so.
College students should expect to graduate with debt. The average student’s loans at graduation are approaching $30,000. Stafford and Perkins loan repayments begin six or nine months after graduation. Gifted students often continue into graduate school, delaying college loan repayments. But ask yourself, “If I am between one and four years younger than my fellow graduates, will I be competitive with them in a job search? Will I earn enough to meet my monthly loan repayments?”
Don’t be afraid to apply, don’t be afraid and don’t be afraid to be rejected. Yours is neither the first, nor the last, application to any college from a younger student. By researching your options carefully, you can improve your chances for admission. You can create other opportunities for yourself. And you can reapply next year. Time is on your side.
Educational choices for gifted students are always complicated, and require research and planning beyond the typical student’s needs. This is especially true if a student relies on acceleration to meet academic needs. College applications for younger students include many challenges beyond those experienced by a typical high school senior. These challenges can be overcome, and these suggestions can help with an early college entrance application.