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MIT staff blogger Matt McGann '00

Doogie Howser, et al. by Matt McGann '00

After questions about homeschooling, one of the most frequent “special case” questions I get is about younger students looking to apply. Often, phone calls about this to the Office will be routed to me, since I graduated high school a year early, and had a few friends at MIT who came in at age 16 or 15. Younger students are not a huge population at most colleges as at MIT, but each year we do admit, after careful review, a number of early- and mid-teenagers, those who, even though young, would truly be a significant part of this community.

While entering college/MIT at a younger age is not the right course for most students, for a select few it is exactly the right course of action. Most of these students are coming from areas where there are not enough resources, and they have just plain run out of opportunities. Some of these students’ families will move to another district with more opportunities; some will send the student to a boarding school to finish high school; but sometimes, applying to college is what makes the most sense. With these students’ applications, we’ll for the most part treat them as any other application, but we will ask a few additional questions: Why is this student applying to college now? Have they exhausted all of their resources? Do the teachers support this decision? Does this student have the emotional and social maturity to be a successful college/MIT student?

I’ll be happy to answer any questions left in the comments about this — or any other topic — in my next Questions Omnibus, when I return from Asia.

I was reminded of the topic by an interesting article, entitled “Outside the Norm,” in this month’s MIT News section of Technology Review. I’ll print some of it below, with a link to the full article at the bottom.

…Each year, a handful of “underage” teenagers are among MIT’s incoming students. The university takes no initiative to court them, but anywhere from one to five, ranging in age from 14 to 16, join the MIT community annually. What do these wunderkinder look like, talk like, act like? Do they spend all night sweating bullets over their laptops, or do they just lounge around their dorms effortlessly completing multiple homework assignments at once? Do they play chess blindfolded? Can they go a whole night speaking only in palindromes?

These questions are hard to answer, because if there’s any trait these students share, it’s the desire to blend in–to have their age be about as relevant as their eye color. Their birth dates matter far more to us than to them. No one knows this more than senior associate dean for students Robert Randolph.

“We try to be aware of these students, but the one thing we keep running up against is that they want to be treated just like everyone else,” says Randolph. “Conscious efforts to do things over the years, like have a support group, haven’t gone over well. We just monitor them from a distance and try not to be obtrusive.”

[MIT junior Drew] Reese, in particular, has blended in nicely. In addition to her duties as soda machine master, she’s also on the fencing team. Last year, she made the conference all-star team.

Other young students have had equal success blending in outside the classroom. Last year, as a 17-year-old freshman, Nivair (Nina) Gabriel spent her Friday afternoons meeting with the MIT Writers Group, where she’s revising the 200-page novel she wrote at 14. Seventeen-year-old freshman Derric Tay was a member of the Tech Squares, MIT’s square-dancing club. And this past spring, if you happened to wander past a classroom and overhear a young man teaching a for-credit seminar on poverty and HIV in Africa, that was 17-year-old sophomore Raja Bobbili. […]

The students’ wide range of interests and activities perhaps explains why Randolph’s support group has never gotten off the ground: its would-be members appear to have little, if any, trouble adjusting. Talk to them, and you don’t get the feeling that they are somehow overdeveloped “kids” coping with the shell shock of being plopped into a world they’re ill equipped to handle. Rather, the ease and the excitement with which they’ve acclimated to MIT lead to a rather unexpected question: what took them so long to get there?

[Continue reading “Outside the Norm”]

4 responses to “Doogie Howser, et al.”

  1. Kathleen says:

    For these exceptional students, however, feeling unexceptional may be the best proof that, finally, they really do fit in. As Tay puts it, “MIT has killed whatever ego I had.”

    —I really liked the above… smile

  2. Jessie says:

    My mom came to MIT at 16. She always warned me against going to college early, and skipping grades in general, encouraging me instead to play on academic teams, take the most advanced classes I could (and there were some pretty nice ones available at my high school) and enjoy things that would have been less likely had I been considerably younger than my grade-mates, like playing high school sports.

    I know people who came young and have done very well, but they tend to all complain about certain things. They also tend to have more problems with their parents, which leads to a lot of emotional stress for them – which can be terrible for someone already stressed out by adjusting to MIT.

    I think, like you said, it’s a good option for kids who have truly run out of local options and who are emotionally mature. I don’t think it’s a good option for kids whose parents want them to be “prodigies”, kids who want the bragging rights of having come early, or kids who are intelligent but emotionally immature.

  3. Megan says:

    Hey Matt, sorry this is off topic, but I was wondering if MIT has spring admission (for undergrads).Thanks. wink

  4. Aimee says:

    I was a 16yo froshling at MIT about 20 years ago, and I totally agree with the sense of wanting to just blend in, and with the fact that MIT made it possible.

    I don’t agree with Jessie that parent-related problems are ubiquitous in this age group — I had a pretty normal amount of teen angst, almost all of which was mitigated by going to college instead of staying at home. My parents were a huge source of emotional support while I was at MIT. I know a few others who entered at 15 or 16, and their experiences were more similar to mine than to Jessie’s — my guess is that the 15-16yo cohort is just as diverse as any other.

    I also had an (over)active social life while at MIT, and no one gave a flying leap about my age.

    I had started taking college courses at the local state college in the summers at age 12, and the experience was very different — people were certainly nice enough, but they treated me like a nice cute kid, sort of a mascot. No real social interaction, just random friendliness. May have been better than what I was getting in school at the time, but it wasn’t anywhere near as good as skipping the two grades into high school and getting to MIT and having real friends.

    In my profession as an educational therapist specializing in work with gifted, learning-disabled, and twice-exceptional children, I am often asked for advice regarding early college. My general feeling is that if you are physically and emotionally mature enough to go through the process just like the 18-year-olds, to just be one of the gang, and if it’s *you* who wants it rather than your parents, then go for it. Don’t ask for or expect any special treatment (either in the admissions process or once you get there) because you’re young — that defeats the whole purpose. And if you can’t blend in yet, then wait until you can, because the social support is crucial — that’s how you survive the experience.

    Recognize also that not all colleges are created equal — you may be able to handle the coursework at Podunk College at age 12, but going away to MIT (or similar schools) at that age is a completely and utterly different experience, and one that may be well worth waiting for.