Is Getting Into College at 15 the Next Big Thing?

Amy Hatch

April 29, 2010

When 15-year-old Zachary Young was accepted to both Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this week, his unusual success story made headlines — and somewhere, a young student striving for academic excellence added another item to her to-do list: “Get into Harvard before my Sweet Sixteen party.”

However, some say kids like Young should not be held up as examples of academic success. Bev Taylor, also known as Ivy Coach, has helped hundreds of high-schoolers get accepted into top-tier universities as a private educational consultant, and she says 15-year-olds are just not prepared for college life.

In fact, submitting an application well before the typical age to do so could torpedo a child’s college hopes altogether, Taylor says, and she discourages even the brightest student from doing so.

“I think most colleges will be wary of kids applying at such a young age because of a general lack of maturity,” she tells ParentDish. “In some cases, they will accept a very bright kid, but most of the time it is much more beneficial for students to apply when (they are preparing to) graduate from high school.”

Taylor is in the business of making college dreams come true, and she typically begins working with kids — and their parents — in their junior or senior year. She guides them through the application process, from selection to admission, and, over the past 10 years, she says she’s seen a seen a marked increase in applications to Ivy League schools.

The statistics bear her out: Harvard University received 13,366 regular-decision applications for its class of 2007, while 30,489 kids vied for spots in the class of 2014, according to figures listed on her website.

A hyper-competitive society and a surge in new immigrants to the United States is driving the uptick, Taylor says. Many of her clients are first-generation Americans with parents who dream of sending their child to an elite university. However, she is quick to point out that the kids she counsels are willing participants.

Yes, they want to please their parents, she says, but they are also looking for recognition from other sources. Peer pressure to be the best and brightest drives teens to achieve at very high levels, she adds.

“They are so much into what their friends will think, and so much into competing with their friends,” Taylor says. “It’s not that different from playing a sport — everyone wants to win. You can’t drag a kid into this who doesn’t want it.”

Administrators at the elite Walter Payton High School in Chicago declined to go on the record about young teens applying to college, saying they didn’t want to “start a trend.” However, Jim Conroy, chair of post-high school counseling at New Trier Township High School in the affluent Chicago suburb of Winnetka, Ill., says students like Young open a “Pandora’s box.”

“While it may be great for that kid, all of a sudden [stories like that] take on a life of their own,” says Conroy, adding that his student body is more stressed out about the college-admissions process than ever before. “The problem we’ve got is that there is such attention given to the gold-plated schools like Harvard, Yale and Princeton, and the kind of kids that were getting into those schools 10 years ago aren’t getting in there now.”

Parents play into the problem, Conroy says, by seeing their child’s entrance into an elite university as a reflection on themselves.

“If you are a parent and your child gets into a school like Northwestern or the University of Chicago, that is your gold stripe as a parent and you have done what you are supposed to do,” he tells ParentDish.

Dr. Jim Taylor, the San Francisco-based author of “Positive Pushing: How to Raise A Successful and Happy Child,” frequently travels the country to work with educators, parents and high-achieving children. He says kids like Zachary Young are a true anomaly.

“It raises the bar to a level that an unbelievably small percentage of kids can aspire to,” he tells ParentDish. “It can make other high-achieving kids feel inadequate, because we live in such a comparative society and parents communicate that comparison to their children.”

Whether they mean to or not, moms and dads tend to point out when their child doesn’t do as well as his or her peers.

“Parents say, ‘You didn’t do as well as Johnny,’ or ‘You didn’t make the team and Suzy did,’ ” Jim Taylor says. “It’s meant to motivate, but it’s a bad idea because kids can’t control other people. We live in a ‘win at all costs’ culture and that explains a lot of the things that go on today, like cheating in schools, performance-enhancing drugs in sports and unethical business practices.”

What parents can do, he says, is stop trying to prevent their children from failing. Tasting a little disappointment gives kids the coping skills they need when suddenly the playing field is leveled, as it almost certainly will be — whether at an Ivy League university, the U.S. Olympic training camp or Julliard.

What they shouldn’t do, Jim Taylor advises, is underestimate the effect that media coverage of these “super students” could have on kids who already strive for perfection.

“It puts them in a constant state of stress,” he says. “It causes them to feel anxious and threatened. Academically gifted kids have always succeeded and so many things come easy to them, but then they get a reference point of a 15-year-old going to Harvard and all of a sudden it’s, ‘Oh, my god, I am a failure.’ “