For students whose development is markedly more rapid than that of their age-mates, eventually there comes a time when they are academically ready for college-level work at an atypically young age. Yet, early college entrance may or may not be the most appropriate step to take. The following list of issues -- addressed to students -- is meant to help both students and parents gain perspective in order to:
Radical acceleration to college versus entering one or two years early
Many -- indeed, probably most -- academically gifted students are intellectually ready for college one or two years before their age mates are. Some are lucky enough to be in secondary schools that are sufficiently challenging to meet their needs; some others, whether or not their schools are challenging, are simply not personally ready for college. For those who do opt to enter college as 16- or 17-year-olds, special provisions may or may not be necessary. They may be able to handle dorm life, manage their own affairs with maturity, and take advantage of the college environment, without special attention or parental presence. It is very common these days to find a number of 17-year-olds on campus who have "come in the front door," fulfilling all the ordinary admissions requirements and even achieving advanced status by means of previous college courses they have taken or credits based on Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams. (These options are explained later.)
For a very few exceptionally and profoundly gifted students, however, acceleration by a year or two is not enough. Students who enter college more than a couple of years early are often called radical accelerants. Such students have considerably more complex issues to deal with, for they are often not personally mature enough to take the ordinary route to college, however academically ready they may be.
While both groups of students can profit from using this guide, students and parents who are contemplating radical acceleration need to be extremely cautious in this undertaking. It is a very different matter to be a younger student on campus than to be a 17-year-old freshman.
Why would one want to skip, or even shorten, the high school experience? Miss the fun of extra-curricular activities?
Some disadvantages of radical acceleration to college:
Some advantages of radical acceleration to college:
What other choices do I have? Is early college entrance the only way to satisfy my needs?
1. Indeed, you have a widening array of accelerative and enrichment options, including an increasing number of on-line experiences to put you in touch with structured courses, tutors, community resources, and other students with similar interests. Here are some alternatives -- short of full-time college enrollment -- to get you thinking: Many of these options can also be used to introduce flexibility into your secondary school program so that you can take two foreign languages, or band and orchestra, etc.
2. Starting with the classes you are taking, deepen your experience. Opt for honors sections even if they mean more work. If your classes seem slow, do something about it yourself. For example, move through the material quickly (but with mastery) to give yourself more time for independent work. Read a book more advanced than your text, a biography of a key player in the field, or original documents mentioned in the text. Consult a college text or search the Internet on the subject. Undertake a creative project that will deepen your understanding and interest. Participate in related contests (there are several in math, science, geography, and writing). The more knowledge you acquire about a subject, the less "boring" the class will be. Take responsibility! It's not just up to your teachers (or, later, your college professors)! Remember that even in college, you'll encounter some courses that are not as challenging as you want; learn to tailor your experience to fit your needs.
3. Enroll in classes above your grade level in your area(s) of strength.
4. Skip a grade. Eighth grade is often a good choice. A transition like this will be easier if you have already taken some classes above grade level, so that you have demonstrated to (usually reluctant) educators that you can handle the situation, and so that you will also have made some friends at that grade level.
5. Take fast-paced summer classes such as those offered by Johns Hopkins' Center for Talented Youth (CTY), Duke University's Talent Identification Program (TIP), or Northwestern University's Center for Talent Development (CTD) in conjunction with their talent searches, both for the energizing experience and (sometimes) to earn credit from your high school. This model was originally developed at Johns Hopkins University by Dr. Julian Stanley and spread nationally because it was such an effective way to meet the needs of bright young scholars. The residential summer programs on this model (in which, in three weeks, you can expect to complete the equivalent of a full year's high school course at at least an honors level) provide not only academic challenge but a chance to become friends with other like-minded students. This is a very special experience for all very bright students, but especially those who are being home schooled. To find summer programs other than those offered by the talent search organizations, consult a directory published by the Talent Identification Program (TIP) at Duke (https://tip.duke.edu).
6. Enroll in high-school correspondence classes, through CTY or an accredited school offering such courses. TIP also offers independent-study (not correspondence) classes. See the Independent Study Catalogue published by Peterson's (https://www.petersons.com).
7. Enroll concurrently in high school and a nearby college, thereby usually earning credit at both levels for the college courses you take. Select courses carefully for challenge!
8. Take college courses on a summer-only basis while in high school.
9. Take distance learning classes from a university, usually thereby earning high-school and college credit. See Peterson's (above).
10. Arrange your high-school courses so that you can participate in foreign study during your junior year without worrying about high school credit. (See Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, 11, pp. 43-51, and/or https://www.studyabroad.com/, or Peterson's [above].)
11. Take all the Advanced Placement credit courses your high school offers and do well on the national exams -- thereby both having a college-level experience during high school and (perhaps) earning credit from the college you eventually attend. You may have skills enabling you to pass one or more AP exams without taking a special course.
12. Enroll in a high school offering an International Baccalaureate (a comprehensive offering of rigorous high-school courses in the junior and senior years). Lead-up programs often start as early as junior high. If, after the junior-senior classes, you do well on the related international examinations, credits may be awarded by the college you attend. See https://www.ibo.org/ and/or Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, 11, pp. 52-66.
13. If your district or state offers a special math-science or other selective high school, go for it!
14. If you live in a community without strong public or private high schools, consider a first-rate boarding school.
15. Do something else designed creatively to keep your interest, motivation, time management, and organization skills alive. Volunteer in a laboratory, office, or community service related to a career you are considering. Find an adult in an occupation you find attractive and ask them to "mentor" your efforts. Schedule informal conversations in a foreign language with a native-speaker in your community. Start a small business. Explore activities such as individual sports, chess, computer programming, collecting stamps or coins, writing, playing an instrument, composing music, dancing, painting..... ( but also see #15).
16. Pick one challenging activity in which you can see your own improvement as the result of sustained effort. Invest in yourself by becoming as skilled as you can. The more you stick with a challenging activity through the rough spots and see yourself getting a bit closer to a standard of excellence, the more you'll know how to handle yourself when other barriers get in your way. Practice! Don't settle for being a dilettante at many things at the expense of expertise. Also, don't push yourself into many activities because of the fiction that colleges want applicants to be "well rounded." Admissions offices want to bring together students with diverse backgrounds, expertise, and skills to share -- not "perpetual dabblers."
How do I need to prepare myself for a college experience?
Students who are successful in college aren't just smart, they are skilled, knowledgeable, organized, and highly motivated. Especially if they have skipped some of the usual steps along the way, they need to be sure they are broadly prepared. Remember that you will need to take courses in a variety of fields to fulfill the liberal-arts requirements of undergraduate education, not just the area of your passion. If you are thinking of being a full-time college student, you do get to choose from a rich menu of course, but you'll have to take some from "Column A, Column B, and Column C" before concentrating on your major. At the same time, if you think you are headed for eventual concentration in math, science, or engineering, you need to be prepared to take a healthy menu of college-level math and science courses right away while also fulfilling the other requirements.
How can I pick a college that will suit me?
The very young student is often more limited in his/her choices of a college than an older student, who is prepared to live away from home and can therefore go to any college where instruction is in a language he/she can understand.
Attending an undemanding college is often a very bad idea. The very bright student who is bored in classes he/she attends with older students may be more miserable than if he/she were bored in a secondary school with more possibilities for independent study and teacher support. Even more, the precious opportunity for personal and intellectual growth that would occur at a better college may be lost forever. Often, an AP class in high school is more challenging than the same course taught at a community college. Furthermore, almost every exceptionally bright student should be planning eventually to attend a first-rate graduate or professional school. Only an excellent undergraduate experience can prepare you well for post-college education. Consider the following options:
Remember that a college education involves not only classroom instruction and homework, but also a rich array of opportunities outside of class. Make these as much a part of your investigation as the purely academic. Pay special attention to how seriously students are committed to academic excellence and how well the environment supports not just solitary study but formal and informal study groups, non-academic activities (including service opportunities), and diversity of ideas and backgrounds. If you are to live at home, how can you access these opportunities?
You'll want to visit several campuses you are considering. Make an appointment with an admissions person. You, the student, rather than your parents should take the lead although your parents will have some questions to ask as well. Don't be overwhelmed by a friendly admissions person or put off by an unfriendly one, but try to get a feel for the campus. Here are some of the kinds of questions you'll want to ask:
In addition to visiting dorms, it's also a good idea to listen to students when they are talking with one another. Eavesdrop on some conversations in the campus coffee shop, for example, or another campus hangout. Sit in on at least one large and one small class, if you can. Take a look at the texts in the campus bookstore. Look around the neighborhood and find out about the cultural life of the town or city.
Financial aid is a question for all students, and younger students will find that most colleges treat them just like other students with a few important exceptions. Work with the Office of Student Financial Aid at the colleges you are considering.
Accept the fact that the world wasn’t designed for people who are "different."
You've probably already discovered that you and your parents have had to make compromises all along to find challenges that come close to matching the pace and level of your learning, and to locate friends with whom you feel compatible. This situation is no different. With a few exceptions such as admission to one of the handful of college programs that are designed for gifted, very young students, going to college early is going to be one more compromise. You'll be making the best fit you can between the setting (or combination of settings) you choose and your own needs and readiness. Think of all the other people whose differences also get in the way of their fitting in -- students with disabilities, for example, or students coming here from other countries -- and make the best of it!
And finally, make sure that this is something that you want -- it's not just what others are telling you to do!
The decision to go to college very early is not one you should make just on the advice of others. Often, young students haven't had much experience in making decisions for themselves and have a hard time sorting out their parents' ideas from their own. Going to college requires hard work with a lot less personal support than you've been used to in your previous school, it means giving up some other choices, and it launches you into being conspicuously "young" for the rest of your educational trajectory and the beginning of your career. Especially if your family has made some sacrifices to make this happen -- moving to a new city, for example, or paying high tuition -- be sure it's what you think you want.
Also, make a back-up plan. What if early college entry doesn't prove to be a good match for who you are? What if you find yourself hating to get up in the morning, or reluctant to do your homework, or too lonely? You need to remember that this is only one of several options you might have chosen, and that it's perfectly honorable (and mature) to choose another one if this doesn't work out. You'll know a lot more about yourself for having given this a good try, and will be better prepared to plan what to do next.
Other Articles by Nancy Robinson about Early College and Radical Acceleration:
Assouline, S. G., & Lupkowski-Shoplik, A. (1997). Talent searches: A model for the discovery and development of academic talent. In N. Colangelo & G. A. Davis (Eds.). Handbook of gifted education, 2nd ed. (pp. 170-179). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Brody, L. E. (1998, Nov/Dec). Planning ahead for college: Early college entrance. Imagine, 6, p. 25.
Brody, L. E., & Stanley, J. C. (1991). Young college students: Assessing factors that contribute to success. In W. T. Southern & E. D. Jones (Eds.). The academic acceleration of gifted children.(102-132). New York: Teachers College Press.
Charlton, J.C., Marolf, D. M., Stanley, J. C., & Ng, L. Follow-up insights on rapid educational acceleration. Roeper Review, 17, 123-130.
Coleman, L. J. (2001). A "rag quilt": Social relationships among students in a special high school. Gifted Child Quarterly, 45, 164-173.
Featherstone, B. D., & Reilly, J. M. (1990). College comes sooner than you think! The essential college planning guide. Scottsdale, AZ: Gifted Psychology Press.
Giddan, N., & Vallongo, S. (1988). Parenting through the college years. Charlotte, VT: Williamson Publishing.
Greene, R. (2000). The teenagers' guide to school outside the box. Minneapolis: Free Spirit.
Janos, P. M., Robinson, N. M., et al. (1988). A cross-sectional developmental study of the social relations of students who enter college early. Gifted Child Quarterly, 32, 211-215.
McCarthy, C. R. (1999). Dual-enrollment programs: Legislation helps high school students enroll in college courses. Journal of Secondary Gifted Education,11, 24-32.
Noble, K. D., & Drummond, J. E. (1992). But what about the prom? Students’ perceptions of early college entrance. Gifted Child Quarterly, 36,106-111.
Noble, K. D., Arndt, T., Nicholson, T., Sletten, T., & Zamora, A. (1998-99). Different strokes: Perceptions of social and emotional development among early college entrants. Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, 10, 77-84.
Noble, K.D., Robinson, N. M., & Gunderson, S. A. (1993). All rivers lead to the sea. Roeper Review, 15,124-130.
Olszewski-Kubilius, P. (1994). Early entrance to college: A summary of research regarding early entrance to college. Roeper Review, 18, 121-126.
Olszewski-Kubilius, P. (1995). Thinking through early entrance. American Association for Gifted Children Newsletter, 2 (2), 1, 4-7.
Robinson, N. M. (1997). The role of universities and colleges in educating gifted undergraduates. Peabody Journal of Education, 72, 217-236.
Robinson, N. M. (1999). Necessity is the mother of invention: The roots of our "system" of providing educational alternatives for gifted students. Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, 10, 120-128.
Rogers, K. B., & Kimpston, R. D. (1992). Acceleration: What we do vs. what we know. Educational Leadership, October, 58-61.
Rogers, K. B. (2001). Re-forming gifted education: Matching the program to the child.. Scottsdale, AZ: Gifted Psychology Press.
Stanley, J. C. (with A. Plotink & M. J. Cargain). (1996). Educational trajectories: Radical accelerates provide insights. Gifted Child Today, 19 (2),1821, 38-39.
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