Preparing for College

College at 15?

Question: I am a high school sophomore, but I am 12 right now. I will be attending college at 15. Will this help me or hurt me in the college admissions process? What can I do to prove I am mature enough to handle college? Academics will not be an issue, because I am at the top of my class and a great test-taker, but I am worried colleges will not feel I am old enough to handle living away from home.

Being only 15 when you head off to college may be both a liability and a plus. Yes, admission officials probably will scrutinize your application materials extra carefully to make sure that you can handle the social demands of college life. However, your exceptional academic abilities will also make you stand out, even in highly competitive applicant pools. If admission folks suspect that you are an exceptionally gifted student--one who is capable of great things in life--that will make you an attractive candidate, regardless of the number of candles on your birthday cake.

So--just as you suggest--when it's time to apply to colleges, you should provide extra "ammunition" to show admission committees that you are ready to live independently, even though you will be much younger than your classmates.

One good way to do this is to enroll in a residential summer program on a college campus where you will be living with high school students of all ages (and perhaps even with college students, too). This way, your applications will indicate that you have spent a month or more away from home, residing in a dorm among students who may be in your grade but who aren't your age.

Opportunities like this abound (and some--though certainly not all--provide financial aid for those who really need it). For example, Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts--where I used to work--has a month-long summer program for aspiring female scientists and engineers. It is open to all girls who will be in high school in the fall, so the age range runs from roughly 13 to 17 or 18. This sort of situation might be good for you because you would be living and studying with girls who are your age ... and also those in your grade.

In addition, when it's time to apply to college, ask your school counselor and all the teachers who write references on your behalf to be sure to emphasize your social and emotional readiness for college, as well as your academic successes.

Most important, you, yourself, need to feel ready to begin college at 15. It sounds from the tone of your question that you think you will be, but do keep in mind that a growing number of students now elect a "gap year" between high school and college, where they pursue something productive (either academic or otherwise). This might be an option for you, too, if you prefer to start school when you're not quite as many years behind your classmates.

Finally, while almost all college-bound freshmen should talk as openly as possible with their parents about their shared--and differing--expectations, you need to be especially sure that you and your parents are on the same page when it comes to your college life. For instance, you probably expect to leave home and live in a dorm at age 15. Is your family on board with this plan? Will your parents expect you to stay close to home and perhaps visit on weekends? If so, does this mesh with your expectations?

When making admission decisions about younger applicants, college officials will want to make sure that all involved--the student, her teachers and counselor, and often even her parents--concur that this is the right plan at the right time. So a letter of "recommendation" from your mother or father that attests to your maturity and your comfort level with older teens might be a helpful unsolicited submission, too. In general, some admission officials enjoy hearing from parents while others roll their eyes. But, in your unusual case, it could be helpful for your parents to provide their own insights into your readiness for college ... as well as to convince admission committees that they're ready to let you go.