When I arrived on campus at Bennington College, all hell broke loose.
A friend who worked in the admissions office later told me that someone hadn’t connected the dots; that an early admission who was applying as a sophomore in high school would be, you know, 15 upon arriving for college. My appearance at orientation set off alarm bells every which way because the college didn’t really know what to do with me. They knew I’d be young, but not that young, young enough to have a Sweet Sixteen party1 on my birthday.
The peculiar thing was that most of my friends thought I was older. I didn’t go out of my way to deceive people, but I also didn’t go out of my way to correct them, until one day we were lying around on the commons lawn and my friend Hans asked what I’d done between high school and college. He thought that I had taken a year off to do something, you see.
“Uh,” I said awkwardly. “I’m actually an early entrant.”
“What does that mean?”
“I didn’t take a year off between high school and college. I actually didn’t finish high school.”
There was a long, awkward silence, and it was interesting to see how the faces of the people around me shifted. There was another early entrant on campus, who was 16 at the time, and everyone knew about her. Everyone also tended to treat her in a sort of patronizing way, and they were forced to realize that the person they’d integrated and treated like one of them was actually much, much younger than they’d thought.
“That would make you how old?”
“I’m 15,” I said.
Early entrance to college is not at all unusual, and I actually had the choice between two colleges when, in my sophomore year in high school, I decided that the best cure for my boredom was to go to college2. I wasn’t feeling intellectually challenged, I didn’t feel like I was learning anything, and I knew I would end up on a long slow spiral to mediocrity and cutting class to stare moodily into the ocean if I didn’t come up with something to stimulate my brain.
I applied to MIT and Bennington, but Bennington offered me more money, so it was there I went. It didn’t surprise me to find another early entrant there, and it doesn’t surprise me to discover that a lot of my friends now were also early entrants to college. I don’t think it’s that I’m attracted to smartypants, but that it’s really not as unusual as people make it out to be to go to college early.
To be blunt, it’s no particularly special accomplishment. I was bored, I had fulfilled most of my graduation requirements, and I was reasonably literate so I would write a decent admissions essay. I tried to track down my essay for this piece, actually, but I think it may have been handwritten, so it’s been lost to the fields of time.
When people find out I’m was an early entrant they seem to expect some thrilling tale of teenage precocity and brilliance, a grueling admissions process. I applied like any other person, though, with the difference being that I checked the “early entrant” box and only had two years of high school transcripts. I had a phone interview with a nice guy from admissions, during which we mostly talked about cultivating crocuses and the merits of Greek olive oil.
The story is so mundane that I don’t bother telling it most of the time, even though people are always fascinated when I say I was an early entrant. A lot of interesting things happened to me that semester, and some people felt they were because of my age, but I think they had a lot more to do with the fact that I was away from home for the first time.
And with the fact that I was a person from an impoverished background attending a school primarily populated by wealthy students, which created quite a culture clash.
Occasionally parents ask me if I think early entry would be a good choice for their children, and I think it can be, if it’s the child’s choice. You certainly don’t gain any particular advantage by cutting high school short, and I don’t think kids should be pushed into applying early. But, if they want to, why not?
Most of the early entrants I know don’t really discuss it because there’s not a lot to say. It’s not false modesty that spurs this, but more of a “This is a thing that happened, and it wasn’t really that exciting.”
Lest you think I’m writing with false modesty and concealing my obvious brilliance, I still have a vivid memory of going up the hill to have a conversation with my geometry teacher toward the end of my last semester in high school. I was, and still am now, absolutely terrible at math, squeaking by in that class with considerable assistance from a friend who patiently explained things to me over and over and over again. I told my teacher that I really needed to get at least a C in his class because it was part of the conditions of my acceptance, that I not get anything lower than a C in any of my classes.
He was confused, and said that I only had two years of high school under my belt and didn’t really need to worry about college admission just yet. I explained that, no, I was leaving in the fall, unless I got less than a C in his class.
“Oh,” he said. “I didn’t know you were that bright.”
1. Which, yes, we did.
2. I may have been spurred into this decision partly by friends who were tired of listening to me complain about how bored I was.