College Expectations and Aspirations: From the Mouths of Gifted Students

November 18, 2014

By Min-Ling Li

Min-Ling is a Program Coordinator at IEA and works most closely with our high school Apprenticeship Program, through which she meets and interacts with many gifted high school students. Before coming to IEA, she was a high school mathematics teacher.

ElonGoing off to college is probably one of my best and most anxious memories. At that point in time, it seemed that all of my prior education was in preparation for this milestone. As a first-generation college student, the plethora of tasks to complete for college applications was overwhelming. I recall that my mom, who completed 6th grade in China before immediately beginning to work, advised me that I had completed all the hard work and all that was left was to communicate my story to people whose actions and opinions we had no control over. My dad, who graduated with a Master’s Degree from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, simply gave me a stern look, smile and nod of encouragement when the subject of college was spoken of. Needless to note, “vini, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered), and tada!

That was 10 years ago, and I was curious about how students in our IEA community view higher education now. I have the privilege of working with highly gifted and mature youngsters, and with their help I compiled some of their thoughts, expectations, anxieties, and aspirations about higher education. By sharing this data, I hope to provide information and comfort, tell their stories and compel higher education and the world to prepare for this creative, curious and free-natured group of young adults. I asked students ages 13 through 18 amongst our community of Caroline D. Bradley Scholars, Apprentices and Yunasa Emerging Leaders and Counselors in Training about their outlook on higher education. The data from the 40 respondents is featured below. Thank you to all those who contributed!


When asked, “In what ways do you hope learning as a young adult will be different from high school?”, 80% of students used the words “free,” “freedom” and “autonomy”:

  • “I hope that there will be more freedom involved. I like to believe that I am a very independent and intellectually bold thinker, and I know that I apply myself better to long-term projects than busy work. So, I hope that there will be less busy work and more projects/papers to engage with.”
  • 82% of students responded similarly to this student, yearning for greater depth and relation to solving problems that affect the world: “I hope that as a young adult I will be able to learn more about the things that matter to me. In high school we often talk about topics that do not interest me, or we talk about topics too shallowly. I hope to be able to learn with greater understanding and purpose.”
  • Students also expressed a need to learn based on their pace: “I hope to have more freedom to choose what I learn and to be able to make my own choices regarding the course material and pace as opposed to having to follow strict guidelines.”

When asked, “In what ways do you hope learning as a young adult will be similar to high school?”, all students expressed wanting diverse, passionate and inspiring teachers and peers, with responses like:

  • “Hopefully it will be just as easy to befriend the people around me, and the classes and my peers will be able to challenge me academically and personally.”
  • “I have been fortunate to be around many top teachers and students and hope to continue enjoying the chance to work with similarly talented people.”

Getting There: Anxieties

Many students expressed that the daunting task of completing applications for college will be the toughest part of the application and selection process. Students also commented that their difficulty in choosing a major leads to difficulty in choosing a college. The prospect of maintaining a high GPA is always on their minds as well.


Students are also concerned about a variety of factors that go beyond the application process, including:

  • Not being accepted into top choice schools (50%)
  • Taking on a significant amount of debt to pay for a degree (45%)
  • Not receiving enough financial aid to attend a top choice school (37%)
  • Choosing a college that turns out to be a bad fit (37%), with several respondents emphasizing outside pressures and expectations placed on them

After attending a public high school, I was surprised by my college tuition and the cost of maintaining a life away from home. The concerns above and the chart of responses below indicate that our students seem to have a good sense of how much college truly costs.


College: Where, What and How?

Students strive to achieve, at a minimum, the degree programs below.


The majors students were most interested in pursuing were primarily in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, though many students (41%) were interested in majors in both STEM and humanities fields.


When asked about their “dream” colleges – assuming acceptance and cost were not factors – many students listed 3-5 colleges. This chart demonstrates which schools were mentioned most frequently:


One student responded with a particularly insightful answer: “My ‘dream college’ would be where I could personalize everything to my interests, from classes to social life, to dorm. I’d also like to make a smooth, worriless transition into a stable job after college, so having connections/internships as part of programs would definitely be a plus.”

Respondents also told me the states in which they would like to live as young adults, which can have an influence on their college choice. California, Massachusetts, and New York were favorites.


Our highly gifted middle school and high school students are revving up for learning more beyond their current settings. They are aware of their challenges and practical in their approach, but is the world offering what these students need?

As I interact with these students, I can see their potential to be leaders and innovators, but as always they need the support and learning opportunities to hone their knowledge and skills. At IEA, we hope that we are helping these students pursue their dreams and accomplish their aspirations and that we are helping educators understand what these students need to do so as well.

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