The campus of Harvard University, where one high school senior faked admission and a scholarship. (Photo: Katarzyna Baumann/Getty Images)
A high school senior is at the center of an international controversy after lying about being admitted to a dual Harvard-Stanford undergraduate program, and pretending to have received a five-figure scholarship to both schools.
Jung Yoon Kim, who goes by Sara, is graduating this year from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, one of the nation’s top high schools. The 17-year-old claimed that the two universities wanted her to enroll so badly that they offered her a special program where she could enroll at Harvard for two years and Stanford for two, according to the Washington Post. She added that Mark Zuckerberg called her to urge her to enroll at Harvard, his alma mater.
Sara, who is Korean, made news at home and in Korea, where news outlets celebrated her, dubbing her “Genius Girl,” the Washington Post reported. But soon, fellow students started questioning her story, and officials at Harvard and Stanford both refuted her claims. “While we do not comment publicly on the admission status of individual applicants to Harvard College, we have been made aware of three admissions letters and multiple email communications that were allegedly sent to Ms. Jung Yoon (Sara) Kim confirming her acceptance to Harvard University,” Harvard officials told Yahoo Parenting in a statement. “None of these communications were sent by Harvard, and we can confirm that they are all forgeries. There is no program in existence through which a student is admitted to spend two years at Harvard College and two years at Stanford University.”
Stanford University provided Yahoo Parenting with a similar statement. “Stanford does not have any program offering undergraduate admission to both Stanford and another university. A letter of admission that was provided to news media in this case was not authentic and was not issued by Stanford University.”
Officials from Thomas Jefferson High School did not respond to Yahoo Parenting’s request for comment.
Teachers and students at Thomas Jefferson told the Washington Post that pressure at the school is off the charts. “We celebrate the accomplishment of students who get into all eight Ivies,” Brandon Kosatka, the school’s director of student services, said. “That’s the bar, and our kids are shooting for that. They don’t like to be the second-best. If that’s the bar, then, yes, that creates anxiety for them.”
An unnamed student at the school said that getting good grades isn’t enough. “You’re going to have pressure to do well,” the student said. “But you also need to play 17 different sports and instruments.”
In a statement provided to Korean News Agency Yonhap, Sara’s father, Kim Jun-wook apologized and took responsibility for his daughter’s actions. “Everything is my fault and my responsibility. I did not know until now how much my child was suffering and hurting and did not properly take care of her. As her father, I regret having pushed my child into deeper sickness and causing the problem to get bigger,” he said. “Going forward, our family will put everything toward treating and taking care of our daughter and live quietly. Please forgive me for not being able to explain all the details, as we have not yet finished assessing the entire situation.”
Susan Stiffelman, a family therapist and author of Parenting with Presence, says that while this hoax was especially complex, she’s not surprised that a teenager would make up a lie regarding admission in response to parental pressure. “Parents project onto kids their own need for approval,” Stiffelman tells Yahoo Parenting. “The kid becomes the designated representative of the family’s honor and the family’s status, and the kid can’t help but pick up on that. The child’s achievements take on an extra importance because every kid wants to please mom and dad.”
To help relieve the pressure on their kids, parents need to change their own expectations, Stiffelman says. “First, parents need to recognize that they are foisting their own needs and desires on their kids — and it’s not with bad intentions. There is a very real fear that, ‘If I don’t push my kids to succeed, they won’t get there,’” she says. “You have to do your own work to let go of the incredibly high expectation that you are bringing to the table. You have to make peace with who your child is and recalibrate your own expectations so you are ok with the fact that you have a kid who may not get into Harvard.”
Once you’ve done the work yourself, parents should tune into their kids’ behavior. “You know when your kid isn’t sleeping or eating, you know when they are up until 3 am still studying,” Stiffelman says. “I’m not blaming these parents, but it’s hard to imagine that they didn’t have a sense that something was amiss.”
For parents who have noticed that their kids are struggling with stress, the most important thing is to be an ally. “Come alongside them rather than coming at them,” Stiffelman says. “Say ‘sweetheart, it looks like you are really anxious about this test, or application. I get the feeling you are really stressed right now. Represent yourself as capable of hearing her truth.”
Whatever you do, don’t ignore your parental instinct if it seems your child is struggling. “A lot of us bury our heads in the sand, it’s easy to do. When we have an instinct or nudge from our intuition, sometimes we don’t like what it has to say. But as parents, we need to pay attention.”