The story began with a Korean math prodigy at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) in Fairfax County who received an unusual offer that would allow her to attend Harvard and Stanford University for two years each — an arrangement created especially for her. She also received a call from Mark Zuckerberg, who attended Harvard for two years, who encouraged the teen to attend Harvard. The student was set to receive five-figure scholarships from each school.
The problem is, writes T. Rees Shapiro of The Washington Post, that none of the story was true.
But no one could understand how the hoax came about or why an outstanding student, who came to be called the “Genius Girl,” would create such a complex scheme. The answer was obvious to students, teachers, and parents. It had to do with the overwhelming pressure to succeed at all costs and the unrealistic expectations that students put on themselves.
TJ is a top-ranked magnet school that produces science “wonder teens”, technology gurus, engineering wizards, and math prodigies. It is a breeding ground for graduates who are accepted at the country’s most prestigious colleges and universities.
The senior’s bogus story was meant to impress her parents, peers, and teachers and made its way to international media.
Many TJ graduates have remarkable academic careers, like a recent senior who earned a 4.57 GPA, top scores on 13 Advanced Placement tests, and created a national non-profit before her 18th birthday. She also was awarded admission to all eight Ivy League schools. Another graduate designed a 6-foot, 120-pound robot which could lift crates, and he received a scholarship from the SpaceX aerospace corporation started by Internet billionaire Elon Musk.
“We celebrate the accomplishment of students who get into all eight Ivies,” said Brandon Kosatka, TJ’s director of student services. “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.”
John Johnson, writing for Newser, quotes AsiaOne, which said the hoax was the result of South Korea’s “twisted obsession with degrees.” The student’s father wrote a public apology to South Korean media which included the following passage:
“I am sincerely sorry for causing trouble with what is not true,” he wrote. “I am deeply repentant that I failed to watch properly over how painful and difficult a situation the child has been in so far and that I even aggravated and enlarged her suffering.”
The Korea Times’ Chung Hyun-chae reports that when allegations were made about the fabrications in her admission letter, at first her father denied it all and said he would deal with the situations through his attorney. But in a short time, he changed his position. In his apology letter, there was a hint that his daughter had written the acceptance letters herself because of the extreme pressure to gain admittance to the best colleges and universities in the US.
The article adds that the girl stated she earned a perfect grade point average in high school, which was later challenged by another student who argued that he or she earned a higher GPA than the Genius Girl.