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15-year-old North senior heads to MIT

SUWANEE - This week, millions of high school seniors across the country will be obsessively checking their mailboxes to see if they get a fat acceptance envelope or the dreaded thin rejection from their dream school.

It's not quite so stressful for Joe Fang, a senior at North Gwinnett High School. He was already accepted into one of the best engineering schools in the country: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And he is only 15 years old.

When Joe was in second grade, he took Algebra I. He finished the high school math curriculum in sixth grade with Advanced Placement calculus BC. He has also taken AP chemistry, physics, statistics, government, economics and English literature, starting when he was 11.

It was Joe's FOCUS teacher at Suwanee Elementary who decided to test him to see if he could take more advanced classes.

"She realized that I had a special talent in math," Joe said. "I did really well, so they let me keep going."

MIT had been at the top of the Joe's list of colleges for years. He knew it had one of the strongest departments for biomedical engineering, his likely major. When he visited the campus last year, he knew it was perfect for him.

But even being a child prodigy didn't guarantee his acceptance. MIT received 10,443 applications last year and accepted only 1,495 students - about 14 percent. So when Joe got an e-mail from the school congratulating him, he was thrilled.

On his application essay, he had written about his experiences being in advanced classes while being so young. He skipped both eighth and 10th grade, a transition he didn't find too difficult.

"They knew I was younger, and a lot of them already knew me," Joe said of his classmates. "I really was not scared at all because I was already used to taking classes with older kids."

Always polite and courteous, Joe is far from the stereotype of the brilliant kid who isn't socially adjusted. He blushed and smiled, never bragging as he talked about his accomplishments.

Joe also has many interests outside of school. He has been playing the saxophone since sixth grade, and is currently the first chair alto saxophone in North Gwinnett's band.

He also loves being in the Latin club. Two years in a row, he got a perfect score on the National Latin Exam. That's in addition to placing first in the Greater Atlanta Math Exam and getting very high scores in several national math competitions.

Last year, Joe got a perfect 1600 on the SAT. That was a surprise for him, but not for his friends.

"I actually wasn't expecting that at all. I was expecting maybe a 1550," Joe said.

Both of Joe's parents are engineers who came to the United States from China to pursue advanced degrees. Joe himself was born in Beijing and moved to Ohio when he was only 2 years old. But he has spent most of his life in Suwanee.

June Zou and Al Fang, Joe's parents, never pressured him to go into engineering like them. They said they wanted both of their children to follow their dreams. His 8-year-old sister, Cynthia, loves gymnastics and writing. They joke that she is the creative one, while Joe is more technical. Their children are so different, and they expect they will follow divergent paths.

"In China, it's very competitive for the kids," Zou said. "They get up at 6 and study all day. I jut wanted them to be able to choose, to have some freedom."

Joe also got into the California Institute of Technology and the Georgia Institute of Technology. Though his mother is happy that Joe got into MIT, which is well-respected even in China, a part of her still wishes he would stay close to home and go to Georgia Tech. At 15, she worries he is too young to go to college more than 1,000 miles away. But ultimately, it is his decision.

Like many other North Gwinnett seniors, Joe is excited to graduate and head to college in August. For four years, he will study at one of the most competitive and prestigious universities in the country. But unlike his classmates, he will only be 19 when he gets his college diploma.