How a 15-year-old ‘hacked’ his way into UC Berkeley


At 11, Ryan was living in Los Angeles with his mother and younger brother, Kaien. His parents had split when he was 6.

Jacobs enrolled Ryan at West Los Angeles Community College because it admitted students of any age.

“I used to come home and say, ‘Mom! Mom! The other students are asking me for help!” he said at Cal on his birthday, a day before school began Thursday.

“I was super interested – getting all these rocks and looking at them under the microscope. You don’t get to do that in middle school. You just open the textbook with a fake smiling kid with a microscope.”

Home as private school

Ryan, who had behavior problems in middle school attributed to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, was stunned to be enjoying school. He took more college classes: Spanish, piano, history, sociology, art history.

“There were lots of field trips to the Getty Museum,” he said. “It was amazing!”

Meanwhile, his mother discovered an obscure state law that lets parents establish their home as a private school. But they have only two weeks a year, from Oct. 1 to 15, to file the affidavit with the California Department of Education.

Jacobs called her school “Quillin, Inc.” which sounds like “quill and ink,” Ryan said. He quit middle school altogether.

No teaching credentials are required to establish a school, said Jacobs, though she’s got several.

“Anybody can do it. Whether anybody should is a different question,” she said. “You either have to have an extremely self-motivated and organized child or a parent that is supporting the situation. That was our situation.”

Jacobs uses the same approach with her high school students, whose transcripts are riddled with F’s. “They have little hope of going to a four-year school unless they take advantage of community college now,” she said.

She also discovered that once Ryan had enrolled at one college, others accepted him regardless of his age.

Another game-changing tidbit was “cross enrollment.” When Jacobs learned that community college students can take one class each term at any UC campus,Ryan upgraded to UCLA, taking archaeology, drawing, painting.

“I don’t want anyone to get the impression that he’s an intellectual genius,” said his mom. “He’s a typical kid with learning issues, getting in trouble with authority, and a horribly messy room.”

At 12, Ryan moved to the Bay Area to live with his grandmother and give public school another try. He lasted four months at Novato High but came away with a girlfriend (they’re still together), and the knowledge that he was now a college man for good.

(Next page: The application process)