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

Teen with shaky knowledge beats system through online school course credits

online-school-ryanSage Ryan, who turned 15 the other day, is no super genius. He avoids math when he can, yet he’s just entered UC Berkeley – as a junior.

“I’m not Doogie Howser. I do believe any kid can do this,” said Ryan, a sandy-haired boy about 5-foot-4 who moved into a meat-free student co-op but will go home to San Francisco most weekends.

UC Berkeley has had its share of kid geniuses. Most come to the top-ranked university as freshmen, including a 12-year-old who entered a few years ago and earns straight A’s in a competitive science program.

But Ryan didn’t even pass the math portion of California’s high school equivalency exam.

“We were all blown away that he got accepted to Berkeley,” said his mom, Jessica Jacobs, who teaches math at a continuation high school in Larkspur. “His grade-point average was 3.3, a B.”

Jacobs and her son say they did not cheat the system; they “hacked” it. They used legitimate but little-known ways to accelerate Ryan’s schooling so that by 14, he had accumulated enough academic credits at community colleges, UCLA and even Brigham Young University in Utah to persuade UC Berkeley officials that he had the right stuff to transfer in.

It helped that he’s been a performer since age 7, when he appeared on “America’s Got Talent” with his grandfather. They sang “St. James Infirmary Blues.” Ryan advanced; his grandfather got the boot.

At 9 he played a caroler in “A Christmas Carol” with Jim Carrey. And he was a misbehaving boy in Woody Allen’s live production of “Gianni Schicchi.” He has since appeared on “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Closer” and other TV shows, and he has done voice-over work for the animated show “Family Guy.”

Ryan explained all of this in his application essay to UC Berkeley, which made up in passion what it lacked in grammatical perfection. He didn’t disclose his age until the last paragraph:

Community college geology

“I would like to take this opportunity to explain why I, at age 14, am applying as a transfer student to the UC. When I was 11 years old, I was doing poorly in the sixth grade. I was missing school due to my work schedule but when I was in class, I was miserable. My mom asked me once if there was anything that I did like about school and I told her that one time in science we studied geology and I had enjoyed that. She, as a progressive educator, enrolled me in a community college geology course. … I took several on-campus courses and some online classes as well. I was also able to attend UCLA via the cross enrollment program. My favorite thing about college has been being able to choose the courses that interest me.”

That geology class changed everything.

(Next page: How it happened)

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