I survived college mania at America's most stressed-out high school

hannah bae teen friends
The author (top, center) with her high school friends. The students in this photo went to Yale, UPenn, UVA, Ohio State and University of Miami.

She claimed Harvard and Stanford were competing for her. She said Mark Zuckerberg had called, pushing her to pick Harvard.

This is the sad saga of "Sara," a Korean high school senior in Virginia whose far-fetched college admissions hoax has become an international scandal, as reported by The Washington Post. (The Post only identified the student as "Sara" since she is a minor.)

Sara's story is an extreme case, but it struck a nerve with me. Like Sara, I'm of Korean descent, and I graduated from the very same high school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

TJ, as it's called, has been ranked the No.1 public high school in America by Newsweek (in 2014) and U.S. News and World Report (from 2007-2013).

I saw college mania firsthand when I was a TJ senior 12 years ago.

I graduated from TJ with a B+ average, 1460 SAT, and went to college on an academic and athletic scholarship with enough AP credits to graduate a semester early. But that was considered "mediocre" by TJ standards -- I was voted "Least Likely to Graduate from College."

College admissions are now surrounded by even more unnecessary hysteria. This spring, I saw headlines about at least four different high school seniors across America who got into every Ivy League school. That is an incredible achievement, but by no means should that be a benchmark for other students. For all the moments of glee, there are too many more of crushing disappointment.

Related: N.Y. teen accepted by all 8 Ivy League schools

In Sara's case, her family referred vaguely to mental health issues as her story unraveled. "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," her father said in an apology.

Unfortunately, mental health is a taboo subject in Korean culture. Hyper-competitive South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the industrialized world, and suicide is the leading cause of death among the country's teens.

Among my high school friends, who come from a variety of backgrounds, Sara has become a big topic of conversation. Our overwhelming response has been one of sympathy. We think it's time to change the message around college admissions.

Just after the "Sara" story broke, two 2014 TJ grads, Robert Young and Meghana Valluri, created "How to TJ," a Google Form to compile advice from alumni to current students.

"We want to help current students make the most of their experience there while maintaining their mental health and enjoying their high school years," wrote Young, who just finished his first year at Stanford.

"The idea that 'you'll be fine no matter where you end up in college' is often thrown around by administrators and teachers," Young told me. "But I think it holds much more power when told by people who have been through the process in similar scenarios to current TJ students."

Dozens of How to TJ responses are rolling in -- including my own -- and Young said he is hoping for many more.

As stressful as TJ was, I still loved it -- and Young and Valluri did, too. But it's hard to have perspective when you're a high school senior immersed in college mania.

hannah bae homecoming high school
The author and her high school class celebrate Homecoming 2003 at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

Looking back, I can see high school for what it was: I was lucky enough to go to a school where my classmates and favorite teachers were among the smartest, most open-minded people I've ever met. They are my lifelong friends. TJ was the kind of place where my friends and I could unabashedly pursue our academic passions.

High school was anything but a route to the college of my dreams. I know, because I got rejected from my top choice, the University of Virginia, plus Virginia Tech, James Madison University and Vanderbilt. I remember those weeks being a blur of tears. I cried in the hallways at school and at home in my room. It really felt like the end of the world.

And I still turned out OK.

Sara, I hope you do, too.

Hannah Bae is CNNMoney's viral news editor. The opinions she expresses in this commentary are her own.

Public colleges with the best bang for your buck

Private colleges with the biggest payoff

How much will that college really cost?

Mortgage & Savings


LendingTree

CNNMoney Sponsors