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Education

Giving the gifted a chance to flourish

They are smart and ambitious, but often bored. Gifted students have a hard time in Germany. The Maximilianeum in Munich, where over-achievers live and study together, is an exception.

Clara Freissmuth and Susanne Zwirlein love the music room at the Maximilianeum in Munich. It has a high ceiling that carries the sound. Clara plays the piano and Susanne the clarinet and they rehearse here in their free time.

Two grand pianos stand regally in the middle of the room, as if on a concert stage. On the wall there's a larger-than-life painting of Bavarian King Maximilian II, who established a foundation for highly gifted students 160 years ago.

Those who are chosen to study at the Maximilianeum can focus entirely on their studies, since room, board and tuition are all covered by the foundation.

Crème de la crème

The environment here is highly stimulating. High-ranking politicians come and go, since the Bavarian state parliament shares the facility. The rent paid by the parliament funds the school.

Only 10 new students can be accepted each year. Perfect grades - in Germany, 1.0 - are a basic requirement, but not the only one, says the chairman of the foundation, Hanspeter Beisser.

In Bavaria, between 350 and 400 students a year complete high school with a perfect grade average of 1.0, and there is not enough room for all of them at the Maximilianeum.

Susanne Zwirlein and Clara Freißmuth (r)

Susanne Zwirlein and Clara Freißmuth (r) make music in their free time

"We have to implement a selection process, which of course is very intensive," said Beisser.

The students cannot simply apply - they have to be recommended by their high school. Then they have to pass a variety of tests, including an interview at the ministry of education before a panel of a dozen examiners.

"I didn't get my hopes up too high, because I think luck plays a big role," said Susanne Zwirlein. "And then I had a very nice chat with the Spanish and religion examiners about the Spanish words in the Arabic language."

A unique community

The candidates shouldn't just show off their knowledge, explained Hanspeter Beisser, but also demonstrate that they are interested in learning within a community, which is the primary aim at the Maximilianeum. They offer, for example, internal language seminars, dance classes and philosophy circles.

The scholarship holders are also expected to engage in hobbies and volunteer work outside of their studies. Clara and Susanne give concerts at seniors' homes; others are active in sports clubs or the voluntary fire brigade.

It's not unusual in Germany for highly gifted students to receive a scholarship and pursue extracurricular activities. But what's unique about the Maximilianeum is that the students live together.

Avoiding labels

"We need more support for highly gifted students at university," according to Osnabrück-based education expert Claudia Solzbacher. "With such masses at the universities these days, the young people often go under."

Double degrees, language training and philosophy courses are particularly important for gifted students, as is the intellectual exchange with others at their level.

Hanspeter Beisser

Hanspeter Beisser also attended the Maximilianeum as a student

"In Germany, other than in places like the US, we're shy about giftedness," said Solzbacher. It's no wonder, then, that most of the students at the Maximilianeum don't like the term "gifted."

"I think it's really problematic because it makes us think we can categorize people," said Maximilianeum student Alexander Edlich.

He studies physics and law - a double degree just like Clara is doing. Neither of them can say exactly what their IQ is, but "gifted" starts at an IQ of 130, so it's clear that the students belong to the country's academic elite.

As a child, Clara skipped two grades and graduated from high school just a few weeks after her 17th birthday. Despite high achievements, both Clara and Susanne were popular with their fellow pupils.

There would be a rude comment here or there when she got perfect grades, remembered Susanne, but the older she got, the more the other students were interested in getting help from her with their homework.

Bayerischer Landtag (Bavarian state parliament), pictured in heavy snow

The Maximilianeum shares a building with the Bavarian state parliament

Beyond borders

All of the scholarship holders at the Maximilianeum had to learn during elementary and high school to deal with their fellow pupils and not let themselves be ostracized, but also not look down on the others. Now that they are together with their peers, they can look beyond school and out into the world.

The Maximilianeum organizes study abroad programs and Clara Freissmuth spent some time at Oxford as a visiting student. There she was better able to combine her areas of study, philosophy and law, than in Germany. And she was able to create new memories that didn't have anything to do with books and exams.

"I'll never forget rowing for Oxford in an eight and how hundreds of people cheered us on," Clara remembered.

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