The transition from high school to college has become a rite of passage laden with expectations – chief among them is the assumption that admission to a prestigious college is the golden ticket to future success. However, Ana Homayoun, an academic advisor and early career development expert, challenges the belief that taking all AP classes, starting on the varsity team and being first string in orchestra guarantees the skills a student needs to thrive in college and beyond. “We all play a role in supporting students beyond grades, test scores and college admission,” she said. “I started to think about what are the key skills that are not just crucial for our livelihood but also for social and economic mobility.” In her book Erasing the Finish Line: The New Blueprint for Success Beyond Grades and College Admission, Homayoun draws from over two decades of working with students to show how the narrow focus on competitive college admissions has inadvertently sidelined necessary skills like organization, planning, prioritization and non-transactional relationship building. These assets, she added, are essential for success not only in college but also in career paths and personal relationships.
While there have always been students who were not ready for college, Homayoun noted that the pandemic has made this more common. “Particularly after the last few years, I will say that students’ skill sets aren’t as developed as they were in the past,” she said. Today’s students may struggle with managing their time effectively, building meaningful connections, and adapting to the challenges of a dynamic post-high school environment. Homayoun helps families establish a new approach to academic success and overall well-being that will sustain children in their journeys after K-12 education. She advises moving away from the relentless pursuit of accolades and places a renewed emphasis on social well-being and emotional development.
Given that there’s no one-size-fits-all path to success for any student, parents can support their child in building strong habits and refining skills that have a lasting impact on long-term success. According to Homayoun, paying attention to kids’ energy levels, honing extracurricular commitments, and improving conversation skills yields benefits that extend far beyond gaining acceptance into college.
Pay attention to energy levels
It’s common for parents to get caught up in a culture of comparison and wonder if their child is involved in enough activities for the college admissions process, especially during the transition from middle to high school, Homayoun pointed out. She urges parents to shift their perspective from time management, often driven by an unending to-do list, to energy management. Being attuned to a child’s energy levels empowers parents to understand their behavior patterns and support them in recharging when necessary. Homayoun said it can be as simple as asking three key questions: “What energizes you? What drains you? And how do you recharge?”
Parents can monitor their child’s energy levels by assessing the activities they participate in and ensuring there is a healthy balance between activity and rest. For instance, a child might require more transition time when moving between activities or need solo time during the weekend to recover from a demanding week. A child’s energy profile may evolve over time. Circumstances such as an injury, breakup, or mental health concerns can also have an impact on a child’s energy profile, whether temporarily or more permanently. Homayoun suggested that parents stay flexible and shift priorities accordingly.
It’s crucial to move away from the notion that there is something “wrong” with an introverted child who doesn’t socialize in the same way as their extroverted siblings or parents, said Homayoun. Embracing and respecting individual energy profiles allows each child to thrive in their own way, ensuring that they have the space and support to develop the skills and self-awareness necessary for a successful journey through education and beyond. While the race to college acceptance can push children to keep going until they burn out, shifting the focus to energy management helps parents support their child in a more sustainable and balanced approach to life.
Determine what is going to “take the B”
In her book, Homayoun introduces the concept of “taking the B,” which means deciding which activities and obligations can take a back seat in one’s life. As children grow older, activities that were once minor commitments may start demanding more time and energy, leading to packed schedules that leave little room for rest, reflection and open-ended exploration. “I regularly see students who are in school from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and then have an activity from 3:30 to 6 p.m., and then need to commute home and complete one to three hours of homework,” wrote Homayoun. This kind of demanding schedule takes a toll on their energy, mood and motivation. It can foster a sense of never doing enough and an unceasing pressure to do more, which, in turn, can erode their self-esteem. Valuable sleep time is often sacrificed as schedules become increasingly packed. “For students, the notion of “taking the B” shouldn’t be about grades or test scores but rather daily and weekly allocation of energy,” wrote Homayoun.
Parental fears can often shape a student’s schedule, with concerns that reducing extracurricular involvement may limit future opportunities. However, Homayoun emphasizes that the “bigger, better” culture doesn’t necessarily benefit anyone. Rather than encouraging kids to do it all, she urged parents to help them assess their schedules and identify activities that can be scaled back. This doesn’t necessarily mean quitting an activity entirely. For instance, if a student enjoys playing a sport but doesn’t want to commit to it at a high level, they can join a low-commitment recreational league. Reducing a child’s commitments can enable them to experience greater happiness, improved rest and less burnout.
Build conversation skills
Many of the students Homayoun has worked with who have achieved the professional or personal success they aspired to possess strong conversation and small talk skills. “We get stuck in this faulty finish line of college admissions and the test scores and grades. And we think, ‘Oh, well, this kid is getting great grades, then they clearly are doing fine,’ but they don’t have the ability to connect,” she said. Developing better small talk skills can boost a student’s confidence in navigating new social environments that might otherwise feel overwhelming.
Homayoun encourages students to engage in conversations with people from different generations, because conversations with peers or family members can be limiting. “A lot of students are like, ‘Oh, I’m talking about college admissions with my classmates.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, none of them have applied to college yet,’” said Homayoun.
For parents who are looking to build their child’s small talk skills, Homayoun suggested making it a game. During gatherings, whether they are family events or neighborhood barbecues, parents can challenge their child to initiate brief conversations with three new people. This practice not only helps in making eye contact, reading nonverbal cues, starting a conversation, asking questions, and wrapping up a conversation effectively but also improves their confidence in social situations.
Summer jobs that involve interacting with the public, like working at a grocery store or lifeguarding at a local pool, can help teenagers build their conversation skills. Additionally, research has shown that the more small conversations and interactions a person engages in, the more likely they are to experience increased happiness, as they establish meaningful connections with others and build a foundation of positive social interactions.
There are many soft skills that children can benefit from developing. It may not require parents to add more activities to their schedule; rather, it could just mean fine-tuning their existing interests to help them thrive in the long run.