Ep 114: What Teens Can Do Now To Prepare For College

Episode Summary

Dr. Pamela Ellis, author of What to Know Before They Go, shares key insights on how to best prepare for college. Whether your teen is a senior or seventh grader, Dr. Ellis has tips for how to catch up and how to get ahead.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

For parents and students alike, the road to college can be full of twists, turns and unpredictable roadblocks…it sometimes feels like you’ll never cross the finish line! It might feel  as though getting into top schools is practically impossible, especially when trying to get in means endless extracurriculars, community service, SATs, GPA–the list of requirements and considerations goes on and on. 

For students, the only thing worse than this insane workload is the possibility of not even getting in! For parents, it’s heartbreaking to know how much stress and pressure your kid is under. It can be excruciating to wait and wonder if they’ll get accepted to the school of their dreams or be forced to reevaluate their life in the wake of rejection.

Although it may seem like it’s all too overwhelming to handle, don’t fear! We’re here to help out. There are small steps you and your teen can take to prepare for the college application process, whether they’re finishing up seventh grade or heading into their junior year, a struggling student or top of their class. If you can develop a greater understanding of the whole process, you’ll be better equipped to set your student up for success.

Our guest today is Pamela Ellis, a.k.a, “ The Education Doctor”, author of What to Know Before They Go. Dr. Ellis has worked with thousands of teens and families to help students choose the right colleges and gain admission. She’s an expert on helping teens cope with the thousands of stressors of college admissions, with strategies covering everything from scholarship qualifications to everyday time management.

In the interview, Pamela and I discuss how teens can prioritize their responsibilities, why they should challenge themselves in small ways to expand their comfort zones, and what they can do to organize their lives during this stressful and confusing period.

How Prioritizing Leads to Productivity 

Being a teen on the road to college means balancing extracurriculars and grades, writing essays,v getting letters of recommendation, acing your ACTs and balancing a budget. There’s no shortage of tasks and not nearly enough time…so how can your teen get it all done?

Pamela suggests that teens narrow their focus. She and I discuss how valuable it can be to simply hone in on a few important tasks when you only have a limited amount of time. By sticking to a few specific goals instead of running around trying to solve every problem, Pamela believes teens can manage admissions stress and come out on top.

In the episode, Pamela and I talk about how these goals should differ for kids of ages. Those finishing up sophomore year are going to need very different guidance than those beginning their prepping to become seniors. For example, Pamela explains in our interview how she believes 9th graders aren’t quite ready to whip up a list of prospective colleges yet, and should perhaps extend their focus towards making dependable friends instead! 

Getting into college doesn’t just require great planning, however. Teens also have to stand out to tired admissions officers shuffling through thousands of applications. To do so, they’re going to have to challenge themselves to go above and beyond.

Pushing Teens to Reach Their Potential

Trying to stand out on an application can be one of the most stressful things about the entire admissions process. Millions of kids across the world send in applications, vying for a few prized spots at prestigious universities. It’s not always easy to look perfect on paper, especially when competition is so intense.

Pamela’s advice to teens and parents is to take advantage of every opportunity. Kids might shy away from taking harder classes or joining clubs, but by pushing themselves to shoot for the stars, kids can achieve more than they think. Pamela believes that students shouldn’t hold back when it comes to taking that extra leap out of their comfort zone–it could make all the difference when it comes to admissions!

Don’t think your kid is really capable of acing AP Spanish? That’s ok too. Pamela says it’s important to assess where kids are at and encourage them to move at their own pace, remaining true to themselves. If Spanish isn’t their best subject, maybe root for them to perform even better in English this year, especially if they plan to apply to journalism or literature programs.

By pushing themselves, they’ll not only look better on paper, but more confident. By tackling challenges they didn’t think they could handle, they’ll learn that that they’re capable of more than they ever dreamed–a lesson they’ll take with them as they continue into adulthood.

In the episode, Pamela and I discuss how you can guide your teen towards striving for success. When looking to the future to figure out what’s possible for your teen, it can also be helpful to look back to the past–and do some collecting, documenting and organizing.

Tracking your Teen’s Progress

When your teen is trying to gather all their achievements and accolades to make their application pop, they’re going to wish they had kept a catalog. If your teen still has a few years to go before those applications are due, now might be a good time to start keeping track of things that could give your teen that extra edge.

This doesn’t include their certificate for athlete of the year. It can also include their best essays, a log of volunteer hours, a list of extracurricular activities they’ve participated in. Collecting these things in one place allows them to have all their information at their fingertips. It also helps teens develop a mindset of collecting and recording things, something they’ll need later down the line when they’re preparing a resume or applying for a bank loan. The sooner they start flexing that muscle, the better.

Additionally, keeping a record of how much time and effort they spend on different activities can help teens reflect on their own priorities and time management. If a teen looks back at their log from freshman year to see that they spent much more time in the art building than they did in the library, they might have to ask themselves: is art what I want to focus on? By examining their own behaviors and patterns, they can head into future endeavors with a better understanding of their own ambitions as well as their tendencies.

In Pamela’s eyes, the most important thing is that kids are able to perform at their best, and have the college experience of their dreams. By following her advice, we can help ourselves and our kids handle all the throes of applying to college and make it to the other side.

In the Episode…

Pamela and I touch on a wide range of topics, answering all your burning questions about the admissions process. In addition to the topics above, we discuss…

  • Why it’s important for kids to read for pleasure
  • How kids can get the most out of summer vacation
  • Why kids catch a “sophomore slump”
  • What kids can do to make the most of a college fair

If you like listening to Pamela’s advice, check out her website, theeducationdoctor.com. Thanks for listening; don’t forget to share and subscribe! We’ll see you next week.

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. When your teen commits to a goal help them follow through:

“What are the steps to getting you there and who is going to keep you accountable?”

-Pamela Ellis

2. Get your teen to practice building professional relationships:

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2. Get your teen to practice building professional relationships:

“[Think of] one or two teachers, maybe you hit it off or maybe you really like the class–I want you to practice getting to know them and letting them get to know you.”

-Pamela Ellis

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. Have Your Teen Choose a High School

Dr. Pamela Ellis is adamant that teens need to take responsibility for their own education journeys–and that this doesn’t start with picking a college. Most teens go to a high school chosen for them–whether their parents chose to live in a certain school district or enrolled the teen in private school, usually, they teen doesn’t have much of a say. 
However, the public school down the street might not be the best fit for your teen, just as the local Montessori school might not be a good fit either. It’s never too late to take a hard look at the school your child is or will be attending and ask if that is a good match for them. Whether or not a new school is a viable option for your family, you can still give this exercise a whirl. 
First, gather a list of high schools in the area that would be viable options. Besides private schools and charters, are there options to switch to an alternate public school? (In some cases if one public school offers a special program that another doesn’t, students reserve the right schools to switch to benefit from that special program.)

Second, have a talk with your tween/teen about their school. Let them know that you want them to have a say in where they go to school. Then, together, assess your teen’s academic needs. Do they thrive in large classes or do better with the extra attention that comes from smaller ones? Does learning come fairly easy to them or would they like more support? Are a variety of extracurriculars important to them, or would they rather be able to focus on just arts or sports? Do they have a strong group of friends or do they feel like an outsider? Schedule a time to talk about this in your calendar to make sure you get to it!

Lastly, if your teen is interested in a different school now or for next year, have them start researching how to apply and see if they can tour the prospective new school. Offer to help your teen with the research, communication with the school (teens are still minors), and the application process–but make sure your teen knows they are the one responsible for their education.

2. Read to Your Teens

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3. Time-Spent Chart

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Talk to me a little bit about what all this stuff is, and how this all came to be.

Pamela: Yeah, absolutely. For so many years that I’ve been doing this work, the biggest question is around what to do now. And I have parents who reach out to me. They could have a student in any grade of high school, and really want to know, “What do I do now?” And those roadmaps came about from that experience of getting those questions over the years. I’m a parent myself, and, yes, I want to know what’s ahead for them, but also what does that mean for me right now?

Pamela: If a parent has a junior right now, they have a different question than a parent who has a ninth or 10th grader, or one who has a senior. And the book itself came about through years of answering questions for parents. And part of it is, yes, the dissertation work that I did. But not really, because as you know, when you’re doing a dissertation, it’s all about writing to an audience of scholars.

Pamela: And when I was doing my dissertation work, I never forget, one of my committee members asked me at the end of my first examination in defense, he said, “What does this have to do about parents? What is the impact on parents of what you’re sharing?” And that really touched me in a deep way, because I as a parent wasn’t really thinking about it in terms of the parent perspective for my work. I was looking at what does this all mean for students?

Pamela: But that question is what led to the work that I do now, and certainly all the years since then. And what’s really in the book is about answering those questions for parents. Because especially when you talk about educating their children, that can be really stressful, because you don’t want to have regrets about it.

Andy: One thing I thought was really interesting was, you talk about reading, and how keeping teens reading as they transition into middle school and into high school. One thing that you mention that I really found interesting was that one mistake a lot of parents make is to stop reading to their teenagers. Can you talk about that, or why you recommend?

Pamela: I sure will. I sure will. Because we do it when they’re younger, and it’s just a natural thing to do. Some moms will even start reading to their children when they’re in their womb, but somehow when they get older, you feel like they’re too big for that, or they already know how to read. But even with my kids now, they’re young adults, but just hearing the spoken word, and hearing something as it’s written, there’s a certain soothing to it. That’s the only word I could think of right now, but there is something soothing about it. There’s something nurturing about it.

Pamela: And it also, too, is modeling for kids. I think that at the end of the day, teenagers, even with all that they have going on, and many times they’re quite precocious, they still want to be kids. And I certainly see that in my young adults in terms of things that I may ask them to do, or just even the responsibilities that they want to take on. In some cases, they’re showing that they still want to be a kid in a sense. And I feel like with teenagers, I don’t want them to lose that. So reading to them can still help in all of those ways.

Andy: Yeah. I like that a lot. So one of the themes throughout the book is what you refer to as A+ attitudes.

Pamela: Those attitudes are around really being student-centric, as opposed to worrying about what colleges want, or worrying about some other things away from the student, and recognizing the student and accepting them for who they are.

Andy: So the attitudes are that it’s all about fit, there’s a lot of money out there, and distance doesn’t matter.

Andy: One thing you really got me thinking about in this book is how high school can be a trial run almost for college. Instead of just sending your kid to whatever high school all their friends are going to, or that they’re supposed to go to, take some time and look at all their options. And apply to some different schools and have them deciding where they want to go.

Andy: And it almost gets them used to this process, basically a small version of what they’re going to go through with college. And one thing that you talk about, as well, because those three attitudes that we mentioned, one is choosing the right fit. And so, I wonder if you could talk about choosing the right fit for high school?

Pamela: Yes. One of the things I’ll say about choosing a high school is that it’s not meant to make the child all of a sudden take on these big adult decisions by having them decide. But certainly having some input around their high school, if that’s a possibility for the family, really makes a difference in terms of helping them with owning their educational journey, as opposed to it being something where only the parents decide for them.

Pamela: And so, that’s what I was referencing in that regard. With my own children, I wanted to give them some options as far as schooling was concerned, because I knew that the schools in my own area weren’t necessarily going to meet all of their needs. And so, having them take ownership in that meant that they also got a chance to research the schools, to learn about them, and be part of that process of discovery.

Pamela: It also gave them a chance to experience those things that they liked and didn’t like about whether or not those schools would be a fit for them. And the areas of fit that I talk about in the book are academic, social, financial, and vocational fit. And for high schools that may not necessarily apply in the same way, particularly on the vocational side, because oftentimes kids may not know yet what they want to do career-wise. Sometimes they may have a general idea because they’ve seen someone who was a physician, or an attorney. But for the most part, they may not have a really specific idea of what they want to do vocationally.

Pamela: But in those regard, they can take that into consideration in the family together, taking into consideration the financial aspect. But an additional area of fit not in the book that I have since added in my own work, is cultural fit. And that was something that certainly has come about with all of the things within this recent year with unrest racially, unrest within the LGBTQ community.

Pamela: And so, cultural is a big piece of it. And it’s something that I did take into account with my own children when they were looking at high schools. Particularly for my daughter, because I have two sons and a daughter, and for my daughter, she had been in schools where there were only a handful of other black girls. And so, I wanted her to be in a big enough high school that yes, she could have a chance to go to prom. Just something as simple as that is really about a cultural fit, in a sense.

Pamela: And so, we talked about that with her for high school, and certainly it’s come up even more so with college. But I hold fast to those areas of fit as really making a difference in terms of having a place where teens thrive. And that’s what finding the right high school is about, that’s what finding the right college is about, is that place where they thrive.

Pamela: And so, those factors of fit give parents and other decision makers a framework for thinking about it, and making sure that they’re fore-fronting the student, as opposed to only thinking about the brand name, or thinking about some other factor that won’t support them thriving when they’re there.

Andy: One thing you talk about throughout the book is setting goals with your kid before the year starts. And you recommend setting one to two goals. I have questions about that. Why is that? Why not 10 goals? Why not 20 goals?And I also really like how you have this grade by grade approach for what the focus of your goal should be in ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade.

Pamela: Yeah. Why not 10, 12 [goals]? I just think that we don’t focus in if we have that many. And part of limiting the number of goals is having a sense of purpose, intentionality, and seeing that you can accomplish something. And even, I put together recently as part of my course, a module on time management. And it’s not having 10 things you need to get done in one day, but only just a few. What are the top priorities?

Pamela: And so, even in the same way with having a few goals, you’re prioritizing. Because it can be so easy to get scattered and end up not really accomplishing anything. And I know for me personally, I love bright, shiny objects. It’s easy for me to get distracted and start with something new, but just limiting helps to maintain focus, and to actually get things done.

Andy: And it’s a good process to go through of deciding what’s important to you, and this is what I’m going to focus on this year.

Pamela: Exactly, exactly. And I do it by grade, again, because every grade year is different. And for a ninth grader, you’re not trying to put together a college list. It doesn’t even make sense. It adds too much stress. But if you think about, “How do I build relationships with two or three friends at school, and make that transition to high school in a meaningful way?”, that’s a great goal. That’s a great goal. And that’s something that you can then work towards, and be intentional around.

Pamela: When I talk with students about goal setting, I ask them to have, “What are the steps to getting you there, and who’s going to help you to stay accountable?” And so, those are ways to make sure it’s just not saying it for the sake of saying it. “Yes, I’m going to do a 5.0 this year.” And it’s just like, “But you’re at a 2.0 now. Is that realistic?” So we talk about smart goals, and really just doing it in a way that supports them with being successful.

Andy: One phrase that you use when you’re talking about planning the summer is to start with the big rock first. What does that mean, and how do you do that?

Pamela: Big rock is around prioritizing. That’s why I use that phrase. And it comes from something from business, and I can’t even remember the story behind it right now. But it’s prioritizing. And I think of the big rock for most students, regardless of the grade year, is reading in the summer. Reading for pleasure. That’s something that doesn’t cost a whole lot to do, it’s enjoyable. You gain so much from it. And it’s just a wonderful experience that oftentimes our high schoolers have forgotten about, because they’re accustomed to screens and other things, and they’ve gotten away from reading.

Pamela: When I’ve talked with parents, this probably is a little bit more scientific, but when I’ve talked with parents over the years, I’ve asked them if their child is a reader. And they oftentimes will say, “Not anymore. They used to be, but after around sixth, seventh grade, they stopped reading for pleasure.”

Pamela: And I think a lot of it is the peers that they’re around, and screen time, more into their games and everything else, and they’ve lost sight of it. But one of the real joys of what I do is, I was talking with a student recently who’s a junior, and I was talking with him about the importance of reading. When we met the next time, he mentioned that he had started a book, and he said he found that he really enjoyed it, and he had forgotten about it.

Pamela: And I was like, “Really? What made you do that?” He’s like, “Because you mentioned reading.” I was like, “Ah, thank you.” Because here I am thinking this kid is probably thinking I’m nuts, and he doesn’t want to do that because he has homework and everything else. But he did it. And I know in part, too, it’s because I’m not his mom. Whereas, if his parents tell him that, he’s not going to do it. But because I’m a third party, he figures, “Okay, Dr. Pamela, I’ll read.”

Pamela: So that’s really what the big rock is about. It’s about prioritizing for your summer, and having something you want to do, to accomplish. You know, again, for a ninth grader, it could be developing their personal skills. And so, they want to focus on that for the summer, that’s a big rock for them. And then all the other things can fit in.

Andy: Yeah, right. Otherwise you feel like there’s so much stuff that you need to do, and you’re scattered all over the place. And how am I going to get all this stuff done and balance everything? But I like just keeping it focused on what’s your big goal this summer, and focus on that first. And then, sure, there’s still plenty of other time to do everything else around that.

Andy: This was interesting. You talk about what the college-bound schedule should look like for each year, and how skimping on the basic curriculum can really limit college options. You talk about one student that you had who really didn’t want to take Spanish for his senior year of high school, even though one of his top-choice colleges had required four years of Spanish. So he did this whole letter on his application requesting a waiver, saying, “I really don’t want to do Spanish, but please accept my application anyways,” and it didn’t work. He didn’t get in.

Andy: So, yeah. And you say that might’ve worked if his high school didn’t offer Spanish and he was trying to say a waiver, saying, “Hey, I did the best I could, but it’s impossible for me to take this.” So that just gets my brain thinking about how, yeah, there are limitations. They’ll understand if you’re not able to do something, but there’s a difference between not being able to, and just deciding you don’t really want to or something.

Pamela: Right. Exactly. Exactly. And colleges are well aware of that when they look at the school profile and get a sense for what’s offered. And they’re looking at students as best they can on a level playing field, in terms of this is what this school offer, and how the student took advantage of it. And in his particular case, he was just adamant that he didn’t like his teacher. For no other reason. And what does that say about you learning how to get along with others?

Andy: As a college, also, it’s like, “Well, okay. So then, as soon as you get to campus and you don’t like something, or you’re going to have a hard time, you’re just going to quit? Yeah, right. That’s maybe not who we want to admit here.”

Pamela: Exactly. And students sometimes are really not looking ahead. And developmentally, they’re not there really to look that far ahead. So this is one of the conversations we have to help them with grasping that concept.

Andy: I guess you have really specific recommendations on what classes people might look at every year. But I guess the main rule is just being really aware of what is available, and that you’re taking advantage of the most challenging opportunities that are available to you.

Pamela: Exactly. And again, it’s not about forcing students to be anything that they aren’t. What I mean by that is, I oftentimes will talk about challenging yourself at the level where you are. That could be different for different students. And so, for some students, they’re challenging themselves at a regular course. For others, they’re challenging themselves when they take an honors. Or if their school offers an advanced placement, they’re taking advantage of that.

Pamela: But it’s probably pushing yourself a little bit further than you may think. Because sometimes, some of the teens that I’m working with don’t want to push themselves. They’re comfortable with being comfortable. And so, part of my role is… At least, I see part of my role is giving them that extra push to encourage them to step outside of their comfort zone.

Pamela: And one of the points of the book that I make is that it’s much easier to do that while they’re at home than to wait on them to learn that when they’re in college. Because when they’re in college, they’re going to definitely be in situations where they’ll be outside of their comfort zone. And so, this gives them that opportunity to practice that while they’re still in high school.

Andy: How do you figure out what’s the right level of challenge for your teenager?

Pamela: Part of it is seeing where they’ve been, to some extent, and testing the waters a little bit earlier on. Perhaps it’s trying out an honors course before you leap into an AP course. That’s a way to do it more gradually. For some students, their high schools may automatically limit what they can take when. But if there is an opportunity, for example, for one of my students, he was interested in doing engineering, but he didn’t want to take calculus. He didn’t want to take calculus in senior year. And that makes it a little bit hard to really go into engineering when you don’t have calculus…

Andy: Yeah, there’s a lot of math involved there. And they want to know how you performed in that class.

Pamela: Exactly, exactly. And so, part of the push was at least getting him to try out. I think they offered an honors pre-calc, something like that, that he could take to at least build himself up and help with his confidence. Because a lot of times it’s a matter of confidence that’s holding students back from trying it out.

Pamela: And that worked for him. That worked for him. But every other class he had was definitely a regular or a basic. He just didn’t want to push himself. But it’s just like, “Come on now, because if this is something you want to do, I really want to see you step it up at least in the math.”

Andy: In the proper areas.

Pamela: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Andy: It’s not about taking on everything, but it’s being strategic. And for him, that was the big rock probably.

Pamela: Exactly. It is. It is. That was definitely a big rock for him. And that mattered more than getting him to try out AP US history. It’s just like, he’s not even that kind of reader to take on a class like that. And he was very frank in telling me that he wasn’t a reader, or didn’t like reading.

Pamela: So it was all I could do to at least get him to push himself on the math side. And so, I was pleased to see him do that. And that was meeting him where he was, and so not forcing him to try to take everything honors. But at least giving him that bit of push outside of his comfort zone, where it would matter. Where it would matter to him.

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About Dr. Pamela Ellis

Dr. Pamela Ellis is the author of What to Know Before They Go and the founder of The Education Doctor®. In her more than 20 years working in education research and as a financial executive in the private sector, Pamela has emerged as a leading authority on what it takes for students to thrive in education and, thereby, in life. 

Her experience in education includes advising K-12 school districts, colleges/universities, and community-based organizations. She developed “The Education Doctor” curriculum through her research on transition and retention. She first piloted the program in East Palo Alto, California through a high school writing program. Dr. Ellis is a graduate of Stanford University and The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. Her doctorate was granted from the Stanford University School of Education.

Pamela currently lives in Dayton, OH where she has three grown children of her own.

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