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A Different Way to Think About Student Success
Beyond Grades, Beyond College Admissions
Every so often, I think to myself: contemporary college admissions would’ve turned me to mush. Both of my parents went to college, but I didn’t go to a rigorous high school, and there was no college admissions competition to speak of. I chose where I applied based on weird and hilarious ideas of “good” which mostly had to do with “they’re in Minnesota, and I’ve been to Minnesota” and “that smart cheerleader four years ahead of me went there.”
When I came to my guidance counselor with six applications, she sighed and shook her head. Way too many. My mom was supportive but — I think purposefully — kept her distance. She wanted me to make my own decision. I didn’t have anyone to compare myself to, and ended up choosing my college based on “feel” and “they gave me money.”
In hindsight, I was enormously lucky the pressure-cooker of college admissions wasn’t something I could opt into — because I absolutely would have. I know myself well enough to know that. Instead, I got to spend my pre-college years figuring out what I liked, being bored, working shit jobs, being even more bored, figuring out friendship, and listening to music and staring at the ceiling. Oh, and taking a few classes that really and truly challenged me — and being able to focus on those challenges, and figure out how to do hard things. I had space to do the hazy work of becoming myself. I was successful not because of my GPA or my SAT scores or my college admissions letters, but because I had begun that hard and essential work of figuring out who I was and what mattered.
Ana Homayoun is trying to help students in this current admissions environment do the same. She’s an academic advisor, but not that kind of academic advisor, and her new book, Erasing the Finish Line, shifts the paradigm of how we might think of “success” — for the students in our lives, sure, but also for ourselves. In our interview below, we talk about how college acceptance became so overdetermined, her work with neurodivergent students, shifting parents’ understanding of achievement, and why you can’t just hack the system for kids who can afford a consultant. Even if you don’t have a student in your life right now, I think you’ll find it thought-provoking.
In the beginning of the book, you spend some time describing the “acceptance” video (on TikTok, on IG, whatever) that has become a new standard in the life of a particular type of high school students. You write:
“To me these videos represent a greater conversation around how we— and by “we” I mean parents, caregivers, educators, and students—have made getting into certain colleges an end-all, be-all, make-or-break finish line. In doing so, we’ve inadvertently created an overvalued, excessively rigid, and downright false judgment around what constitutes a “good” or “bad” launching pad to a successful life. We become caught up in a cycle that dismisses the fundamental skills critical for long-term well-being in favor of short-term results.”
I found myself nodding my head vigorously while reading this, but I also feel like it’s taking a step back to talk about how we got here. How did college acceptance become overdetermined in this way? How has that overdetermination accelerated over the last 20 years (and arguably even more so over, oh, the last five)? And how has this overdetermination affected students and their families?
It’s a combination of economic pessimism and overall uncertainty, fueled by the information overload that comes with today’s social media socialization. The increased college marketing efforts to students, which ramped up over the last 20-30 years, is also a contributing factor. When I was a high school student in the 1990s, college marketing was mainly flyers in the mail. Today, flyers are only one part of a full-pronged approach to attract students and families, and the outreach includes virtual tours, personal emails and even text messages that can feel somewhat impossible for kids to filter.
As an aside, if you wonder why many teens struggle with answering emails, it would help to realize they get way too many messages for them to process given school, sports, extracurricular activities, homework and family obligations. Plus, as I argue in the book, we’ve never intentionally taught students how to manage their workflow, and wrangling email is now part of the workflow for many adults and teens.
Back to how this all accelerated. Let’s go back to the financial crisis, right around 2007-2008. At a time when so many adults were losing their jobs, hanging on to this idea of college admissions as the ticket to economic stability seemed like a security blanket. It fueled this intense desire for more prestigious and elite options because the idea became solidified — with the help of university marketing — that the more elite options were a more likely pathway to success.
Research suggests otherwise. Students’ level of engagement in college — whether they participate in internships that apply classroom learning to real-life settings, have mentors who encourage them to pursue personal goals, or engage in multi-semester projects — correlates more strongly with positive outcomes after college. But people still clung to the goal of elite acceptance.
The ability to access more information than ever before about every conceivable topic created a sense of information overload about everything — including college admissions. Confronted by a barrage of headlines on historic low college acceptance rates, not to mention the persistent and insidious presence of college-admissions TikToks and YouTube videos, today’s teens are experiencing unprecedented levels of pressure, and their families are often sent into a tailspin.
To be sure, having access to accurate information is not bad — in reality, a democratization of information around college admissions increases exposure for all students. But there’s also a potential for information overload — which can also cause anxiety. I was talking a few weeks ago with a college senior who attends my alma mater, Duke University. He immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 4 years old and went to a public school in New Jersey without a lot of support. His parents work long hours, and he and his sister are the primary English speakers in the household. I asked him how he learned about college admissions, and he admitted to using Reddit as his primary source. I’m glad he found the information he felt he needed to navigate the process, but I also worry how this nonstop access has fueled much of this cultural moment we find ourselves in.
That’s why I thought it was so important to share the stories of former students alongside those of current students and related research. These were students who worried about their future when they were in high school, and the things they stressed out about during their college admissions process had nothing to do with their success in the workforce and beyond.
Can you lay out the skills we’re currently prioritizing as we prepare students for adulthood, and what you see as truly “foundational” skills we’re often missing?
I share different foundational skills in each of the four pillars of the book — systems, connection, perspective and acceptance — and provide practical strategies within each section to develop skills that I see as foundational. We’re so hyper focused on short-term markers of success (grades, test scores, college acceptances) that we lose sight of the daily routines and habits critical for promoting long-term well-being and financial stability. In my office, I’ve always said, “If you focus on the habits, the grades will come, and they will often be better than expected.” And it’s been true.
Over the past year, I’ve seen so many parents — more than at any other time over the past two decades — call my office because the child they helped get into college is now floundering as a college student or in the workforce. These aren’t students we worked with in middle school or high school, and many had their high school experiences truncated in some way because of the pandemic — some were online for an extended period of time, others may have switched high schools — and that also contributed.
For instance, one part of the book focuses on how systems rooted in executive functions — which encompass our ability to focus on tasks, prioritize, and be flexible to changes — are often overlooked in schools as secondary goals, and yet, feeling organized often decreases stress. Research suggests that developing executive functioning skills such as organization, time management, prioritization, working memory, and adaptability is a more reliable predictor of success in academics and life than IQ, test scores, or socioeconomic status. This situation has become all the more complicated in the last few years, when we’ve brought so much technology into the classroom and haven’t provided any real coaching to students on how to manage distractions and use needed applications most effectively.
The book also focuses on connection, or our ability to make and maintain friendships as well as stronger and weaker ties. This includes having “supporters,” or peers who are supportive, and “clarifiers,” which I define as trusted adults who provide clarity, wisdom, and guidance. I’ve found it interesting that when I ask most adults what they remember most about middle school and high school, it usually centers on something involving socializing (either positive, negative, or neutral). And yet, we’ve been less than intentional about supporting students in the development of skills around connection — including feeling comfortable with introducing ourselves, face-to-face conversations, and small talk. Over the past decade, I’ve been traveling to schools and visiting with students, educators, and parents about how to build a more robust school community, and create opportunities to break down the barriers for initial conversations.
The third and fourth pillars — perspective and acceptance — each focus on the skills we need to move beyond the narrowed definitions of success to look at how we can become more open and curious and expand our exposure, and understand who we are and what our gifts and strengths and opportunities for growth are as we develop our individual blueprint for success.
I’d love to hear more about your background — how you got into academic advising, what it felt like at the time, how the field has changed, and what compelled you to write *this* book in *this* way.
I’ve found that for many people who love their jobs and careers, their work started tangentially from something they enjoyed doing in middle school or high school. And the same is true for me.
When I was in high school, one of my school counselors asked me to help a classmate who was failing chemistry. He was a senior and needed to pass the class to graduate, and I was a sophomore getting an A in Honors Chemistry. When we met for the first time, I quickly realized his lack of organization played a central role in his 36% class grade. He had one accordion folder for all his classes, and we spent our first 30 minutes together going through and finding missing assignments, triplicate copies of lab work that was overdue, and review sheets that had yet to be filled in.
Over the next six weeks, I helped him come up with a plan and he nearly doubled his class grade and was able to graduate on time, and the experience taught me how organization, planning, and prioritization really play a role in academic success. These were skills I developed because I myself had had to: one of the things that happened while I was writing this book is that my dad handed me files from my childhood, which included my fifth-grade report card. The teacher had written something like, “Ana is highly capable and intelligent and could use some help with organization.” By high school, I’d created a system that worked for me, and I realized not everyone had.
I graduated from college in May 2001, and spent 10 weeks that summer in New York for investment banking training. Every weekday morning, I took the subway into the World Trade Center and I walked the stairs whose broken remains are now in the 9/11 museum. Two weeks before 9/11, I was in dire pain and took a cab to St. Vincent’s Hospital at 2 a.m., where I was rushed into surgery for an emergency appendectomy. They told me if I had waited until the morning to come in, I likely wouldn’t have made it.
I was laid off from my investment banking job in November 2001, and we were given nearly six months of severance, with a promise to be able to return as a first-year analyst if we wanted the following year. It was a weird time. I was 22, and I thought, well, I really enjoyed working with students, and I really saw how organization impacted academic performance, so let me do that for fun.
By that time, my parents were pretty frazzled by my proximity to the 9/11 site and my emergency appendectomy, so when I told them my plans they were like, “Can you pay your rent?” Yes. “Do you have health insurance?” Check. Fine, do what you want. I still see this as extraordinary given their own background as immigrants. But I think they were pretty shaken at the time and just glad I was alive.
I started developing my system for working with students — which continues to evolve — and later went back to school and got my master’s in Counseling and Pupil Personnel Services Credential. The work has changed in so many ways, which keeps it interesting, yet the beauty of working with teens and young adults as they are identifying their own values and navigating their own lives remains unchanged. When I first started doing this work, there was no Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, or TikTok. Gmail didn’t exist! Students told me then that their main distractions were their pets, their siblings, daydreaming, sleeping and food. Today, when I ask kids about their main distractions, they usually have at least a few that are online, or else they just say “my phone.”
The idea for revisiting my former students was planted when one of my students’s mother emailed me some years ago to tell me her son was still using many of the same techniques he’d learned years ago in my Green Ivy Educational Consulting office in his work today. I knew how far this student had come and how incredible his story was — and I peripherally kept in touch with other students who’d made amazing progress, including Nira, Phillip, Andrew, and Amanda (their names in the book) and so many others. Not all of them were straight-A students or went to elite colleges and they were all thriving in their own way.
I loved the entire section of the book on “acceptance” — particularly the story of Joseph. Can you share that story and what it took for his parents to change their own understanding of “the finish line”? (I’m thinking, too, of how this spills over into the chapter on perfectionism and “must-dos,” which usually leaves very little space for acceptance of very different understandings of success)
As background, Joseph was a student with high emotional intelligence, who was incredibly gifted in communicating and connecting with others. He loved entrepreneurial challenges, and spent summers running small businesses with his friends and always had a side hustle before it was a thing. At the same time, sitting through 90-minute classes in high school left him feeling disengaged and exhausted, and he would often wander the halls. His inability to focus and his struggle with academic-based systems (he was fine when it came to entrepreneurial endeavors, which helped me see that he did have the skills) resulted in late and missing assignments, which embarrassed his parents, who were organized individuals used to running things.
I thought Joseph would improve his skills in developing a system as he matured outside the classroom setting, and I thought a smaller school or a local community college would be a more appropriate next step. His parents were resistant — they had bought into the belief that every student should be naturally ready to go away to college and live on their own at 18 or 19. Joseph wasn’t, and he ended up heading to a big public college where his first and second year were marked by large, entry-level classes. He became engrossed in and distracted by social opportunities, and fell so far behind that he ended up on academic probation after two semesters and then withdrawing after sophomore year.
In Joseph’s case, coming back home gave him time and space to develop and focus. Because there was a local community college and university options nearby, he found a pathway to graduate from college with his Bachelor’s degree in five and a half years. What initially appeared to be a failure ultimately allowed him to find a path where he thrived as a student and a young adult — and over time Joseph admitted he liked being home, near his family and especially his grandfather, with whom he always had a close relationship. Working at a job where he earned money always gave him a greater sense of purpose and meaning and allowed him to find wins he’d never found in the same way in the classroom.
Joseph’s journey is such an example of how there are multiple pathways to success — and ties into this fundamental idea of acceptance, which is not the same as complacency, nor should it ever be confused with giving up. No one should accept that a high school sophomore is unable to manage his time, prioritize his schoolwork and turn assignments in on time. So, instead of viewing kids like Joseph as “failures,” let’s notice how they think, work, and thrive — and use that information to teach them ways to develop a system that works for them and helps them move forward.
I’m not sure what it took for Joseph’s parents to fully change their understanding of the finish line — to be honest, I’m not sure they fully have, though I imagine that seeing their son’s remarkable professional success working as a marketing executive for a well-known technology services company and seeing the depths of his personal relationships and network has made them very proud.
When I was first started doing this work, students like Joseph were the most worrisome to me because they wouldn’t see “results” in terms of improved grades or scores quite as readily, and yet, I knew they’d be absolutely fine in life as long as the educational system didn’t crush their spirit and sense of motivation and drive — because they do have drive, it’s just not seen in the classroom environment! After so many years, I’ve come to realize that the focus of academic advising work is making sure a student like Joseph builds the underlying habits he needs to thrive and doesn’t lose his sense of self when navigating a school system that isn’t set up to quickly evaluate his strengths. I feel confident that if we support students like Joseph in developing systems and acceptance, he will readily thrive in a world beyond college admissions.
How have you, personally, learned to become a better advocate for students who are neurodiverse as they try and figure out what success looks like for them? And how have you changed the way you communicate with parents who might still be struggling to fit a neurodiverse kid into a very rigid understanding of what they think success should look like?
It was important for me to have a separate chapter in Erasing the Finish Line specifically on supporting students with neurodiversity, along with the stories throughout the book that can also provide guidance. To me, becoming a better advocate for students with neurodiversity centers on two main points: one, meeting each student where they are in the moment; and two, focusing on energy management to empower students with neurodiversity to identify when they can benefit from proactively taking a step back and/or reaching out for support.
I open the chapter with the story of Caroline. We decide to spend the first 10 minutes of several of our Zoom sessions organizing her room in a fun, gamified sort of way. In the beginning, her room is an utter mess with clothes strewn everywhere, drawers open, and craft projects sprawled across the floor. Accepting that helps us create a sense of calm that makes the rest of our sessions — and her entire week — more productive. And over time, she starts to keep her room cleaner over the course of the week, and then begins to set a timer for herself right before our appointments.
Supporting students with neurodiversity around energy management came into even fuller focus for me when I started consulting with schools with my nonprofit initiative. I remember visiting one school lunchroom and thinking, Wow, having lunch in this cafeteria is a full contact sport. It was so loud and frenetic — I’m sensitive to sound and picked up on it right away and I remember thinking how this could really overwhelm a child or teen who might already be having a tough day. And if they’ve had a full day without any spaces of silence, it makes sense that they would come home from school feeling mentally, emotionally, and physically drained. It relates to their sense of connection — if the school week leaves them exhausted, they might want a weekend that’s quiet to recharge. And if they aren’t feeling a sense of connection in school, perhaps being intentional about finding ways to feel purpose and belonging outside school can make a difference.
In my work with schools, I’ve helped faculty and administrators develop new strategies around routines and transitions, and do an audit to create ways to incorporate spaces of silence for every student. It could include creating morning and afternoon routines that are predictable and organizing classroom spaces in a way that promotes improving working memory. Some students with neurodiversity may not have a formal diagnosis and can still benefit from certain structures being in place. My approach is that when we have structures we support all students and all school environments. The schools I’ve worked with that have been able to make consistent changes have seen a decrease in student behavioral issues, as well as less staff burnout. We’re just in the very beginning stages of this work, but it’s promising.
I’ve seen books that promise to offer parents access to “invisible curriculums” on how to “prepare their children for success” that are really about using their financial resources to gain access to corridors of power. How to get into the right school (public or private), how to think about your kids’ extracurriculars, how to give them experiences that will then allow them to write the “right” college essay….it’s an attempt to level the playing field by making this information accessible in the form of a book, but it’s not really about leveling the playing field at all. It’s about how to use wire cutters to gain access to the field and then patch the hole so it looks like you’ve been there all along.
This is my long windup to asking: how do you see this book as different from those that promise to illuminate the invisible curriculum? How’s it different in substance, and how’s it different in intent?
What a great question! To me, the difference in my book is from my own personal background and my professional experience, as well as my unwavering belief that every child deserves access to this approach. I don’t want to use wire cutters and patch the hole. I want to take down the whole fence — and, yes, that makes some people uncomfortable. But the truth is, we all benefit from a world where every child can authentically create their own blueprint, and develop these foundational skills at a key time in their life journey.
Maybe this a good place to put my conclusion from the book:
My hope has always been that all individuals can build and develop the skills they need to support them over a lifetime. In my ideal world, students wouldn’t have to move from lower opportunity spaces to those seen as higher opportunity and more resourced to improve their chances of changing their life trajectory in remarkable ways… The earlier we encourage students to focus on the underlying skills around systems, connection, perspective, and acceptance, the more we allow students to move beyond an emphasis on any one arbitrary moment in time. In doing so, we better prepare them for a rapidly changing world in a way that is adaptive, nourishing, and life-affirming. In these momentous times, our students are our greatest reflection of growth and inspiration. It is to our benefit to serve them well. ●
For discussion, I’d love to hear about how you’ve changed your own understanding of what success can look like — and/or how you’ve seen that work with the student-aged people in your life. What are you still struggling with — as a parent, as a mentor, as a person?