Sometime between when our generation applied to college and now, the admissions process has taken on a Hunger Games-like milieu. Parents began to believe that superior grades, high test scores, and certain college acceptances were the only keys to their children’s future success. Although well-meaning, many of us overscheduled our kids, pressured them to secure excellent grades, and engineered their social lives.
This laser focus on achievements has left swaths of students feeling anxious, demoralized, and unprepared for the real world. In her new book, Erasing the Finish Line: The New Blueprint for Success Beyond Grades and College Admission, academic advisor and early career development expert, Ana Homayoun, implies that by considering the stress-inducing race to the college finish line as the only path to success, we might’ve failed to teach our kids other vital life skills.
Library Journal has called Erasing the Finish Line, “One of the finest books on college admissions to date.”
The following is an interview by Holly Rizzuto Palker with Ana Homayoun, about her new book, Erasing the Finish Line.
HRP: I felt pangs of my parenting guilt when you said, “For years, we’ve been led to believe that great grades, high test scores, and college acceptance are keys to a successful life. Yet our laser focus on these achievements leaves students feeling anxious, demoralized, and unprepared.”
How is anxiety baked into our teens’ mere existence? What is the key to helping our children combat this pressure?
AH: In my work as an academic adviser in Silicon Valley for two decades I’ve had a front-row seat to the skyrocketing levels of stress and anxiety that students and their families are facing today. In Erasing the Finish Line, I went back and interviewed my students from 15+ years ago, who are now in their early 30s, and share their stories alongside current students and related research.
My work is all about offering practical strategies and implementable solutions that meet each child where they are—and that’s the work I’ve been putting in practice for over two decades in my office and in schools.
The key to combating this pressure is building these crucial skills around four pillars I highlight in Erasing the Finish Line—systems, connection, perspective, and acceptance—to allow students to cultivate a sense of agency and competence and build their own blueprint for success.
Many of us are familiar with the nerves that accompany college admissions season, or final exams, or cumulative performances/tournaments for extracurriculars. Today’s young people are experiencing all of these stressors to an even greater degree, because they are constantly bombarded by an onslaught of content conveying that their best won’t ever be good enough.
From headlines on historic low college acceptance rates to 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 as well. It’s no wonder, then, that kids’ mental health is in crisis.
But the reality is, the majority of colleges accept the majority of students. And plenty of colleges and universities have experiential programs and internships and ways to engage that help students build the key skills needed for life beyond college. The fear-based scarcity mentality has led to a dogged pursuit of the increasingly elusive acceptance letter to a “good” college, and we lose sight of the fundamental skills that help students thrive long after they hit SUBMIT.
HRP: Why is developing a structure for tackling schoolwork in middle and high school so crucial to the pursuit of developing a successful organizational system for life? How does organization guide children toward success?
AH: In my career, I’ve found that helping students develop and maintain a system that works leads to feelings of competence and confidence. In other words, feeling organized can decrease stress. Middle school and high school are especially critical times to focus on these skills because they’re times when we ask more of students than their still-developing brains can manage.
Suddenly in middle school, students are tasked with juggling multiple classes, each with varying short- and long-term expectations. Then we layer on different technology requirements and ways of assigning and turning in work, along with extracurricular activities and family obligations, plus the demands of everyday living.
In today’s pandemic-adjusted world, students are using more technology to complete work, and yet they’ve received little to no coaching on how to manage their workflow. When I went back to interview my former students, all of them had examples of managing workflow that they learned in our advising sessions and used in their jobs today.
Over the past six years, I’ve designed the Life Navigator School Advisory Program to bring this approach into schools, and to support adults and students. I believe this moment in time has created an incredible opportunity to reimagine the kind of support we provide for young people, and that if we prioritize long-undervalued skills rooted in executive functions—that is, the abilities we need to focus, concentrate, and complete tasks efficiently and effectively—we can support long-term social, emotional and financial well-being.
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 in life than IQ, test scores, or socioeconomic status. This skill set is often neglected in the frantic pursuit of a rigid checklist of accolades and leaves young people feeling overwhelmed and unprepared.
HRP: You speak about the importance of modeling for our children ways to be their authentic selves. You also discuss the importance of reframing transactional friendships, which is exemplified by “mean girl behavior” and the need to fit into a “friend group.” How can parents achieve modeling validation, connection, and genuine communication?
I’ve now spent nearly 17 years visiting school communities around the world, and it has been an incredible opportunity to meet with families, educators, and of course, students themselves. I also still work directly with students. There are so many communities that are wonderful and inclusive, and there are also many where the adult social dynamics mirror the transactional friendships I discuss in the book.
I realize that many adults have complicated friendship histories, and that the last few years altered the ways so many of us socialize. And yet, studies indicate that interactions with older and younger peers provide unique opportunities for emotional and social development during adolescence, and even our weaker ties—the people we see in the grocery store, for instance—can have benefits for our mental health and well-being.
I encourage parents and trusted adults to model openness and curiosity in their own relationships. That might require doing a friendship “audit” and identifying the friendships that are supportive and energizing, and those that might need to take a back seat. At the same time, take a moment to look at your own habits and routines.
If you go to events at your child’s school/extracurriculars, do you speak to the same parents every time? Do you ever introduce yourself to or interact with different parents, faculty members and staff? How inclusive and welcoming are you to those who are new in the community? Research shows that people tend to be friends with those from similar class backgrounds, especially people with the highest socioeconomic status. And yet, being open and curious can be key to developing a more robust social network filled with stronger connections and weaker ties.
HRP: You speak about broadening children’s definitions of success by instilling the value of having a work ethic and a healthy worldview. What are some mistakes parents make when trying to model success?
AH: I want to start by saying that I truly believe that most people, most adults, most parents are doing the best they can with what they’ve got at the moment. There’s a lot to juggle, and Erasing the Finish Line is modeled like much of my work, with the understanding that every family is different, and every child within a family is different, and that what works for one family might not work for another.
That being said, we live in a culture that convinces us that how others perceive us matters more than how we feel about ourselves, and this external-validation orientation—exacerbated by social media, viral acceptance videos, and all the rest—affects parents and caregivers as well as students, causing us to lose sight of our internal values and sense of “enough-ness.” It can be easy for well-meaning parents to run themselves ragged, driven by the perpetual nagging feeling of always needing to be and do more.
In the book, the fourth pillar—and likely the trickiest for parents to work through—is around acceptance. Acceptance refers to the notion of accepting your child for who they are and what their needs and strengths and opportunities for growth are at the moment. In the book, I discuss strategies for parents and caregivers to counter this external-validation culture and cultivate a deep sense of acceptance and self-worth.
Acceptance is about having an understanding and acknowledgement of our needs, as well as an acceptance of the needs of others. We can become fooled into thinking that modeling success means always being “on the go”—doing the most all the time, even when it leads to exhaustion or crankiness. In doing so, we can get caught in an unhealthy relationship with our own needs and boundaries, which then trickles down to the children in our lives.
In the book, I discuss how a major source of unintentional conflict is when parents and children have different energy profiles, which I discuss in great detail but, in short, involves what energizes us, what drains us, and how we recharge. Some adults and children need a good amount of time for transitions and routines and downtime; others do not need as much. In this quest for coveted accolades, a parent could lose sight of their child’s unique energy profile and temperament, and unintentionally project insecurities onto their children.
HPR: You suggest that the ability to cope with setbacks and accept personal imperfection leads to less self-criticism among students. How can we teach them that tolerating their failings is more critical than competence?
AH: In my work with students, I’ve found that the ability to cope with setbacks and accept and appreciate personal uniqueness allows students to quiet the noise of comparison culture. Students—and families—who are able to authentically reframe disappointments as redirections are able to move forward and see possibilities that might otherwise have been overlooked.
In Erasing the Finish Line, I use the term “buoyancy” to describe a child’s ability to process and bounce back from disappointments. We often hear the terms “grit” and “resilience” in describing kids—both are important, but neither address how much time and energy it takes for a student to be resilient or to have grit.
I use buoyancy because I want us to take a step further and encourage kids to have the emotional tool kit to process disappointment in a way that feels appropriate without becoming unglued from any and all setbacks. For instance, if it takes months to get over every big and small redirection, that is a lot of time and energy.
Adult modeling is so helpful here. I think about the time I called home after my first college midterms, and I was really upset and frustrated that I didn’t do well. I started spiraling into ideas like maybe I don’t belong at this school or in this community? I still remember exactly where I was when I was talking to my dad, who calmly told me it was one set of exams and that I should take the rest of the day to relax and regroup and then use the upcoming week to figure out what I could do differently.
His calmness and ability to say, well, it happened, take a beat before thinking about how to move forward—and his confidence that I would move forward and that it was all a little blip—allowed me to process and bounce back a lot quicker than if he had become mired in worry and doubt. And he was right – I learned new ways of studying and learning information, and the next set of exams went much better.
I see this happen a lot with parents and caregivers over college admissions, and how they process their own disappointment when a child doesn’t get into a school they were hoping for. In more than a few cases, I’ve watched as a kid gets over a rejection decision a lot faster than the adults in their lives, and the adults are left ruminating—which doesn’t help anyone. I’ve already heard from parents who are reading Erasing the Finish Line and say how the book has helped them reflect and evaluate their own behavior with respect to supporting their children’s growth and development.
We all know that disappointment and setbacks are a part of a life worth living, and that it can be excruciating to watch a child process something we think we can fix. At the same time, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, and the ultimate goal, as students practice buoyancy over time, is for them to process, reflect, analyze, and move forward from difficulties in a way that allows them to process authentically and feel able to look at options that allow them to move forward.
About Ana Homayoun
Ana Homayoun is an academic advisor and early career development expert working at the intersection of executive functioning skills, technology and personal energy management.
Her newest book, ERASING THE FINISH LINE: The New Blueprint for Student Success Beyond Grades and College Admissions, offers a groundbreaking new way of thinking about education, for parents, teachers, administrators and policymakers deeply invested in our children’s emotional development and well-being.
She is the founder of San Francisco Bay Area based Green Ivy Educational Consulting and the author of three previous books: That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week, The Myth of the Perfect Girl and Social Media Wellness. She is also the founder and executive director of Luminaria Learning Solutions, a non-profit developing the Life Navigator School Advisory Program to provide students the executive functioning and social emotional skills for long-term success and well-being.
More Great Reading:
Never Enough: What Parents Can Do to Push Back on Achievement Pressure