How Democratizing College Coaching Tackles Key Problems Plaguing Today’s Teens
- The problem understood more broadly: 21st-century teens are depressed and anxious, increasingly so, paving the way for unstable adulthoods
At a reading of Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig, an in-depth personal account of the British author’s major depressive disorder, writer Elitsa Dermendzhiyska was surprised to hear that most of Haig’s fan mail came from 13-year-olds.¹ This informal data would have come as no surprise to journalist Katherine Reynolds Lewis,² author of The Good News About Bad Behavior, who opens her book with the statistic that “one in two children will develop a mood or behavioral disorder or a substance addiction before age eighteen.” She notes that this statistic does not represent a rise in diagnosis, but “an actual change in children.” The crux of the problem as she sees it? A decreasing ability to self-regulate. “Children today are fundamentally different from past generations,” she writes. “They truly have less self-control. Simply put, we face a crisis of self-regulation.”
From the work of Dr. Nadine Burke Harris,³ we also know that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) lead to increased health risks in adulthood — up to triple the lifetime risk of heart disease and lung cancer, for example. While the model for ACEs from the CDC study names specific criteria (physical, emotional, sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; parental mental illness, substance abuse, incarceration; parental separation or divorce; or domestic violence), I think it is fair and accurate to say that 21st-century teenhood as a whole has become an ACE for any teen who dreams of succeeding as a thriving professional adult with a rewarding life. For an expanded treatment of this topic, please see my personal narrative, 21st-Century Teenhood and Toxic Stress.
My concern, based on observation afforded by a decade as a private college planner and another near-decade of university teaching, is that American teens are alarmingly underprepared for the challenges of adulthood, and they know it. The adults in their lives, however, seem not to be paying attention — even as their children’s adulthood portends to be much less safe and structured than theirs. No wonder 13-year-olds are writing Matt Haig.
2. The problem understood in terms of college planning
If ever there were a universal trigger for teen stress and parent-teen strife in today’s society, it’s the prospect of college admissions. The mass-media model of hyperperfection, the lack of clear direction around defining and executing passions, the indeterminacy coupled with the high expectations of the college admissions process: all of this has become overwhelmingly emotionally taxing for most teens. As a consequence, teenhood feels more like a gauntlet than a time of discovery, growth, love, and fun. To top it all off, teens often face adult exasperation about their poor time-management skills, lack of direction, goals, etc. Teens know they lack these skills. Parents and teachers are aware as well.
The problem? There seems to be no realization that teens need to be taught these things, that they can be taught these things, and that someone needs to do it. My diagnosis: teens are not taught in a formal way the soft skills they need to become developmentally ready for college. The skills I’ve located in my practice are:
- Decision-making: Including time-management, ethical dilemmas, and choosing among options (non-stress and stress situations).
- Prioritizing: The key to decision-making is prioritizing, but teens do not know this; it’s why they’re often frozen when it comes to tough choices. Teens don’t necessarily know how to engage in the deliberation process that results in determining priorities, or don’t know that this exists and need to be taught.
- Defining interests: With the societal mandate to get a job that pays well, teens can censor themselves and don’t realize that a career comes much later after they’ve defined who they are and what they want. Students do not have a guide for an independent audit of possible areas of exploration.
- Activating interests: Teens are not given any guidance on how to reach beyond their personal comfort zone and find best-fit and/or unique extracurricular activities.
- Researching opportunities: Teens don’t know how to research internships, volunteer opportunities, independent projects, summer programs, or colleges.
- Project management: This skill is one of the most difficult for teens as it involves more advanced executive functions, yet is so important for the contemporary college applicant (working collaboratively is a connected skill).
- Communicating pre-professionally (written and verbal) with adults: Teens have no clue, which is a real roadblock in securing employment, internships, and/or volunteering opportunities.
- Writing mini-memoir style personal statements: This is so fear-inducing for teens. Why are they asked to do something so high stakes that they have not been taught to do and is developmentally mismatched for them? Yet they can be taught to do this.
- Remaining calm when facing stress: A modern-day soft skill on par will others at this point; must be taught, and can be taught!
Because no societal institution — neither secondary education, nor the family, nor religious institutions — offer systematic training for high school students to become acquainted with these skills, practice them, stumble along the way, and hone them in the process, the prospect of college, instead of serving as an inspiring motivator, has become a demoralizing experience. The only vendors I can detect possibly offering this kind of educational personal-growth training are CBOs serving select underprivileged students, many of them first-generation applicants, and private college counselors who mostly cater to affluent families to sustain their livelihoods.
As a result, most American teens lack virtually all the resources they need to develop themselves uniquely and independently. Yet that is exactly what they need to become successful adults. College readiness haunts teens who feel rudderless in tumultuous waters with no clear anchors. They feel unequipped and unprepared for the coming challenge, they are right, and they know they are right. This extreme level of indeterminacy combined with a perceived sense of neglect by those around them, from my observational standpoint, contributes to high (even crippling) levels of anxiety in teens.
3. According to student-led market research, teens agree with this diagnosis
In the summer of 2018, my company hired a former student who had been very successful in admissions and is a talented organizer to conduct market research on what graduating high school seniors felt they lacked and needed in the college admissions process. Our high-school marketing intern surveyed students from two high schools in her hometown, Gilroy, CA, 30 miles south of San Jose. These students had not worked with a college counselor. Student admits from this pool range from UC Berkeley to CSU Monterey Bay to University of Utah. Here’s a sampling of responses to the question: “What do you wish you’d known about the college admissions process before you started?”
- I wish they told us about how to find meaningful volunteer opportunities, how to be a leader in your community, how to be passionate about something and pursue it. Not just for college, but for life!
- The amount of self-reflection that had to go into those was tough.
- I wish I knew how tough the whole process was going to be. It was really, really hard. I thought you just fill out some information and write essays, but it was a lot more stressful than that.
- I wish people knew you could write a good essay without dropping in all your fabulous accomplishments.
- I wish I knew that colleges actually cared about everything I did in high school. That junior year really does matter.
- I was surprised by how much leadership and community service mattered. It’s a lot harder to prove passion for a hard science subject than it is to list extracurriculars.
- I wish I knew that it was more leadership-based. I might’ve tried to do more leadership stuff.
- I wish I had more support from the school. It was hard to get in touch with my counselor and my teachers didn’t know/weren’t trained for this.
- Early in high school, I wish I knew the importance of doing things that you enjoy. If people don’t do what they enjoy, they tend to do it formulaically.
- I wish I knew how demanding it really is.
- I wish I narrowed down my schools more so I could have wasted less money. I applied to too many schools that were outside of my range- I wish I just applied to five or so.
- I wish I knew more about how scholarships worked.
- I wish I had a mentor that would help me find more activities to do outside of school and guide me through the financial aid process.
Teens are clearly hungry for help. They also know exactly what kind of help they need. Why aren’t they getting it?
4. The good news: college coaching calms students down and optimizes their success
There is good news! According to Nicholas Allen, a child development specialist at the University of Oregon, “Young people, empirical studies of all stripes show, struggle with decisions made in the heat of the moment… but when it comes to decisions that allow them time for reflection, the evidence suggests an adolescent’s skills can be on-par with a fully-grown adult.”⁴ This means that if given the proper life coaching well in advance — starting in ninth grade, not eleventh — teens can build healthy habits and master the soft skills they need for their high school years and beyond. They just need a formal system and a teacher who will not only introduce these skills but provide guidance in the practice of honing them.
There is even more good news! According to our student-led study, teens want this kind of guidance and would pursue the opportunity of small-group college coaching if presented with it in the form of a low or no-cost offering.
As part of the survey, students were shown a description of this workshop. Here’s a sampling of responses to our question: “Would you have benefitted from this kind of program?”
- I think I would have. The internship and summer programs thing would have been useful. Having someone help me make a plan for every single year would have been so cool, it’s kind of hard to find opportunities for yourself while you’re busy in school and studying.
- If this program was affordable and accessible here, I would have probably done it. And it would have improved my application as a whole.
- Definitely. It would be helpful to connect with internship opportunities, because that sets you up for being a good college applicant. Just being able to go through the motions with a guide/mentor is gonna be helpful for any student who is trying to apply.
- I think the average student would benefit; it really depends on if they can afford it.
- I would have benefited a lot because I wouldn’t have felt so lost figuring out the college process myself.
- I would’ve liked the guidance from more experienced professionals who could help me.
- I definitely would! I don’t think it would be hard to motivate the kids. If you just go up to them and tell them about the opportunities, they’d want to do it.
- If I knew about this program, I would have gone, because I needed all the help I could get! I was really scared at the beginning of this process. So having any help would have been good.
- Yes, definitely! I didn’t realize what I wanted to major in until late junior year. With this type of program, I would’ve figured out what I wanted to do earlier and maybe have done more internships, making me a better candidate.
- Easily. It would have been nice to be more informed and in the loop as an underclassman, as opposed to being shocked with everything in junior year.
Teens are clearly eager for this help. Why aren’t they getting it?
5. The best news: it is possible to provide this kind of coaching at a low cost for many American teens. It need not be limited to affluent students or the pool of fortunate underserved students who get noticed by a CBO.
Blue Stars has a wealth of resources that could change teens’ lives. How do we get them to teens across the country? In the effort to expand my practice beyond a boutique one-on-one model serving affluent families, my company has undertaken a number of initiatives:
- We helped a number of underserved students, several of them undocumented, gain admission and scholarships to four-year schools based on a one-on-one model, which was funded partially through a crowdfunding campaign called “Dream Schools are for Everyone.”
- We created two low-cost 40-hour workshops, one for college planning fundamentals and the other for admissions work later in high school, which could be installed in any educational institution. There are many possibilities for using this material both on site and online. The purpose of this white paper is to create the framework for the necessity and value of the material and invite deeper discussions about the material.
- We recently created a new mini-version of the college planning fundamentals workshop, which could serve as a 1–2 hour introduction of what it would look like for a teen to take control of their unique college path. This program could function in-person or online. It is also something that could be integrated as an add-on into teen programs serving other needs (leadership, sports, volunteering).
There are so many ways worksheets, guided interaction, and expert instruction can be integrated into teen life so that they learn their personal growth and pre-professional lessons before paralyzing panic sets in. The work my team and I have done with students has significantly contributed to improved self-regulation and made significant strides in maturity, calm, and confidence. As I follow our college planning students into college, they continue to impress me with their great decisions and steady intention.
Hopefully, this white paper can serve as a call to action in new arenas. As I’ve been observing teens, their parents, and the challenges they face over the years, I keep returning to the work of the great Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, whose courses on “learning to speak effectively” and “preparing for leadership” played to packed ballrooms in New York City and Philadelphia 80 years ago. American workers knew they needed something more to get ahead. They knew that reading, writing and arithmetic got them only so far. Soft skills were imperative, and they flooded Carnegie’s public classes to get them. I suspect that if given the opportunity, the teen response to such a growth opportunity might be similar.
I invite you to join me in exploring what might happen if teens were taught soft skills in a systematic way such that their high school years could serve as an enlightening time of growth, connection, and preparation. Let’s tap into teens, rather than leave them bewildered and feeling judged. We can do it!
(1) Dermendzhiyska, Elitsa. (2018). I Left My Cushy Job to Study Depression. Here’s What I Learned. Medium. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/s/story/i-left-my-cushy-job-to-study-depression-heres-what-i-learned-b09333489d57
(2) Lewis, Katherine Reynolds. (2018). The Good News About Bad Behavior [iBook version]. Retrieved from iTunes.Apple.com.
(3) Harris, Nadine Burke. (2014, September). How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/nadine_burke_harris_how_childhood_trauma_affects_health_across_a_lifetime/transcript?language=en
(4) Allen, Nicholas. (2018). We shouldn’t disregard the ideas that come from teens’ developing brains. Popular Science. Retrieved from: https://www.popsci.com/teen-brain-development-decision-making