All loving parents, including UHNW matriarchs and patriarchs, want their children to be happy and have a bright future. As fellow parents, we crave sound family relationships and peace of mind. Driven families want to see their kids grow into, contribute as, and connect as positively impactful leaders and human beings over time.
This article gives actionable advice on what it takes to effectively prepare the younger Gen Zs of our Next Gens—high school (and college transfer) students—for competitive college admissions, leadership, university life, career, and personal success with well-being. It is based on my past talks in a special event co-sponsored by alumni clubs from Harvard Business School, Harvard, Stanford GSB, Wharton, and Berkeley Haas, as well as other high-level events. (The word “college” in this article includes research universities and liberal arts colleges.)
It is wise to see the forest for the trees and not be short-sighted.
For most driven high school students and their parents, getting into a great college is typically a primary goal. After that, the goal is to thrive in amazing careers and live fulfilling lives. I would also say that building up their “personal operating system,” soft skills, character, and direction early on is just as important for GREATER life-cycle impact, relationships, and peace of mind.
Having guided holistically and successfully 1-on-1 hundreds of mainly high-achieving teens and young adults, including my own two now Gen Z daughters, these past 15 years (in my 38 years of industry experience in education, technology, media, and investment since my Berkeley Engineering degree), I celebrate all of the worthy outcomes coveted by many. That said, these results are not easy to achieve without quality preparation.
These days, most young people feel angsty or lost, and high achievers are often stressed and anxiety-ridden. Given a plethora of digital distractions and the pressure to succeed, teens are struggling to find their way in today’s highly competitive landscape. Why? The vast majority of their college applications get denied by most elite colleges and uncertainty about their future.
Your teens want to get admitted to the best colleges possible, enroll at the best-fit school, and hone strong EQ and soft skills, but doesn’t know how BEST to do so
During the last college admissions season (2021-22), the Ivy League schools and other elite colleges have reported their lowest admit rates in history.
For example, Columbia University (in NYC)’s freshmen admit rate was a hyper-competitive 3.73%. Columbia is one of the 8 Ivy League universities [Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn (including Wharton), Princeton, and Yale]. The admit rates of the Ivies and other super elite universities, including Stanford, MIT, Berkeley Engineering, Caltech, Duke, UChicago, were in the single digits.
From an elite college’s perspective, booksmart high schoolers with lots of extracurricular activities, including private school kids, are a dime a dozen (common). Unfortunately, the Ivies, Stanford, MIT, Berkeley Engineering, and other very elite schools can accept only a small fraction of their highly qualified applicants (e.g. Harvard’s latest freshmen admit rate: under 4%). I have uncomfortably seen some amazing kids—valedictorians with a perfect SAT score of 1600 or ACT score of 36, a 4.0/4.0 unweighted GPA with strong curriculum rigor, lots of extracurricular activities, and various honors/awards—get flatly rejected by a top Ivy or Stanford. These elite private schools have all the power to do so.
But those students who got accepted into and now attend a top college must be fine, right?
In reality, many students who attend Ivy League and other highly competitive colleges face high stress and anxiety. Unfortunately, some are depressed; a few, even worse. (Read “Penn ranked highest out of the Ivy League for mental health—with a D+.” Also, view “The myth of the Ivy League.”)
Back in high school, most of these students and their parents shortsightedly worried about elite college admissions or were obsessed with the college admissions hype. They were somewhat “brainwashed” by the media or by college counselors and consultants with their own limiting beliefs. The students didn’t build strong-enough emotional, social, and leadership intelligence. The families didn’t see the forest for the trees. Now these students face incessant competition and feel lingering “imposter syndrome.”
I believe that college ISN’T your kids’ destination but is PART of their journey. It is essential to think longer-term THROUGH college, NOT myopically just AT college. College is actually a stepping stone to your kids’ greater career and personal success and growth for decades to come!
So, just what does it take to get admitted to top colleges, enjoy (social and competitive) college life, and prepare for career and personal success with well-being?
It’s about the QUALITY of your academic and personal story, character, and storytelling that match the target schools’ mission and goals. As mentioned above, gaining admission to fiercely competitive U.S. elite colleges is difficult. There are many “high-achieving” students with strong grades, high test scores, and lots of worthy activities who compete for the same outcome. Honestly, given this highly competitive landscape, what students need is trusted, third-party, high-quality guidance to unleash their full potential, actualize their best selves, and achieve the greatest outcomes with well-being.
A reality is that, once kids become tweens or early teens, they begin to NOT fully listen to parents, and parents simply don’t have the top-notch skills to guide them (despite being successful captains of industry in business). With over 20,000 hours of successful coaching, mentoring, writing, speaking, and applied research experience under my belt, I have seen all sorts of patterns of successes and failures. I would say that, besides academic and standardized testing performance, some of the high school and college prep success ingredients include the following:
- 1. Starting early with trusted, third-party, top-notch guidance.
One of the worst and common mistakes by so many families is starting LATE, with the belief that their kids’ academic and nonacademic performance and activities thus far and/or their attendance at private schools are sufficient.
They don’t realize that most school and independent counselors (e.g. former elite college admissions officers) actually have LIMITED skills and sophistication in the real world. These include both private school counselors and certainly often overloaded, even less-skilled public school counselors. And at that point (e.g. right before the college application season in the high school senior year), their children’s pragmatic emotional, social, and leadership intelligence (“3EQ”), stories, soft skills, and/or other vital ingredients actually aren’t that strong, competitive, and differentiated. A serious disconnect.
Once these families awaken to this fact or realize that the elite college process and criteria are more complex, (hyper)competitive, and demanding than expected, stress really hits them. These students and their parents then sense (major) opportunity losses. Sadly, we can’t change a student’s history. Time and time again, I’ve seen these scenarios and patterns in wealthy families that weren’t my clients.
- 2. Building good habits and a growth and contribution mindset.
Truly successful, high-achieving students have built sound habits and a growth and contribution mindset, which is more profound and useful than just growth mindset. Similarly, 3EQ is deeper and more pragmatic than just EQ. The humility to continuously learn and improve is key—for both students and parents.
I value integrity, contribution, growth, connection, and a passion for excellence, and help instill these values in my students. They have also developed not only sound time management skills and an uncanny ability to focus (despite online distractions), but also a few sustained, genuine interests (“passions”) pursued through the bulk of their high school years. They have built strong character traits, a “personal operating system,” soft skills, and an empowered direction that would add value to and help inspire the community of peers, faculty, and other souls in high school, in college, and beyond.
- 3. Find an inner voice and expressing it powerfully.
My successful students are coachable, committed, and decisive, and we have helped them learn and improve on listening and expressing themselves effectively and authentically. This includes writing cogent, powerful college app essays, building good relationships with key people, and garnering outstanding third-party recommendation letters. Of utmost importance, essays and rec(ommendation) letters are key opportunities to communicate a student’s values, attitudes, and goals.
They give the applicant a personality and facilitate the admissions staff to choose the students they want. To produce authentic, high-quality writings that stand out from the crowd, a student must have life experiences upon which he/she has done deep reflection, emotional maturity, and lots of practice thinking critically and communicating orally and in writing with a helpful support cast.
These days, applying to ten or more colleges is common. High school seniors (and college transfer students) end up writing dozens of essays, as well as short takes and detailed college app forms, and engaging in some private school interviews during the college app season. “So stressful” are words I hear often from under-prepared college applicants (especially those who start building their stories and skills late)—while they also attack a heavy senior year course load, prepping for AP or IB exams, purposeful activities, and if still not done, prepping for the SAT or ACT.
Teen achievers must learn how to realize their authentic best self, while navigating the complex and often stressful (hyper)competitive college planning and application process. My perspective is that college should be an integral part of a much longer journey. Once again, I encourage families to wisely think THROUGH college (with short-to-long-term or life-cycle gains), and NOT just AT college (short-sightedness). It is vital to help kids understand both themselves and the world, express their individuality and passions both in writing and in speech, and develop their mindsets, soft skills, character, and “personal operating system”—early on.
“I got admitted to Columbia, Mr. Ma!! I am extremely happy. Couldn’t sleep all night. I am incredibly grateful for all your guidance and believing in me from the start! I’ll never forget that. Thousand thanks to you (and Team ThreeEQ)!!!?”
This is an excerpt from a dear student’s text. With a successful CEO dad, she was accepted into Columbia with an imperfect transcript, no “hooks,” and no SAT/ ACT scores. The latter was especially unusual for high achievers. Yet, Columbia saw in her a superbly strong fit.
How was I able to contribute to this and other types of success? You could say that I have hacked the secrets to mentoring and coaching teen and young adult achievers for notable success with well-being. We specifically focus to hone their growth and contribution mindset, strategies, soft skills, and execution for GREATER, short-to–long-term impact and benefits, even among their driven peers.
Help them build an attractive story, prepare authentic storytelling, and present highly competitive and compelling college applications that maximize their chances for admission to their dream schools, all while minimizing stress, confusion, and anxiety.
“4S” and “3EQ” are my own personalized, 1-on-1 coaching and mentoring framework and techniques that we apply to achieve these outcomes.
- Visionary story (including character, which is the sum of all habits and choices)
- Emotional and mental state of mind
- Strategies (academic, activities, test prep, college process, etc.)
- Soft skills (in addition to hard skills) and talent
- Pragmatic Emotional, Social, and Leadership Intelligence
Elevating the “4S” and “3EQ” in my students empowers them to enjoy GREATER life-cycle impact, relationships, and peace of mind in family, in high school, in college, in communities, and in companies and non-profits (i.e. internships), while enabling them to mitigate risks of painful opportunity losses down the line in our turbulent, ever-changing world. Hard skills may become obsolete over time. Soft skills stay with you a long time.
In my experience, personalized 1-on-1 coaching/mentoring is by far more effective and profound than group coaching and “mass-market” webinar or product training. In UHNW families, my work also eases succession planning—with sound family values and without the usual stress, anxiety, and sleep deprivation.
Building a positively strong character, story, and skill set takes years. It can’t be conjured up “just in time” during the high school senior year. Learning to think, speak, and write effectively is a slow-cooking process, not popcorn-quick microwaving.
Wisely support your kids to start early, reduce stress and anxiety, achieve greater success with well-being, and live more happily by working with a trusted, third-party, top-notch mentor (virtually) by their and your side. “You are our secret weapon.” I would hear from my own clients. You and your children can do this!
Jason Ma is Founder and CEO of his family business ThreeEQ, a premier education, career, global business, and family office advisory firm that helps client families, companies, and individuals succeed at next levels with pragmatic emotional, social, and leadership intelligence (3EQ). ThreeEQ is recognized as both a preeminent (Ivy League and elite) college admissions, life, leadership, career, and executive coach for high achievers—from Gen Z high school and college students to Gen X CEOs—and a sought-after speaker.
Jason has personally counseled 1-on-1 numerous students who were admitted to all of the 8 Ivy League institutions (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn/Wharton, Princeton, and Yale), Stanford, MIT, Caltech, UChicago, Duke, UC Berkeley, Georgetown, and ALL other elite universities and liberal arts colleges in the U.S., as well as Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, and others in the UK—helping them succeed with well-being and without the usual stress and anxiety. Today, Jason is recognized as the inspiring Chief Mentor of Next-Gen Leaders in The CEO Magazine, Impact Wealth Magazine, Family Office Magazine, Fashion 4 Development (League of Gentlemen), and some family office summits and CEO circles.
Jason is author of the critically acclaimed book “Young Leaders 3.0: Stories, Insights, and Tips for Next-Generation Achievers.” He was the Forbes contributor on Mentoring Young Leaders for elite college admissions, higher education, leadership, and entrepreneurship success. Jason is a member of the B20, the official G20 business arm representing the global business community (private sector), serving on the Future of Work and Education Taskforce.