A Different Kind of College Prep

If you are the parent of a high school student, you may already feel the looming pressure of the college admissions process and the responsibility of making sure your teen is prepared for wherever they may go after high school. We often hear these types of questions from parents of college-bound kids:

  • Should my child take more honors level or advanced placement courses?
  • Is my child participating in the right number of extracurricular activities?
  • What kind of SAT or ACT prep should my child be doing? 
  • How important are internships or summer work opportunities?  
  • Is it a problem that they haven’t saved the rainforests or found a cure for cancer? 

While these are reasonable questions (well, some of them!), I invite parents to pause and reflect on a different type of college prep that may be more important than focusing on test scores, extracurriculars, and AP’s.

At Challenge Success, we encourage parents to think about the value of preparing students in four general areas, all of which are backed by research on what students need to be successful in college, career, and life in general:

As I present workshops to families across the country, I have found that a lot of parents focus almost exclusively on the Academic Skills quadrant. They might make sure that students know how to study, how to ask good questions, and how to keep their schoolwork organized. These are important skills for high school and college, but too often they are emphasized at the expense of other essential skills and experiences.

Let’s take a look at the foundational skills in the other three quadrants that correlate with success in college and beyond.

Life Skills

  • Household Chores: Does your student know how to do laundry? Can they clean a bathroom? Cook a nutritional meal?
  • Work: Do they know how to be a good employee? How to show up for a job on time and follow instructions from a supervisor?
  • Financial Management: Do they know how to manage a bank account? Set and follow a budget?
  • Getting Around: Can they navigate their way around town using a map or public transportation?
  • Personal Care: Can they manage their sleep needs and take steps to stay healthy? Can they schedule and keep their own medical appointments?

Positive Coping Skills

  • Support from Others: Does your student know how to ask for help when needed?
  • Stress Reduction: Do they have effective strategies to deal with normal levels of stress and anxiety? Do they have a plan if they feel overwhelmed?
  • Self-Care and Relaxation: Will they make time to do things they enjoy? Will they build in necessary playtime and downtime?
  • Risk Awareness: Do they know how to avoid risky behaviors that are unhealthy for them? How to cope with unwanted peer pressure?
  • Resilience: Do they know how to learn from and bounce back from mistakes?

Social & Emotional Skills

  • Emotion Management: Can your student regulate and manage their emotions?
  • Decision Making: Can they make appropriate and ethical choices?
  • Empathy: Do they know how to feel and express empathy?
  • Relationship Management: Can they build friendships with new classmates and roommates? Navigate difficult relationships?
  • Team Building: Can they work well with others? Handle conflicts maturely?

These are the “adulting” skills that have helped to make this word a verb and not just a noun in today’s vernacular. As parents, we have the opportunity and, really, the responsibility to help young people develop and practice these skills now, so they can truly be prepared to lead balanced, healthy, and fulfilled lives when they eventually leave their childhood homes.


A Complete Definition of College and Career Readiness (2012), David T. Conley, Educational Policy Improvement Center

Improving College and Career Readiness by Incorporating Social and Emotional Learning (2013), College & Career Readiness & Success Center at American Institutes for Research. 

Overloaded & Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids (Chapter 8, 2015), Denise Pope, Maureen Brown, & Sarah Miles

Redefining College Readiness (2007), David T. Conley, Educational Policy Improvement Center

Denise Pope, Ph.D., is a Co-Founder of Challenge Success and a Senior Lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, where she specializes in student engagement, curriculum studies, qualitative research methods, and service-learning.  She is the author of, “Doing School”: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students, and co-author of Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids. Dr. Pope lectures nationally on parenting techniques and pedagogical strategies to increase student health, engagement with learning, and integrity. She is a 3-time recipient of the Stanford University School of Education Outstanding Teacher and Mentor Award and was honored with the 2012 Education Professor of the Year “Educators’ Voice Award” from the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences.