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Horizons: Family Office & Investor Magazine

Preparing Your Children for College Admissions, Life, Career, & Personal Success

Monday, September 19, 2022

By Jason Ma, CEO and Chief Mentor, ThreeEQ

Jason Ma is Founder CEO and Chief Mentor of ThreeEQ, a family-owned, premier education, global business, and family office advisory firm. He has counseled 1-on-1 hundreds of 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. He also authored the book “Young Leaders 3.0: Stories, Insights, and Tips for Next-Generation Achievers”.

All loving parents, especially wise (U)HNW ones, 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 become, grow, contribute, 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 ones of our Next Gens—the high school students—for competitive college admissions, leadership, university life, career, and personal success with well-being.

This article is based on a practical talk that I gave to high-achieving parents in a special event enthusiastically co-sponsored by Harvard Business School (HBS), Harvard, Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB), UC Berkeley Haas, and Wharton alumni clubs.

(NOTE: In this article, the word “college” includes both private and public research universities and liberal arts colleges. Some private high schools outside of the U.S. include the word “college” in their names. However, to be clear, these are high/upper schools, not colleges.)

Let’s look through the forest for the trees

For most driven high school students and their parents, getting into a great, best-fit 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, and direction early on is just as important as getting into a good college— which I’ll elaborate on below.

Having guided holistically and successfully 1-on-1 hundreds of mainly high-achieving teens and young adults (my own two kids included) these past 14 years (in my 38 years in the education, technology, and investment industries since my Berkeley Engineering degree), I celebrate all of the worthy outcomes coveted by many. That said, they 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, high schoolers are struggling to find their way in today’s highly competitive landscape. Why? The vast majority of college applications from driven students get denied by most elite colleges.

During the past college admissions season (2021-22), the Ivy League schools and other elite colleges and universities have reported their lowest admit rates in history. 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 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 or ACT score, a 4.0/4.0 unweighted GPA with strong curriculum rigor, lots of extracurricular activities, and many honors/ awards—get flatly rejected by a top Ivy or Stanford.

But those students who do get into a top college must be fine, right?

Actually, many students who attend Ivy League and other highly competitive colleges face high stress and anxiety—or even depression—as well. (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, these students and their parents shortsightedly worried about college admissions.

However, they didn’t build strong emotional, social, and leadership intelligence (“3EQ”) with high-quality, third-party guidance. Many students and parents were obsessed with the college admissions hype. We call this “college admissions myopia.” 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. As I will discuss further, it is essential to think longer-term THROUGH college, NOT shortsightedly just AT college! College is 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 college life, and prepare for life and career 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 booksmart students with strong grades, high test scores, and lots of activities who compete for the same outcome. 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 over 20,000 hours of successful coaching, mentoring, writing, speaking, and applied research experience under my belt, I would say that, besides academic and standardized testing performance, some of the high school success ingredients include the following:

1. Starting early with trusted, third-party, top- notch guidance.

One of the worst and common mistakes by various families is to start LATE, believing 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 actually have LIMITED skills and sophistication in the 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 high school senior year), their children’s pragmatic emotional, social, and leadership intelligence (“3EQ”) and other vital ingredients actually aren’t that strong, competitive, and differentiated.

Frankly speaking, once they awaken to this fact or realize that the elite college process and criteria are (far) more complex and demanding than expected, stress hits. These students and their parents then sense opportunity losses. Sadly, we can’t change a student’s history. Time and time again, I’ve seen these scenarios in families.

A critical success factor is for families to use a trusted, third-party, top-notch guide—early on.

2. Building good habits and a growth mindset

Truly successful, high-achieving students have built sound habits and a growth and contribution mindset. The humility to continuously learn and improve is key. I value integrity, contribution, growth, connection, and a passion for excellence, and help instill these values in my students. They have developed not only time management skills and an ability to focus (despite online distractions), but also a few sustained, genuine interests (“passions”) pursued through the bulk of their high school years. They built strong character traits and a skill set that would add value to and help inspire the community of peers, faculty, and other souls in high school, in college, and beyond.

Allow me to add that you can find a wealth of short stories and actionable insights on habits, mindset, soft skills, (school year and summer) activities, student leadership, the elite college planning and application process, and the transformation of various exemplary students in my Forbes and Impact Wealth articles on These include:

  • Why to Start Preparing for College in Sixth Grade
  • College Apps: Stanford, Anyone?
  • What It Takes to Get Into UC Berkeley
  • Advice on Applying to Top U.S. Colleges via Early Decision or Early Action
  • When to Say No to Harvard
  • How to Handle College Admissions Rejections

3. Finding an inner voice and expressing it powerfully.

My successful students are coachable and committed, and we have helped them learn and improve on listening and expressing themselves effectively. This includes writing cogent 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, AP or IB exams, purposeful activities, and if still not done, the SAT or ACT.

Teen achievers must learn how to realize their authentic best self, while navigating the complex and often stressful 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 long-term 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 and soft skills— early on.

The ThreeEQ Approach

“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 of a dear student’s texts. 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 success? You could say that I have hacked the secrets to mentoring and coaching teen and young adult achievers for notable success and well-being. We specifically focus to:

  • Hone their growth and contribution mindset, academic and nonacademic strategies and execution, soft skills, and talent for GREATER impact and short- to long-term 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 mentorship framework and techniques 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 and non-academic, etc.)
  • Soft Skills (in addition to hard skills) and talent,
  • Execution


  • Pragmatic Emotional, Social, and Leadership Intelligence. This is more profound and powerful than just “EQ”. Hard skills may become obsolete over time. Strong soft skills stay with you a long time.

Elevating the “4S” and “3EQ” in my students empowers them to enjoy GREATER life-cycle impact, relationships, and peace of mind with parents, in high school, in college, in communities, and in companies (i.e. internships), while enabling them to mitigate risks of future (painful) opportunity losses in our turbulent, ever-changing world.

In UHNW families, this also eases succession planning—with sound family values and without the usual stress, anxiety, and sleep deprivation. In my experience, personalized 1-on-1 coaching is by far more effective and profound than group coaching and “mass-market” webinar or product training.


Building a strong character and story 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, achieve greater success, and live more happily, and consider working with a trusted, third-party, top- notch mentor by their and your side. You and your children can do this!

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