Best Ways To Support Your Daughter Through The College Application Process With Dr. Pamela Ellis

Raising Daughters | Pamela Ellis | College Application Process


Is your daughter heading off to college? Are you concerned about how best you can support them as they navigate the college application process while staying within your budget? If those questions are at the top of your head today, this episode is for you. Today, Dr. Tim Jordan interviews Dr. Pamela Ellis, owner of Compass College Advisory, about how to guide high schoolers through the process of finding the ideal college that aligns with their teens’ aspirations and goals without burdening them with unnecessary financials. Equipped with knowledge and experience, Dr. Pamela shows how she works with parents and provides them with insights to guide them as their child enters a new chapter in education. So, let’s join Dr. Pamela Ellis and Dr. Jordan today.

Listen to the podcast here


Best Ways To Support Your Daughter Through The College Application Process With Dr. Pamela Ellis

You’ve heard me off and on railing about all the pressure on girls now about education and getting into the perfect college, getting to the top college, straight A’s, and all that stuff. Instead of me ranting and raving again, I thought I would have a guest who knows what she’s talking about. I invited Dr. Pamela Ellis. She has a service to support parents, their kids, and their teens to find the best college without breaking the bank. Did I say that right, Dr. Ellis?

Yes, you did. That’s fine.

I want to hear your story about how you got to where you are. You spent time at Stanford and Dartmouth. You got your PhD in Education at Standford. You’ve been to some top colleges, so you have a lot of experience about what that probably feels like.

Thank you so much for having me on your show. It was a little bit intimidating for sure, given my line of work, but your message is very much in line with my own approach and beliefs in terms of how to shepherd girls through this process knowing that oftentimes they do have this notion of perfect and what’s going to be the perfect college. Many of the approaches in terms of how we go about supporting them help them with centering themselves in the process as opposed to centering the colleges.

I know from experience of being at selective colleges what that’s about. At the same time, in my work over the years, I’ve been able to experience what it’s like at other colleges as well and know that there are dozens of colleges that are right bit for girls that are out there and it’s not about one college. When you focus on one college, that is what causes that stress, anxiety, and this whole notion of perfect that causes the whole college admissions process to be so burdensome and not as enjoyable as I see it to be and wanted to be for the girls and their parents.


Raising Daughters | Pamela Ellis | College Application Process


I want to dive into all that. That’s awesome. Before we unpack all that, I first want to ask you. I’m guessing that when you were eighteen and leaving high school. You didn’t think to yourself that someday, at 30 years of age, “I’m going to be supporting men and women with the college presses.” I’m sure that wasn’t your plan. How did you manage your way to this?

Not at all. When I graduated high school, I had no idea what I was getting into. I dreamed of being a physician and I was going to major in Physics and all of those things. None of those things came to bear. Nevertheless, it was when I became a mom that this journey was crystallized. I was always on a path to helping students and parents with education because I don’t know why, but people would often ask me questions about education.

One of my dear friends that I grew up with would often ask me questions about education. It was something that was already natural for me. When I became a mom, that’s when I became so obsessed with schooling and trying to figure out how I was going to help my kids through this. I knew that, especially having children of color, it was going to be a challenging experience for them regardless of my background and having gone to college and graduate school.

Helping them is what drove me to go back to Stanford and get my doctorate, thinking about how I help my kids. It wasn’t until some parents asked me specifically about helping them find the right summer programs in the right high schools that their kids could attend that I launched my business as it is now.

When they asked me, I went back to my dissertation work and put together a program based on my dissertation work. That’s how I got into this. It’s totally different from what I would have anticipated coming out of high school and even coming out of graduate school because graduate school for me was so much about research. I was trying to go into academia, not to start my own business.

We’re talking to Dr. Pamela Ellis. She owns a company called Compass College Advisory. She helps men and women go through the process and does it in a way that is healthy. We can start at the beginning with young people. I have young girls who are in high school in my counseling practice or my retreats. A lot of times, I’ll ask them what they’re going to do after high school. I have to be dumb.

They all don’t go to college but many of them do. They’ll look at me like I’m an idiot and they’re like, “I’m going to college.” I asked them, “Why are you going to college?” It then gets interesting. I’m sure you find the same thing because I don’t think anybody has ever asked them, “Why do you want to go?” As opposed to what their parents want, what the educational system wants, where everybody in your school is going, and all that stuff. I’m guessing you face that too.

Yes, I do. That is the first question that we have for students. It is their why. We’ve been collecting this data over the last 13 or 14 years. What I started out with was a survey that had about 13 different reasons for why they want to go to college. In the last few years, I’ve seen that evolve, especially there’s now more of an interesting career prep like going for career reasons. Another top one is independence.

I think that increased over the last few years with kids being at home through COVID and parents being a little bit more smothering as I’ve seen it. I understand that in times of worry about your children. That’s been a top reason in their why. It came up in my initial meeting with families. I asked them about it when we first met. What is their why for going to college? Their why will determine everything else in terms of how they engage at school, the classes that they’re taking, the activities they participate in, and especially their list.

It’s important. Many times, like you, I hear, “I never thought about that before,” or “My parents always told me I would go to college.” I asked the parents the same thing and I want them to articulate that in the presence of their child. I know many of them never had that conversation before about the why. Their parents have always drilled into them, “You’re going to college.” That’s it. Why? I tell them when you know your why and when you have a why, that changes everything.

How do you support those young people? You mentioned earlier that they have somehow swallowed this myth that says there’s one perfect school for you and it needs to be a top college. If you don’t get into this top college, then your whole life will unravel in front of you. How do you get kids beyond that?


Raising Daughters | Pamela Ellis | College Application Process


I have three key tenets in terms of our approach and what I shared with them in our initial meeting. This is the meeting that determines if we’re even a fit to work together. One of them is what their why is and knowing their why. The second one is around them owning the process. The third thing that’s important that I talk about with students and want them to know about our approach is that there is no one college for them.

The way that we are guiding them to those colleges is based on fit. We have five factors of fit that we’re focused on. What I do is when we’re talking about building that college list, I give them a guide sheet on how to research the colleges. That guide sheet is based on our five factors of fit. You would be surprised what students learn about what they want and what they don’t want in a college when they go through that process of figuring it out.

We start with a pretty organic list. I said, “I’m going to choose five random colleges that are different from each other based on your personality profile.” That’s how I started. I don’t give them very selective colleges to start with. I want them to at least be exposed to some colleges that maybe they haven’t even heard of before, but the fact that it’s tidy with their personality opens them up to consider it.

When they look at these colleges though, they start to see some things that they hadn’t thought about before. What I tell them is, “I know you have these other colleges that you’re interested in. I want you to also add that college to your list and use the same guide sheet to research and learn about that college.” What ends up happening is that they find out that they didn’t know that college. They knew the name, but they didn’t know as much about it at all.

I say, “I want you to know these things because this is what you’re going to be writing in your essay. This is how you’re going to make the most of your visit.” When they start to see that college using the guide sheet, it makes them more aware and I find that students are more apt to remove a college that they are still applying to it only because of the brand name.

I want to get them away from that surface thinking about this being a perfect college because of the brand name. Once I can disabuse them of that whole notion, that opens things up. It doesn’t mean that they won’t have any selective colleges. They may have 1 or 2, but I talk about it in terms of let’s look at it as far as being a third of your list, but not all of your lists being selected colleges. That helps dispel it.

I’m guessing that also relieves a lot of pressure on them. If you’re so overly focused on it’s got to be this college, or the top college or bust, there’s so much pressure involved. You’re not going to get in where you belong, but also because you’re missing the point. I’m guessing you’re finding that those students get more empowerment. I think that was one of your words. Ownership I think is what you said. That’s a huge stress release for them.

We open up our meetings with the gratitude practice as a way to also help them relieve some stress. I know they come into the meetings with stress already from school and other things they’re involved in. A mindful practice like talking about gratitude and introducing our meeting in such a calming way helps to reduce that stress. Gratitude also builds resilience.

We open our meetings with gratitude practice to help the kids relieve some stress from the college application process. Click To Tweet

I’m telling them, “Those are the two things that are going to serve you well with this process. It’s not about this craziness of taking every test and taking them 3 or 4 times. You don’t want to do that.” I’d say to them that I want them to enjoy high school because I know I didn’t like my high school experience. It was crazy. I want their parents to enjoy those years as well before their kid goes away to college. That is as much as I can do to debunk myths and to have a guided process that empowers them and gives them a sense of calm and a piece of mind. It serves them much better, and their results are going to be better.

We’re talking to Dr. Pamela Ellis. She owns a company called Compass College Advisory and she helps high schoolers get ready for college and the whole process of picking a college, picking a good college, and a good fit. I’m guessing there are a lot of parents who are saying, “I wish my kid had one college down their list because they’re not doing anything. They’re procrastinating,” and all that. How do you approach these young people to make sure they stay on track?

I can share how I approach it and it’s going to be harder for parents to do the same. I say that not to minimize their role or value, but kids hear things differently from a third party than they do from their parents. I do have kids that are procrastinators and I do try to give them a road map of where we’re going. Also, giving it in bite sizes helps them to feel that sense of accomplishment with getting something done. I think that they are responding differently to me because I’m not their parent. I know for my own kids, it’s the same way. They don’t listen to me, but they’ll listen to somebody else.

You check in with them every couple of weeks, don’t you?

I do. You see at least on a three-week basis. They get reminders. They have assignments in between. I know some of them are finishing it right before the meeting and that’s okay because once we meet, they have it done. I don’t care if they did it right beforehand. I think it’s giving them that guidance of where we’re going and then eating that elephant one bite at a time. That helps with giving them that sense of accomplishment so that they keep going.

There’s also the whole issue of money. I see some young people who are going to or want to go to or have graduated from a university that may have cost some $40,000, $50,000, or $60,000 a year. They are over $100,000 in debt and they have a Sociology major, but they had to go to this prestigious selective college that was expensive. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but to be in $150,000 in debt and getting a Psychology degree, I’m wondering how you approach that part.

I’m not usually involved with a lot of that quite frankly. Where I see the biggest numbers in terms of debt is with for-profits. I do not recommend any for-profit colleges at all to my students. For the most part, if students aren’t getting any financial aid or their parents have chosen to apply early decision, they’re usually not taking out any debt. Their parents are covering that. Where my role comes in from a financial standpoint is that I work very keenly on helping students find the right fit colleges.

That said, they can still get money for college even if they don’t qualify for any financial aid. It’s their family’s decision if they end up going to a college where they do pay out of pocket. We do have the conversation around loans and the different types of aid. I review their offer letters to discuss that as well and work with them on negotiating their offers.

For the most part, the families that I work with aren’t taking out a lot of significant debt. They’re either getting some money and the debt that they do take out is minimal at best. I did have a parent who took out a big parent loan, but it was more because it was an investment choice. It’s like do I spend my money or borrow the money at this low rate and then keep my money and invest it, and then pay it off once their child graduates, which is a very different model for it.

I’m not seeing that with students that I’m working with, so it’s a little bit different. I quite frankly focus on the college fit because most of the families I work with do not qualify for need-based aid, but I still want them to be able to get some money. If I focus on finding the right colleges and helping their kids with applying to those colleges that are a good fit, then they have the best chance of admission and they have the best chance of getting scholarships without their parents having to qualify for them.


Raising Daughters | Pamela Ellis | College Application Process


My guest is Dr. Pamela Ellis. She owns a company called Compass College Advisory. We’ll give out the website for that so you can find it. I want you to let our parents get to your process, like when you would start this process. I know on your website, you have a customer care specialist, a college counselor/athletic recruiting specialist, and an essay specialist. There are lots of tools and resources. When should people start their process and how does that look?

The best time is 10th grade and it’s now as a sophomore. That would be optimal in terms of starting with us, and even seriously thinking about this process and what it entails. Sophomore year is a challenging year for students because they’re not the new kids at school and they’re not necessarily completely into the list-building phase of the process. It’s a great time for them to get to know what they want to do and think about what their interests are without the pressure of needing to be looking at colleges right now.

We don’t talk about colleges in sophomore year. It’s all about those assessments and interest inventories to help the student build their own self-awareness and start to develop that confidence around what they want. They do some career exploration through summer programs. We do talk about test planning for junior year. In junior year, we get into the colleges and start building that list, so 10th grade is an optimal time.

By the time they’re seniors, what do your services and your resources look like? There are all different kinds of kids and needs but in general.

In general, in senior year, it’s about working with them on their essays and crafting strong essays that are going to be compelling and support their success with admissions.

Do you find in general that they’re excited about it? I’m asking this question because I see a lot of high school seniors, especially when we’re in the winter in their second semester. They freak out. They’re scared and anxious. There’s a lot of uncertainty. They get paralyzed because they have all kinds of mixed feelings. I’m wondering how you helped them cope with all of that if you do.

Yeah, I do. I’m very intentional about continuing to meet with my seniors in January, February, and March. My meetings with them this month have been around recognizing the symptoms of senioritis and talking about that. What I see most at this time of year is they finished their applications and now they starting to procrastinate. Maybe they’re not enjoying their studies as much anymore. Maybe they cut classes and things like that.

I’m talking with them about those symptoms, and also talking with them about what do you do to overcome them. The biggest thing is having a schedule, keeping routines, celebrating, and still having fun, and not seeing it as “Woe is me because I haven’t heard back from the colleges.” We talked very directly about that. Even giving them those suggestions on how to overcome it when they recognize it helps them through this time.

The other thing that I talked with them about this winter period is repurposing their essays to apply for any scholarships that they find or that are offered in their local area. That’s the way to come back some of that worry around what’s going to happen if it gives them a sense of more control over the process.

I run a group for high school girls every two weeks and we met a week ago. I have nine girls this semester and five of them are seniors. They were all like, “I don’t even want to go to school. I hate it. I’m so bored. I want to leave,” and all that you’re talking about. You said you’re helping them remain on schedule and all that, but give me some more specifics so I can talk to my group this Tuesday.

I’m going to pull up my slide and I’ll tell you. We were talking about I got suggestions from them as well. I’ll have to share with you those when I go back to the recording. I put together a slide deck and I’m going to pull it up now, and I’ll tell you what those suggestions were. I gave them three for overcoming senioritis. Here we go. One of them was keeping the end goal in mind in terms of whether they want to graduate with honors or if they’re excited about graduating with their friends, whatever that end goal is for them this school year.

We do talk about goals even at the beginning of the year. They set goals for the year. The second one was not depriving themselves of fun. Still enjoying time with friends this year. The third one was staying organized in on schedule. I asked them what would they add as another way that they could overcome senioritis. Many of them were grateful to even talk about what the symptoms were because they hadn’t thought about it in that regard. They knew that they were feeling a little blah.

What I found in the group was that their parents crab at them, “You got to get this done. You got your event done. You got to finish strong.” They don’t listen to and commiserate with them. It is hard to be a second-semester senior because your stuff is all in. You have one foot in the future and one foot still in the past. It is hard.

There’s a lot of worry about what the decision outcome will be because they hear things from their friends. They’ve heard that so-and-so in their class who has this score or this grade didn’t get into a college. That then heightens their anxiety like, “If they didn’t get in, I’m not going to get in either.” The other thing too is if they have received a deferral notice, that may have them a little concerned. That’s why I do encourage students to apply to maybe 2 or 3 early-action colleges. My hope with that is that there will be one college at least that they’ve heard back from in December that said yes to them. When they start hearing about other kids, it helps to lay out some of their fears because they have gotten into that one. That’s something that makes a difference for this time period. It’s knowing that there’s that one college that you have been admitted to.

Apply to two or three colleges. The hope is that there will be at least one college that your kids have heard back from and that said yes to them. Click To Tweet

It is one you like. It feels like, “I got to go there. I can go there.”

I start talking about a lot of things at the beginning of the year because I know what they’re going to be feeling around this time. What I share with them over and over when we are about to start the applications is, “If you have eight colleges on your list, I want all eight of them to be your number one. If this is the only college you’re admitted to, you’re going to be excited to go.” That helps them with pairing the list. We’re still keeping it in those buckets. I don’t want all eight to have less than a 3% chance of admission. That’s a good place to be because as you said, when you have that one letter, you’re excited about it. You’re happy because it’s like, “I sure could go to this college.”

My guest today is Dr. Pamela Ellis who owns a company called Compass College Advisory and she’s giving us lots of good information about how to support your your high schoolers with the whole college process. I have one more question. You said before that they looked around at their peers. The other thing I’ve noticed that creates a lot of pressure within them is they look at their peers and what they’ll say to me is, “All my peers know what they want to do. They know what their major is. They already know that and I don’t know what I want. I’m behind.” They get all freaked out and I’ve tried my best to say, “It doesn’t matter what they think now. Most people, when they’re 18, 20, 22, or 25, haven’t found their thing yet. It’s okay.”

It is okay. Oftentimes, when parents start working with us, that’s one of the key concerns that they talk about. The first one is my kid doesn’t know what they want to do. I’m like, “That’s completely fine. They don’t have to know what they want to do at this point.” There are so many colleges that are going to embrace you even as an undecided major. I do not want them to feel boxed in any way.

When we do the assessments and interest inventories, I talk about, “Look at all of these great things you could do because they are strengths for you based on your personality and based on whatever this inventory was gathering.” We talk about summer programs. I curate a list of summer programs for them to explore an area. When they explore an area, that gives them a chance to see if they like it or not, which is great.

It's great to let your kids explore an area that gives them a chance to see if they like it or not. Click To Tweet

It’s the same for my juniors. I have Juniors who certainly don’t know what they want to do and I say, “You know something? That’s still completely fine because when we’re looking at these colleges, I want you to make sure you can see yourself in terms of how they set up their courses and their programs. As an undecided major, you can still explore and figure out what you want to do when you get there.”

Having that conversation and reinforcing it, and then giving them an opportunity to learn about a particular field help a great deal. I pretty much know which colleges are going to ask them or force them to have a major. If one of those colleges is on their list in junior year, I talk about it. I say frankly, “For this university, you need to know a specific major.” I’ve had students who would be so excited about certain colleges but they end up not applying because they do not know their first and second choice major. They can’t commit to it. They can’t write the application essay.

Knowing that while they’re working on their list, I can give them a heads-up about it. I also help them when they do their visits with what questions to ask if they are undecided, and getting a sense of do students have a major or a minor, and how they figure that out. Do they have advisors who help them with that? Asking some of those questions on the visit helps calm some of those worries. I always say that you do not have to know it all. I thought I knew it all as a Physics major. I graduated in linguistics.

We all knew it all when we were 18. I watch every young person when they’re going through this whole college process. I want them to enjoy the process. It’s an adventure. I want them to be excited. It’s the next leg of their journey as opposed to being stressed out and getting paralyzed and all that. I’m so glad that we have Dr. Pamela Ellis in the world and her company Compass College Advisory to hold their hands through the whole process. How can people get a hold of you and to see what your services are?

They can connect with me on LinkedIn, Dr. Pamela Ellis, or they can check out our website at Compass College Advisory. If they already know that they want to talk with me and meet us, they can go to That’s the place. Our proprietary framework is called Keep Calm.

For those parents who are tuning in to this, go to, and there are all these ways to get a hold of Dr. Pamela Ellis. Thank you so much for your time. Thank you so much for what you’re doing. There is such a need to help young people in a more calm and purposeful way to go through this process.

Thank you so much for all that you do.


Important Links


About Dr. Pamela Ellis

Raising Daughters | Pamela Ellis | College Application ProcessFounder⏤Dr. Pamela Ellis

BA, Stanford University; MBA, Tuck School at Dartmouth College; PhD, Stanford University School of Education.

I founded Compass College Advisory based on the research of my doctoral program at Stanford, combined with my mom’s intuition. There isn’t anything else I would be doing . . . it’s truly my calling.

We partner with parents to help their teens find a college that feels like home without overpaying.

Our expertise and insight are backed up by over 15 years of experience working with thousands of students, visiting over 500 colleges around the world, and earning my Ph.D. in Education from Stanford University.

In recent years, I have noticed parents and teens have an ever-increasing amount of stress and anxiety over the college admissions process. And honestly, some of that stress is understandable.

College is getting more competitive and expensive every year.

But even as college gets more competitive and expensive year after year, we continue to guide countless students to their dream college and graduate with no debt at all.


You are now subscribing to our newsletter list for more good stuff!

Family Meeting Guidelines

Get your free copy of these guidelines for effective family meetings!

Scroll to Top