Timeless Life Advice from 2016 Commencement Speakers
I arrived home to California yesterday from St. Louis, Missouri, after attending my son’s graduation from Washington University in chemical engineering. (Woot Woot!)
As part of graduating from college (in addition to high school), my son and other students are bombarded with life advice.
For college graduates, the idea is that you are now moving out of the structured, sheltered world of academia and into the ‘real world.’
Colleges and universities recruit notable and often famous speakers at the commencement ceremonies to share with you their advice and insights.
It took me a few minutes to recognize the speaker at my son’s commencement, an iconic civil rights activist named John Lewis.
Frequently, these types of speeches go in one ear and out for me.
But in 2010, Lewis’ speech and several others round the country this past weekend have made me reflect on my personal path, even at the ripe age of 55!
Whether you are closing in on your own high school graduation, or are fresh out of college like my son, or someone like myself who has already followed a long and winding career path, I thought you might enjoy in order to find inspiration from the speakers.
Congressman Lewis, who is one of the last surviving Civil Rights champions from the ’60s and days of Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a famous speech during the historic March on Washington (D.C.) in 1963. He was also brutally beaten in 1961 when both black and white college students arrived in busses to take a stand for equality in Montgomery, Alabama.
His call for peace and racial harmony was specially poignant at Washington University last Friday since the campus is within fifteen minutes of the recent racial clashes in Ferguson, Missouri.
My favorite quote from his keynote speech was when he urged his audience to stand up against whatever is not right.
‘ When the truth is something that just isn’t right, not fair, not just, you really must have the courage to stand up, to speak up, in order to find a way to get in the way.’
During the last couple weeks, cyberspace was flooded with quotes and videos from other commencement addresses and life advice.
My favorite was this lecture by political pundit Robert Reich at UC Berkeley, provided to his senior class on World Poverty just a few days ago.
If you are thinking about your daily life, and enjoy learning new a few ideas on the best way to make mindful decisions, this can be worth watching.
Last month, Brittany Stinson learned she got into five Ivy League colleges, in addition to Stanford and many other top schools.
When a newsprint reporter asked her to share with you her college application essay, Brittany didn’t think twice.
Within hours, her essay went viral.
More than 1.6 million men and women, and counting, have now read the ‘Costco essay.’
Brittany, who may have decided to attend Stanford, was as shocked as anyone by the media frenzy.
The Media Backlash to Brittany’s Costco Essay
Besides the predictable backlash from Internet trolls and haters, the assumption that this Costco essay received Brittany every one of these stellar acceptances disturbed her the most.
‘…the thing that really got to me was that people thought my essay was the only reason I got into my dream schools. ‘Costco Essay Gets Local Girl Into 5 Ivy League Schools,’ read headlines, ‘Love for Costco Got a senior school senior into 5 Ivy League Schools,’ ‘High School Senior Reveals the Secret That Got Her Into Nearly Every Ivy League School.’ I mean, screw four years of work and straight As, it was totally just the essay, right?’ (From her piece about handling the publicity storm in Cosmopolitan magazine.)
Of course the Costco essay played a role in her admissions coup though it’s impossible to know how much it counted. And Brittany says she put a lot of effort into locating a unique topic and crafting a readable piece that revealed her personality and character.
She even credited reading this weblog to find recommendations and inspiration on the best way to write a narrative style essay. ( And you can, too!)
In the following Q&A about her Costco essay, Brittany took the time to share with you details, advice and tips about how she brainstormed and wrote her Costco essay. How big is that?
A Question and Answer Interview About the Costco Essay
When and how did you start working on your own essays?
I started in mid-August before my senior year. I opened up a blank google doc and just typed whatever was on my mind. This ranged from random sentences to essay topics and character faculties. It helped me get the bad a few ideas out of my head, put some good a few ideas on paper and start to take into account a organizational model.
Can you remember the method that you felt about these essays when you first started your application process?
I felt pretty intimidated, for the schools I was trying to get into, I knew that I had to knock it out of the park with my essay if I had any hope of securing admission. I was terrified of cliches and avoided them like the plague (the irony!).
What was the hardest part of writing your essay?
It was probably reining in my topic and saving my focus for just a few things. There’s a lot I wanted to convey about myself and I tried my best to take action in 650 words.
Is it possible to tell us your writing process? Did you start brainstorming? Do you use an outline? How many drafts, etc.
After I got my random thoughts down, I made outlines for two different essay topics. This one and one about my experiences in dance class. I handled both at about the same pace, got halfway through the dance essay, decided it wasn’t going anywhere, and decided to scrap it. I figured that this topic was more creative and probably would’ve made for a more memorable essay. It just felt natural to continue with the Costco topic.
Did you start thinking about yourself a strong writer?
Yes, I’ve taken a liking to writing and possess always taken the absolute most advanced writing courses offered to me. I’ve had many demanding yet supportive teachers along the way.
How did you come up with the idea of Costco as being a topic?
There’s an ongoing joke between me and my friends that I practically live at Costco. I’m truth be told there with my parents virtually every weekend as it’s just as close to our house as being a regular supermarket. I once read a quote that said anything along these lines, ‘If for example the friend finds your essay on the ground and possesses no name about it, they should be able to tell that it’s yours just by reading it.’ I used this to guide my topic selection and writing style.
Had you ever written this style of essay before, where you write about yourself?
No, I’m not used to writing about myself, this was actually a big concern for me when I started thinking about writing college essays. I was afraid of coming off as too self-involved.
Did you have anyone help you with your essay?
No, I never really went to anyone for advice until it was basically finished. I consulted my mom on my topic in the beginning stages of my essay but she didn’t really know what path I was trying to go in, and so I figured it would be best to get input after I tied up loose ends and brought most of my a few ideas together. My English teacher saw the final product and gave it her stamp of approval, which was a huge relief because I wanted to be reassured that I wasn’t crazy for writing about such a unique topic.
Do you have any idea how important your essay was in getting admitted to any or all of the school you will get accepted to? ( Did you get any feedback?)
I’m not sure, but I do know that since a lot of people are qualified and have similar GPAs, SAT scores and extracurriculars, the essay is an important opportunity to differentiate yourself.
What advice do you have for students working on their essays, or the whole admissions process itself?
It’s really easy to have discouraged by admissions statistics. I would recommend starting applications early to take pressure off and allow time for deep reflection. Some short supplements took me days to write because I was so careful about word choice and intent.
How are you going to decide which of these outstanding schools you are going to attend?
I’m so late on this. Sorry! And so I’ve already decided at this point and possess opted for Stanford. Every one of the schools are academic powerhouses, so there’s no difference truth be told there. I wanted Stanford because of it’s innovative spirit whereas lot of the other schools I got into are rooted in tradition. Stanford is more known for STEM, but some of its humanities departments are some of the best in the entire world. They have appealing interdisciplinary programs and majors. This was so attractive to me because I would like to pursue neuroscience, but at the same time, I appreciate the humanities and couldn’t imagine an education without them.
If you could give any advice to college-bound freshmen about their essays, what would it be?
Think about a few of your defining qualities and figure out what makes you tick. Don’t try to be somebody else, because it will show. If you convey your true self, the people reading it’s going to relate with your authenticity.
Coalition Prompt 4: What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would pay attention to you)?
When I first read the five prompts students need certainly to select from to write their one personal statement essay for the new Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success application, this one popped down at me.
I bet it did similar for you.
Of the five prompts, Coalition prompt 4 tries to be more creative and relevant to a high school student.
And that’s great!
It’s more fun to try to think about what advice you would give someone younger than you. More interesting than writing about those more serious prompts about your character, volunteering and philosophy.
(Remember, you can even write about any topic you need based on the fifth ‘Topic of Choice’ prompt.)
I have some trepidations about this prompt about teenage advice, nonetheless.
Even though it’s more playful and friendly in nature, I’m not convinced this prompt is the best of the five prompts to help you write your most effective personal statement.
I really believe the main intent of Coalition prompt 4 is to get you to write about something specific you learned to date in your lifetime, but the danger can be your essay could come out too general, and so dull to learn.
That’s not to say it’s impossible to rock this prompt. Just be aware of the pitfalls.
If you would like give this prompt a go, it is critical to give your essay a sharp focus.
That you do not like to just provide straight answers, such as for example, ‘ I would tell my younger sibling that she needs to study hard and make sure to get along with everyone…’
I really believe to write a powerful essay about this prompt you would be wise to first think about a significant example you learned, and then you can explain the related advice you would give to somebody else about it.
In general, when you have advice to dish out, it’s frequently because you learned anything the hard way and don’t want anyone else to have to go through what you did.
To recall examples of the ‘hardest parts’ of your teenage years, search the human brain for some of the ‘bad’ things that happened, which were either your fault, or where you were a sufferer of circumstances. Or try to find ‘problems,’ in the form of challenges, mistakes, failures, obstacles, set-backs, etc.
This way, you could start your essay by sharing what happened which will make your essay engaging at the start and then how you handled it and what you learned.
Then you can go onto include any advice you would pass on to a sibling or friend about what you learned.
As opposed to writing an essay that tries to feature many lessons you have learned, focus your essay on one key concept, and what you learned.
Sample Outline for Coalition Prompt 4
- Start by describing an incident, moment or ‘time’ you faced a challenge.
- Give background compared to that problem; explain it.
- Describe how you handled it and what you learned.
- Share the advice you would give someone younger than yourself so they won’t make the same mistake.
- Explain how you imagine yourself using what you learned in your future endeavors.
This can be just one approach to Coalition prompt 4, and there are unlimited other ways to write about it. As opposed to writing about a teen problem, you could write about anything you love about it. ( To address the ‘best part’ of being a teenager in Coalition prompt 4.)
For example, you could pick one thing you love about being a teenage, and what you would advise other teenagers to appreciate and make use of as well. To give this a focus, try to find an example inside your life about this positive teenage benefit, instead of just talking about it generally speaking terms. Or maybe think of something that you used to not like, nevertheless now like about being a teenager.
No real matter what you end up writing about it, make an effort to make one point about yourself (considering one core quality, characteristic or core value) the other you’ve learned to give it a sharp focus.
If you really like this prompt, give it a shot and determine if you like what you write. Have a little fun with it!