How to write a high school graduation speech

Every year around this time, a few of our Collegewise kids ask us to look over the graduation speeches they’ve written so we can give them feedback. And every year, our most important feedback is that they not write the standard high school graduation speech.

Every kid in America who writes a high school graduation speech seems to say the same three things.

1. “We’ve come so far in just four years.”

2. “We’ve endured good times and bad, but we’ve gotten through it all together.”

3. “Now we’re going off into our futures, but we’re well-prepared thanks to our high school.”

It's not that those are inappropriate thoughts to share. But the rules we teach for great college essays all apply here.  Don’t say what everybody else says, exactly how they say it.  Be honest.  Be specific.  Be forceful.  Say something meaningful.  Don’t resort to quotes or clichés.

We’re not in the speechwriting business, but in the interest of high school graduation guests everywhere, here are my five unsolicited tips for potential graduation speakers.

1. Be specific.

Details make writing interesting.  The same can be said of details in speeches. There’s nothing original or interesting when you say,

“Our freshman year, we were somewhat unsure of ourselves, lost in a large school, and apprehensive about what our future held for us."

But details make it personal and relatable.

“It’s amazing how much we’ve all changed in the last four years. On my first day here at school, I could barely reach my locker. I estimated that most of the senior football players had to have been at least 28 years old. And sadly, I got lost trying to find Freshman English and had to ask for directions. Twice. Today, I’m proud to report that I can reach my locker, the football players don’t look older than I do, and I can find any class on this campus, from drama to physics without having to ask for directions. How different will we all be two years, or four years, or ten years from now?”

2. Put the quote book away.

Forget the famous quotes. You are the graduation speaker. People want to know what you have to say.  The crowd doesn't want to hear what Nietzsche or President Kennedy or King Ferdinand has to say. 

3. Thank someone.  And ask others to do the same.

It’s always good to recognize parents, teachers and your friends. But I think a very nice thing to do is to publicly thank a specific person, one person who helped you, who made a difference, or believed in you. It could be a coach, a counselor, a teacher, your dad, whoever. Thank them in front of everybody. And then encourage everyone else to find and thank the person who helped them, and to do so before they leave graduation.

Who you thank will not be that important to the audience so keep that part short. What will be important (and very cool) is that you’ll ask the crowd to think about who they have to thank. The speech shouldn’t just be about you.  If your speech inspires other people, you’ll be a speaker to remember.

4. Don’t say anything you’ll regret in thirty years.

Most kids who are selected to be graduation speakers are the type of kids who have always set a good example. But every year, they’ll be a few kids who want to take controversial stand, or call out a teacher or administrator, or make an inappropriate joke. Don’t be that kid. You want inspiration? Write the speech you can show to your own son or daughter thirty years from now and say, “That’s how it’s done.” 

5. Save your most important message for the end.

You are the student who will have the collective attention of your entire senior class. So put down the speech and ask yourself, what is the one thought, the one thing you would most like to say to every single member of the graduating class? If they remembered nothing else, what’s the most important thing you want to say to them?  Stay safe during graduation night so they can start their futures tomorrow?  You hope they all find success and happiness?  Whatever the answer is, make sure you include it in the speech, and make sure you close with it.

If you’ve got a friend who’s hoping to be a grad night speaker, feel free to forward this along. I hope it helps.

What’s your most important message?

A good friend of mine got married yesterday, and I was the officiant at his wedding (I'm legit).  I wanted the ceremony to be meaningful and thoughtful. I wanted to do a good job.  So I started by figuring out what I would say to the couple if I were only given the chance to express one thought at the ceremony.  That took some time to figure out, but once I had it, the most important part was done.  The beginning, middle and end just served to introduce, support and sell that one all-important message. 

When you're writing a paper, giving a speech, filling out a college application, having an interview, or meeting with someone important and you're trying to figure out what to say, start by asking yourself, "What's my most important message?"  Start there and spend some time on it.  Your most important message deserves the most time and attention.    

Boil everything you're thinking down to the one thing, the most important message you need to get across, and the rest will fall into place from there. 

Worthy risk-taking

Perfectionists are overrated. 

People talk about being a perfectionist like it's a good thing.  But I'm not so sure it is, especially when it's applied to high school students.

Nobody expects that adults will be great at everything.  And yet a lot of high school students feel pushed to take hard classes, score high on standardized tests, be a leader, play a sport, do community service, invent plutonium, find a cure for lupus, etc.

When I talk to high school perfectionists, a lot of them refuse to take worthy risks, like auditioning for a school play even though they've never acted, or taking a summer class in Civil War history even though it seems interesting, or join the start-up field hockey squad at school even though they've never played. If they do fail, they're ashamed of it.  They're not about to admit it, much less be endearingly self-deprecating when they discuss it. 

It's not that I think that failure should necessarily always be
celebrated.  If you stayed up all night playing World of Warcraft and
failed your chemistry midterm, that's a dumb failure.  I wouldn't be
proud of that one.

But colleges want worthy risk-takers, not the perfectionists who stay in their comfort zones just to do what they're already good at.  In fact, many colleges have started asking questions on their applications to look for evidence of worthy risk-taking. 

"What has been your most significant failing, and what did you learn from the experience?" Gonzaga University

"The ability to learn from one’s mistakes is key to personal growth and success. Tell us about what you learned from a mistake you’ve made." St. Mary's College of California

"We tend to spend our time doing the things we know we do well—running because we’re good runners or painting because we’re talented artists. Tell us about a time when you tried something for which you had no talent. How did it go?" University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

This is one of those times when a cliche is true–"Nobody's perfect."
It's just not possible.  The only way to make yourself appear perfect is
to try only those things at which you know you can excel.  And when you do that, you miss out on so many opportunities for learning and fun.    

So don't force yourself to be good at everything.  Be good at what you love and love what you are good at.  But don't be afraid to take some worthy risks.


Inspiration is perishable

I just finished a great business book called "Rework."  And like a lot of business books, it's got plenty of application for high school students, too.  Here's an example.

Page 271:  Inspiration is perishable. 

"Inspiration is like fresh fruit or milk.  It has an expiration date.  If you want to do something, you've got to do it now.  You can't put it on a shelf and wait two months to get around to it.  You can't just say you'll do it later.  Later, you won't be pumped up about it anymore.  If you're inspired on a Friday, swear off the weekend and dive into your project.  When you're high on inspiration, you can get two weeks of work done in twenty four hours.  Inspiration is a time machine that way…Inspiration is a now thing.  If it grabs you, grab it right back and put it to work."

The next time you're excited about something, jump in and do it now.  If you've got a fundraising idea for the soccer team, start it.  If you write stories and come up with an idea you love, put it down on paper.  If you play music and get excited about putting a band together, get your first practice scheduled.  If you're excited about a new book or a project in physics or a new training program to get you in better shape for baseball tryouts, start.  Do it now. 

What's the worst thing that could happen?  Maybe you're not as excited about the idea when it's finished.  But that's not likely to happen.  And even if it does, you'll probably have learned something along the way.

Do you have a favorite book?

I don't necessarily think that every student has to love to read.  But I do think every kid—every adult, too, really—should have a favorite book.

If you love to read, that's wonderful.  Read like your hair is on fire.  There are few interests that will make you think more analytically, argue more persuasively, and write more clearly than reading will.

But even if you don't love reading, it's a great way to take whatever your passion is to a logical extreme.

If you love to play the saxophone, who's your favorite saxophonist?  Why not read a biography about him or her?  Or read a book about music theory, or the building of brass instruments?  Or read about life as a member of a college marching band, or about the history of jazz.  It doesn't matter what you read about.  Let your interest be your guide. 

If you love football, why not read a book about how to coach defense, or about your favorite team, or your favorite quarterback?

If you love computers, why not read a book about programming?  Why not read ten books about programming and learn ten different languages?  Or read a biography about Steve Jobs or Bill Gates?  You could read about video games or the history of the internet or about how Facebook was created.

Here's the bottom line—smart, motivated people like to throw themselves into their interests.  They want to know as much as they can about what they're doing because that's how you get good at it.

So if you don't have a favorite book, why not make it a goal to find one?  Lots of colleges will ask you what your favorite book is.  And they won't care if it's a classic work of literature or a biography about your favorite band.  If you read it, it shows you were interested enough to want to learn something.

“I’ll do it”

"I'll do it" is a powerful phrase. 

It's the opposite of "I'm too busy," or "That's not my job."  Unless you're responding to someone asking, "Who wants to light things on FIRE?!," then pretty much everybody, from clubs to teams to teachers to colleges, likes the person who quickly says, "I'll do it."

Last Friday, our blog feeds stopped working properly.  So I posted an ad to Craigslist looking for a web developer who could fix it.  I offered $200 plus a $50 bonus if he or she got it done that day. 

I got a lot of responses that wanted more details, or wanted to negotiate the price, or just rattled off their qualifications.  None of them said those words I was looking for.

But then I got an email from Brian that just said, "I'll do it."  He told me he'd start right away and I could pay him when he fixed it.  Done.

Brian didn't get it done that day.  Turns out it was a much longer project than he thought it would be.  But he stuck with it, worked over the weekend, and about 4:30 on Monday, it was completely fixed.

I paid him the $200 plus the bonus.  It wasn't done the same day, but he made my life easier.  He didn't haggle about the price or ask a bunch of questions to see if he really wanted the job or even try to protect himself by making me pay a portion up front.  He just said, "I'll do it."  And he did it. 

So while I'm hoping there won't be a next time, if we have problems with our blog again, I won't be posting an ad.  I'll go right to Brian.  I'd recommend him to anyone looking for web development help.  It's possible that someone else may have twice the skill that he has and could have completed the job in one day, I don't know.  But Brian said, 'I'll do it" first and followed through.

So, what are you going to say the next time you hear…

"Who would like to show the new kid around school?"

"Who can help me coach at a youth soccer camp this weekend?"

"Who's interested in learning more about the Civil War?"

"Who can staff the front desk at the homecoming dance?"

"Who would like to run for treasurer of the student body?"

"Who can help me put up signs to advertise for the bake sale?"

"Who would like to volunteer at the shelter with me this weekend?"

If you become known as someone who says, "I'll do it," and then does it right, people will appreciate you, they'll rely on you, and they'll recommend you when anyone asks. 

You’ll win if you love it

I just finished reading a great book about the best distance runners on the planet–the Tarahumara Indians in the Sierra Madre mountain range in Mexico.  The Tarahumara routinely run 100-200 miles in rugged terrain wearing homemade sandals.  And the best part is how much they love doing it. They smile and enjoy themselves while they're running.  Even when they were brought to the US and began competing in (and winning) 100-mile ultra marathons, they're just laughing and having fun while they do it.  The author says that while we run to win races or to punish ourselves for eating a big slice of cheesecake last night, the Tarahumara run for one reason–because they love to do it.  And nobody can do it better. 

Now, you know there's a college admissions lesson coming here…

The most successful college applicants I've ever met didn't take hard classes because they wanted to get into famous colleges; they took hard classes because they wanted to be challenged and learn something.  They didn't do community service because they wanted to put it on a college application; they did it because they really wanted to help someone.  Their excitement about college has nothing to do with getting into an Ivy League school.  They might be happy to go to one but that's not why they do what they do.  They're happier, more interesting, more confident and just plain cooler than kids who make all their decisions based on what they think Stanford will appreciate.

Like the Tarahumara, they do it because they love it.  It's not about winning a competition for them.  And yet they beat out the other applicants who spend four years of high school trying to make themselves competitive without enjoying most of the experience.

It's your choice.  Which kid do you want to be?

 

On school bullying

I'm deviating a little today.  This post isn't college admissions related.  But I'm going to forge ahead and write it anyway. 

The story of Phoebe Prince has been in the news a lot lately.  I don't think anyone needs me to chime in about how pointless and tragic her death was, or how unforgivable it will be if we learn that the school administrators really did sit by and do nothing to help her.  I think a lot of people are in agreement about that.  

But I do want to say this.  Every high school has at least one student who gets targeted, certainly not as mercilessly as in Phoebe's case, but I think you know what I mean.  There's always at least one kid who gets laughed at, harassed, and maybe even bullied.  The kid may not be that different from a lot of other kids, but once the laughing starts, it gains perpetual motion and doesn't stop.  High school is an awful place for that kid.

I'll bet there are students who want to help that student but worry about becoming targets themselves. If that's the case for you, if you'd like to do something to support that student, here's a suggestion. Pull that kid aside, or send him an email, or find some other way to discreetly say something to the effect of,

"Those kids are as*holes.  I'm sorry about what they're doing.  Keep your chin up."  

It won't end the bullying.  It probably won't dramatically change that kid's life at school.  It's not even the most you could do.  But it's something.  You'll be throwing a show of support his way when he might feel like nobody else wants to offer any. 

It's so easy to do, you risk nothing by doing it, and it will probably mean the world to a kid who needs it. 

20 things I wish I’d known back in high school

I'd like to think we all get a little wiser every year.  At 18, I looked back on myself at 16 and couldn't believe how little I knew.  I'm sure I'll feel the same way two years from now about how little I know today at age 39. 

Still, if I knew back in high school what I know today, man, I really
could have owned that place (or at least have enjoyed a smoother, less stressful four years).  So here are 20 things I wish my 39-year-old self could have told my high school self back in the late 80's.  Some are college related, some or not.  Maybe a high school reader can benefit from one (the rest, feel free to discard as the ramblings of a college counselor who went to high school before email and cell phones were in use).

1.  Give your parents a break.  Recognize that parenting a teenager is stressful and difficult.  There's no manual issued when you take responsibility for a child.  You won't do everything right either when you have kids of your own.

2. Get a job in high school.  I'm glad I did this one, but I probably would have appreciated it more at the time knowing what I know now.  I learned a lot working at that limousine company.

3. Guys, when you pick a girl up for a date, the first thing you should do is notice how nice she looks.  The second thing you should do is compliment her–out loud–on how nice she looks.  Seriously, do this one.

4. Appreciate what other kids are committed to, even if their activities are different from yours.  You don't have to participate in the school musical to appreciate the kid who spends his time doing that while you're on the football field.  You can ask him how the opening night went.  And if you actually went to watch the musical to cheer them on, imagine how appreciative those kids would be.  Wish I’d done that one.

5. Ask for help when you need it.  A lot of the highest achieving students get there in part by asking for help when they don't understand the material.  If I'd known that, I would have been asking for help a lot.

6. Don't eat out with a group of people unless you're willing and able to pay for more than your fair share.  Everybody gets frustrated with the guy who you have to choke to get him to chip in enough money.   

7. Anyone who says terrible things to you about people they supposedly care about is not to be trusted.  They're doing the same thing to you when you're not around.  Run away.

8. If you especially enjoy a class, tell the teacher.  Write him or her an email, or just mention it after class.  My mom was a high school teacher for 30 years and keeps a shoebox of notes she received from students.  I can see how much it means to her to pull them out and read them today.

9. Be excited about the opportunity to go to college.  While you're at it, be thankful for it.  There are a lot of students in the world who would give anything to be able to attend college.  If your biggest concern is whether or not you get to go to a school that makes the top ten on the US News list, you've got a pretty good life. 

10. Try to learn as much as you can about the things that interest you.  I don’t care what it is.  People–and colleges–love a kid who feeds her mind.

11. Be nice to the kid that nobody else is nice to.  Two years after my graduation, that kid everyone made fun of was killed in a plane crash.  A lot of other people have to live with the fact that they went out of their way to make his high school years as unhappy as possible.  I got this one right in high school and am especially thankful I did.

12. It's hard to overstate the value of working hard and being nice to people.

13. If you obsessively pay attention in class, you’ll cut your study time dramatically and get better grades with half the effort.  Really wish I’d figured that out earlier than, well, now.

14. Try not to worry too much about the bullsh*t that goes on in high school. Who's popular and who's not, who gets invited to the right party and who gets left home, who looks right (or wrong), and all the backbiting and that is so rampant in high school–nobody will care about any of it once you get to college.  Until then, just try to stay out of it as much as you can.  Don't participate in or contribute to it.

15. Don’t waste your worry on things that don't matter.  It's not for me to say what you should or shouldn't worry about, but it’s a big world with plenty of other people and causes that deserve your worry.  I could have been a lot better about this in high school.  

16. A good standardized test-taker eliminates wrong answers and guesses.  A great standardized test-taker does that without feeling any less confident on the next question. Eliminate, guess, move on and feel good about it.  That's the difference between high scores and average scores. 

17. Remember that eventually there will be no such thing as summer vacation.  So take advantage of summers.  I mean really take advantage of them.  I've even got suggestions if you need them.

18. Don't put a senior quote in the yearbook that will make you look stupid when you read it 20 years later.  I didn’t make this mistake, but if I knew the lesson, I could have saved some friends some embarrassment.  One wrote, “I’ll love you FOREVER _____!”  and they broke up two months later.  Ooof. 

19. There’s honor in driving the worst car at school.  We once had a kid at Collegewise who drove the most beat up Volvo station wagon I’ve ever seen.  He had a bumper sticker that said, “Respect the wagon.”  That kid had style.   

20. Remember that you’ve got your whole life ahead of you.  You can endure almost any teen setback, angst or humiliation if you remember that.

No excuses

I worked with a student who once lamented to me that the police in his neighborhood were so "bored" that they'd given him three speeding tickets in one month. 

What?  You're blaming the police?

Then his parents told me, "Can you believe how unlucky he is?  To get three speeding tickets in one month!"

Again…what???

One of the most important skills a person can have is the ability to admit fault.  Take responsibility.  Own up to your mistakes and apologize if you've hurt anybody.

It's so easy to do, and it will go so far towards making you more likeable, responsible, and trustworthy.

Excuses rarely make someone like and respect you more.  And it's not likely to work on colleges, either.