How to give a presentation worth talking about

I've given hundreds of presentations at Collegewise and sat through at least a hundred others at conferences.  If you're a counselor or a college representative who gives talks to crowds, here are five tips to make your presentation more memorable and effective. 

1.  No long introductions; get right to the point.

Too many speakers spend 10 or 15 minutes introducing themselves and giving a long overview of the topic.  That's just wasting time you could have spent making your points.  Cut the introduction down and jump right in to your presentation.  People have presumably made the choice to show up to your talk.  At the very least, they're already convinced what you have to say might be interesting.  Spend your time convincing them that they made the right choice. 

2.  Decide what your main points are and focus on them.

If you have ten main points in a presentation, your audience won't remember any of them.  Decide what's most important, the information that you absolutely must get across to them.  Then spend the bulk of your presentation on those main points.  This might seem like a huge sacrifice to make cuts to your information.  But it's worth it if it will help you get your most important points across more effectively.

3. Use specific stories and examples.

Stories, not facts and figures, are what people remember.  So use them to make your points for you.  I've noticed when I give presentations that people seem the most tuned in when I support a point with a story of a real student.  And when I hand out evaluations at the end of my talks, the most consistent positive feedback I get is "Good examples" (which is humbling given that the examples are the one part of the talk that I didn't create myself).  Real life examples will always get and hold peoples' attention as long as they can relate to them in some way.   Use that to your advantage.  

4.  Ditch the PowerPoint.

How many times have you sat through a presentation where a speaker reads bullet points off a PowerPoint screen?  It's excruciating.  And yet a lot of speakers are convinced that they need those bullet points to present effectively.  You don't.  Bullet points just guarantee that the audience will focus on the screen instead of on you.  And worse, each time you go to a new screen, they'll immediately read the bullet points and then wait for your talk to catch up to what they've already read.  That's not a good way to hold an audience's attention.  Pretend that PowerPoint hasn't yet been invented and build your talk without it.  I promise your presentation will improve. 

5.  At the end, tell your audience what you want them to do.

I'm going to assume that you wouldn't be giving a presentation unless you wanted people to actually do something with the information.  So tell them what you want them to do.  Be specific.  Give them an action you want them to take, whether that's scheduling a meeting or starting their college research or visiting your college.  Identifying what you want them to do at the end will also help you build a more convincing presentation in the first place.

Why do so many colleges sound like cliche college essays?

A lot of college websites, tours, and presentations sound just like the cliched college essays they're so tired of reading.

If a college's pitch to prospective students touts "small classes," "dedicated faculty," and "a world class library with over 1 million volumes," that's just the college marketing version of the brutally bland and predictable essays like "Volunteering on the blood drive taught me to appreciate helping others" and "I learned about hard work and commitment from sports."

Colleges, if you want students to appreciate what you have to offer, follow the same guidelines you want kids to follow with their essays.  Don't worry about what will "sound good."  Be yourself.  Rely on specifics, not vague abstractions.  And most importantly, don't try to sell yourself.  Just help the audience get to know who you really are.

Good listening makes good understanding

My friend and former boss, Paul, from The Princeton Review has a great habit.  Whenever someone shares an idea or opinion, he asks a follow up question or two to make sure he understands it.  Then he restates it in his own words just to make sure he's got it right.  It doesn't matter if he totally disagrees with your statement the first time he hears it.  He'll first make sure he understands it completely before he offers his opinion or retort.

The upshot of this is that while everyone else in a meeting is busy thinking of what they want to say, Paul is busy understanding what's already been said.  He's always the first person to get it.  It makes him seem even smarter than he is (which is already very smart).  What he eventually says in return is always insightful.  And everybody listens to him as a result of it.

It's not difficult, but most people don't do it.  I'm going to try to do it myself a lot more often. 

Be thankful for what you received

If you're a senior (or the parent of one) who recently found out you:

1) Got wait listed…

2) Were offered admission, but in the spring….

3) Received financial aid, but not as much as you would like…

…it's easy to get angry.  You might be inclined to write or call the college and cry foul, to point out what you think is an injustice. 

But please remember something before you call a college to ask them to reconsider their decision.  All of those students who were rejected or who received no financial aid would desperately love to trade places with you.  So first, be thankful for what you've received.  Then consider whether or not you want to take steps to change your situation.  

If you're in one of those three scenarios and you decide to contact a college, start with,

"First I just want to say thank you.  I know I got something that a lot of people didn't get, and I really want to be mindful of that."

That kind of attitude might change the outcome. 

Little brothers and sisters get it right

I was at a restaurant last night and saw a little kid, maybe eight years old, waiting with his family to be seated.  He was wearing a "UCR" sweatshirt. 

Hostess to the kid: "What's that?  UC Riverside?"

Little kid (smiling):  "Yeah.  My brother goes to college there."

Little brothers and sisters will proudly wear the college sweatshirt you buy for them whether or not you're attending an Ivy League school.  I think they've got the right attitude.

Don’t wait for your dream college to pick you–pick yourself

Seth Godin offers us "Reject the tryanny of being picked" 


It's a cultural instinct to wait to get picked. To seek out the permission and authority that comes from a publisher or talk show host or even a blogger saying, 'I pick you.' Once you reject that impulse and realize that no one is going to select you–that Prince Charming has chosen another house–then you can actually get to work.  If you're hoping that the HR people you sent your resume to are about to pick you, it's going to be a long wait. Once you understand that there are problems just waiting to be solved, once you realize that you have all the tools and all the permission you need, then opportunities to contribute abound.  No one is going to pick you. Pick yourself."

The college admissions version of that looks like this.

Colleges love nice kids, and so do we

I think every kid who wants to go to college and is willing to do the work deserves to go.  But if you want people to help you, you've got to be nice.  You should be appreciative, and you should respect the time and effort the people who are helping you are expending.  You get a lot of behavioral allowances when you're a teenager, but it's hard to excuse a kid who can't even muster up the effort to be nice. 

I summed it up like this in our staff meeting this morning.


We don't judge a kid negatively if he's got C's.  If he's a nice kid who wants to go to college, welcome to Collegewise.  We can help that kid.  But if you're a jerk, we can't help you.  I don't care what your GPA is."

When you shouldn’t do whatever it takes

Doing whatever it takes sounds like a good idea.  But it can hurt your chances of getting into college.

You miss an "A" by two points in your Spanish class.  You argue with your teacher.  You try to make a case why you deserve an "A."  You get your parents involved and have them put pressure on your teacher and counselor.  Eventually, your Spanish teacher relents and gives you an "A-" just so he can be done with it. 

Yes, now you've got your "A-." But at what price?  Your Spanish teacher and your counselor think you're a whiny grade grubber.  They'll think twice before going out of their way to help you in the future.  And you can pretty much forget about getting a positive letter of recommendation from either of them.

When parents harangue a counselor because their daughter wasn't accepted into AP English, or when they pull strings with an influential alumni to get their son an interview with the dean of admission, there's a cost to those actions, and it's almost always the student who pays it.

The fact that the goal is to get into college doesn't always justify the action.  Think about the resulting cost before you do whatever it takes.

Tips to make the next semester your best one yet

Successful peole like to set goals.  So why not set yours to make your next semester the best–most successful, happiest, most productive–one yet?  Here are five ways to do it.

1.  Use spring break to catch up on all the sleep, mystery novels, guitar, bad reality TV, surfing, or anything else you regularly sacrifice for school, activities or the SATS.  Your goal should be to start the second semester happy and well-rested.

2.  Identify your favorite class and turn in a great performance.

3.  If an activity isn't fulfilling, or if you're just doing it to put on your college applications, quit.  Then redistribute that time to something more enjoyable and productive.  Trust me, it will be a good trade off in terms of both happiness and college admissions success. 

4.  Put high school in perspective.  In the not-too-distant future, the negative parts of high school like the back-biting, social climbing, and other negative drama will be a distant memory, one that nobody, including you, will care about anymore.

5.  Put college in perspective.  Stop obsessing about where you're going to get in and start obsessing about what you're going to do once you're in college.  I think you'll find that most of the things that excite you about college are not limited to just a handful of highly selective schools.

Taking these five steps will help you enjoy your life, make a bigger impact in activities you enjoy, stress less, and sleep better–all of which will lead to better performance on exams, higher grades, and more success in college admissions.   

High school counselors vs. private counselors

Whenever I go to conferences, I meet some high school counselors and some private counselors who feel the two groups are somehow pitted against each other.  Most of them have legitimate gripes about isolated members of the opposing party who've made them look bad with disparaging comments to kids, or somehow made it harder for them to do a good job for the families they serve.  Then they take those frustrations and apply them to the entire "opposing" profession.   

If you're a high school counselor who tells your students that all private counselors are snake oil salesmen out to make a quick buck off kids, guess what?  You're wrong.  And you're part of the problem.

And if you're a private counselor who tells families that high school counselors aren't qualified, that kids need you to get into college, that school counselors don't know enough or are just too busy to do a good job for kids, you're wrong, too.  And you're not part of the problem.  You are the source of the problem. 

Every great high school counselor I've ever met openly acknowledges that there are some wonderful private counselors out there who do a great job.  And there are also some far-from-wonderful ones who just aren't worth the money they charge. 

And every great private counselor I've ever met tells kids they don't need to hire someone to get into college, even a highly-selective one.  They advise families to avail themselves of everything their high school counseling office offers to them before they even consider hiring outside help.  And they'd never do anything to undermine a high school counselor's work with a student.

If we're in this to help the kids, our goal should be to emulate the greats on our sides.