The Art of the 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. I know that standard speech well. In fact, 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 done so together.”

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

There’s nothing wrong with those messages. In fact, those are entirely appropriate 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.

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College of Wooster

Wooster, OH

We love a college with a sense of style. Wooster2

Take the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, a community of 1800 students who
take learning much more seriously than they take themselves. The college’s
mascot is the “Fighting Scot.” The marching band wears kilts and plays
bagpipes. Seniors are each given a Tootsie Roll when they hand in their senior
projects, and the head football coach conducts the Scot Marching Band during
its Fall Concert. Stan Hales, Wooster’s
President, sums up the importance of
Wooster’s tradition this way.

"Tradition animates Wooster. We can treat it seriously or tongue in cheek,
which is indicative of the institution’s willingness to do things a bit funky
or quirky. There’s less peer pressure here, and a wider range of student
behavior and dress. We have a lighthearted view toward personal expression.
We’re very unpretentious."

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Young, Gifted, and Not Getting Into Harvard

I’ve done my share of ranting about the media’s focus on all the bad news in college admissions today.  So it was nice to see this article as a voice of reason in the "Parenting" column of the New York Times.  The author, a Harvard interviewer, points out that most of the kids he interviews won’t get in to Harvard.  In fact, he admits that none of his own four children will get in (they won’t even apply).  And most importantly, he reminds readers that all of those kids will still be OK even without a Harvard acceptance.  Thanks to Paul K and Katie K (though not the same "K") for sending it to me.

Just Say “Yes.”

We’re always telling our Collegewise kids that where they go to college isn’t nearly as important as what they do while they are there.  That’s an even more important concept to remember at this time of year for kids who might be dealing with some admissions rejections.  Four minutes is hardly enough time to explore this idea, but NBC’s Today Show recently had on Lloyd Thacker from the Education Conservancy.  Lloyd advises that kids say "no" to colleges that rejected them, and start saying "yes" to a future at a college who did.  It’s good advice, and as we’re big fans of Lloyd and the work his organization is doing, I just wanted to share the clip.   

A Brief Trip to the Soapbox

This year, the nation’s most selective colleges got even more competitive.  Is anybody really surprised?  Every year they get more competitive.  And every year around this time, respected media like the New York Times run articles like this one about acceptance rates dropping, applicant numbers rising, and exceptional students failing to gain access to the highly competitive colleges of their dreams.  I’m a college counselor, and it’s gotten to the point I don’t know why I even bother to read these articles because I know exactly what they’re going say–the same thing they said last year and the year before that.  So while I’m on my soapbox, I’ve got a college-related suggestion for kids, parents and media. 

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“Fair” thee well…

A lot of students and parents return from a college fair wondering what they really got out of it.  But you can make your experience at the fair much more productive with just a little preparation.  The National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) offers some good tips to get the most out of your visit to the fair, as well as a schedule of fairs near you.  We’ve also got some Collegewise tips of our own that have helped our students.  And finally, read Arun’s blog entry to hear a former admissions officer’s fair perspective. 

A Fool’s Errand?

A Swarthmore professor of psychology offers his proposed fix for the college admissions craze in this article.

While I don’t necessarily agree that drawing students out of a hat is the right solution (though he certainly makes a good case), his premise is absolutey true–"Students trying to get into the best college, and colleges trying to admit the best students, are both on a fool’s errand. They are assuming a level of precision of assessment that is unattainable."

Fake Ranks?

We’re not fans of the US News rankings, and apparently, neither is the president of Sarah Lawrence College.  Her recent op-ed piece in the Washington Post argues that the problem with US News college rankings is that they "are far from reliable" and in fact, "some of their numbers are made up."

The letter is sparking even more discussion of the perils of college rankings.   Inside Higher Ed just did a great piece entitled "Would US News Make up Fake Data? "  A lot of people in the know seem to think the answer is "Yes."

St. John’s College

Annapolis, MD and Santa Fe, NM

The home page of the St. John’s College website reads: 

“The following teachers will return to St. John’s College next year: Plato,
Newton, Galileo, Cervantes, Dante, Melville…”

The list of recognizable names continues on and fades into the background.

No, St. John’s doesn’t literally reincarnate history’s greatest minds, but its unique
“Great Books” program means that students spend all four years reading,
studying and discussing the most important books in Western tradition.

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5 New Year’s Resolutions for High School Kids

It’s that time of year when we make our New Year’s resolutions, and we’ve got a few recommendations for high school kids to help them enjoy the ride to college a little more.  So, here are our Collegewise “Top Five New Year’s Resolutions” that might not be so obvious, but will definitely help you get accepted to college. 

  1. Set a goal to actively participate in at least one class this semester. 

Colleges don’t just care about the grades you get; they especially appreciate students who actively participate in class.  So raise your hand.  Answer questions.  Show the teacher you’re interested and engaged.  Doing so will go along way towards showing the colleges you can succeed in their classrooms.

  1. Get more involved in a current activity.

Before you add more activities to your plate, ask yourself if you would enjoy being even more involved with something you already do.  Can you take a leadership position, take on a project, or make an impact in some way?  Remember, a long list of activities isn’t as impressive to colleges as is a significant commitment to the things you really enjoy. 


  1. Find a way to pursue a subject you like.

Colleges are always impressed by a sincere interest in learning.  So ask yourself what you really want to learn about, and then find a way to do it.  Do an extra project.  Take an extra class or attend a summer program.  The subject could be anything from calculus to civil war history to sports medicine.  What’s important is to show colleges that you do have intellectual interests and you don’t mind going the extra mile pursuing them.


  1. Be yourself.

It’s not necessary to mold yourself into something you’re not just to please the colleges.  For example, a lot of students worry that their lack of athletic talent will hurt them in college admissions.  It won’t.  If you don’t like sports, but you love math, embrace your love of numbers, join the math club and become its fearless leader.  Colleges appreciate individuality a lot more than they do efforts to conform into something you’re not.

  1. Spend more time looking for the right colleges.

A lot of students talk about wanting to get into the “best” schools.  But don’t forget to look for the right schools–the ones where you will be happy and successful for four years.  This year, resolve to do some college soul-searching to determine what you really hope or expect to gain from your college experience.  Investigate a variety of schools and try to find the right match.  Doing so will make your life easier, your high school years more productive, and your college applications more successful.