Make your next presentation equipment-free

I speak at a lot of high school events and conferences.  And whenever the organizers ask me if I need anything for my talk—a whiteboard, a chalkboard, an overhead projector, a laptop, a screen, a can of Red Bull, whatever—my answer is always the same.

“Nope—I’m all set!”

Unless the room and crowd are large enough that I need a microphone, I go AV (audio visual) free for all my presentations.  Here’s why I think other counselors and educators should, too.

1. More equipment means more potential for problems.

Every piece of equipment you need for your presentation is just another chance for something to go wrong.  What if the bulb burns out in your projector?  What if the cables aren’t long enough to reach from the power outlet to your laptop?  What if the motor in the screen shorts out and you can’t lower it for your presentation?  What if the pens for the whiteboard have dried up?  I’ve seen all of those things happen to speakers. And instead of calmly and confidently starting their talks on time, they were flustered, late, and had to open with apologies to the audience.  I’m not just being a technophobe here.  If it could happen to Steve Jobs, it can happen to me (and to you).

2.    No equipment makes you a low-maintenance speaker.

The more you need, the more work you create for the person who invited you.  I don’t want a counselor or conference organizer to regret inviting me before I even show up.  And I’d rather the organizers spend their time promoting the event than worry about getting me a ground floor room opened for me at least 30 minutes beforehand with a screen and an overhead projector with laptop capability positioned no farther than 10 feet from the nearest power outlet.  If they can just get the room open and deliver a crowd, I can take it from there, which brings me to…

3. No equipment puts you in control.

Without any equipment, the only thing I need to worry about is the one thing that matters most—the quality and content of what I’m going to say.  I know that no matter what happens, as long as I take care of my responsibility to deliver a good talk, everything else will be fine.  And instead of spending half an hour before the talk making sure my AV equipment works, I can find a quiet spot and review the talk one last time before I’m on.

4. Equipment almost never improves a presentation.

In the history of public speaking, no audience member has ever left a presentation saying,

“I really loved the bullet points on slide 18!”

And yet at so many of the conferences I attend, the speakers are totally dependent on their PowerPoint slides.  Instead of looking at the audience, they look at their slides.  Instead of speaking naturally and sharing relevant examples, they read from their slides and expect the audience to stay interested.  AV becomes a crutch rather than something that improves the talk.  The more you rely on the slides, the less likely the audience will be to listen to you.

5.  You’re good enough without the AV.

If you’re invited to speak to a group, it’s not because they like your technology; it’s because they believe you’ve got something interesting and useful to say to their group.  And they’re right.  So give yourself enough credit to be able to say it without the help of technology.   Trade all the time you would have spent finding the right clip art for your slides and practicing timing the talk with the PowerPoint and spend it on proving to the organizers they made the right choice.  You’re good enough on your own.

If you absolutely insist on using technology, here’s a tip.  Start by preparing your talk without all the technology.  Make it as good as it can possibly be on its own.  And be ready to deliver it that way.  Then add in the technology if you’re sure it’s necessary (it’s probably not, but if you’re going to do it, get the talk right first).  That way, if something goes technologically awry, you can fall back on your original version of the talk, equipment-free.

Where did the 2011 Nobel Laureates go to college?

If you win the Nobel Prize, I think it’s safe to say that you’ve made it.  Your parents can be proud.  Here's where the 2011 Nobel Laureates went to college.

Harvard (2)
UC Berkeley
UC San Diego
University of Colorado at Boulder
University of Arizona
Stockholm University
Technion (Israel Institute of Technology)
Two 2011 Nobel Prize winners didn’t earn undergraduate degrees (one of those did get a masters at Eastern Mennonite University)

Go look up the colleges the members of Congress attended, the fortune 500 CEOs, your family doctor or lawyer or accountant, your school superintendent, and virtually anybody else you know (or can look up) who is successful.  I’m serious—make a list of where successful people went to college and you’ll get a list that looks a lot like the one above. 

Sure, you’ll end up with some highly selective colleges.  It’s not surprising when you consider the intellect and work ethic students need to demonstrate to get accepted to those schools.  But you’ll also find less selective colleges, too.   

You don’t need to go to an Ivy League school or any other highly selective college to be successful.  You just have to work hard and make the most of the opportunities presented to you during and after college.

A chance to help someone…and get something in return

I wrote an entry last week about how to improve high school fundraising, and I mentioned that it’s always good to give contributors something in return.  It’s nice when both the giver and the receiver can win in the name of a good cause.

If you are South Asian, here’s a cool opportunity to maybe save somebody’s life, get some publicity, and win $10,000.  And even if you aren't South Asian, you can still register and have a chance to help someone else, which is really what this is all about.

While there's room for debate about the precedent of awarding prizes for a bone marrow match, I'm not sure the person with Leukemia has time for that discussion.

This seems like the right day to share the entire speech

Here's Steve Jobs giving the commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005. He might have promised the audience he was going to share, "… three stories from my life. That's it. No big deal. Just three stories," but those are some pretty great messages contained in the three stories.


When you’re having one of those days…

You don't have to love the Dallas Mavericks to agree that their owner, Mark Cuban, has been pretty successful.  And whether you're running a business, counseling at a high school, raising a teenager or just trying to get through the SAT and AP Chem, it's nice to know that even the most successful people have those kinds of days every now and then.

From Cuban's blog:


Everyone gets down…the key is how soon you get back up.  I can’t count how many times I have gotten up in the morning dreading the day. I wasn't motivated, I was tired. I just wanted to crawl back in bed.  Other times, I had lost a deal, we had lost a game, something wasn’t working. I just wanted to crawl under a rock and disappear.  EVERYONE goes through those moments. The key is how you fight through them.  Knowing that everyone has those days, the people who truly will be successful are those that fight through the quickest and come back stronger and smarter."

How to get students to talk to you about college

30things A few weeks ago, I wrote a post sharing something smart that Katie in our Bellevue office was doing–printing a mock-up of my post on things you can do in college even if your school isn't a famous one, putting stars next to those she got to do when she was at Colgate, and posting the list in her office for her students to see.  Since then, all of the counselors in our Irvine office have done it, too (the photo at the left is Breanne's list).  And our counselor friend Teri at Palos Verdes High School shared it with her staff and teachers.  It's a great way to get kids to see that even the most responsible, professional adults were at one time just college kids trying to find their way.  We love how our students ask us about our starred items and how they want to hear our college stories. 

I wanted to make this a little easier for people to replicate.  So,

1.  Here is the version of the piece that Katie and our counselors used.   Download and print it.

2.  Put a star next to the items you did while you were in college.

3.  Write the name of your college at the bottom (our counselors pasted in the logos from their respective colleges).

4.  Post it prominently in your office or classroom.

5.  Forward this post to your colleagues so they can do the same.

How many more college conversations would be sparked between students and faculty if every teacher, counselor, administrator, etc. at a high school posted this? 

How many more colleges would kids be open to learning about–schools they didn't know of or consider before–if they found out their math teacher or band director or principal attended one of them?

How much more honest would kids be with you about their college dreams and anxieties if you were willing to take the first step by starring this list honestly and posting it?

Why not find out?

Questions and answers from The Choice blog

Last week, The Choice blog had several entries where readers submitted questions to be answered by authors (one of whom is a former dean of admissions at Stanford) of a new book on college admissions.   A lot of the questions, from course selection, to how well colleges know particular high schools, to the influence of athletics, are very common.  So I thought I’d share the entries here so readers can learn from the answers.  The answers came over three posts, here are #1, #2 and #3.

How counselors and teachers can help students write better college essays

StoryFindersimage Earlier this month, we released our first book:  Story Finders: How Counselors and Teachers Can Help Students Write Better College Essays (Without Helping Too Much).    Here's some background on our essay process, why we wrote it, and what's included in the book.

How this book came to be

During the first few years of Collegewise, I could help every student with their essays by myself.  But as we grew from working with 20 seniors a year to over 200 and we opened additional offices, we had to find a way to replicate what I was doing.  I didn’t want something that would produce finished essays the way a fast food franchise churns out hamburgers.  We needed a system that could help 500 kids tell 500 unique stories all of which were genuine reflections of each writer.          

Today, we hire “essay specialists” and put them through a four-hour training program.  Students (and interested parents) attend a 90-minute college essay workshop.  Students complete a set of brainstorming questions at home, then come to a one-hour meeting with an essay specialist.  Our students then write their drafts and send them to us for feedback.  And we know exactly how to give helpful feedback without ever jumping in and doing it for the student.  One workshop, one meeting, and a couple rounds of editing means that in 2-3 weeks, our kids have completed several college essays.  That’s our college essay system that we explain in this book.

Why we wrote the book

We’ve shared pieces of our system at high school workshops, with teachers and counselors at regional NACAC conferences, and at in-service sessions at several trainings for the Los Angeles Unified School District’s AVID (Achievement Via Individual Determination) teachers. But we’ve never had enough time together to say, “Here’s everything we do with college essays—take as much or as little as you want back to your schools and use it to help your kids.”  That’s what we wanted to do with our book. 

What’s included in the book?

1. What counselors and teachers need to know about college essays

The college admissions process isn’t a featured subject in most credentialing programs for teachers and counselors.  But a lot of English teachers and counselors are expected to be experts when they help students with college essays.  I don’t want to make the same assumption of expertise here.  Our book explains exactly how colleges use essays, the differences between a college essay and one written in a high school English class, and the most common mistakes students make on their college essays.  

2.  The Collegewise college essay workshop

We walk readers through each section of our college essay workshop that we teach to our students and parents, and that we share when we’re invited to speak at high schools.  

3.  The Collegewise essay brainstorming meeting

We explain exactly what we do in our one-hour meeting with each of our students to help them find good stories.  This chapter explains how to do what we do in that meeting.  We include our brainstorming questions and describe how we use them, outline what we do in a brainstorming meeting with a student, and share how we recognize a potentially good story. 

4.  How Collegewise gives essay feedback to students

This section shares our complete editing process, along with some tips to get the job done faster if you have a large caseload.

5.  Recommended college essay lesson plans 

We recommend different ways to use the materials depending on how much time a teacher or counselor has to spend with students.  If you want to use the entire system and you have the time to do the class, brainstorming and editing, take it all as is and get to work.  If you just want to do the class, or just help kids pick their stories, or just review what kids write on their own, use just those parts of the system.  And if you already have your own system that works well and just want to cherry pick components of ours that might be useful, pick away. 

6. Access to free resources

Readers are also given a link to access clean copies of our essay workshop handout (teacher and student versions), brainstorming questions, and samples of our essay commentary.  

The finished product

We’re really proud of our system and the book, and the feedback we’ve gotten from teachers and counselors has been great.  I even bought a copy for my mom, a former high school English teacher, just so she has something to show her friends, and even she liked it (though she’s admittedly a little biased).

Over 3,000 students have gone through our Collegewise program.  Thousands of other kids have heard us speak at their high schools or sent us their essays just for a second opinion.  We’ve been able to help students of all levels of achievement and writing abilities find and share interesting stories about themselves.  We’ve done it in a way that doesn’t violate the integrity of the process and that keeps kids completely in charge of their stories and their writing.  And now we’re hoping that lots of counselors and teachers will be able to do the same with our book in hand.    

Where to buy it

We self-published the book at and it’s available here for $49.95.  We know that’s not cheap for a book.  But with the access to clean copies of our downloadable materials, buyers aren’t just getting the book; they’re getting our entire college essay system that we’ve spent the last 12 years perfecting. 

We’re really proud of the finished product and believe that we’re now going to be able to help a lot of teachers and counselors guide their kids through the college essay process.

For colleges: Tell students what you won’t be to them

With over 2,000 colleges in the country, it’s just as hard for a lot of them to stand out as it is for the students trying to get accepted.   So why do so many colleges still rattle off generalities like, “We have small classes—in fact, our student/faculty ratio is 11:1.”  That’s just like a student writing an essay about how being involved in student government taught her to work with people.  There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not going to make an applicant—or a college—stand out. 

If you work in admissions and want to get students’ attention at high schools during your travel season this fall, consider this—try telling students what you AREN’T.

What would happen if a college rep stood up in front of a group of students and said,

“We’re one of the largest schools in the country.  If you’re looking for a peaceful, slow-paced college, a place where you have dinner at your professors' homes on a regular basis and your academic advisor only works with 20 kids a year, we’re probably not for you.”


“We don’t have a football team.  We don’t have fraternities or sororities.  If you’re looking for what most people would call the classic college experience, you’re not going to find it here.” 

Yes, you’ll lose the future interest of some of the students in the room.  But those lost leads were never going to enroll anyway.  The kids most likely to apply, to eventually enroll, and to love being on campus will be drawn to you.

And aren’t those the students you want anyway?

Five things sophomores should do this year

Now that you've left the freshman ranks, here are five things sophomores should do this year. 

1. Take the PSAT or the PLAN.

The PSAT and PLAN are the practice tests of the SAT and ACT respectively.  Your school decides which one to offer, usually in October.  And since the results of whichever one you take this year will never be used for admissions purposes, it’s a great chance to get some experience with standardized tests without feeling too much pressure.

2.    Don’t you dare worry about the results of the PSAT or PLAN.

Remember how I just said the PSAT and PLAN are both practice tests?  That means you shouldn’t worry about the results.  They don’t count for anything.  That might seem obvious, but a lot of sophomores (and even more parents of sophomores) see the results, immediately go to the testing equivalent of DEFCON 1, and rush to intensive test prep.  It’s not uncommon for smart sophomores to underperform on these tests (and your scores are compared with those of the juniors, so it’s normal to be technically below average).  You can address test prep later.  But for now, you should be focusing on other things like…

3. Practice being a good student.

Obviously, you want to work as hard as you can to get good grades.  But being a good student means more than just having a high GPA.  Practice participating in class discussions.  Raise your hand and ask questions.  If you need extra help, visit your teacher (don’t let your parents approach the teacher for you).  And those students who get A’s without seeming to try very hard?  Learn how to do what they do.  Here's  one past post, and another, that can help.

4.    Find activities you really enjoy.

Colleges don’t care which activities you do (or how many of them you do).  What they care about is that you find activities you love, then work hard enough to make an impact while doing them.  So don’t get involved in anything just because you’ve heard that it will “look good to colleges.”  Instead, find activities you really enjoy.  Whether it’s sports, clubs, journalism, a part-time job, community service, karate, taking art classes after school or anything else that’s productive and not covered by the criminal code, if you love it and work hard at it, chances are that colleges will appreciate your efforts.

5. Remember to relax and have fun, too.

The most successful people in the universe still make time to relax and have fun.  That’s how they recharge their batteries and refill their creative juices (two clichés in one sentence has to be a record, but I’m going for effect here).  It’s fine to occasionally sacrifice fun and even some sleep in the name of working hard and committing to your goals.  But you won’t find a college that expects you to totally abandon relaxation and fun throughout high school.  In fact, some very selective colleges even have essay questions that ask you what you do for fun.  So work hard, but be a kid, relax, and occasionally goof off, too.