Timeless Life Advice from 2016 Commencement Speakers

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 (as well as 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 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.

Usually, these types of speeches go in one ear and out for me.

But this year, Lewis’ speech and several others around the country this past weekend have made me reflect on my own path, even at the ripe age of 55!

Whether you are closing in on your 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 and find inspiration from these 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 especially poignant at Washington University last Friday since the campus is within 15 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 you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you must have the courage to stand up, to speak up, and find a way to get in the way.’

During the last couple weeks, the Internet 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, given to his senior class on World Poverty just a few days ago.

If you are thinking about your life, and enjoy learning new ideas on how to make mindful decisions, this is worth watching.

Last month, Brittany Stinson learned she got into five Ivy League colleges, as well as Stanford and many other top schools.

When a newspaper reporter asked her to share her college application essay, Brittany didn’t think twice.

Within hours, her essay went viral.

More than 1.6 million people, and counting, have now read the ‘Costco essay.’

Brittany, who has decided to attend Stanford, was as shocked as anyone by the media frenzy.racism persuasive essay

The Media Backlash to Brittany’s Costco Essay

Besides the predictable backlash from Internet trolls and haters, the assumption that this Costco essay earned Brittany all 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 high 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 finding a unique topic and crafting a readable piece that revealed her personality and character.

She even credited reading this blog to find tips and inspiration on how 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 details, advice and tips about how she brainstormed and wrote her Costco essay. How generous is that?

A Question and Answer Interview About the Costco Essay

When and how did you start working on your 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 traits. It helped me get the bad ideas out of my head, put some good ideas on paper and start to think about a organizational model.

Do you remember how 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 do it in 650 words.

Can you 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 worked on 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 consider yourself a strong writer?

Yes, I’ve taken a liking to writing and have always taken the most advanced writing courses available to me. I’ve had many demanding yet supportive teachers along the way.

How did you come up with the idea of Costco as a topic?

There’s an ongoing joke between me and my friends that I practically live at Costco. I’m there with my parents nearly every weekend because it’s just as close to our house as a regular supermarket. I once read a quote that said something along these lines, ‘If your friend finds your essay on the ground and it has no name on 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 direction I was trying to go in, so I figured it would be best to get input after I tied up loose ends and brought all of my 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 get accepted to? ( Did you get any feedback?)

I’m not sure, but I do know that since so many applicants 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 so easy to get discouraged by admissions statistics. I 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! So I’ve already decided at this point and possess chosen Stanford. All of the schools are academic powerhouses, so there’s no difference 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 many of its humanities departments are some of the best in the world. They have appealing interdisciplinary programs and majors. This was so attractive to me because I want 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 someone else, because it will show. If you convey your true self, the people reading it will 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 listen to you)?

When I first read through the five prompts students have to choose from to write their one personal statement essay for the new Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success application, this one popped out at me.

I bet it did the same 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 beliefs.

(Remember, you can also write about any topic you want based on the fifth ‘Topic of Choice’ prompt.)

I have some trepidations about this prompt about teenage advice, however.

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 believe the main intent of Coalition prompt 4 is to get you to write about something specific you learned so far in your life, but the danger is your essay could turn out too general, and therefore dull to read.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to rock this prompt. Just be aware of the pitfalls.

If you want to give this prompt a go, it’s important to give your essay a sharp focus.

You don’t like to just provide straight answers, such as, ‘ I would tell my younger sister that she needs to study hard and make sure to get along with everyone…’

I believe to write a powerful essay about this prompt you would be wise to first think about a significant lesson you learned, and then you can explain the related advice you would give to someone else about it.

In general, if you have advice to dish out, it’s usually because you learned something 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 your brain for some of the ‘bad’ things that happened, which were either your fault, or where you were a victim of circumstances. Or look for ‘problems,’ in the form of challenges, mistakes, failures, obstacles, set-backs, etc.

That 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.

Instead of writing an essay that tries to include many lessons you have learned, focus your essay on one key concept, and what you learned.

Sample Outline for Coalition Prompt 4

  1. Start by describing an incident, moment or ‘time’ you faced a problem.
  2. Give background to that problem; explain it.
  3. Describe how you handled it and what you learned.
  4. Share the advice you would give someone younger than yourself so they won’t make the same mistake.
  5. Explain how you imagine yourself using what you learned in your future endeavors.

This is just one approach to Coalition prompt 4, and there are unlimited other ways to write about it. Instead of writing about a teen problem, you could write about something 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 take advantage of as well. To give this a focus, try to find an example in your life about this positive teenage benefit, instead of just talking about it in general terms. Or maybe think of something that you used to not like, but now like about being a teenager.

No matter what you end up writing about it, aim to make one point about yourself (based on one core quality, characteristic or core value) and something you’ve learned to give it a sharp focus.

If you really like this prompt, give it a shot and see if you like what you write. Have a little fun with it!