Turns out commencement speeches and application essays have a lot in common.

I was torn. Would I, in this post, gush over and pay tribute to commencement ceremonies, describing how my eyes well at the first chords of “Pomp and Circumstance?” Or would I forgo sentiment to impart some straight talk to juniors about jumping on those application essays ASAP?

Turns out there is a practical intersection of the two paths: the stuff we can learn from commencement addresses.

I love a good graduation speech, one that checks all the boxes of accomplished oratory. It is lyrical, offering emotional hooks and perfect pacing; contains humor, much of it self-deprecating; reveals something about the presenter; and lays down a mandate, a worthy objective that includes some version of success. Perhaps most importantly, well-written remarks touch a facet of human frailty, a facet to which all of us, young and old, can relate.

I’m struck by the parallel expectations between graduation speeches and college application essays. Now a 20-minute speech runs about 2,500 words, or 10 pages. That’s roughly four times the length of the standard application essay. Don’t be flustered by the numbers, I tell my students, but do feel free to allow the content, flow and cadence of a good speech inform your thinking about what an application essay might sound like and how it can move a reader.

If graduation speeches teach a lesson on writing, they also impart general wisdom — often hard-earned. To travel down a feel-good rabbit hole of inspirational (and aspirational) prose, just Google “great graduation speeches,” and watch them on YouTube. Authors and entertainment writers are particularly good at describing mistakes made and lessons learned, hitting all the right notes with their be-better-than-me advice to graduates. Several examples come to mind immediately: television host and comedy writer Ellen DeGeneres on being true to yourself (to the Tulane Class of 2009); author George Saunders on valuing kindness (Syracuse, 2013); television writer and producer Shonda Rhimes on saying “yes” to opportunities (Dartmouth, 2014); and author and essayist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on creating the world you want to live in (Wellesley, 2015).

I was present for two thoughtful speeches at ceremonies this past May. When architect Maya Lin addressed my nephew’s graduating class at New York City’s School of Visual Arts, she reflected on her very early recognition as an artist. In 1981, when she was just 21, Lin won a national competition for her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. She implored her audience of emerging artists to stand up to the people who want to “put their fingerprints on your work,” as Lin had experienced in 1981. She admitted to the SVA audience that of course she had doubted herself, but she’d also held her ground, and her simple, but brilliant design, now considered a model of post World War II memorials, was largely unchanged.

Jason Harris, CEO of the innovative ad firm Mekanism, addressed my niece and her fellow business school grads at James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, VA. He spoke evocatively of his idol, David Bowie, and the importance of self-invention. Keep a journal, he entreated his audience, adding, “Write your own story, and start with the ending.”

If ever I am asked to give a commencement address, I’ll encourage students to learn to advocate for themselves. I will tell them to identify what they want to achieve and to be bold in asking for help to get there. I’ll reveal one or two of the opportunities I let slip by or times I sat on my hands rather than asked a question, and I will aim to write my speech in a funny, heartfelt way.

IMANI students learn to advocate for themselves. I’ve been an essay coach in IMANI's College Advocacy Center for several years, and last week I attended the organization’s end-of-year celebration. IMANI is a Montclair-based non-profit that aims to close the achievement gap in our community by offering educational support. It was a commencement of sorts, with musical performances, awards and reflections on achievement.

Instead of speeches, though, the celebration included testimonials by parents and graduating seniors who spoke to the challenges associated with asking for help  —  and the relief that follows. One dad described the exasperation he felt watching his daughter flounder, overwhelmed by the college application process until she finally agreed to visit the center. A graduating senior spoke with admiration for the coaches who helped her identify a path and determine what she needed to travel it. All spoke of the empowerment that comes from the mix of support and encouragement IMANI director JoAnn McCullough and her team provide.

Pride and joy were palpable that day. All around Montclair's Bullock School gymnasium, where the celebration took place, college pennants illustrated the ambition of the IMANI “graduates,” Montclair High School seniors who will be attending Rutgers, Princeton, Howard, Spelman and other outstanding colleges and universities. Mementos were distributed, photos were taken and parents and students beamed.


A version of this post appeared in Pat Berry’s "College Bound” column in Montclair Local newspaper on June 21, 2018.