Great Moments in Commencement Speech History

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Search Colleges is an advertising-supported site. Featured programs and school search results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other information published on this site.

I can’t believe graduation is here already. It seems like only yesterday we were touring campuses together, enduring tedious freshman orientation ice-breakers, standing in endless lines for books. Where does the time go?

I promised myself I wouldn’t get emotional.

But hey, this time of year makes me sentimental. We’ve been through a lot together, and I feel like I would be derelict in my duties if I didn’t offer you parting words of wisdom. But wisdom is a funny thing. It’s a complex subject, but it’s best imparted in short, witty one-liners.

That’s the key to a memorable commencement speech. It should have a few quotable lines that ball up all the inspiration you sought during your time in school, and spit it back at you in words that sound true enough but which minimize the daunting reality of venturing into the great unknown.

But let’s not get heavy. You’re graduating. Hooray!

You should be proud of yourself. We’re proud of you. And you deserve a few inspirational turns of phrase. But we’re guessing you’d rather hear them from somebody who’s rich, famous, successful or all three. So we’ve decided to synthesize some of the most inspiring and unique bits of wisdom scattered through history’s great commencement speeches. From presidents and philosophers to jazz legends and Will Ferrell, what follows is a collection of totally original ideas we completely ripped off from people who are smarter than we are, because hey, you deserve only the best.

Because most commencement speeches fall into a limited set of inspirational categories, we’ve made it easy for you to find the exact inspiration you’re looking for, kind of a like a Choose Your Own Adventure made from Hallmark graduation cards:

Believe in Yourself

One of the central aims of a good commencement speech is to send you off with a sense that you are special, that you have the talent to achieve anything you desire, that if nothing else, you have faith in yourself and your ability to control your own destiny. So said Monty Python alumnus Eric Idle before the Whitman College Class of 2013. Speaking from experience, he advised, “Learn to trust yourself. That’s very vital … Just stand with yourself. Remember, in his lifetime, Van Gogh sold only two paintings. I personally sold even fewer.”

A similar sentiment punctuated American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson’s speech to the Harvard grads of 1838, to whom he ominously warned that “the imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity.”

Daytime talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres offered a likeminded, if slightly more compromising sentiment to Tulane grads in 2009, advising, “Stay true to yourself. Never follow someone else’s path — unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path, then by all means you should follow that.”

No Fear

The annals of great commencement speeches tell us that success is all about facing down our fears. This is what business magnate Arianna Huffington told the Sarah Lawrence College Class of 2011, remarking, “A key component of wisdom is fearlessness, which is not the absence of fear, but rather not letting our fears get in the way.”

Actor and comedian Jim Carrey said pretty much the same thing in his 2014 speech before the Maharishi University of Management, observing:

“Fear is going to be a player in your life, but you get to decide how much. You can spend your whole life imagining ghosts, worrying about your pathway to the future, but all there will ever be is what’s happening here, and the decisions we make in this moment, which are based in either love or fear.

“So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect, so we never dare to ask the universe for it.”

If you’re not a fan of Ace Ventura, perhaps take it from a guy who quarterbacked the New Orleans Saints to victory in Super Bowl XLIV. Drew Brees told the 2010 graduating class at Loyola University, “It’s not a matter of if you will face adversity in your life but when. So when adversity knocks on your door, see it as an opportunity.”

Focus on What Really Matters

The Focus on What Really Matters speech is another popular commencement trope, a way of telling you that, in spite of having just shelled out $250K on your degree, material stuff doesn’t matter. The only things that matter in life are intrinsic. Seek your rewards in that which has deeper meaning, brings you real satisfaction, and transcends the acquisition of personal wealth. And as long as you don’t focus too hard on your upcoming loan payments, this territory contains good nuggets of wisdom.

This was Meryl Streep’s message before an audience of Vassar grads in 1983. She explained that “the work itself is the reward, and if I choose challenging work, it’ll pay me back with interest. At least I’ll be interested, even if nobody else is.”

Streep had just five Academy Award nominations at the time so she was understandably humble.

For others, it wasn’t about the work, but about the life created outside of the work. This was the point then-First Lady Barbara Bush made to Wellesley’s Class of 1990. “At the end of your life,” she said, “you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend, or a parent.”

Two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington made a similar if terser point, telling 2015’s Dillard University grads, “You will never see a U-Haul behind a hearse.”

In other words, it’s not about the material possessions. You can’t take them with you when you die. Not for nothing, this is what Denzel Washington’s house looks like (at right).

Still, he makes a great point, as does legendary jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who told the Connecticut College Class of 2001, “In the words of the great Louisiana jazz trumpet man, Enute Johnson, ‘Son, don’t worry about being on time, be in time.’”

That might be the coolest way ever of telling a bunch of grads to live in the moment. Then again, The Late Show host Stephen Colbert offers similar advice in a way that perhaps better captures the current zeitgeist. To the University of Virginia Class of 2013, Colbert quipped, “If anyone here has a cellphone, please take a moment to make sure it’s turned on. I wouldn’t want anyone to miss a text or a tweet while I’m giving my speech.”

Change the World

Bono believes in you. Don’t you feel better just knowing that? In his 2004 commencement speech to the University of Pennsylvania, U2’s lead singer told the graduates in attendance:

“The going rate for change is not cheap. Big ideas are expensive … What’s the big idea? What’s your big idea? What are you willing to spend your moral capital, your intellectual capital, your cash, your sweat equity in pursuing outside of the walls of the University of Pennsylvania?

“There’s a truly great Irish poet, his name is Brendan Kennelly, and he has this epic poem called ‘The Book of Judas,’ and there’s a line in that poem that never leaves my mind, it says, ‘If you want to serve the age, betray it.’ What does that mean to betray the age?

“Well ,to me betraying the age means exposing its conceits, it’s foibles, it’s phony moral certitudes. It means telling the secrets of the age and facing harsher truths.

“Every age has its massive moral blind spots. We might not see them, but our children will.”

The Irish rocker’s message hews close to the one President Kennedy delivered before Yale University in 1962. He warned, “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”

Both Bono and JFK offered challenging and realistic assessments of the world out there, convicting our graduates to go out and make a difference, to cure society’s ills, and to resist the sway of popular immorality.

Microsoft tech baron Bill Gates adds to this idea, advising us not to be cowed by the overwhelming enormity of the challenges before us. He told Harvard’s Class of 2007, “Don’t let complexity stop you. Be activists. Take on the big inequities. It will be one of the great experiences of your lives.”

World-renowned sex therapist, Dr. Ruth Westheimer offered similar advice with a sort of Aesop’s Fables spin, telling the Trinity College Class of 2004, “My favorite animal is the turtle. The reason is that in order for the turtle to move, it has to stick its neck out.”

Welcome to the Real World

The final commencement trope, and perhaps the most honest, is the one that goes something along the lines of college was fun, the real world is brutal, good luck.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, certainly ranked among America’s wisest presidents, mused to 1932’s Oglethorpe University grads, “As you have viewed this world of which you are about to become a more active part, I have no doubt that you have been impressed by its chaos …”

In the thick of the Great Depression, and with tensions mounting toward the outbreak of World War II, FDR had a pretty good point. After the orderly and predictable sequence of your formal education, the real world is a terrifying abyss of uncertainty.

Author David Foster Wallace reduces this uncertainty to the simple premise that, for all of your education, you don’t really know much of anything at all, telling the Kenyon College Class of 2005,"The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude — but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance.”

Stated less gravely, cartoonist Bill Watterson (if you don’t know Calvin & Hobbes, what are you doing with your life?) spoke before the Kenyon College Class of 1990, asking rhetorically, “So, what’s it like in the real world? Well, the food is better, but beyond that, I don’t recommend it.”

And then there’s comedian Will Ferrell, who warned Harvard’s Class of 2003 that the post-college world comes with harsh reality checks:

“The last four, or for some of you five years, you’ve been living in a fantasy land, running around talking about Hemingway or Clancy, I don’t know. Whatever you read at Harvard. The novelization of The Matrix. I don’t know. But I do know this. You are about to enter into a world filled with hypocrisy and doublespeak, a world in which your limo to the airport is often a half-hour late and in addition to not being a limo at all, is often a Lincoln Town Car.”

Ferrell is right. You’ve got tough times ahead. We hope you’re ready.

In the interests of being ready, heed the words of Beavis and Butthead creator Mike Judge, who told the University of California, San Diego, Class of 2009 perhaps the realest wisdom you’ll receive here. “When you work for other people,” he said, “you’ll find … that they do know what’s best for them, and for the company. And you should listen to them and be respectful, but they don’t know what’s best for you.”

Much of this quest is about finding what’s best for you, regardless of what celebrities, presidents, your boss, or Will Ferrell have to say.

And now that we’ve stolen a bunch of wisdom from some really successful folks, we’ll close with these two:

First, check out this video for the only commencement speech (as far as we know) to become a hit on the Billboard Hot 100. “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen” made it all the way to #45 in 1997, not bad for a spoken-word piece based off a column in the Chicago Tribune.

The original column by Mary Schmich, “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young,” wasn’t actually delivered as a commencement speech, but it does cram pretty much every clever and inspirational graduation truism ever uttered into a single five-minute dash. Australian film director Bas Lurhmann adapted it into the hit-making, trip-hop prose you hear below:

And, one final notable quotable, because I’d prefer to leave you with the warm fuzzies. Late night TV host Conan O’Brien advised Dartmouth’s 2011 graduates: “Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.”

We wish this for you most of all. Congratulations on your achievement and good luck out there!

Take the next step towards your future with online learning.

Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.

Search Colleges is an advertising-supported site. Featured programs and school search results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other information published on this site.
Woman working at desk