Student Blog

Top 13 Commencement Addresses

Posted by Colleen Reding on May 26, 2016 12:21:04 PM

Rows of college graduates in caps and gowns

Photo credit: Will Folsom via / CC BY

Barack Obama, Jane Goodall, Steven Spielberg, Lin-Manuel Miranda ... Everybody who’s anybody seems to be taking to the stage to congratulate and impart words of wisdom on the graduating class of 2016. In the spirit of the season, we wanted to take a look back at the most memorable commencement addresses in recent history. Whether you are donning a cap and gown, dreaming about receiving your degree someday, or reminiscing about the sweet mullet you had flowing under your mortarboard, we think these speeches will inspire you in whatever stage of life you are in.  With special thanks to AdmitHub's expert contributors on the About Admissions Q&A Forum, we proudly present our Top 13 Commencement Addresses:

13. Bono: University of Pennsylvania, 2004

With his signature shades, Bono rocked the University of Pennsylvania Commencement Address of 2004. Jody Sweeney, the Associate Director of College Counseling at William Penn Charter School, says that in addition to being "one of the coolest human beings on earth" Bono's speech "is funny and self-deprecating while also interesting, serious, idealistic, practical, hopeful and realistic. His message resonates today as strongly as over a decade ago."

His message? The future is what you make of it:

“I used to think the future was solid or fixed, something you inherited like an old building that you move into when the previous generation moves out or gets chased out. But it's not. The future is not fixed, it's fluid. You can build your own building, or hut or condo, whatever -- this is the metaphor part of the speech, by the way.”

12. Maya Angelou: Savannah College of Art and Design, 1998

Maya Angelou elicited not one, not two, but three standing ovations for her always elegant prose and promise for a “delicious future.” Brian K. Smith, the Director of College Counseling at Memphis University School, simply says, "Be ready to cry."

Angelou's advice? Discover your gift and share it with others:

“All you have to do is recognize your one gift, which is a combination of many gifts, and see yourselves as saints to those who are yet to come.”

11. David Foster Wallace: Kenyon College, 2005

Mark Moody, the Co-Director of College Counseling at the Colorado Academy, says that David Foster Wallace's speech, "This is water," celebrates individuality and is empowering without being preachy.

Foster's message in a nutshell:

"The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.”

10. Neil Gaiman: University of the Arts, 2012

Neil Gaiman delivers a humble address from a talented writer who never anticipated “giving advice to people graduating from an establishment of higher education” having never earned a degree himself. Brian Ruhlmann, AdmitHub's Director of Sales, says it's "a must-watch for aspiring artists everywhere."

Gaiman points out that success can be harder to handle than failure:

“The problems of success can be harder, because nobody warns you about them.”

9. Ellen DeGeneres: Tulane University, 2009

It is nearly impossible not to get up and dance while listening to Ellen's powerful address to Tulane University's "Hurricane Katrina Class."

Rhoan Garnett, an Educational Researcher at the University of Washington, loves her message about "keepin' it real" and "being yourself." Of course, Ellen delivers laughs as well as inspiration:

“...So to conclude my conclusion, follow your passion, stay true to yourself. Never follow anyone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path and by all means you should follow that.”

8. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Wellesley College, 2015

Caroline Alexander, Data Scientist at AdmitHub, was inspired by seeing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie use the opportunity to convey an extremely important and timely message to Caroline's class at Wellesley:

“Feminism should be an inclusive party. Feminism should be a party full of different feminisms.”

7. Mike O’Malley: University of New Hampshire, 2006

This one’s a wild card, but Matt Kaberline, the Co-Director of College Counseling at Severn School, explains why it’s a winner:

In 2006, I went to my cousin’s graduation at UNH. I heard the commencement speaker was Mike O’Malley, and my immediate thought was, ‘The guy from the ESPN commercials and Nickelodeon’s Guts, really?’ He apparently anticipated that response and delivered a funny yet poignant speech that I still seem to compare graduation speeches today. He reminded me that the stature of the speaker shouldn’t be the measure of a graduation speech.”

6. Stephen Colbert: Northwestern University, 2011

Dan Evans, the Director of College Counseling at William Penn Charter School, says you simply "can't go wrong with Stephen Colbert" up on the stage.

Always a crowd-pleaser, Colbert did not disappoint his fans at his alma mater:

"Today, I am a beardless suburban dad who lives in a house, wears no-iron khakis and makes Anthony Weiner jokes for a living and I love it because thankfully dreams can change. If we’d all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses. So whatever your dream is right now, if you don’t achieve it you haven’t failed and you’re not some loser.”

5. Navy Admiral William McRaven: University of Texas, Austin, 2014

Jeffrey Neil, Director of College Counseling & Institutional Research at Western Reserve Academy says William McRaven's speech is "at once memorable, poignant, and powerful."

Invaluable advice from the ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command begins with “Make your bed”:

“For the boat to make it to its destination, everyone must paddle. You can't change the world alone -- you will need some help -- and to truly get from your starting point to your destination takes friends, colleagues, the goodwill of strangers and a strong coxswain to guide them."

4. J.K. Rowling: Harvard College, 2008

Sorting hat says it’s hard to top a commencement address that is infused with magic.

Andrew Magliozzi, a Co-Founder of AdmitHub, gives props for the author's wisdom about "The Fringe Benefits of Failure." Here's a sample:

“The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.”

3. Steve Jobs: Stanford University, 2005

Nominated by Clare Norton, University Director of Admission, CUNY

Get the tissues ready for this touching speech on pursuing passions, embracing failure, and recognizing the brevity of life. Clare Norton, the University Director of Admission at CUNY, says that you if can follow Steve Jobs' advice to "stay hungry, stay foolish," you'll always lead a fulfilling life. Here's a slice from Jobs' 2005 address to Stanford graduates:

“You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”

2. Jane Lynch: Smith College, 2012

Lydia Mann, the Associate Director of College Counseling at Pomfret School, says you simply can’t say no to this pithy call to action in which Jane Lynch encourages students to take in one last lesson on the importance of embracing “Yes, and ... ”:

“Whatever it is, the good, the bad, the thrilling, the heartbreaking, every emotion, occurrence, event, person, place or thing, you will experience them all. That’s the ‘YES’ I’m talking about. And the acceptance and embrace of it with all your heart and doing something with it, that’s the ‘AND.’”

1. Sheryl Sandberg: University of California, Berkeley, 2016

Matt DeGreeff, the Director of College Counseling at Middlesex School, says Sheryl Sandberg's recent address at Berkeley is compelling and brave as she tackles the subject of grief and the loss of her husband. Offering an honest and heart-wrenching outlook on what really matters, the Facebook COO provides the keys to resilience:

“You will be defined not just by what you achieve, but by how you survive.”

Department of Corrections

As with any list, this one is undoubtedly defined as much by omission as by inclusion. So ... whom did we forget? Who is your top pick? Please tell us about your favorite commencement addresses and add your suggestions and critiques in the comments section below. You should also join our newsletter to get our latest content and news from AdmitHub.

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