The Best College Graduation Speeches Ever

The Best College Graduation Speeches Ever



Great news, graduates! The job outlook is looking a lot better than it has in the past few years.

The U.S. economy has added, on average, 238,000 jobs in the past few months, according to the Labor Department. And, job listings targeted at new grads are up slightly from a year ago on job-listing site Simply Hired from last year.

“I think there is this skills-gap shift we’re seeing.Younger people coming out of school are more prepared for the kind of jobs we need in this sort of new economy,” said Simply Hired CEO James Berniker. Specifically, how adept they are with technology, which he thinks can be helpful for emerging companies as well as those that are well-established.

His advice for new grads? Don’t take the summer off! Too many kids say I’m tired, I need a break — I DESERVE a break. I’ll start looking for a job in September. But it’s still really competitive out there, so he says better to get a jump on the competition and start over the summer.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received is: Don’t treat your job search like dating. Don’t think “I shouldn’t call right away — I should play it cool and wait a few days.”

If you remember one thing, remember that applying for a job is NOT a date. And in those two days you were waiting? Somebody else may have already gotten the job. Send your resume. Follow up by email or phone. Leave the coy behavior for that cute girl from chemistry class.

One of the most famous pieces of advice for graduates came from Chicago Tribune writer Mary Schmich, in a column titled: “Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted on the Young.” (aka, “The Wear Sunscreen Speech.”)

“Wear sunscreen. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it,” Schmich said. “Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.”

From business titans like Steve Jobs and Carl Icahn to celebrities like Stephen Colbert and Bono, there has been some great advice delivered at commencement speeches. So, before we kick our young out of the academic nest, squawking and flapping into the real world, here are 12 of the best graduation speeches of all time.


Bill Gates, founder, former CEO of Microsoft

Harvard (2007)

Bill Gates shows just how level the playing field can be: After dropping out of Harvard, he went on to found Microsoft and become one of the wealthiest men in the world.

“I’ve been waiting more than 30 years to say this: “Dad, I always told you I’d come back and get my degree. I want to thank Harvard for this honor. I’ll be changing my job next year and it will be nice to finally have a college degree on my resume! …

“We can make market forces work better for the poor if we can develop a more creative capitalism – if we can stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or at least make a living, serving people who are suffering from the worst inequities. …

“You have more than we had; you must start sooner, and carry on longer.”

Watch the commencement speech
Read the full transcript

Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert, “The Colbert Report”

Northwestern (2011)

Stephen Colbert has given several commencement speeches. At his alma mater, Northwestern, in 2011, hestarted off by thanking the university president, the board … “and thank you parents! Of course, if you don’t thank them now, you’ll have plenty of time to thank them tomorrow when you move back in with them.”

“We didn’t have cell phones. If you made plans to meet someone in a snow storm, and they didn’t show up, you just had to assume they were devoured by wolves and go on with your life.”

His best advice was about following your dreams.

“You have been told to follow your dreams. But — what if it’s a stupid dream? For instance, Stephen Colbert of 25 years ago lived at 2015 North Ridge — with two men and three women — in what I now know was a brothel. He dreamed of living alone — well, alone with his beard — in a large, barren loft apartment — lots of blond wood — wearing a kimono, with a futon on the floor, and a Samovar of tea constantly bubbling in the background, doing Shakespeare in the street for the homeless.Today, I am a beardless, suburban dad who lives in a house, wears no-iron khakis, and makes Anthony Wiener 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. But just as importantly — and this is the part I may not get right and you may not listen to — if you do get your dream, you are not a winner.”

Watch the commencement speech
Read the full transcript


Image credit: jurvetson via Flickr

Bono, Rock Star, U2

University of Pennsylvania (2004) 

Bono has given several commencement speeches at different universities and never fails to delight, from talking about “wearing a mirror-ball suit” the last time he was in this particular arena to admitting to he once slept with an economics professor. Oh, he also has some good advice!

“I saw something in the paper last week about Kermit the Frog giving a commencement address somewhere. One of the students was complaining, ‘I worked my ass off for four years to be addressed by a sock?’ You have worked your ass off for this. For four years you’ve been buying, trading, and selling, everything you’ve got in this marketplace of ideas. The intellectual hustle. Your pockets are full, even if your parents’ are empty, and now you’ve got to figure out what to spend it on. …

“So, my question I suppose is: 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?

“[M]y point is that the world is more malleable than you think and it’s waiting for you to hammer it into shape.”

Watch the commencement speech
Read the full transcript

President Obama

Image credit: BeckyF via Flickr

President Obama

Barnard College (2012)

The president noted that this class came in as freshmen in 2008.

“[J]ust as you were starting out finding your way around this campus, an economic crisis struck that would claim more than 5 million jobs before the end of your freshman year … And while opportunities for women have grown exponentially over the last 30 years, as young people, in many ways you have it even tougher than we did. This recession has been more brutal, the job losses steeper.”

“Every day you receive a steady stream of sensationalism and scandal and stories with a message that suggest change isn’t possible; that you can’t make a difference; that you won’t be able to close that gap between life as it is and life as you want it to be … My job today is to tell you don’t believe it. Because as tough as things have been, I am convinced you are tougher.”

He had two pieces of advice for the class of all women: 1) “Don’t just get involved. Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table,” and 2) “Never underestimate the power of your example. The very fact that you are graduating, let alone that more women now graduate from college than men, is only possible because earlier generations of women — your mothers, your grandmothers, your aunts — shattered the myth that you couldn’t or shouldn’t be where you are.”

Watch the commencement speech
Read the full transcript

Carl Icahn

Image credit: Drexel University

Carl Icahn, activist investor

Drexel University (2008)

Icahn also made his address in the poignant year of 2008 and took aim squarely at corporate management.

“We today are in a crisis in our economy … One of our major problems in this country is management and their ability to compete. With exceptions, we have terrible management in this country. The system is dysfunctional. I can tell you how bad our boards are, with exceptions of course. I sit on a lot of boards. I don’t have to watch ‘Saturday Night Live’ anymore; I just go to the board meetings. I will tell you, it’s a sad commentary, that we have an inability to compete.”

“[T]here is no way to hold these guys accountable — except if somebody like myself comes along, or some other person, who’s really well to challenge them but you have to go through contortions.”

“It’s again a sad commentary, the way you get to be a CEO. Don’t get into the mold most CEOsget into to get elected. I call it ‘anti-Darwinian.’ I call it ‘anti-survival of the fittest.'”

He talked about one CEO he went up against but had praise for him for bucking the board. His final advice to the graduates: “That is what you should seek to be when you go out into the world. You should try to stand up against the trend.”

Watch the commencement speech
Read the full transcript

Lewis Black, comedian

Thurgood Marshall College, University of California at San Diego (2013)

Lewis Black, known for his angry rants, stressed the importance of humor and pursuing your dreams — and he even apologized for the Social Security checks they might not get.

“Our parents passed it on to our generation, but no one ever said to us that we were supposed to pass it on to the next generation. So we spent it.”

His best line was about what to expect in the real world.

“You are now entering a world that’s filled to the brim with idiots. Since there are so many idiots out there, you actually may start to think you’re crazy. You are not. They are idiots.”

“Whatever you do, don’t tell them that they are an idiot.There may come a day when you may need that idiot. Idiots may be idiots — but they do have a memory.”

Watch the commencement speech



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