There’s a lot of pressure on speakers delivering a commencement speech.
They have to say something inspiring, engaging, and memorable—and if that wasn’t hard enough, they have to remain composed in front of hundreds or thousands of people.
Universities handpick some of the most prestigious public speakers to give graduation speeches. As a result, there’s no shortage of commencement speech examples to watch and learn from.
We’ve picked out 15 of the very best from recent times, including videos, transcripts, and the best quote from each.
What are the ingredients of the best commencement speeches?
Before we get to the speeches, perhaps you’ve come across this article because you’re on the lookout for your own graduation speech ideas to deliver at an upcoming address.
If so, we’ve outlined the commonalities all of the best graduation speeches on this list share, so you can start crafting an address that will leave a lasting impression.
They include personal anecdotes
As you read through the graduation speech examples on this list, you’ll notice that nearly all of them start with a personal anecdote of some sort. This may be just a casual reference to one’s personal life, or a longer, more detailed story—or even a set of stories that are woven throughout the speech.
Anecdotes can create a captivating hook for your speech, and also make you more relatable, so that students identify with your main points.
They have a clear central theme
Most graduation speeches range from ten minutes to thirty minutes, but all of the best ones can be boiled down to one or two sentences. This is because a good graduation speech will be crafted around a central point: one specific concept that the speaker wants to demonstrate.
If you’re looking for graduation speech ideas, start with the primary point you want to make and build your speech around that. Choose too many points, and you’ll have a meandering speech that will leave listeners confused or overwhelmed.
They feature powerful one-liners
You’ll see we’ve included our favorite quotes from each of the graduation speeches below. In most cases, it was hard to just pick one line! A good graduation speech should have a few standout moments—one or two sentences that will stick in the minds of anyone who hears the speech.
The brilliant one-liners will rarely show up on the first draft of your speech, so don’t worry about being too clever when you’re just starting out. As you edit and hone the speech, the best lines will write themselves.
They are applicable to a broad audience
It’s not uncommon for commencement speech-givers to make comments about the specific school they are speaking to; a commencement address at at a technical school will naturally have different themes than one at a liberal arts college.
But ultimately, the graduation speech you give should be applicable to a broad audience. Every person in the graduating class should be able to resonate with the message on some level, and the most memorable graduation speeches apply to all young adults who are preparing to start living on their own.
Why it’s so good: Vice President Harris had a tough job—addressing a class of students who had experienced a global pandemic that disrupted their college experience. She took the stage and gave an inspiring speech encouraging students to seize the moment and adopt a sense of leadership. Listening to her speak, it’s no surprise her eloquence helped bring her to the White House.
Best quote: “I look at this unsettled world and, yes, I then see the challenges, but I’m here to tell you, I also see the opportunities. The opportunities for your leadership. The future of our country and our world will be shaped by you.”
Why it’s so good: Actor Jim Carrey is introduced as “the funniest man on Earth,” and though he comes out with a bunch of great jokes, his speech delivers insightful, thought-provoking, and touching comments about what life will be like after graduation.
Best quote: “You can spend your whole life imagining ghosts, worrying about the 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.”
Why it’s so good: Taylor Swift, in some ways, is the voice of the generation (though you may roll your eyes at that statement if you aren’t a fan). Either way, this graduation speech she gave speaks directly to the GenZ audience she addressed in a way older speakers might not be able to achieve.
Best quote: “Never be ashamed of trying. Effortlessness is a myth. The people who wanted it the least were the ones I wanted to date and be friends with in high school. The people who want it most are the people I now hire to work for my company. ”
Why it’s so good: Despite being one of the most successful businesspersons ever, the late Steve Jobs dropped out of college. He doesn’t shy away from this in his speech—instead, he uses it to tell three compelling stories from his life that contain some excellent lessons for soon-to-be grads.
Best quote: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Why it’s so good: If you only read the opening of actor Patton Oswald’s commencement speech, it will sound less than inspiring. He begins by outlining the many uncomfortable realities our world is facing, from climate change to deteriorating democracies around the world. But as his speech goes on, Oswalt puts into words the hope and passion that are signature traits of Generation Z, and it has an impressive impact on his audience.
Best quote: “You do not have a choice but to be anything but extraordinary. Those are the times we’re living in right now. And it’s been amazing. It’s been truly amazing to see how your generation has rebelled against every bad habit of mine and every generation that came before me.”
Why it’s so good: Though exciting, graduating from college can be intimidating as well—students may feel unconfident about what they want to do in life and who they want to be. Though she’s a seasoned journalist, Maria Shriver knows something about self-doubt and how to overcome it. She eloquently shares her advice in this graduation speech.
Best quote: “Graduates, you are not here to do a repeat of your parents or other famous Michigan grads. You are here to live your own wildly authentic lives. And it’s your authenticity, your determination, your creativity, and your imagination that our society needs most at this uncertain time.”
Why it’s so good: You probably don’t think of the word “failure” when you think of Denzel Washington, but that’s just the thing—as he says in his speech, people don’t focus on the failures of someone’s life; they focus on the successes. He uses examples of his own failures to encourage grads to “fall forward” when they don’t succeed.
Best quote: “So the question is, what are you going to do with what you have? I’m not talking about how much you have. Some of you are business majors. Some of you were theologians, nurses, sociologists. Some of you have money. Some of you have patience. Some of you have kindness. Some of you have love. Some of you have the gift of long-suffering. Whatever it is, whatever your gift is, what are you going to do with what you have?”
Why it’s so good: Elizabeth Bonker was one of the valedictorians for her class, which meant she was expected to give a commencement speech. As a woman affected by nonspeaking autism, she relied on technology to communicate a message of perseverance and the power to choose your own path in life.
Best quote: “The freedom to choose our own way is our fundamental human right, and it is a right worth defending, not just for us, but for every human being.”
Why it’s so good: Author David Foster Wallace was a master storyteller, and his speech is full of funny parables that conceal incredibly profound insights for the graduates listening. The speech Wallace gave was raw and honest, and as such, it has cemented itself as one of the best commencement speeches of all time.
Best quote: “And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”
Why it’s so good: Harvard is well-known for hosting some of the best commencement speeches, and 2023 was no different. Actor Tom Hanks started his address by talking about superheroes, and used it as a launching pad to show students how to tap into their own powers and fight for truth, justice, and the American Way.
Best quote: “Every day, every year, and for every graduating class there is a choice, the same option for all grownups to make: to be one of three types of Americans—those who embrace liberty and freedom for all, those who won’t, or those who are indifferent. In the never-ending battle you have all officially joined as of today, the difference is in how truly you believe, in how vociferously you promote, in how tightly you hold to the Truth that is self-evident—that of course we are all created equally yet differently, and of course we are all in this together. Justice and the American way are within our grasp no matter our gender, our faith, our station, our heritage, our genetic makeup, the shade of our flesh, or the continental birthplace of our ancestors.”
Why it’s so good: This speech, titled “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young,” was never delivered to a single graduating class. It originated as a hypothetical commencement speech penned by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich. It went viral over email (it was 1997, after all, so there was no social media). Later, Baz Luhrmann (yes, that Baz Luhrmann) adapted it into a spoken-word song commonly known as “Wear Sunscreen.” The song still slaps and contains a bunch of fantastic advice for young people.
Best quote: “Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.”
Why it’s so good: Olympic gold-medalist, World Cup champ, and human rights activist Abby Wambach was the perfect person to give a speech to the women graduating in the 2018 class at Barnard College. She gave a rousing speech about feminism and the power the women in her audience held as they took a step into the future.
Best quote: “As you go out into the world: Amplify each others’ voices. Demand seats for women, people of color and all marginalized people at every table where decisions are made. Call out each other’s wins and just like we do on the field: claim the success of one woman, as a collective success for all women.”
George Saunders commencement speech
Syracuse University College of Arts and Sciences, Class of 2013
Why it’s so good: Author George Saunders took the stage at the same university where he was a professor, which may explain why he was so candid in his excellent graduation speech. He speaks on regret and kindness—two emotions that are more connected than you may think.
Best quote: “Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf—seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.”
Why it’s so good: Matthew McConaughey gives a masterclass on structuring an excellent graduation speech. He cuts to the chase, letting the audience know that he’s going to share with them 13 simple truths. The first one is “Life’s not fair.” And they only get more honest and inspiring from there.
Best quote: “Prioritize who you are, who you want to be, and don’t spend time with anything that antagonizes your character. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. It tastes sweet but you will get cavities tomorrow. Life is not a popularity contest. Be brave. Take the hill. But first answer that question. What’s my hill?”
Why it’s so good: Juan Manuel Santos was the president of Colombia from 2010 to 2018, and much of his time during those years was dedicated to ending the long, violent civil war in his country. For this effort, he was the sole recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016. It should come as no surprise that he delivered a moving commencement speech focused on the concept of peacemaking.
Best quote: “To become a true peacemaker, first you must be at peace with yourself, at peace with your own conscience. … Whenever you have to choose between being at peace or proving yourself right, choose the way of peace. We have too many wars, conflicts, deaths, victims, and violence because human beings insist that only they, not their fellow humans, know the correct course of action. It is better to be at peace than to prove to anyone that you are right. Work with peace in your heart, find peace in your soul, and everything else will follow.”
More inspirational content for recent grads
Before you go, if you’re on the lookout for more resources to help you now that you’re a college grad, we’ve got some excellent content you might want to check out. Here are some of the best articles from our archives for young alumni: