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 out there.
We’ve picked out 12 of the very best from recent times, including videos, transcripts, and the best quote from each.
The 12 best commencement speeches of all time
Kamala Harris commencement speech
Tennessee State University, Class of 2022
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.”
Jim Carrey commencement speech
Maharishi University of Management, Class of 2014
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.”
Taylor Swift commencement speech
New York University, Class of 2022
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. ”
Steve Jobs commencement speech
Stanford, Class of 2005
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.”
Maria Shriver commencement speech
University of Michigan, Class of 2022
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.”
Denzel Washington commencement speech
University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2011
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?”
Elizabeth Bonker graduation speech
Rollins College, Class of 2022
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.”
David Foster Wallace commencement speech
Kenyon College, Class of 2005
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.”
Mary Schmich commencement speech (sort of)
All Graduates Everywhere, 1997
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.”
Abby Wambach commencement speech
Barnard College, Class of 2018
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.”
Matthew McConaughey commencement speech
University of Houston, Class of 2018
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?”