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Articles / Preparing for College / Best and Worst Graduation Gifts

May 26, 2015

Best and Worst Graduation Gifts

It's that time of year. Your high school- or college-senior offspring may be graduating this year. In fact, they already may have graduated. It seems to me that graduation has crept earlier and earlier over the past decade or so. When I was in high school, our senior prom was in early June. These days, I start seeing prom pictures in the newspaper in later May.

Colleges, especially state-system universities, seem to end the school year in early to mid-May. Back in the day, my academic college years ended in early-to-mid June. I guess it's like product packaging. I've always said that I wouldn't mind paying a little more for a candy bar if they would just keep the darn things the same size. But, they seem intent on not only raising the price but also shrinking the product.

If you think of college as a consumer product (which it actually is), then the shrinkage-price-rise formula applies with a vengeance. That's a topic for another rant, though. Let's take a look at good, bad, and ugly graduation gifts.

First, the bad. I think that coming up with a bad idea for a graduation gift is the result of not putting a lot of thought into the selection process. I recall a bit by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, where he says that giving someone a paperweight just screams, "I put absolutely no thought into selecting this gift for you!" He went on to wonder under what circumstances someone would need a heavy implement to keep papers from blowing off their desk. "Maybe if your desk is located on the back of a flatbed truck barreling down the highway," he astutely notes. That image always makes me laugh.

So, fair warning: Here are some loser graduation gifts:

- [Surprise!] Paperweights --

For a grad?: Yawn yawn boring yawn.

Do give them to: Your fancy uncle that shelves leather-bound books in a proper library.

- Home Decor Items --

For a grad?: No, because they probably need to get an Ikea futon or a non-air matress bed before trinkets or anything deemed an "object."

Do give them to: A 30-something who's already had time to decorate her bookshelves with perfectly hodge podge frames and knick knacks.

- Kitschy Mugs --

For a grad?: They're funny for a second, but then you sort of hate that you can never bring them to work or have a grown-up conversation while holding one.

Do give them to: Your boyfriend's obnoxious roommate.

- Snowglobes --

For a grad?: Unless they have winter scenes and are part of a seasonal display, snowglobes are the most pointless things ever. Don't even get me started on this one, which has a globe inside a globe (WTF?). And, of course, you can't even bring it on a plane.

Do give them to: Your best friend with the best sense of humor, so she can display it proudly and then wait for people to comment.

- Piggy Banks --

For a grad?: Not unless it's got money in it.

Do give them to: A grad, if it has money it in.

- Inspirational Stones [?!] --

For a grad?: Seriously, you're going to give someone rocks? Rocks? Even if they've got uplifting words pressed into them, they're still just one step above giving someone coal at Christmas.

Do give them to: Your artsy, yoga-obsessed aunt, the one who always handmakes you ceramic jewelry for birthdays.

- Commemorative Pillows --

For a grad?: Keep the "Class of ..." stuff to t-shirts they can sleep in, not things to decorate their house with. It's too much nostalgia.

Do give them to: A grad, if they're going to keep it in a cozy tv room or use it for travel or something. (Just don't make them feel guilted into displaying it in their living room.)

- Light Therapy Visors --

For a grad?: Maybe they're moving north and might actually want this in due time, when it's darker than they're used to and vitamin D isn't exactly easy to come by. But don't scare them away from winters before they even get there.

Do give them to: Newly northern-ized grads, once they go through their first winter.

- Oh, The Places You'll Go by Dr. Seuss --

For a grad?: No, because by now it's about as cliché as people reading from The Velveteen Rabbit at their wedding and thinking they're original. Stop the madness.

Do give them to: Kids, of course.


If you've ever given any of the above bad gifts, redeem yourself with some of these great gifts:

- Digital Camera --

Give students a way to document the next phase in their lives. Digital cameras are becoming much less expensive, which means you can give a quality, high-tech gift without going broke.

- Bike --

[Although much more expensive than a paperweight ...] Biking on a college campus is a great way for students to be outdoors, exercise, and get to class quickly. And for a freshman without a car, owning a bike can be crucial for off-campus trips to grocery stores and parks.

- Noise-Cancelling Headphones --

[One of my favorite ideas.] For those who can't shell out for a computer, look for quality headphones. They're ideal for jamming on the way to work or class and while studying in loud dorms.

- Magazine Subscription --

College freshmen may get bogged down with their first dose of heavy academic reading, but flipping through the shorter articles of a magazine may be the perfect break.

- Luggage --

A small suitcase or overnight bag can come in handy for weekend trips back home, studyingabroad or spring break.

- [And the Grand Champion of All Time ...] Cash! --

Those pursuing work after high school may need cash for gas, rent and a business wardrobe. College-bound kids can always use cash, too, for textbooks, class fees and pizza.

How can you argue with cash? You can't. Well, just make sure that you give enough. When I was a kid, I used to think getting a five-dollar bill from my Granny at Christmas was the bomb. These days, a hundred bucks might catch my attention. Don't be a cheapskate!


Also, don't merely take the above recommendations (or cautions) as gospel. Here's a vintage College Confidential forum thread that has a few amusing insights about grad gifts. For example:

- My godmother gave me stationary with my name engraved on it...it looked so adult. I used the stationary throughout college for thank-you notes after internship and job interviews.

- We gave my niece 9 cards, each labeled with a month she'd be in her first year of college. Each card had personal notes from family, little inspirational quotes, and a gift card associated with the time of year...Target for the first month, college bookstore a couple of times, gas card for December - to get home, food places near her campus.

She has (amazing to us) stuck to the plan and opens a card on the first of each month. OK she TELLS us that is what she's doing. And she seems to be really enjoying it.

- Two postcards from his friend's mother. On one side they said in big letters: I NEED COOKIES! On the other side she had her name & address on the right, and a stamp. On the left she had a list of cookie flavors he could choose from (chocolate chip, sugar, oatmeal raisin...) and a spot for him to put his name and campus address. Along with this she gave him 2 packages of delicious home-made cookies to eat now.

He mailed one of the postcards back to her about 3 weeks after school started. A week later he received a box with delicious home-made cookies and a "best wishes" note! I don't know if he ever sent the second postcard, he talked about saving it till the end of the year. Maybe he'll even use it his sophomore year...


So, you can see that our CC posters have an imaginative creative streak. An original, thoughtful gift can be just as impressive as an expensive one, maybe even more impressive.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.


Admit This

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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