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Articles / Preparing for College / Commencement Speeches

Commencement Speeches

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | June 2, 2016

Although many colleges, maybe most by now, have graduated their seniors, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at commencement speakers. The article, The 10 Commencement Speeches Everybody Needs to Watch, inspired my thoughts.

As I reviewed the list of 10, one of the thoughts that occurred to me was, "Where are the conservative speakers?" That led me to another article: The Disappearance of Conservative Commencement Speakers.

It should be no wonder that the overwhelming majority of colleges and universities across the land hire liberal graduation speakers. The majority of higher education institutions are run and staffed by liberals. Left-leaning speakers appear to be a favorite of the student bodies, too. For example:

Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice ... pulled out of giving the commencement address at Rutgers University after students protested ... Conservatives have complained that they've been singled out, leaving only non-politicians and Democrats to offer a final word to newly minted college graduates. Based on commencement address data from the last two years, they're right ...

To document this situation, let's take a look at a few of those speeches (some for Class Day) that all of us should watch, including some of their notable quotes and a few of my subjective observations.

- Jon Stewart at The College of William and Mary, 2004

The former host of The Daily Show spoke to the graduates about the broken state of the world, the need competency and decency, and the scariness of the so-called real world.

Most hilarious quote: “I know there were some parents that were concerned about my speech here tonight, and I want to assure you that you will not hear any language that is not common at, say, a dock workers union meeting, or Tourrett's convention, or profanity seminar. Rest assured."

Most inspiring quote: “The unfortunate, yet truly exciting thing about your life, is that there is no core curriculum. The entire place is an elective. The paths are infinite and the results uncertain. So if there's any real advice I can give you it's this. College is something you complete. Life is something you experience."

Stewart is a cult favorite of young people, especially college students. He is held in high esteem as an entertainer, comedian, and -- somewhat surprisingly, in my view -- a sage commentator on the heavier issues in world news.

- Anderson Cooper at Tulane, 2010

The journalist, author, and TV personality talked to the graduates about what to remember, how to inspire, and how to take the initiative that is needed in the world today.

Most hilarious quote: “I have absolutely no memory of actually graduating college…I couldn't tell you what happened at my commencement. And it's not just that I don't remember what the speaker said, I don't even remember who the speaker was. So I'm not nervous anymore cause you're not going to remember a damn thing I say. You're going to wake up tomorrow in your own bed, or someone else's if you're lucky. Hey you're not going to see most of these people ever again, so why not go for it? Your parents have to go to sleep at some point."

Most inspiring quote: “I know many of you graduating today are worried about the economy, about your job prospects. I wish I could tell you not to, but of course you should be concerned. The one thing I can tell you, however, is that this has happened before and we have recovered. The currents of history only move in one direction- and that's forward."

Cooper is a liberal who is not as abrasive as some are toward anyone or anything conservative. In his role on CNN, Cooper strikes me as someone who at least tries to remain objective in covering and commenting on the news. He may not have the cult appeal of a Jon Stewart, but his appeal is more broad-based, which makes him appealing to an older demographic, such as the parents of college students.

- Stephen Colbert at Northwestern University, 2011

The funny-man imparted knowledge on all the graduates including how Kinko's got its name, the importance of sunscreen, the magic that is Chipotle, and the changing nature of dreams.

Most hilarious quote: “Northwestern's alumni list is truly impressive. This university has graduated best selling authors, olympians, presidential candidates, Grammy winners, Peabody winners, Emmy winners, and that's just me!"

Most inspiring quote: “You have been told to follow your dreams, but what if it's a stupid dream? 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."

Colbert is a comedian who dabbles in pseudo-serious ventures at times. He might take himself more seriously than others of us do, but he has garnered a large following and, like Stewart, has attracted a loyal following of young people. Thus, he's a good pick for a graduation speaker.

- Amy Poehler at Harvard University, 2011

The Parks and Rec superstar, Tina Fey's other half, and the SNL alumna had some words of wisdom for the Harvard graduates of 2011. Poehler's remarks included a reference to Fast 5, what career you should absolutely avoid (acting), and why the real world actually isn't that bad.

Most hilarious quote: “What do I know about Harvard? I know it is the oldest American university. I know it provides the ultimate experience in higher learning and according to the movies, I know it is filled with people who get rich either by inventing things or suing the people who they claim stole their invention. Let me be clear. I believe everything I see in movies. And if you remember anything I say today, remember this. Every single thing you see in movies is real."

Most inspiring quote: “You can't do it alone. As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration. Other people and other people's ideas are often better than your own. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life. No one is here today because they did it on their own. You're all here today because someone gave you strength, helped you, held you in the palm of their hand."

Poehler's career as an entertainer qualifies her to speak about the real world. Making it in the field of entertainment is exceedingly difficult and most times comes down to getting a lucky break at the best possible moment and a helping hand. Her comments on collaboration echo President Obama's famous comment about pioneering businesses: "... If you've got a business – you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen ..." We all need to pull together for the common good and Poehler emphasizes that.

- Aaron Sorkin at Syracuse University, 2012

Aaron Sorkin the screenwriter of A Few Good Men, creator of The Newsroom and The West Wing, and an all around incredible writer delivered the 2012 commencement address at Syracuse University. Sorkin spoke of the passage of time, the importance of parents, and how dumb recent college graduates actually are.

Most hilarious quote: “And make no mistake about it, you are dumb. You're a group of incredibly well-educated dumb people. I was there. We all were there. You're barely functional. There are some screw-ups headed your way. I wish I could tell you that there was a trick to avoiding the screw-ups, but the screw-ups, they're a-coming for ya. It's a combination of life being unpredictable, and you being super dumb."

Most inspiring quote: “Develop your own compass, and trust it. Take risks, dare to fail, remember the first person through the wall always gets hurt."

Sorkin's work will stand the test of time. His talent and accomplishments should be an inspiration to all young people, especially college graduates about to step out into a world where nothing is guaranteed or easy. His framing of President Bartlett in The West Wing is so convincing that I would love to see such a President at the helm of America today.


That's a glimpse of half of the 10 college speeches that we all should hear. You can check out the remaining five on your own. From my own experience with the graduation speakers at our daughter's and son's commencements, the liberal theme held true. For the Princeton University Class of 1999, Kofi Annan spoke. For the Dickinson College Class of 1994, Sarah Brady delivered the address.

So, why all the left leaning at graduation? Harry Enten offers his explanation:

In an increasingly polarized political atmosphere, the current lack of Republican commencement speakers at top universities and colleges makes a lot of sense; a decent number of people, including Democrats, don't like to hear differing views. On elite college campuses, where supporters of Democrats outnumber Republicans, the lack of conservative speakers isn't surprising.

Who spoke at your graduation? What was the tone of their speech? Let us know.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at 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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