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Articles / Preparing for College / Memorable Commencement Speeches

Memorable Commencement Speeches

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | June 5, 2013

Our local paper has been filled with news about the local high school and college graduations going on in our area. With every article, there is always a brief sound bite from either the valedictorian's or main speaker's address. Some of these excerpts can seem pretty much alike or even trite. “Don't be afraid of life!" one proclaims. “You've only just begun!" another one urges, stealing from the Carpenters' song. Unfortunately, most of these challenging utterances are soon forgotten and their exhortational rush fades fast.

However, some graduation addresses remain memorable for a variety of reasons. One graduation speech from last year caused a national stir. It wasn't from Princeton or Yale. It was from a formerly relatively unknown high school in Massachusetts. I wrote about this here on Admit This! and said:

Being a commencement speaker can also be a bully-pulpit opportunity. You may recall last year's “excitement" about one high school graduation speaker. David McCullough Jr., speaking at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts told students “you're not special" nine times and said that he was shocked by all the attention his “tough-love" address received.

But, looking back, there are some truly outstanding commencement addresses that are neither snooze-worthy nor outrageous. Let's consider a few of them.

Our friends at Campus Grotto have put together a nice compilation of these memorable speeches. Here's a few comments from their generous listing:

A great commencement speech not only inspires graduates, but audience members as well. A speaker may not have all the answers, but one with the right words can light a fire inside of all of us and push us to our potential.

So whether you’re a fresh college grad, someone stuck in a career rut, someone who could use a little direction in life, or simply someone who likes to listen to motivational speeches, we present these popular commencement speeches from various college graduations.

Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech

Steve Jobs encourages graduates to find what they love and to not settle. “Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith.” There is meaning and reason behind everything; you have to trust that somehow the dots will connect in the future. Find what you love. Follow your curiosity and intuition. Trust in your gut.

Conan O’Brien’s 2011 Dartmouth Commencement Speech

“…whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come…The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality."

Conan injects tons of humor into this speech, cracking jokes at Dartmouth and other Ivy institutions. He tells graduates to be patient because the job market is tough out there. Sometimes life isn’t fair. In the speech he references how things didn't work out with him on The Tonight Show. What he learned is that when things aren’t working out, don’t be afraid to try new things. “It's not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound re-invention." Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.

Oprah’s 2004 Stanford Commencement Speech

Oprah encourages graduates to be themselves and not live to other people’s expectations. Learn from your failures: for every bad experience you go through, rather than getting down on yourself, think of what you can learn from the experience. In her speech, she touches on the meaning of life: to be truly happy, you have to give something back.

JK Rowling’s 2008 Harvard Commencement Speech

The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination.

The Harry Potter author talks of how failure enabled her to become successful. Had she succeeded at anything else, she may not have found the determination to go on and write novels. You will fail at some point, it’s how you pick yourself up and overcome your setbacks that makes you stronger and shows you’re a survivor. “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default."

Ellen DeGeneres’ 2009 Tulane Commencement Speech

In her commencement speech to Tulane graduates, Ellen tells of how she was completely lost after getting out of school. She had no plan and no idea of what she wanted to do. It wasn't until a tragic event happened in her life where she started asking herself questions and thinking, and there on finding her true path in life.

While she had found her true calling, she found the journey was not easy. When she came out, she lost her career, yet still managed to find a way to pursue her passion. What she learned is as you grow your definition of success changes and you discover more about who you are. It's about finding out who you are and being yourself, not living to other people’s expectations. You need to be true to yourself. Live with integrity, don't try and be something you're not.

Denzel Washington’s 2011 Penn Commencement Speech

Life isn’t worthwhile unless you take risks.

Denzel talks about the idea of having something to fall back on and how he disagrees with the notion. “If I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back on anything, except my faith. I want to fall… forward." He encourages graduates to take risks and take chances. “You will fail at some point in your life. Accept it.” Life will never be a straight path. Every failure is a learning experience that gets you one step closer to success. If you don't fail at some point in your life, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough. You may have all the training and talent in the world, but do you have the guts to take risks? Do you have the guts to push yourself as far as you can go?

To see what he means about taking risks and being willing to fail, Denzel recommends watching the character he plays in the movie “Philadelphia”.

Bill Cosby’s 2007 Carnegie Mellon Commencement Speech

Donning a gray Carnegie Mellon sweat suit, Bill Cosby shares the story of doing his first major comedy show. It was supposed to be his big break and he totally tanked it. He let the fear of the crowd and the fact that he might not be good enough get to his head. Luckily he was given a second chance and he blew the audience away. His point of the story: “Don’t talk yourself into not being you at any time.” You need to be sure of yourself and be prepared.


There are many more listed for your review in this excellent roundup. Check it out.

Have you experienced an exceptional graduation speech? If so, tell us about it. We'd love to know.


Be sure to check out all my other college-related articles at College Confidential.

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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