Top 10 Commencement Speeches

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Getting your undergraduate degree is a jumping off point. The  day you graduate is just as much a beginning as it is an ending — which is pretty terrifying. But that’s where the commencement address plays a role.  Hopefully your school can land a big name. And ideally the speech makes you feel like the world is conquerable. Or if they don’t, they change the way you see the world all together. After researching the most inspirational speeches, these, my friend, are the best of the best.

1. Steve Jobs – Stanford University (2005)

“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason to not follow your heart.”

Six years before he passed away, the former Apple CEO delivered a commencement speech that fittingly began with his personal story of being a college dropout. He would then of course found Apple, a company from which he was later fired. He tells three stories, one about connecting the dots, one about love and loss, and the last about death. But in the end his message is one of opportunity. With everything up in the air, you are free to pursue your dreams. And yes, this is the speech where he says, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” 

2. David Foster Wallace – Kenyon College (2005)

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

As mind-blowing as Wallace’s “This is Water” speech was, it was not the typical commencement address. David Foster Wallace was a writer and when he addressed the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon, he spoke on the value of a liberal arts education, on what it means to be “taught how to think." It's an existential speech that addresses aspects of life that commencements do not usually discuss: the day in-day out routine of adulthood. But Wallace’s strongest point is a seemingly obvious one: you are not the center of the universe.

 3. J.K. Rowling – Harvard University (2008)

“You might never fail on the scale that I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. 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.”

Second to the Harry Potter novels, Rowling is known for her rags-to-riches story that preceded the iconic boy wizard. She of course praises imagination in her address, and like many great commencement speeches, the irreplaceable value of failure. But it’s her anecdote about working for Amnesty International that makes the author’s speech political and moving.

 4. Ellen Degeneres – Tulane University (2009)

 “I guess what I’m trying to say is life is like one big Mardis Gras.  But instead of showing your boobies, show people your brain, and if they like what they see, you’ll have more beads than you know what to do with. And you’ll be drunk, most of the time.”

 This speech is, of course, the funniest one you will hear. Ellen’s speech to the 2009 class from Tulane University follows  suit in praising the experience of loss and failure. Ellen relates by sharing the story of a girlfriend that passed away. But given that this commencement speech comes four years after Katrina, the words land even harder.

5. Mark. S. Lewis – University of Texas (2000)

The way to be happy is to like yourself. That’s the real reason not to lie or cheat or turn away in fear. There’s that old joke, not very funny, that goes, ‘no matter where you go, there you are.’ That’s true. The person you’re with most in life is yourself and if you don’t like yourself you’re always with somebody you don’t like.”

The three stories that psychologist Mark Lewis weaves together all deal with success, how it is defined and how it defines you. And at the end of these stories, he wishes three things for all graduates. And depending on how you look at it, each deals with fear, one fear being the most prominent. Yes, the fear of failure.

 6. Stephen Colbert – Knox College (2006)

“Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say ‘no.’ Buy saying ‘yes’ begins things. Saying ‘yes’ is how things grow. Saying ‘yes’ leads to knowledge. ‘Yes’ is for young people.

 Stephen Colbert is of course hilarious on TV, but in this commencement address to Knox College's 2006 graduating class, he discusses the job market graduates enter and the fear that the world will ultimately disappoint you. But this is Colbert, the speech is still humorous rather than foreboding. 

7. Sheryl Sandberg – Harvard Business School (2012)

“Build your skills, not your resume. Evaluate what you can do, not the title they’re going to give you. Do real work… Don’t plan too much, and don’t expect a direct climb. If I had mapped out my career when I was sitting where you are, I would have missed my career.”

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s makes the list because it is current and addresses the issues recent graduating classes face, and that no others have faced before. But there is also tried and true advice about honesty in the workplace. Sandberg focuses on truth in communication and how that makes an effective leader.

 8. John F. Kennedy – American University (1963) 

“Our problems are manmade — therefore, they cannot be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable — and we believe they can do it again.”

Do not just ignore the parts where he talks about the Soviet Union. While JFK’s commencement address spoke to graduates from a different time, the ideas and advice he offered still hold true. Everything in this speech is on the global and national levels, but on the idea that individuals are a part of a whole. And that as a whole, all graduates hold this responsibility.


9. Oprah Winfrey – Stanford University (2008)

“It’s being able to walk through life eager and open to self-improvement and that which is going to best help you evolve, because that’s really why we’re here, to evolve as human beings. To grow into more of ourselves, always moving to the next level of understanding, the next level of compassion and growth.”

Oprah talks about failure, are you getting the trend yet? The speech is a little heavy on the anecdotes, but the strongest points in Oprah’s speech are not her own, but ones she leans from authors like Echkart Tolle who teach to live in the moment, to persevere and to learn the lessons life delivers in and out of the classroom.

10. Anthony Corvino – Binghamton University (2009)

“I am sorry to say that average will never be fame or fortune or the American Dream. Average is something much more. Average is the parent who drives their son or daughter to school every day so their child may have a better life than the one they had.”

Anthony Corvino was chosen as the undergraduate speaker at Binghamton University’s commencement because he was an “average Binghamton student.” So of course, Corvino talks about the idea of success we all strive for, but the real yet unexpected successes that we will find in our futures. 

Senior > Writing > Savannah College

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