The best graduation speech quotes are those that entertain and motivate – and some might even go down in history.
This list is a continuation of last year’s post on graduation speeches, but it should be noted that this year we focused on the best famous graduation speeches.
Your college may not have such big names for its commencement ceremonies, but it doesn’t matter. The speaker is usually someone who achieved greatness, who did something wonderful for the world, and if that person accomplished it without being a celebrity, so much the better. Your graduation ceremony is for you. Listen to every word.
The speeches on our list are among the best. The speakers range from comedians to CEOs to authors. We’ll give you the speaker, the setting and our favorite quote from the speech.
Then, in the comments section below, tell us which graduation quote you like best. Which one made you laugh out loud? Which one made you want to jump out of your chair and help the world?
Which one made you proud to be a college student?
1. Bill Gates
Microsoft-founder, philanthropist, and college drop-out Bill Gates gave the 2007 commencement speech at Harvard University. Always a businessman, he encouraged students to use their knowledge and means to help others. Our favorite quote focused on the new generation:
“You graduates are coming of age in an amazing time. As you leave Harvard, you have technology that members of my class never had. You have awareness of global inequity, which we did not have. And with that awareness, you likely also have an informed conscience that will torment you if you abandon these people whose lives you could change with very little effort. You have more than we had; you must start sooner, and carry on longer.”
2. Jon Stewart
As many college students’ main news source, comedian Jon Stewart knows his audience. He gave the graduation speech for the class of 2004 at William and Mary College, his alma mater. Our favorite quote falls under Stewart’s classic shtick – self-deprecating and ironic:
“I am honored to be here and to receive this honorary doctorate. When I think back to the people that have been in this position before me from Benjamin Franklin to Queen Noor of Jordan, I can’t help but wonder what has happened to this place. Seriously, it saddens me. As a person, I’m honored to get it; as an alumnus, I have to say I believe we can do better. And I believe we should. But it has always been a dream of mine to receive a doctorate and to know that today, without putting in any effort, I will. It’s incredibly gratifying. Thank you.”
3. Oprah Winfrey
An emotional and moral guide for many people, Oprah’s sensitivity and sincerity made her graduation speech at Stanford University in 2008 extremely uplifting. She talked about her own successes and failures, and how she learned to cope with whatever life threw at her through self-exploration and awareness. Our favorite quote:
“The world has so many lessons to teach you. I consider the world, this Earth, to be like a school and our life the classrooms. And sometimes here in this Planet Earth school the lessons often come dressed up as detours or roadblocks. And sometimes as full-blown crises. And the secret I’ve learned to getting ahead is being open to the lessons, lessons from the grandest university of all, that is, the universe itself.”
4. J.K. Rowling
If you don’t know much about the famed author of the Harry Potter series, you should know that she struggled greatly before her extraordinary success. Her experiences with overwhelming poverty and then overwhelming triumph make her not only an imaginative author, but also a wise woman. When she delivered a graduation speech at Harvard University in 2008, she offered this advice to graduates:
“You might never fail on the scale 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.”
Always the activist, U2’s lead singer spoke at the University of Pennsylvania in 2004. He addressed countless issues that are plaguing the world, encouraging students to go out and make a difference in causes that matter to them. Our favorite quote from Bono:
“We can’t fix every problem – corruption, natural calamities are part of the picture here – but the ones we can, we must. The debt burden, as I say, unfair trade, as I say, sharing our knowledge, the intellectual copyright for lifesaving drugs in a crisis, we can do that. And because we can, we must. Because we can, we must. Amen!”
6. Will Ferrell
One of Saturday Night Live’s most famous comedians gave the graduation speech at Harvard University in 2003. Will Ferrell opened with a joke, naturally, checking to make sure that this ceremony wasn’t for the “Worcester, Mass Boat Show.” But as for our favorite quote:
“You’re about to enter into a world filled with hypocrisy and doublespeak, a world in which your limo to the airport is often a half-hour late. In addition to not even being a limo at all; oftentimes it’s a Lincoln Town Car. You’re about to enter a world where you ask your new assistant, Jamie, to bring you a tall, non-fat latte. And he comes back with a short soy cappuccino. Guess what, Jamie? You’re fired. Not too hard to get right, my friend.”
7. Conan O’Brien
This late-night comedian’s speech at Harvard University in 2000 definitely falls under the comedy genre of commencement speeches. Focusing on the college experience and how it applies to real life, we chose this quote from his speech as our favorite:
“So, that’s what I wish for all of you: the bad as well as the good. Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally. And remember that the story is never over. If it’s all right, I’d like to read a little something from just this year: ‘Somehow, Conan O’Brien has transformed himself into the brightest star in the Late Night firmament. His comedy is the gold standard and Conan himself is not only the quickest and most inventive wit of his generation, but quite possible the greatest host ever.’ Ladies and Gentlemen, Class of 2000, I wrote that this morning, as proof that, when all else fails, there’s always delusion.”
8. Steve Jobs
Considering the content of Apple-founder Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005, it’s a good one to end with. A college drop-out who was once fired from his own company and has struggled with cancer, Jobs’ life experience makes him one of the wisest speakers on our list. Our final favorite quote is one that puts it all in perspective:
“Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you. But someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it’s quite true. 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, heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”