The Best Advice from Commencement Speeches

Every year around this time, a flurry of advice from commencement speeches makes its way out into the world. Some of it will be remembered. Much of it won’t, lost to the excitement of the big day and the passage of time.

For my own commencement ceremonies, I don’t even remember who gave the keynote speeches. However, I do recall getting to hear TV and film producer Jerry Bruckheimer and his wife, Linda Bruckheimer, speak at the 2009 commencement for Centre College, my alma mater. Despite the big Hollywood name, what stood out to me most was hearing Jerry and Linda talk about their philanthropy work. Linda is passionate about historic preservation, and that passion spoke to me more than anything Jerry might have said about his work on films like Pearl Harbor and Pirates of the Caribbean.

I also won a contest to give the student speech at my high school graduation. Although it was an honor to have been selected, I’m sure my speech was fraught with clichéd advice. Still, the experience was a very positive and memorable one for me.

Whether you remember the addresses from your own commencement ceremonies or not, here are highlights of some of the words of wisdom shared over the years.


Don’t let obstacles become roadblocks.

Actor Benicio Del Toro recently gave the commencement address to the graduates of Mercersburg Academy. He discussed the struggles he faced trying to identify a career path and then figuring out how to make his dream a reality.

Drawing from his experiences, Del Toro advised, “You must have conviction in what you’re doing. If you don’t know why you believe in something, why should I believe what you have to say? Don’t do something for trophies or medals: do it because it will transform your life, or someone else’s.”

“Everyone is going to draw lines for you,” he noted, “especially when they think you should have achieved something or proved something or become something by a specific time. But it’s your job to reimagine these lines—to cross them, to jump them, and in some cases to ignore them altogether.” The takeaway: You’ll encounter doubt and obstacles, but don’t let them become permanent roadblocks.

Read the transcript.


Be passionate and humble.

Journalist Katie Couric presented the 2015 commencement speech at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She discussed personal and professional hurdles that she viewed as learning experiences and growth opportunities to find and follow her passions.

“Think about what excites you,” Couric said, “what really gets your engine going. Engage in some real soul searching. Take a good, hard look at your strengths and weaknesses. A fulfilling professional life can be found at the intersection of what you love and what you’re good at. And when you think you’ve discovered it, go at it full throttle.” However, she warned, “Make sure that moxie comes with a big dose of humility. Be humble enough to know what you don’t know. Every day you should be learning, observing, asking questions.” The takeaway: Follow your passion, and be willing to continue learning and growing.

Read the transcript


Pursue a purpose.

In 2014, surgeon, professor, and writer Atul Gawande (and prolific commencement speaker) addressed the graduating class at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Gawande touched upon the importance of finding a greater purpose in life. He suggested that “You cannot flourish without a larger purpose. And that’s lucky in a way because our society cannot flourish without your reaching for a larger purpose, either.” He described the search for purpose as a place, as “a search for a location in the world where you want to be part of making things better for others in your own small way.” He concluded by saying, “Nobody here knows where the place for you will be. But graduates, we do know there is a place for you. In fact, there are likely many of them. You are going to even create some of those places yourselves, and the world is going to benefit from that.” The takeaway: Find the unique ways in which you’re best suited to make a difference.

Read the transcript


You have time to fail. 

Adam Savage, special effects artist and TV personality, delivered the 2012 commencement address for Sarah Lawrence College. He discussed his struggle with finding a career to combine his many interests and skills and the ultimate realization that it’s normal and okay to continue reinventing oneself.

Savage advised, “We are never finished products, we are all works in progress.” He furthermore suggested to “Remember that you have time to figure out what you want to do. Who you need to be. Where you want to go. You have time to fail. You have time to mess up. You have time to try again. And when you mess that up, you still have time. Just so long as you're willing to work hard.” The takeaway: You can change paths as often as you like if you’re prepared to put in the work.

Read the transcript



Dreams change.

In 2011, comedian and talk show host Conan O’Brien gave the commencement speech for Dartmouth College. Known for his humor and antics, O’Brien also shared meaningful life lessons based on his personal experiences, including the loss of his host spot on The Tonight Show.

O’Brien stated his belief that “one's dream is constantly evolving, rising and falling, changing course.” He went on to add, “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. 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.”  The takeaway: Allow yourself to have dreams, but also allow those dreams to change.

Read the transcript

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About The Author

Jessica Fearington

Jessica Fearington is a client engagement specialist for Kuder. As a Kuder Career Planning System® expert, she delivers online training and technical support for clients in education, counseling, and workforce settings. Prior to joining Kuder in 2017, Jessica served as an academic technology ... read more