How to write a high school graduation speech

Every year around this time, a few of our Collegewise kids ask us to look over the graduation speeches they’ve written so we can give them feedback. And every year, our most important feedback is that they not write the standard high school graduation speech.

Every kid in America who writes a high school graduation speech seems to say the same three things.

1. “We’ve come so far in just four years.”

2. “We’ve endured good times and bad, but we’ve gotten through it all together.”

3. “Now we’re going off into our futures, but we’re well-prepared thanks to our high school.”

It's not that those are inappropriate thoughts to share. But the rules we teach for great college essays all apply here.  Don’t say what everybody else says, exactly how they say it.  Be honest.  Be specific.  Be forceful.  Say something meaningful.  Don’t resort to quotes or clichés.

We’re not in the speechwriting business, but in the interest of high school graduation guests everywhere, here are my five unsolicited tips for potential graduation speakers.

1. Be specific.

Details make writing interesting.  The same can be said of details in speeches. There’s nothing original or interesting when you say,

“Our freshman year, we were somewhat unsure of ourselves, lost in a large school, and apprehensive about what our future held for us."

But details make it personal and relatable.

“It’s amazing how much we’ve all changed in the last four years. On my first day here at school, I could barely reach my locker. I estimated that most of the senior football players had to have been at least 28 years old. And sadly, I got lost trying to find Freshman English and had to ask for directions. Twice. Today, I’m proud to report that I can reach my locker, the football players don’t look older than I do, and I can find any class on this campus, from drama to physics without having to ask for directions. How different will we all be two years, or four years, or ten years from now?”

2. Put the quote book away.

Forget the famous quotes. You are the graduation speaker. People want to know what you have to say.  The crowd doesn't want to hear what Nietzsche or President Kennedy or King Ferdinand has to say. 

3. Thank someone.  And ask others to do the same.

It’s always good to recognize parents, teachers and your friends. But I think a very nice thing to do is to publicly thank a specific person, one person who helped you, who made a difference, or believed in you. It could be a coach, a counselor, a teacher, your dad, whoever. Thank them in front of everybody. And then encourage everyone else to find and thank the person who helped them, and to do so before they leave graduation.

Who you thank will not be that important to the audience so keep that part short. What will be important (and very cool) is that you’ll ask the crowd to think about who they have to thank. The speech shouldn’t just be about you.  If your speech inspires other people, you’ll be a speaker to remember.

4. Don’t say anything you’ll regret in thirty years.

Most kids who are selected to be graduation speakers are the type of kids who have always set a good example. But every year, they’ll be a few kids who want to take controversial stand, or call out a teacher or administrator, or make an inappropriate joke. Don’t be that kid. You want inspiration? Write the speech you can show to your own son or daughter thirty years from now and say, “That’s how it’s done.” 

5. Save your most important message for the end.

You are the student who will have the collective attention of your entire senior class. So put down the speech and ask yourself, what is the one thought, the one thing you would most like to say to every single member of the graduating class? If they remembered nothing else, what’s the most important thing you want to say to them?  Stay safe during graduation night so they can start their futures tomorrow?  You hope they all find success and happiness?  Whatever the answer is, make sure you include it in the speech, and make sure you close with it.

If you’ve got a friend who’s hoping to be a grad night speaker, feel free to forward this along. I hope it helps.