In recent years, the top universities have become more ambitious than ever in their search for a star name to deliver their graduation speech – or commencement speech as it’s more commonly known in the US. We’re certainly not complaining. It’s led to some amazing words of wit and wisdom, often from the most unlikely of sources. 

Here we pick our top 10 of the best ever graduation speeches. Scroll down for video links and killer quotes on each one.

10. Alice Cooper, Musicians’ Institute, 2012

The original godfather of shock wouldn’t be an obvious choice for many commencement days but for the rowdy and excitable LA Musicians’ Institute class of 2012 he was the perfect fit.

alice cooper graduation speech commencement

Top quote: “Whatever you do, avoid mediocrity. Mediocrity is your enemy.”

Watch the video>

9. Steve Jobs, Stanford, 2005

This was one of the rare occasions we got to see the real Steve Jobs in the public eye, honest and open, offering his wisdom on how to get the most from your limited time on the planet.”

steve jobs graduation speech commencement

Top quote: “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.”

Watch the video>

8. Jeff Bezos, Princeton, 2010

It takes a hard-nosed businessman to be CEO of Amazon and make the internet giant the success it is today. Or so you’d think. In his commencement speech at Princeton, Jeff waxed lyrical about the importance of… kindness. Who’d have thought it? Jezz Bezos, an old softie?

jeff bezos graduation commencement speech

Top quote: “I took the less safe path to follow my passion, and I’m proud of that choice.”

Watch the video>

7. JK Rowling, Harvard, 2008

The Harry Potter author went full-on confessional during her 2008 speech at Harvard, delving into the details of her dark past when she was “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.”

JK Rowling graduatiion commencement speech

Top quote: “You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift.”

Watch the video>

6. Robert de Niro, NYU Art School, 2015

Not one to gloss over the realities of working life in the entertainment industry, the legendary actor caused a stir with his obscenity-laden speech. He was bombastic in his declaration that the 2015 Art School graduates before him should be prepared for big challenges ahead.

Robert De Niro graduation commencement speech

Top quote: “You are opening a door to a lifetime of rejection… But when it comes to the arts, passion should trump common sense.”

Watch the video>

5. Mary Schmich, hypothetical commencement speech, 1997

Columnist Mary Schmich encouraged anyone over the age of 26 to write their own ‘Guide to life for graduates’. Her attempt was an essay titled ‘Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young’ which was first published in the Chicago Tribune and later re-imagined as the well-known pop song ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)’

schmich

Top quote: “Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.”

Watch the video to the ‘Sunscreen Song’>

4. John F Kennedy, American University, 1963

Against the backdrop of the early 1960s in America, Kennedy’s speech inspired graduates to strive for what may be the biggest goal of all: world peace.

jfk graduation commencement speech

Top quote: “Our problems are man-made — therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants.”

Watch the video>

3. Rik Mayall, Exeter, 2008

It seems comedians make great graduation speakers. The likes of Will Ferrell, Stephen Colbert and Ellen Degeneres almost made our top 10 too. But the late, great Rik Mayall topped the lot. As entertaining and engaging as ever, Rik treated the assembled throng to his very own ‘five mantras to life’.

rik mayall

Top quote: “Nobody is genuinely your superior.”

Watch the video>

2. David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005

In his now-legendary ‘This Is Water’ speech, the great novelist pulls no punches in dismissing the rat-race civilisation of modern-day western living. Wallace calls on his graduate audience to prove their educated ways by achieving “capital T-true” freedom through consciousness and sympathy.

graduation commencement speech david foster wallace

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

Watch the video>

1. Muhammad Ali, Harvard University, 1975

Muhammad Ali was more than just a boxer. He was a philosopher, poet, theologian, comedian and teacher. He was also dyslexic. When news got out that he’d been invited to give a commencement speech at Harvard in 1975 the excitement was fever pitch. The Greatest did not disappoint, delivering a rousing speech about the importance of friendship. Once he’d finished, someone in the audience shouted out “give us a poem!”. He responded famously with a poem of his own, known to be the shortest poem in history: “Me. We.”

Muhammad Ali, Harvard University, 1975

Top quote: “If a man extracts in return all he does for a friend then it is business, not true friendship. The greatness of a man depends on his heart not on his education or wealth.”

Watch the video> 

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