Graduation Etiquette

Graduation Etiquette

With graduation season come ceremonies and parties celebrating the accomplishments of soon-to-be graduates. And where there are ceremonies and parties, there are rules of etiquette to help things go smoothly and amicably. To make life easier, we've provided some usefule graduation etiquette tips.

Graduation Announcements

Technically speaking, the announcement merely informs recipients of the graduation and does not invite guests to an event. In communities where space at the commencement ceremony is limited and attendees are issues tickets to attend, the announcement’s sole purpose is to let friends and family members know that someone has graduated. When drafting these announcements, be careful to ensure it is not misconstrued as an unintended invitation. It should be made clear in the wording that it is just an announcement.

Be inclusive when creating your list of recipients for graduation announcements. If you are considering just sending a mass email or announcing the graduation on social media, stop and reconsider. Graduations are one of the major milestones in a person’s life and should be commemorated with something more than a social media post or email.

Graduation announcements that do not invite guests to the graduation ceremony or a party should be sent after the ceremony has taken place, but not more than six weeks after the ceremony.

There are times, however, where the announcement is also used to invite friends and family to the ceremony or a graduation party. If space is not limited at the ceremony, the announcement may indicate the place and time of the commencement ceremony. If the announcement is also used to invite guests to a party, it should include the elements of the party invitation below.


Given that there are usually several events associated with a gradation (the commencement ceremony, party, or celebratory dinner), any invitation should clearly indicate to which event(s) the guest is being invited.

Graduation Ceremony Invitations

As you might guess, an invitation invites guests to attend the ceremony (or party). In many cases, schools have limited space and will therefore limit the number of guests each graduate is allowed to invite. Fewer allowed attendees means potentially excluding close family members or friends from being invited.  In these situations, it is always best to honestly explain the situation to family members. Where different sides of the family are involved, you may want to make sure you are extending an invitation to each side. Take and share lots of pictures and make sure to invite everyone to the graduation party.

Graduation Ceremony Invitation Timeline: Send ceremony invitations (whether included in the graduation announcement or sent separately) not later than two to three weeks prior to the graduation ceremony. Prior to mailing the formal invitations, you might want to send a “save-the-date” email to friends and families three weeks or more in advance.

Graduation Party Invitations

When do you send invitations for a graduation party? About Three weeks before the party. Sending it earlier may result in the invitation being misplaced or forgotten.  Earlier, and guests may have made other plans. Three weeks isn’t an absolute must, just a guideline. If you plan to invite many guests, error on the side of sending the invitations earlier, not later.

Graduation Party Etiquette

On graduation day, there are typically many parties. In the invitation, it’s a good idea to specify a party start and end time to allow both the graduate and guests to move to the parties of other graduates. The graduate, as the guest of honor, should stay for at least an hour though, to greet guests and talk to everyone that made and effort to attend.

Plan for a mixed crowd. Mixed generations are likely to attend. Have appropriate activities and refreshments for all age groups.

Graduation Ceremony Etiquette

With historic roots dating back to the thirteenth century, commencement ceremonies are traditionally dignified events.  Participants and guests should enjoy themselves, but also remember that proper graduation etiquette requires courteous behavior.

Commencement Ceremony Attire

A good rule of thumb is to dress business cassual or as you would for a religious service. For women, that means a dark dress, skirt, or pants, a light-colored blouse and dark shoes. For men, well-ironed khakis or dark trousers with a dress shirt and possibly a tie (preferably a white shirt and dark tie). Avoid wearing shorts, jeans, tennis shoes, or sandals.

What side does the tassel go on for a graduation cap? Wear the cap flat on your head. Normally, the tassel starts on the wearer’s right side, and, when the diploma is received, is moved to the left side. The cap should be removed if the national anthem is played.

Appropriate gown length: midway between ankle and knee.

Graduation Etiquette During the Ceremony

When to arrive. First, check your school's website (or other information provided regarding commencement). Many schools provide a required time to arrive. If your school does not, graduates should arrive at least an hour early. Guests should try to arrive at least thirty minutes early and be seated not later than fifteen minutes before the ceremony begins.

Silence cell phones. Cell phones are to be switched to silent mode or turned off. Do not speak on a cell phone or carry on a conversation during the ceremony as this prevents others from hearing and enjoying the ceremony. When taking pictures, be mindful not to interfere with other attendees’ enjoyment of the ceremony.

Be respectful. Commencement is both a joyous and solemn event. Express your excitement in ways that will not prevent others from hearing the speaker and enjoying the ceremony. The use of air horns, yelling, or stomping are disruptive. Leave the balloon bouquets, beach balls, and noise makers at home.

Photo opportunities. Many schools will ask that you refrain from taking pictures until after your graduate receives his or her diploma. This allows the ceremony to flow smoothly and reduces distractions to other audience members.

Remain in the venue through the full ceremony. As a courtesy to and out of respect for all graduates, the graduate and their family should remain seated until the conclusion of the ceremony. If the ceremony includes a gauntlet where faculty applauds the graduates as they exit the venue. Remain seated until the graduates have exited.

Visit our commencement ceremony section for detailed information regarding what to expect during commencement. It has detailed steps for walking the stage and other elements of the ceremony.

Graduation Gift Etiquette

It is somewhat tacky to set up gift registries or suggestions on an invitation. If they choose to, guests can request suggestions when they RSVP.

Do you need to give a graduation gift? Have you received a graduation announcement and are now wondering whether you need to send a gift to the graduate? It depends. If you are going to attend the graduation party or received an invitation to the ceremony, bring a gift – or send it close to the graduation date. If you have received only a graduation announcement, there is no obligation to send a graduation gift, but you can if you want to do so. A card is always a good option.

What is a good graduation gift? Anything given thoughtfully will be appreciated, but if you want to give something that will really commemorate the event, consider an engraved or monogrammed gift.  Jewelry with the date engraved is an excellent choice. Monogrammed luggage or a computer case are also a great choices to set the graduate out on new adventures in life. If sending one of these isn’t practical, a floral arrangement sent to the graduate’s home will be appreciated.

Thank-you notes

This is an occasion where sending an email or text won’t do.  If a graduate has received a gift, they need to send a hand-written thank you note. In the note, reference the gift and mention your plans with it.