5 Most Common Graduation Traditions and Their Meanings


By Published on May 10, 2018

When you finally earn your college degree, graduation is an exciting opportunity to celebrate all of the hard work you’ve put into your education. It gives students and their loved ones an opportunity to recognize a significant accomplishment.

Of course, as it is with many ceremonies, there are quite a few traditions associated with graduation. Some of these traditions are formalized and largely universal, like the cap and gown, while others are more casual and personal, like graduation dinners or parties.

Graduation Robes

The uniform of a graduate is perhaps the most iconic graduation tradition. The robes and cap are inseparably tied to the event. The robes vary according to the received degree, but each student receiving that level of degree will wear the same robes at each school.

The idea of academic robes first came about in the 12th and 13th centuries. Back then, most scholars were a part of the church, which may be why academic clothing closely resembled clerical outfits at the time. Many historians believe the long robes served a functional purpose. The academic buildings were generally unheated, and the long robes with hoods may have kept the scholars warm during their studies. Oxford and Cambridge were the first recorded schools to standardize the long gowns to represent unity during graduation.

Historians disagree on the origin of the square shape of the cap, but some believe that it represents the shape of the square quad on the Oxford campus.

Pomp and Circumstance

Second only to the cap and gown, Pomp and Circumstance is one of the most well-known graduation traditions. While many people might not recognize the tune by name, when the melody is played, most listeners will be able to identify it as the graduation march.

Though it is played at graduations across the United States, the song is actually British in origin. The song was written by British composer Edward Elgar for the coronation of King Edward VII. It wasn’t until four years later, when Elgar received an honorary doctorate at Yale, that it was first played at an American graduation. The tradition spread to other universities, and now it is used across the country.

Graduation Lei

This fun tradition is borrowed from the islands of Hawaii. Traditionally, family members and loved ones would give a lei to the graduate. It’s not uncommon in Hawaii for graduates to get so many lei that they basically look buried in flowers.

Today, the tradition has been carried over to graduates on the mainland as well. It’s not uncommon to see graduates of all backgrounds adorned with different kinds of lei. Flower lei are the most traditional, but many people give graduates candy lei or money lei as well.

Throwing the Graduation Cap

Anyone who has ever watched a movie or TV episode that has featured a graduation is likely familiar with this time-tested tradition. At the end of the ceremony, all of the graduates throw their graduation cap in the air in celebration. It is basically a symbol that exclaims “we did it!”

As it is in many cases, TV doesn’t necessarily reflect reality. Graduation ceremonies can be considered very formal events. Before throwing your cap skyward, you may want to check with the organizers of the event or academic leadership. At some schools, this is a tradition better suited for pictures before or after the ceremony.

Graduation Dinners and Parties

Many accomplishments or milestones are observed by holding a special meal in the individual’s honor. Graduations are no different. One of the most common ways to celebrate graduation is to go out for dinner with close friends or family. If this is how you’re looking forward to celebrating, make sure to get reservations well in advance, be prepared to wait for a table, or choose a restaurant further away from where the ceremony is held.

Alternatively, or in addition, many people choose to throw a party for the graduating individual. A party is a great way to gather friends and family and provide well-wishers an opportunity to congratulate the individual. The party can be as simple or elaborate as you like. Many bakeries and grocery stores even make graduation-themed cakes available for purchase for the occasion.

With just a few years of hard work and dedication, you could be the one walking across the stage to receive your degree. At Stevens-Henager College, we offer many different degree programs. Request more info on our website to learn more.