Executive Careers Blog

Top 10 Commencement Speeches


In honor of Barack Obama's first commencement address of his presidency, the editors at Vault have chosen the Top 10 Commencement Speeches of the last 100 years.

The commencement speech is the last thing a college student hears before being handed his degree and thrust into the "real world" - the last lesson taught in his undergraduate education. There are many different commencement speeches and speakers, and we have included a variety of approaches and styles in our list of the Top 10.

They are rousing calls to action, personal stories, and words that inspire self-reflection; but above all, they offer advice and guidance for the years ahead. We feel that the Vault Top 10 represent the best of the best.

Without further ado, the Vault Top 10 Commencement Speeches:

1. David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005

But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line--maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible--it just depends on what you want to consider.

2. Winston Churchill, Harrow School, 1941

But we must learn to be equally good at what is short and sharp and what is long and tough.

3. Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005

If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do.

4. Marc Lewis, University of Texas at Austin, 2005

…there is going to come a time in your life when in order to succeed you will have to trust--when you will have to make a big leap of faith--and when that time comes I hope you will swallow your fear and get into the wheelbarrow.

5. Woody Hayes, Ohio State University, 2002

[H]e virtually doubled food production in Ohio. On top of that, he graduated thousands of youngsters. On top of that, he helped to feed hungry mouths all over the world. All because that old man back in Iowa said, "Roy, if you'll go to Iowa State, I'll pay your tuition." That's paying forward.

6. Russell Baker, University of Connecticut, 1995

Learn to fear the automobile. It is not the trillion-dollar deficit that will finally destroy America. It is the automobile. Congressional studies of future highway needs are terrifying. A typical projection shows that when your generation is middle-aged, Interstate 95 between Miami and Fort Lauderdale will have to be 22 lanes wide to avert total paralysis of south Florida. Imagine an entire country covered with asphalt. My grandfather's generation shot horses. Yours had better learn to shoot automobiles.

7. Jon Stewart, College of William & Mary, 2004

If you see people in the real world making bricks out of straw and water, those people are not colonial re-enactors--they are poor. Help them.

8. Bradley Whitford, University of Wisconsin, 2004

I am perpetually assaulted by examples of children, quadrupeds and a wide variety of insufferable idiots who are, on occasion, capable of acting beautifully. This fills my life with bitterness.

9. TIE

Fake Kurt Vonnegut, Internet Hoax Falsely Attributed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1997

Wear sunscreen.

Real Kurt Vonnegut, Rice University, 1998How many of you have had a teacher at any level in your educations who made you more excited to be alive, prouder to be alive, than you had previously believed possible? Hold up your hands, please. Now take down your hands and say the name of that teacher to someone sitting or standing near you. All done? Thank you.

10.John F. Kennedy, American University, 1963

The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war.

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