Graduation Etiquette — The Top Eleven Manners for Grads, Guests, & Families

Graduation etiquette — whether you’re a high school grad or a college grad, a proud parent, or a friend or family member who has received a graduation announcement or an invitation to the party or the actual graduation ceremony — here you’ll find the answers for all your graduation etiquette questions about gifts, parties, dinners, and more.

By: Maralee McKee, Manners Mentor

At my home, we love counting down the days until our next celebration! To help, I downloaded a clock application to our home computer screen. I input the date, and we (especially the boys!) enjoy seeing how many days it is until the big event.

Today the clock reads, “One Year, One Month, and 15 Days Until Marc Graduates from High School!” All the other countdowns I’ve anticipated with joy; this one I look at with an odd avoidance. I can’t come to terms yet with the fact that his childhood is speeding to the finish line.

52 Hours and Then It Began

Marc’s birth was biblical in its intensity. I was in labor for three days. Then the anguish began; it took another 52 hours of torturous birthing pains to bring that boy into the world. By hour 35 I was unable to feel anything but a dread of another contraction.

I was out of screams.

I was out of tears.

It was as beautiful (in hindsight) as it was grueling, and at any instant, I can transport myself back to the very moment at the end of hour 52 when the doctor said, “One more push, Maralee. One more and it will be over.”

New power came from within me. I exerted myself beyond Olympic proportions.

I pushedddddddddd.

As I did, his head and shoulders finally emerged, and the doctor gently pulled him from my womb.

It’s odd that the doctor had said, “One more push and it will all be over.”

She should have said, “One more push…and it will all begin.” The sleepless nights. The distress over every little sneeze or cough. The worry about what schools he’ll attend from pre-K through twelfth grade. Wondering whether I’m doing everything “right” or I’m “ruining” him. It all began with that last push.

For the life of me, it couldn’t be — hasn’t been — almost 18 years since that moment. Now, there’s just a year left until he leaves our home for his dorm room. I shouldn’t cry over it; I should rejoice for this new chapter he’ll enter. I’m just not there yet. I can’t imagine not living under the same roof as my first born.

Commence = To Begin

If you think about it, there’s a good reason why a graduation ceremony is officially called a commencement. To commence means “to begin.” I always thought it meant the end of something.

I was wrong.

It’s the recognition of a future full of brand-new possibilities. No wonder it’s celebrated by students, their parents, and loved ones.

Graduation needs celebrating. It helps dry the tears caused by our little ones having grown while our eyes were mid-blink.


Graduation Etiquette

Graduation Etiquette — The Top Eleven Manners of Graduation for Grads, Guests, and Families

If you have a graduate in your house, or you’ve been invited to a ceremony or party or received an announcement, here’s the graduation etiquette for how you can join in celebrating the new beginning with ease, sincerity, and graciousness!

1. Believe it or not, a gift isn’t required if you receive a graduation announcement.

Announcements are simply the family’s way of “announcing” the news to the people in their circle. (One is required if you receive an invitation to the ceremony and attend.)

2. While a gift isn’t required if you receive just an announcement, you can certainly send one if you like.

And most people do send the graduate a gift. Even if you don’t send a gift, a card of congratulations and best wishes should be given in reply to the announcement.

3. Here’s how to know who to send a graduation announcement to.

Because so many people believe they “should” send a gift to the graduate when they receive an announcement, it’s gracious to limit sending them only to relatives and those with whom you’re in regular contact. Here are two ways to help decide whether you should send someone an announcement:

• If you send holiday cards and wouldn’t usually send one to this particular person, then you wouldn’t send a graduation announcement.

• You wouldn’t send graduation announcements to anyone whom the graduate wouldn’t recognize in person. They’re sent to most family members, but for those outside of the family, announcements are only sent to people the graduate knows, not to those who have relationships exclusively with the parents of the graduate.

Grace Note: There are always unique situations that come up concerning graduation parties and gifts. This post is your one-stop blog for all things Graduation Party and Gift Etiquette, Plus a Roundup of Party Ideas: Fantastic Gifts and Fun Ways to Deliver Them, Decorations, and Delicious Treats. It’s the sister post to this one as it includes readers’ Q&A. You’ll want to read it if you have a graduate or have received an announcement or party invitation.

4. If you know of someone who is graduating and you didn’t receive an announcement, you can send a card or gift if you’d like.

I’m sure the graduate and family will be honored and happily surprised.

5. If you attend a commencement ceremony or party, then you’ll want to bring a gift.

You can bring it with you or have it delivered to the graduate’s home prior to the party.

Grace Note:The best gifts are ones that graduates will use in their next stage of life. For tech school, four-year college, grad school, or first job and apartment, think of what would come in handy and buy accordingly.

For graduations, money, or pre-paid debit cards, make great gifts. While it’s not a very personal gift (you can buy those in the years ahead for their wedding and then baby shower), young people are rather hard to buy for, and they do appreciate — and usually need – cash.

(When opening gifts, the graduate is going to need to know what to say. This post has you covered; it shares The 7 Manners of Opening Every Gift.)

How Much Should You Spend On a Graduation Gift?

That depends on how well you know the graduate and on your budget. A casual acquaintance might give $20, an aunt or uncle might give $100 to $500. For a grandparent, the sky is the limit. However, don’t give more than you can afford. An aunt or uncle can just as graciously give $20. A grandparent on a fixed income might give a handwritten letter of love and best advice. Give from your heart, and give only what you can afford. Don’t let a norm put you in a financial bind. If you need to spend less than $20, and you feel embarrassed (you shouldn’t), you can purchase a store-bought gift instead of giving cash. That way the recipient doesn’t know how much you spent.

And besides, with the internet, you can find great deals. For instance, check out the outlet shopping clearance page. They offer deep-discount bargains on quality items.

6. Graduation Parties Are One of the Only Parties Where the Guest of Honor Doesn’t Have to Stay Throughout the Party.

Graduates often attend several parties in one night since their friends are graduating with them and they need to stop by those parties, too. That’s why this is the one time when the guests of honor aren’t expected to spend the whole evening at their own party.

The graduate(s) should stay for the first 45 minutes to one hour of their own party to welcome all the guests. Guests should arrive at the start of the party to see the graduates before they leave for the next celebration.

At the party, the graduates need to speak to each of their guests, not just their friends. They’re entering the adult world. It’s time for them to step up their conversation game. Knowing what to say can be hard for anyone, not just young adults. This post shares the best things to say at a party and how to start conversations.

For the other side of the coin, this post shares what not to say to someone who isn’t a close friend. While both refer to holiday parties, the same etiquette applies to ALL celebrations.

Graduation Etiquette


7. Have the graduate send handwritten thank you notes within two weeks of receiving a gift. Why handwritten?

(You know your graduates are probably going to ask you why they can’t just email or text their thanks.) It takes extra effort to choose and purchase a gift. The extra effort it takes to handwrite the note is giving equal honor to the present. This applies to cash and gift cards, too. And no, Mom, you can’t write the notes yourself if your child is graduating from anything higher than kindergarten. You can sit next to your high school graduates and guide them through the process, but they need to write the cards.

Here’s How to Get Your Graduate to Write ALL Their Thank you Notes In a Timely Manner.

I’ve received countless letters from frustrated parents who can’t for the life of them get their graduates to send thank you notes.

Let’s face it, it’s easier to make our 8-year-olds do something than our 17-year-olds.

But there is something you can do to guarantee they’ll have their cards written and in the mail faster than any of their friends. From personal experience, I can tell you it works.

Take EVERY gift they receive: cash, gift cards, physical items — everything — and hide them. When they show you the thoughtful thank you note they wrote along with the stamped, addressed envelope, exchange the gift for their thank you card! (You supply the cards, envelopes, and stamps for them.) You can drop the card in the mail to make sure it goes out, and they can enjoy their gift. It works. Every. Single. Time.

Will they complain? Yes.

Will they write their cards within days? Yes!!

Will they be complimented by friends and relatives for expressing appreciation for their gifts, and will they like that feeling, and will that feeling make them less hesitant to write thank you cards in the future? Yes!!!

This post shares the formula for writing thank you notes! It makes writing the notes fast and easy while still expressing your authentic appreciation. (For this season, it’s a must read!) 🙂

8. Party decorations can be anything, but it’s nice when they focus on the next stage of the graduate’s life.

Going off to the University of Georgia this fall? (Go Dawgs!) Then decorate in the school colors — and don’t forget your cardboard cutouts of Uga the Bulldog!

9. When should invitations to graduation parties and ceremonies be sent?

Invitations to graduation parties are sent at least two weeks in advance. Although, earlier is better if you think your guests know quite a few people graduating around the same time. Up to six weeks in advance is fine.

Invitations to the ceremony are sent up to six weeks in advance, especially to anyone who is traveling from more than 100 miles away, because they might want to book overnight accommodations.

10. When are graduation announcements mailed?

Announcements, unlike invitations, are mailed any time from one day to two weeks after the graduation.

Why after?

They’re informing others that you graduated, not that you’re about to graduate.

Not only is it considered a best practice, but it also keeps others from misunderstanding, and then showing up at the graduation ceremony only to find out they’re not actually holding a ticket to the ceremony and won’t be admitted.

Graduation Etiquette


11. One last tip. This one is for graduates:

Don’t register for gifts! Leave that for your future wedding and baby showers. When it comes to gifts, whether it’s something you would have chosen or not, know that it’s an expression of the person’s heart for you! However, if people ask you or your parents what you’d like, you can certainly answer their question!

The most important etiquette of all for graduates and their families: have fun and celebrate! You’ve accomplished something great, and you and your accomplishment deserve to be celebrated.
Now for all us moms: whether our children are graduating from kindergarten, high school, or college, as a dear friend once shared with me, “Dry your tears and be glad your children are the age they are. In ten years, you’ll look back and do anything to have them at this age and stage again!” She’s a wise and gracious lady who raised three happy, wonderful adults. Thank you, Jane Horn!

What’s The Next Step?

If you have a graduation etiquette question not covered here or in one of the posts linked above to this one, I offer a service to help. You can find out about it by clicking here.

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This guide is a great resource for you and your graduate! You’ll know everything you need to know for a lifetime of successful social, family, and business meals. It’s all you’ll ever need to dine with savvy, confidence, and ease at any table!

Until next time, keep doing what you were born to do. Bless others by being you…at your best!

Blessings and hugs,

Maralee McKee

About Maralee McKee

Maralee McKee is the founder of Manners Mentor. With her best-friend style, sense of humor, and knack for updating etiquette to meet our modern sensibilities, she has been referred to as "Sandra Bullock meets Emily Post!" Maralee shows you how to become the best version of yourself. No fluff. No pretense. Just you at your authentic best! The person you were always meant to be! To learn more about Maralee click on the "Meet Maralee" or "New? Start Here" links at the top of this page.

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