5 fun facts about graduation traditions

Friday, May 16, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Graduation season is in full bloom as countless college and university seniors across the U.S. prepare to top off their final semester. Celebrated since the 12th century, commencement ceremonies are an important part of American culture, signifying academic pride and prestige. Have you ever wondered why graduates wear fancy garments or toss their caps in the air? Here’s an inside look at these traditions and more:

Traditional garments


Decoding MU faculty's academic attire: Each color and item a faculty member wears to commencement ceremonies signifies a department, degree level or achievement, right down to the gown's trimming and the hood's length. (This story is available to Missourian digital members.)

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Commencement participants dress in full academic regalia, a longstanding tradition since the formation of universities in the 12th century. Historically, scholars wore long gowns and hoods to keep warm in unheated buildings. Although gown colors vary among institutions, degrees are assigned specific tassel colors that are standardized. 

Tossing of the cap

Graduates tossing their caps in the air actually originated during a Naval Academy ceremony in 1912. When students of the academy graduated, they were no longer commissioned to wear their caps. Hence, throwing them in the air symbolized completion. Other institutions later adopted this as a celebratory expression for graduates.

Graduation songs

As graduates walk across the stage to receive a congratulatory letter from their respective college, “Pomp and Circumstance” often plays in the background. However, the well-known graduation theme song was not created for this occasion.  Instead, twentieth-century composer Edward Elgar wrote it for King Edward VII. When Elgar received an honorary doctorate from Yale in 1905, the song played in the background and made a major impression on other institutions thereafter.  

Graduation photos

Thinking about taking a quick self-portrait while collecting your diploma? Think again. The University of South Florida and Bryant University advised graduates to refrain from using their mobile devices to take “selfies” while on stage, deeming it improper. However, students are still allowed to take them during the rest of the ceremony.  Other schools, such as Miami University, are not limiting where or when students can take “selfies” during commencement and have openly embraced the idea. 

Guest speakers

What better way to top off an academic career than by having Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler or Steve Carell address your graduating class? Each year comedians, politicians and other public figures give speeches during commencement. Here’s Buzzfeed’s top 10 graduation speeches from 2013.

Supervising editor is Laura Johnston.

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