Graduation Traditions Posted by on May 27, 2012 in Culture, English Vocabulary

It is college graduation season in the United States.  (High school graduation season will be coming up in June.)  As many of you already know, graduation is the ceremony associated with receiving an academic degree.  In a previous post I spoke about the various college degrees that are conferred* in the United States, which you may be interested in reading as well.  Today I thought I would briefly discuss what a typical graduation ceremony in the United States consists of and introduce some vocabulary associated with graduation that will be helpful for you to know.

Graduation vocabulary:

a diploma: A document issued by an educational institution, such as a university, stating that the recipient has earned a degree, when the degree was earned, and in what area the person studied.
a cap: A stiff flat hat with a tassel hanging down from the center.
a hood: An academic hood is a symbolic garment, which is worn draped around the neck (not on the head like a normal hood) and over the shoulders, and displayed down the back with the lining exposed.
a robe: A long loose flowing outer garment worn over clothing on formal occasions.  Graduation robes are usually one solid color (sometimes two colors) with the colors being associated with the graduate’s university or the degree being earned.
a tassel: A bunch of loose threads or cords bound at one end and hanging free at the other, used as an ornament, attached to the center of the graduation cap.  Tassels often come in the college/university’s colors and with the year of graduation on them.
the valedictorian: The student with the highest academic rank in the graduating class.

A typical college graduation ceremony in the United States includes a procession of both academic staff (i.e. professors) and candidates (graduates are called candidates until they officially graduate).  Professors and candidates enter into a designated area with a stage where academic staff will sit during the ceremony.  Students will often walk across this stage when receiving their diploma.  At many large college institutions, where many hundreds of degrees are being granted at once, the main ceremony (sometimes called commencement) involving hundreds or even thousands of graduates is often held in a sports stadium, amphitheater, or other large outdoor venue.  During a college graduation ceremony, the candidates and professors will almost always wear formal academic dress, which includes caps and gowns.  The formal graduation ceremony usually begins with opening comments by an official of the university; this is often done by the university president.  Then there is an invited keynote speaker (often someone famous) who gives a talk to the candidates.  Then there is usually a speech by the valedictorian.  The invited speaker is usually conferred an “honorary” degree for coming to the college to speak.  Then the person conducting the graduation ceremony (i.e. the college president) confers degrees upon the candidates, either individually (by having them come forward when their name is called and walk across the stage) or en masse (by having everyone stand up together and have them move their tassels from one side of their cap to the other).  In the United States it is common for graduates to not receive their actual diploma at the graduation ceremony, but instead to receive a certificate indicating that the person participated in the ceremony or a portfolio to hold the diploma in, that they will receive later.  For students receiving an advanced degree, like a Masters or Doctorate, the graduation ceremony will likely include a ‘Hooding Ceremony’.  In a Hooding Ceremony the candidates traditionally have a hood placed upon them (over their robe), on stage, by their mentor.  Finally at the end of the graduation ceremony it is common for students to throw their caps in the air in celebration.

Are you hoping to graduate from a university in the United States some day?  If you need help getting your English ready to study in an English-speaking country, check out all the resources available to you at:

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About the Author: Gabriele

Hi there! I am one of Transparent Language's ESL bloggers. I am a 32-year-old native English speaker who was born and raised in the United States. I am living in Washington, DC now, but I have lived all over the US and also spent many years living and working abroad. I started teaching English as a second language in 2005 after completing a Master's in Applied Linguists and a Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults' (CELTA). Since that time I have taught ESL in the United States at the community college and university level. I have also gone on to pursue my doctorate in psychology and now I also teach courses in psychology. I like to stay connected to ESL learners around the world through Transparent Languages ESL Blog. Please ask questions and leave comments on the blog and I will be sure to answer them.