Graduation Etiquette

Group of graduates taking a selfie

David Schaffer / Getty Images

Graduation from school is a big deal. The ceremony is a celebration that signifies that the people involved are about to transition from one phase of life to another.

Whether you’re about to graduate or you have a child who is almost finished with high school or college, there are certain things you need to consider. For example, are you planning to celebrate with friends, or do you want to keep it low-key and strictly a family affair? Are you sending invitations, announcements, or a combination of both? Are you having a party afterward, and if so, who are you inviting?


Once the date and venue of the graduation ceremony are announced, you need to find out how many invitations you are allowed to send. Some schools have an unlimited number, but if there is limited seating, you’ll have to narrow down who gets one.

Most people will understand if there is limited seating and your family will need all of the allotted slots. However, there may be someone who doesn’t so be prepared to explain that you would love to invite them, but there’s only enough space for immediate family.


When you attend a graduation ceremony, dress conservatively. You’ll be safe to select something you would wear to the office or religious service. The graduate will be given instructions from the school on what he or she should wear under the cap and gown.


You may choose to send announcements to let everyone from friends to distant family members know that you or your child is about to enter into a new phase of life. Most high schools make arrangements with a printing company to offer packages of announcements for sale, or you may choose to have it done on your own.

If this is strictly an announcement, make it clear by stating it on the card. You’ll want to include the name of the graduate, the date and year of the event, and the name of the college or high school the student is graduating from. 

Announcement design tips:

  • Use black or blue ink.
  • Address the envelopes using the formal Miss, Mrs., Ms., or Mr. before the name.
  • Use proper postage so the recipient will receive it without delay.
  • Announcements may be sent before or up to a month after the ceremony.

Ceremony Invitations

If you have enough positions available for people outside the immediate family, you may choose to send invitations to attend the ceremony. The card should clearly state that it’s an invitation, and you want an RSVP for planning purposes.

Invitation design tips:

  • Use black or blue ink.
  • Use the formal Miss, Mrs., Ms., or Mr. before the name.
  • Include a card and stamped envelope for RSVP.
  • Send it at least two or three weeks before the ceremony.
  • Make sure you have enough postage on each envelope before mailing it.

Responding to Invitations

When you receive an invitation to someone's graduation, respond as quickly as possible. You don't have to give a reason to decline if you can't make it, or you can be very general with a brief explanation, such as, "I have a family obligation that day." 

Hosting a Party

You may want to throw a graduation party, but remember that it’s not only a time to celebrate moving on to the next phase of life, but it’s also an opportunity for parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, and uncles to offer their congratulations. If you invite friends to the event, make sure they understand that they are to be on their best behavior. It’s not a time to get rowdy and misbehave.

Parents who are concerned that there may be problems at the graduation party should discuss expectations with their new graduates. Explain that if they want to be treated like the adults they are, they need to act like it and leave their childish behavior behind. If their friends act out, they’ll be asked to stop or leave the event.

If you have a formal party or sit-down dinner, send a more formal invitation. However, if you choose to have a backyard barbecue, there is nothing wrong with sending the invitation via email. It’s up to you whether or not you want to serve alcohol, but remember that it’s illegal to give it to anyone who is a minor. If you disobey the law and something happens to the person, you will be liable.

Giving Gifts

If you’ve received an announcement or invitation to someone’s graduation, you may want to send a gift. Most newly graduated people appreciate money or practical items.

Suggested graduation gifts:

  • Checks
  • A gift card to a restaurant or department store
  • Small appliances that can be used in a dorm room or apartment
  • Bedding if you know the correct sizes and color preferences
  • Set of picture frames
  • Set of dishes or glassware
  • Pots, pans, or kitchen utensils
  • Luggage or weekender bag

Thank You Notes

When you send a graduation invitation or announcement, there is no obligation for the recipient to send a gift. However, if they choose to purchase and send something, make sure you jot down a thank you note as soon as possible and get it in the mail. If you aren’t able to send thank you notes immediately, write down what each person sends. Make sure you mention the item in the note. If the gift is money, let the person know what you plan to do with it.

It’s a good idea to have cards ready so you can keep up with the gifts and send graduation thank you notes as they come in. Otherwise, it becomes more of a chore and difficult to keep everything straight.

Example thank you note:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Jones,

Thank you for the high school graduation gift of a toaster oven. I’ll think of you every morning as I prepare breakfast in my college dorm room. I look forward to seeing you and sharing news with you when I come back home for semester breaks.

Your neighbor,


Example thank you note (monetary gift):

Dear John and Susan,

Thank you so much for the generous check you sent for my graduation. This will come in handy for household items as I start a new job in New York. I’m excited about this new chapter in my life, and I hope to invite you to my home once I get settled.



Extra Tips

Quite a few things can come up that you don’t expect, so be prepared. Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Do a practice run to the venue to make sure you know where it is and how long it takes to get there.
  • Have plenty of tissues for that moment when emotions hit.
  • Have gum or mints available.
  • Don’t forget your ticket to get in.
  • Double-check the date and arrive at the ceremony early.
  • Bring a camera to capture those special moments that pass much too quickly.