Top 12 Commencement Speeches of All Time, From JFK to Will Ferrell [Video]

College commencement speeches are as much a part of spring as the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, most commencement speeches aren't very inspiring or entertaining, and instead are about as welcome as another sign of the season -- hay fever.

That's not the case with 12 speeches noted here: Whether given by Steve Jobs, Stephen Colbert or Oprah Winfrey, each of these commencement addresses has something to special to offer -- even if just a good laugh.

12. John F. Kennedy, American University, 1963

President John F. Kennedy gave the commencement speech at American University in 1963 about five months before he was assassinated in Dallas. Delivered with his typical rhetorical splendor, it urges the pursuit of peace amid the burgeoning Cold War. "I speak of peace therefore as the necessary, rational end of rational men," he says. [Transcript of JFK's Speech]

11. Oprah Winfrey, Howard University, 2007

Media mogul Oprah Winfrey received an honorary doctorate and inspired an audience of graduates at historically black Howard University. "After all the partying is over," Winfrey said, "the anxiety may start to creep in. What do you now do with all this education?" Don't worry, she told the student body. "All you need to do is know who you are." [Transcript of Oprah's speech]

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

Jon Stewart, speaking at his alma mater, the College of William & Mary, was no less funny than he typically is on his nightly "Daily Show" TV program. "I know that the decisions I made after college worked out. But at the time I didn't know that they would," Stewart says, striking an unusually somber tone. Accepting that you have little control over the direction of your life is a challenge everyone struggles with. [Transcript of Stewart's speech]

9. J.K. Rowling, Harvard University, 2008

"Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling in her commencement speech at Harvard University talked about the "benefits of failure" and the "crucial importance of imagination." Those choices may seem quixotic and paradoxical, Rowling says, but failure teaches you who you are and who you can be, while imagination can help you build a brighter future. [Transcript of Rowling's speech]

8. Woody Hayes, Ohio State University, 1986

Woody Hayes, who died in 1987, gave the commencement address at Ohio State University in 1986. Hayes had served as coach of the Buckeyes football team from 1951 to 1978. In this brief clip, Hayes talks about the now famous idea of "paying forward" -- returning the good you've received by doing a good deed for someone else. [Transcript of Hayes' speech]

7. Bono, University of Pennsylvania, 2004

U2 lead singer and social-activist Bono challenged Class of 2004 graduates to answer, "What's your big idea? What are you willing to spend your moral capital, your intellectual capital, your cash, your sweat equity in pursuing outside of the walls of the University of Pennsylvania?" He urged students to take on the status quo and tackle the moral challenges of the age. [Transcript of Bono's speech]

6. Conan O'Brien, Harvard University, 2000

Eleven years ago, Conan O'Brien was still host of his long-running "Late Night" TV program when he gave the commencement speech to students at Harvard University, his alma mater. Among the pressing questions O'Brien confessed to asking himself on the eve of his own graduation in 1985 was: "Am I really graduating a virgin?" [Transcript of O'Brien's speech]

5. Winston Churchill, Harrow School, 1941

In this audio clip, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, speaking to students at the Harrow School in Fall 1941, gave a lecture in resiliency as World War II blazed on. Britain by that time already had endured two years of devastation, including months of intense bombing by German airplanes. Having secured the support of the United States earlier in the year, Churchill said, "This is the lesson: Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never." [Transcript of Churchill's speech]

4. David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005

Acclaimed author David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide at age 46 nearly three years ago, offered graduating students of Kenyon College in 2005 an impassioned understanding of what freedom truly is and how to stay faithful to it. "The whole trick is keeping the whole truth up front in daily consciousness," he says. [Transcript of Wallace's speech]

3. Stephen Colbert, Knox College, 2006

In the commencement speech he gave at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., in 2006, comedian and faux political conservative Stephen Colbert said that he found it more difficult than most students do to graduate from college. Still, Colbert eventually graduated -- he thinks -- adding, "The question is: Why have a two-time commencement loser speak to you?" [Transcript of Colbert's speech]

2. Will Ferrell, Harvard University, June 2003

It's not every commencement speaker who'll dance his way to the lectern to a disco beat, but that's exactly what comedian Will Ferrell did in his speech to graduating Harvard University students in 2003. That wasn't the only emotion on display, as the "Saturday Night Live" alumnus turned on the crocodile tears in recalling his own non-admission to the prized Ivy League school. [Transcript of Ferrell's speech]

1. Steve Jobs, Stanford, 2005

Apple Inc. Chairman and CEO Steve Jobs told graduating students of Stanford University in 2005, that as a youth he struggled with determining what to do with his life or how a college education could help him figure it out. So he dropped out. "I loved it, and much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on," he says. [Transcript of Jobs' speech]

Next: Success Tips From Harvard's First African-American Female MBA

Stories from CNN Money

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum


Filter by:
Hello Jewel

What??? No Obama speech???? For shame. Thought he was darn good at Notre Dame 2009....

May 25 2011 at 7:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


May 24 2011 at 1:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

steve jobs gave a great speech. very personal.

May 24 2011 at 11:09 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I did not have the time to watch everyone but I have to assume that
this list is judged only by comparison of other speeches reviewed?
My commencement speaker was a local icon who received much applause
largely due to the fact the speech was over it was like watching paint dry.

May 24 2011 at 10:57 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Will Ferrel at a commencement speech! Who was the retard responsible for that trash bastard speaking to our future generation? No class man, no class......

Master Rod

May 24 2011 at 10:11 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

David Foster Walace's speech was great, however the transcript of the speech is not the same speech that he gave on that day.

May 24 2011 at 10:11 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Actually, the individuals attending Harvard are not the 'smartest of the smart'. I transferred from Harvard to a state school back home due to monetary reasons and the state school that I am currently attending is much more demanding than Harvard (in my opinion). Ivy-leagues (e.g. Harvard) are simple institutions that rely on reputation. Please believe me when I tell you that the ‘smartest of the smart’ can often be found studying in what one would call ‘less prestigious institutions’. Intelligence, perseverance, and desire do not always go hand in hand with socioeconomic status.

May 24 2011 at 9:56 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Harvard seems to have a propensity for going with the irreverent and offbeat in its graduations. That being said bringing in a clowish turd like Ferrell to make a mockery of the entire process and day seems a bit curious. It is an insult to the graduates, their parents and everyone who is in attendance.

May 24 2011 at 9:54 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to wlh1923's comment

Check out the students - no cap and gown = no commencement speech. Author didn't bother to point out that these are not all commencement speeches.

May 24 2011 at 10:08 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Here's a list of the 10 best cars: Honda, Cadillac, Lear, Cessna, Toyota, Lexus, Boeing 777, Mercedes, BMW and Piper Cub.

May 24 2011 at 9:39 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mallen1971's comment

Buy wonder we have no jobs in this loyalty to support our own companies and keep jobs here.

May 24 2011 at 9:48 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Hey David:

Your list of the "best" commencement speeches looked more like a list of your favorite liberals. I find it quite amazing that despite making of 41% of the population there is not a single conservative, maybe Woody Hayes, on you list, but there are three comedians.

Colleges and universities USED TO BE places where there was a diversity of opinion, but no longer. Conservatives dominate the non-fiction best seller lists, talk radio where Rush Limbaugh spoke to the incoming congressional class in 1995, and cable news televison, do "okay" in the business world, but apparently can't get invited to speak to graduating seniors, but some COMEDIANS, including FAKE news purveyors can. Seems a bit odd to me!

May 24 2011 at 9:32 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Search Articles

Picks From the Web