Top commencement speeches

HARVARD UNIVERSITY, 1947
George Marshall
‘Most Newsworthy’
President Truman’s secretary of state used his turn at the podium to unveil and justify his Marshall Plan to repair World War II– ravaged Europe. “The whole world of the future hangs on a proper judgment,” he said. “What is needed? What can best be done? What must be done?”

TUFTS UNIVERSITY, 1987
Gloria Steinem
‘Most Progressive’
It’s no surprise that the feminist icon gave a shout-out to reproductive rights, but Steinem also turned a conventional conceit—”what I know now that I wish I’d known then”—into an address both personal and political, passionate and irreverent.

MASS. INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY, 1997
‘Kurt Vonnegut’
‘Most Inauthentic’
“Wear sunscreen,” began the speech supposedly delivered by the acclaimed writer. The witty laundry list of wise but practical advice sounded so much like the dry, loopy novelist that it was misattributed to him for weeks. Actual author: a Chicago columnist.

HARVARD UNIVERSITY, 2000
Conan O’Brien
‘Most Hilarious’
Technically, it was Class Day, but O’Brien’s speech, an absurd meditation on his mistakes and youthful humiliations, overshadowed the actual commencement speaker. “As you leave these gates and reenter society,” he told grads, “one thing is certain: everyone out there is going to hate you.”

KENYON COLLEGE, 2005
David Foster Wallace
‘Most Mesmerizing’
It’s a testament to Wallace’s genius that he could explore such vast and unwieldy themes as life, death and how to think in a speech that was equally funny and true. After his suicide, it became something even more: a warm, candid treatise on everyday struggle. First word to last, it’s brilliant.

STANFORD UNIVERSITY, 2005
Steve Jobs
‘Most Surprising’
The Apple CEO took a cliché—”Do what you love”—and spun an original, confessional lesson for living. The often-reclusive geek talked about being adopted, getting fired and finding out he had cancer, in order to urge grads to trust in something, be it “your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

DUKE UNIVERSITY, 2008
Barbara Kingsolver
‘Most Poetic’
Delivered in pouring rain, her address, “Your Money or Your Life,” reads like a long prose poem. Today her words seem prescient: “You’ll see things collapse in your time, the big houses, the empires of glass. The new green things that sprout up through the wreck—those will be yours.”