The Pomp and Circumstance of Graduation

It’s graduation season! If you’ve ever attended a graduation ceremony, you may have wondered how certain traditions got started. What’s with that flat square hat? Why do they toss that hat? What are all the accessories worn by graduates? What’s with all the speeches? 

Many of these traditions originated in the European universities of the Middle Ages, but some are fairly modern. Here are 10 of the most common traditions during graduation exercises. 

“Pomp and Circumstance”

This is the name of the song played at graduation during the processional and/or recessional march of the graduates. If you don’t know the song by name, you will recognize it once you hear it. 

The song is part of a larger piece called “Pomp and Circumstance in D Major, Op. 39, No. 1” (also known as “Land of Hope and Glory”) and was composed by Sir Edward Elgar in 1901. It wasn’t initially written for graduation but has become synonymous with commencement. 

In 1905, when Sir Edward Elgar was given an honorary doctorate from Yale University, the school played his “Pomp and Circumstance” as the recessional at the ceremony. Other colleges soon adopted the song and it became a traditional processional and/or recessional.  

The phrase “pomp and circumstance” comes from a line in Shakespeare’s play Othello which says, “Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!”

Cap and Gown

The square caps, also called mortarboards, date back to medieval days. They are called mortarboards because they resemble the boards masons use to hold mortar. The hats were used to symbolize superiority and intelligence. They are worn flat on the head and parallel to the floor with the front point centered on the forehead. 

The gowns, or robes, also date back to medieval days, to the 12th century when the first universities were founded. There were no sufficient heating systems at that time so scholars wore long robes with hoods to keep warm. Later, those long gowns, without hoods, were made the official attire of graduates. 

Moving the Tassel

Tassels have only been used at graduations since about the mid-20th century. They were originally used just to decorate the graduation cap, but have since come to symbolize graduation itself.

High school graduates and college undergraduates move the tassel from right to left after graduating while those earning advanced degrees keep them on the left throughout the ceremony. 

Tossing the Cap

This tradition started in 1912 at the U.S. Naval Academy when the graduates tossed their hats skyward after graduating. That’s because they no longer needed their midshipmen hats and would receive new officer hats after graduating. But no matter how the tradition started, tossing the hat into the air after years of hard work is liberating, and is seen as a symbolic gesture at the end of a chapter in a graduate’s life. 

Cords, Medals, and Stoles

Colored cords with tassels are worn around the neck and have different meanings. They are also sometimes called honor cords. They are awarded for a variety of reasons, such as academic achievements like excellence, hard work, leadership skills, community service, contribution to extracurricular activities, and membership in clubs and organizations. The same is true for medals. 

Stoles, or sashes, are draped over the shoulders and symbolize achievement or involvement in academics, sports, clubs, organizations, and extracurriculars. For college graduates, they can also denote their major or involvement in a sorority or fraternity. In high school, they generally just indicate the graduation year. 

Baccalaureate Mass

Graduations at Catholic schools hold a Baccalaureate Mass before graduation. It’s believed that the graduation mass had been a tradition since medieval times and began at Oxford University in England. 


For centuries, colleges have been awarding degrees, but it wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that the first diplomas were handed out in 1813 at Harvard. They are often referred to as “sheepskin” because early diplomas were often printed on parchment made from animal hides. High school diplomas date back to at least the mid-1800s.

Commencement Speech

Graduation is also called “commencement.” The word reflects the meaning of the Latin word, inceptio – a “beginning” – and was the name given to the initiation ceremony for scholars in medieval Europe. Graduation speeches serve two purposes: celebrating everything that came before graduation day and building excitement for everything that will come after it. These speeches are given by the valedictorian and salutatorian. 


The valedictorian is an academic title for the highest-performing student of a graduating class. The title is determined by the student’s grade point average (GPA). The valedictorian often receives a gold medal to wear for their achievement. 

The word valedictorian is an anglicized derivation of the Latin phrase, vale dicere, which means “to say farewell.” The valedictorian is historically the final speaker at the graduation ceremony before students receive their diplomas. Their speech, which is known as the valediction, is generally considered a final farewell to classmates before dispersing to pursue their own individual paths after graduating.


The salutatorian is an academic title given to the second-highest-ranked graduate of a graduating class. Like the valedictorian, the salutatorian is selected based on GPA, and they receive a silver medal to wear at graduation. 

The title comes from the salutatorian’s traditional role as the first speaker at a graduation ceremony, delivering the salutation addressing the class before the valedictorian’s farewell. 

Congratulations to all Classes of 2023!


Written by Mimi Bosarge


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