How to Write a Graduation Speech as Valedictorian

A good valedictory speech takes work and and lots of practice

Young man giving graduation speech
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A valedictory is a speech that is delivered at the graduation ceremony. The speech is usually performed by the valedictorian (person with the top grades in the graduating class), although many colleges and high schools have moved away from the practice of naming a valedictorian. The terms "valedictory" and "valedictorian" come from the Latin valedicere, which means (or pertains to) a formal farewell.

The valedictory should fulfill two goals. First, it should convey a "sending off" message to the members of a graduating class. Second, it should inspire graduating students to leave the comfort and security of their school with a full heart, and to embark on an exciting new adventure.

Know Your Purpose

You have been chosen to deliver this speech because you have proven that you are an excellent student who can live up to adult responsibilities. Congratulations on that! Now your goal is to make every student in your class feel special.

As a valedictorian or class speaker, you have a responsibility to inspire your classmates and send them off feeling good about the future.

As you prepare your speech, you will need to think about all the events of your shared experience and the people who participated. That includes popular students, unpopular students, quiet students, class clowns, teachers, principals, professors, deans, and other school employees.

In other words, it is very important that you make everyone feel that they played an important role in this shared experience. If you have little experience in certain aspects of school life, ask for help in collecting important names and events you don't know about. For example, are there clubs you don't know about that won prizes? Kids who volunteered in the community?

Compile a List of Highlights

You’ll start by making a list of benchmarks and highlights from the year. These are just a few examples of the kinds of highlights you might want to describe:

  • Who received awards, scholarships?
  • Were any sports records broken?
  • Is a teacher retiring after this year?
  • Did your class have a reputation with teachers, good or bad?
  • How many students remain from freshman year?
  • Was there a dramatic event in the world?
  • Was there a dramatic event in your school?
  • Was there a funny moment?

You might need to conduct personal interviews to gain insight and a sense of depth about some of these events.

Writing the Speech

Valedictory speeches usually combine both humorous and serious elements. Start by greeting your audience with a "hook" that grabs their attention. For example, you could say "the senior year has been full of surprises" or "we're leaving the faculty with lots of interesting memories" or "this senior class has set records in some unusual ways."

Divide your speech into topics according to the highlights you came up with. For example, you might want to start with an event that's on everyone's mind, such as a championship season for the basketball team, a student who was featured on a television show, or a tragic event in the community. Then go on to talk about each highlight, putting it into context and explaining its importance. For example:

"This year, Jane Smith won a National Merit Scholarship. This may not seem like a big deal, but Jane overcame a year of illness to achieve this goal. Her strength and perseverance are an inspiration to our whole class."

Use Anecdotes and Quotes

Come up with a few anecdotes from your shared experience. Anecdotes are brief stories about an interesting incident. They can be funny or poignant. For example, "When the newspaper printed a story about the family who lost their home to a fire, my classmates rallied and organized a series of fundraisers."

Mix up your speech by sprinkling in a quote or two. A quote works best in the introduction or the conclusion, and it should reflect the tone or theme of your speech. For example:

  • "The pain of parting is nothing to the joy of meeting again," Charles Dickens
  • "You will find the key to success under the alarm clock," Benjamin Franklin
  • "There is only one success -- to be able to spend your life in your own way," Christopher Morley

Plan for Time

Be mindful of the appropriate length of your speech to give yourself an idea of how long the speech should be. You can speak about 175 words per minute, so a ten-minute speech should contain about 1500-1750 words. You'll fit about 250 words on a page that is double-spaced. That translates to five to seven pages of double-spaced text for ten minutes of speaking time.

Tips for Preparing to Speak

It's very important to practice your speech before giving it. This will give you a chance to troubleshoot any problem spots, cut boring parts, and add elements if you're running short. If you possibly can, try practicing with the microphone in the location where you'll actually be graduating (sometimes that's possible just before the event). This will give you a chance to experience the sound of your voice as it's magnified, figure out where to stand, and get past any butterflies in your stomach.

  • Practice reading your speech out loud to see how it sounds.
  • Time yourself to check your length, but remember you may speak faster when you're nervous.
  • Review tips for calming your nerves.
  • Get plenty of sleep the night before your (morning) speech.
  • Eat well before your (evening) speech.
  • Don’t try to be funny if it feels unnatural.
  • Treat any tragic event delicately. If your class experienced a loss, you may need to address it (if not addressing it would be awkward). But if you address it, make sure you do so in a tactful way. Consult a trusted teacher or advisor if you have any doubts or discomforts.