How to Write a Graduation Speech as Valedictorian

A good speech takes research, organization, and practice

Young man giving graduation speech
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The valedictory speech usually is delivered at the graduation ceremony by the valedictorian, the student with the highest grades in the graduating class, although some colleges and high schools have abandoned the practice of naming a valedictorian. The terms "valedictory" and "valedictorian" come from the Latin valedicere, meaning a formal farewell.

Understand the Goal

The valedictory should fulfill two goals: It should convey a "sending off" message to the members of a graduating class and inspire them to leave the comfort and security of their school ready to embark on an exciting new adventure. You have been chosen to deliver this speech because you proved you are an excellent student who can live up to adult responsibilities. Now it's time to make every student in your class feel special.

As you prepare your speech, think about your shared experiences with the class and the people with whom you shared them, including popular and quiet students, class clowns and brains, teachers, principals, professors, deans, and other school employees.

It's important to make everyone feel as if they played an important role in this shared experience. If you have limited experience in certain aspects of school life, ask for help in collecting important names and events you might not know about. Are there clubs or teams that won prizes? Students who volunteered in the community?

Compile a List of Highlights

Make a list of highlights since freshman year, focusing on the current year. Here are examples of events you could describe:

  • Who received awards or 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 this year?
  • Was there a dramatic event in your school?
  • Was there a funny moment?

You might need to conduct personal interviews to learn about these benchmarks.

Write the Speech

Valedictory speeches often combine 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."

Organize your speech into topics describing these elements. You might want to start with an event that's on everyone's mind, such as a championship basketball season, a student featured on a television show, or a tragic event in the community. Then focus on the other highlights, putting them into context and explaining their 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 anecdotes to illustrate your shared experiences. These brief stories can be funny or poignant. You could say, "When the student newspaper printed a story about the family who lost their home to a fire, our classmates rallied and organized a series of fundraisers."

Sprinkle in quotes from famous people. Quotes work best in the introduction or conclusion and should reflect the 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. Most people speak about 175 words per minute, so a 10-minute speech should contain about 1750 words. You can fit about 250 words onto a double-spaced page. That translates to seven pages of double-spaced text for 10 minutes of speaking time.

Tips for Preparing to Speak

It's important to practice your speech before giving it. This will help you troubleshoot problem spots, cut boring parts, and add elements if you're running short. You should:

  • Practice reading your speech aloud to see how it sounds.
  • Time yourself, but remember you may speak faster when you're nervous.
  • Focus on remaining calm.
  • Get plenty of sleep the night before your speech.
  • Eat well before your speech.
  • Don’t try to be funny if it feels unnatural.
  • If you're going to talk about a tragic event your class experienced (it might be awkward not to address it), make sure you do so tactfully. Consult a teacher or adviser if you have any doubts or discomforts.

If possible, practice your speech using the microphone in the location where you'll be graduating. Your best chance might be just before the event. This will give you an opportunity to experience the sound of your magnified voice, figure out how to stand, and get past any butterflies in your stomach.