Throwing a graduation party is a great way for your son or daughter to shake off the built-up years of educational stress, and reset their brain for a new stage of life. But even more than that, a graduation party is a celebration of accomplishment. By devoting a few hours to acknowledge graduation as the achievement it is, you can show your graduate just how proud you are of them. Give them a happy graduation message and celebration they will remember for a lifetime.
Of course, throwing a memorable party carries with it difficulties all its own. But don’t worry; this guide is full of tried-and-true graduation party tips and ideas to help you host a celebration that your child will remember long after the grad caps have all tumbled back down to earth.
If you want throw a party worth remembering, you’ll need to choose an appropriate graduation party theme and tone. Will your party be formal (such as a nice, multi-course dinner) or casual (such as come-as-you-are BBQ)? Generally speaking, high school graduation parties are less-formal than college graduation parties, but the truth is that you can set the tone of your party as whatever you want, as long as you maintain that tone through your choice of decorations, food, and entertainment. Just make sure that you loop your graduate into the planning phase from the very beginning—the last thing you’ll want to do is select a theme that doesn’t interest your graduate. Here are some ideas to consider when choosing a theme:
Luau. Hula skirts, flower leis, and a variety of island-appropriate food, up to and including a luau-style pig roast, if you really want to go all out (directions can be found here) are the staples of a great luau. These work best when held outside.
Fiesta. A fiesta party generally features bright colors, a selection of Central- and South-American foods, fun activities (piñatas aren’t only for children, you know), and latin music.
Toga Party. Toga parties are classically associated with wild college blowouts, but can easily be adapted to fit family-friendly get togethers. Provide a number of clean bed sheets for guests to use as togas (directions on how to tie a toga can be found here), white and gold decorations, fake grape vines, candles and oil lamps, and Greek/Roman finger foods (fruits, hummus, pita breads, olives, cheeses, etc.)
Casino Night. A casino-themed party may take a bit more preparation time than some other theme ideas. Set up individual game stations (blackjack, roulette, poker, etc.) complete with dealers—you may have to rope friends and family members into filling these roles. Provide guests with a stipend of ‘fun money,’ and give out prizes to whomever ends the night with the biggest winnings!
Costume Party. Either by choosing a costume theme, or by encouraging guests to come as whatever they want, you can set a fun tone without having to provide much in the way of décor (because the guests will be the décor).
Vintage Party. A vintage-themed graduation party may take a bit more preparation, because you’ll need to find decorations and food ideas that are period-specific. That having been said, a vintage-themed party can be an enjoyable way to celebrate a graduation. Start by choosing the time period you want to emulate, and then do some research to see how feasible it would be to use for a theme. This can be combined with the costume-party idea by encouraging guests to dress for the occasion.
Pool Party. If you have access to a pool, and the weather looks like it’s going to bright and sunny, you can’t go wrong throwing a swim-themed graduation party. Supply a variety of pool toys, and provide food choices that are refreshing and snackable. Consider breaking out the grill, and make your grad party a real celebration of summer!
Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Party. The Dr. Seuss classic Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Is one of the most common gifts given to new graduates. Build upon this fact, and throw a party that focuses on all the opportunities that lie ahead. Use maps and globes in your decorations, and provide a variety of food choices from around the world. On a large world map, have guests pick their favorite destinations, then have them write a few lines of encouragement or well-wishing on those spots using a paint marker. Whatever you choose, make sure that your graduation invitations reflect your party’s theme. For example, an Oh, the Places You’ll Go party invite could be written in rhyme, and feature images taken from the book. For additional themes visit: high school grad party ideas and college graduation party ideas
Decorations exist to provide atmosphere, set tone, and occasionally spark conversation. This means that—depending on the theme—you may need to dial it back so as to avoid overdoing it; the focus of your party should be the graduate, not the décor. When preparing your décor, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Get started with your planning early.
- Shop around before you make purchases.
- Consider non-conventional decorations.
- Choose colors that fit your theme (such as school colors).
High School Graduation Party Decorating Ideas
Create a photo book. Contact your graduate’s friends and ask for any and all photographs that show the time that they spent together during their school career. Collect the photos and memories beforehand, and use them to create a professionally printed photo-book. Allow guests (who will have been supplied with a permanent marker) to write out their thoughts about the image directly in the book. Once the party is over, gift the photo book to the graduate.
Provide a memory jar. A Memory jar is a great way to celebrate the good times of high school. All you need is a decorative mason jar, some pens or pencils, and enough strips of paper for each guest. Have the guests write their memories on the strips of paper, and then place the paper in the jar. At the end of the night, wrap the jar in graduation-themed wrapping paper, and gift it to the the graduate. Tell the graduate to keep the jar, but not to open it until a specific time (such as college graduation, or a high school reunion).
Make floating photo frames. Rather than confining framed photographs to out-of-the-way locations, get pictures of your graduate out where your guests are, by printing the images on thin, 4×6-sized, lightweight paper, and then attaching those images to festive, helium-filled balloons. With the right amount of weight, the balloons should bob around the room at eye-level, complete with pictures of your graduate
Paint a school logo on the lawn. Whether or not school was your graduate’s favorite place to be, you can bet that one last sight of their school logo will bring a smile. With the help of some stencils and lawn-friendly spray paint, you can create a yard-sized representation of the high-school logo, perfect for greeting guests as they arrive. Just use this process on a collection of large butcher-paper pieces, and then cut away the negative space to create a stencil. Then, place the stencil over your grass, and spray over it with the grass-safe spray paint color of your choice. Allow it to dry for a few hours, and then remove the stencil.
College Graduation Party Decoration Ideas
Make a school-themed photobooth. Make a photo booth for your college grad party by setting up a background that depicts the campus itself (most print shops are capable of printing large-sized copies of small photographs), providing a few college-logo hats or sweatshirts, and throwing in some other college-related props (such as graduation caps, diplomas, etc.), or even a full-sized cardboard cutout of the graduate for guests to take a picture with. Email your guests the images, and be sure to keep digital copies of every picture for your grad’s photo album.
Decorate the party to honor the graduate’s future career. Turn your graduate’s future career into the design-theme of your party. For example, for graduates that will be going into a career in education, decorate the venue to mimic a school classroom. For graduates who are considering pursuing a career that involves scientific research, laboratory-themed décor may be the way to go.
Use graduation caps in your decorations. College is where the graduation cap plays the biggest roll, so using the cap as a symbol in your décor is a great way to recognize the importance of what has been achieved. Purchase or make a number of inexpensive black graduation caps, and place them among your other decorations. These caps can go on walls, at place settings, be hung from the ceiling, placed on balloons, etc. Use you imagination, and create a design scheme that screams ‘college grad!’ as only a graduation cap can.
Keep party favors simple and practical. If you feel the need to provide your guests with decorative party favors, your best bet is to keep them simple and practical. Goodie bags (filled with edible treats) are one possibility, as are other candies or snacks that have been personalized to feature the name of the graduate, his or her school, or the class year. For non-edible graduation party favors, try to choose items that guests will actually be able to use, rather than something purely ornamental. Personalized stationery, reusable water bottles, or even keychain items (such as photo keychains or small flashlights) are all useful, fun items that will continue to remind the recipient of the celebration for years to come.
Whether you plan on providing a multi-course meal, or just supplying a fun range of snacks, your graduation party menu is an important piece of your overall party. Here are some tips on how to keep your guests’ tastebuds happy and their stomachs full while they celebrate the graduate in their lives:
- Get an accurate guest list, so that you have enough food for everyone (and so that you are aware of any special dietary needs).
- Throw the party a bit earlier (such as early afternoon), so that guests are less hungry when they arrive.
- Stick to smaller portions, spread out across the duration of the party (so that guests can easily mingle, and so that late arrivals will be able to enjoy the food as well).
- Don’t feel confined to serving conventional grad-party food.
Graduation Party Food Ideas
Give out class ring-pops. Giving your guests official class-rings is probably not in your budget. Giving them class ring-pops, on the other hand, is a bit more feasible. Fill a punch bowl or basket with a variety ring-pop colors/flavors (still in their packaging), and create a small sign or plaque that says “Class Rings.” Encourage guests to wear their rings for the duration of the party.
Make a drink bar. Whether you plan on offering alcoholic beverages (for those legally old enough to consume them) or not, a drink bar is the perfect way to get everyone into the spirit of the celebration. Just provide a selection of juices, syrups, sodas, and other drink ingredients, and print out a few drink recipes for your guests to try. Having one particularly-outgoing guest play the part of bartender can add to the enjoyment. Using straws and cups in your graduate’s school colors, and including school-color food dye with your other drink mix ingredients, can create a more personalized grad-party atmosphere.
Provide single-serving ice cream sundaes. Ice cream sundaes are a treat that few guests can say ‘no’ to, but making them can be a messy ordeal. Instead, fill individual mason jars with a scoop of ice cream, and then add various sundae toppings (such as fudge, fruit, nuts, etc.). Secure the mason jar lid, and use a permanent marker to label it with the ice cream flavor, as well as what toppings are included. Place the mason jars in a cooler with ice, and allow guests to choose their sundaes.
Turn a wading pool into a giant cooler. Instead of keeping beverages in small coolers and forcing guests to rummage through ice slush to find what they’re looking for, use a kiddie pool. Fill the small pool with ice, and then add an assortment of drinks. Guests will be able to see at a glance what’s available.
Create diploma cookies. Pirouette cookies, when served with a ribbon tied around the center, make fun edible diplomas. Alternately, consider serving sugar cookies made using diploma-shaped cookie cutters, glazed in white icing, and then topped with the graduate’s name written in piped frosting.
Make a pancake/waffle/crepe bar. A heaping stack of pancakes, waffles, or crepes, served alongside an assortment of toppings and syrups, make a great party meal that can be enjoyed morning, afternoon, or evening.
Create a school-themed watermelon boat. A watermelon boat is a festive treat that doubles as a centerpiece. Use this recipe to create your own, and make it graduation-specific by decorating the side of the watermelon rind with the graduate’s school logo (either by using non-toxic paint, or by lightly carving the logo into the rind).
Have a taco/nacho bar. Perfect for any fiesta- or pool-themed graduation parties, taco/nacho bars are delicious and easy to put together. Just provide chips, tortillas, meats, grated cheese, various toppings, and a selection of salsas and hot sauces. Arrange it all on a long serving table.
Provide s’mores stations. If the party is being held outside, and you have access to a fire pit, creating s’mores stations is really easy. Just set out marshmallows, chocolate bars, graham crackers, and roasting sticks, and your guest will know what to do. Alternatively, small, table-top s’mores kits can be placed at each individual table. To make one, get a small metal bucket, fill it about ⅔ of the way with pebbles, and then place a can of sterno (with the lid already loosened) on top of the pebbles. Place additional pebbles around the side of the sterno can to secure it in place. Once the sterno is lit, it will produce a very hot—although often difficult to see—flame, perfect for cooking marshmallows. Be careful, however, that guests don’t cook directly over the flame, as any food dripped into the sterno can cause unexpected flare-ups. If you plan on allowing guests to make their own s’mores, remember that children will have to be kept away from the flames, and supervised at all times.
Party ideas that encourage gifts are a great way to let your guests know that donations are welcome. Here are some helpful suggestions about how to make the your party’s gift-giving process a smooth one:
Focus on practicality in setting up a gift table. Gift tables should be designed with practicality in mind. This means that they should be located as close to the entrance as possible, and that the available surface areas should be free of unnecessary clutter. A simple tablecloth—colored to match the overall color-scheme—with a single centerpiece will give your guests a clear idea of where to place their gifts as they arrive. Provide self-adhesive labels and permanent marking pens for guests to write who each gift is from (if they haven’t already done so); this will make things much easier when it comes time to send out ‘thank you’ cards.
Choose the right centerpiece. In order to free up as much gift-table surface areas as possible, choose a centerpiece that is small and simple. A framed picture of your grad, complete with some flowers or balloons, or even something as simple as a graduation cap decorated with the graduate year, may be the most effective choice.
Make a gift card/cash stash. There’s a good chance that the majority of the grad gifts your grad receives are going to be in the form of cash or gift cards, and providing a decorative box or bucket for guests to drop gift cards and cash into will help to ensure that none of those little envelopes get misplaced. The box or bucket in question can be almost anything, but if you decorate it to match the overall theme of the party, then so much the better. Consider using a large mason jar, with a small photograph of the graduate placed inside.
Life is made up of beginnings and endings, and graduation marks the end of a very special, very important stage of life. But before your graduates move onto the next step, help them take the time to look back at what they’ve accomplished. Take a moment and congratulate your graduation on their huge achievement. After all, real life is going to set in pretty fast, and having an entertaining celebration of achievement for your child before he or she starts a new era of adulthood is a great way to get them excited for their next big adventure.