How to Host a Memorable Graduation Celebration

Photography by Carolina Villarreal of MINT Event Design.

Celebrating milestones is important, and when it comes to reasons to throw a party, commemorating the successful completion of a phase of a loved one’s education—and entrance into the next phase of life—is a perfect occasion. For those who might be planning an upcoming commencement gathering, we asked four scouted event planners for advice on how to host an unforgettable graduation party. Here, they share expert tips on everything from invitations to entertainment, music, and—most of all—how to make the guest of honor feel celebrated. To find an event planner in your area, consult The Scout Guide directory here.

Know the new invitation guidelines. Next to the holidays, spring graduation is one of the busiest social seasons of the year. With that in mind, Carolina Villarreal, event designer and founder of MINT Event Design in Austin, Texas, strongly recommends sending a digital “Save the Date” as soon as you have the day nailed down. After that, she encourages sending both printed and digital invitations. “Printed invitations are classy and can be saved as keepsakes, so I suggest sending them to close family and friends,” she says. However, she adds, for younger friends of the graduate who are less likely to pay attention to the mail, a digital version that can be easily emailed or texted with a online RSVP option will do.

Look for ways to personalize. “Each graduation is so unique to the student,” Caitlyn Branco, CEO and creative director at Bivardi Designs in Midland, Texas, says. “Infusing decor, drink, and food choices with their accomplishments, interests, and future plans is a great way to make your graduation soiree distinctive.” A natural go-to are pictures of the grad placed throughout, but you can also display any sports or club memorabilia that pertains to the graduate. Villarreal likes to tailor the fare to the guest of honor by picking some of their favorite foods and creating a signature cocktail/mocktail, and Branco adds that cookies personalized with either the past or future alma mater make for perfect parting gifts.

Consult the graduate. As much as they are willing, Villarreal recommends involving the graduate in the planning. After all, this celebration is about them, and they can help tailor the event to their preferences. Along these same lines, Megan Lentz, owner of Vida Events in Purcelleville, Virginia, notes that those being honored might want to take an opportunity during the party to pay tribute to the people who helped them arrive at this momentous point in their lives, whether that be with a heartfelt speech, a slideshow, or an off-the-wall creative performance (karaoke anyone?).

Accommodate for multi-generational gatherings. One of the biggest challenges for graduation celebrations is making the event entertaining for everyone from children and grandparents to the graduate’s peers. Villarreal suggests having two different start times as a solution. “An earlier time is for family members that include kids and adults like grandparents, so they can have a reasonable amount of time devoted just to them, and then depart whenever they need to,” she says. “Then, the party morphs into a friends-focused celebration for the graduate a bit later.” Villarreal explains that this can be achieved by creating a printed and a digital invitation. The printed one, which is geared more to older generations, provides the earlier start time, while the digital one that is sent to friends features the later time.

Remember that casual and fun should rule the day. Graduation parties are the type of gatherings that lend themselves to a more laid-back vibe, and accordingly, Lentz sees lots of hosts embracing casual gatherings by hosting outdoors and poolside parties, with swimming as an optional activity. Furthering the carefree ambiance, she adds that hiring a food truck is a great way to keep things easy on the host while pleasing a wide array of guests. Rachael Wofford, co-founder of MW Events in Knoxville, Tennessee, likes to put out lawn games during outdoor soirees, such as custom-painted corn hole boards, giant Jenga, or old-school bocce ball or croquet, as guests always love a little friendly competition.

Opt for playful food offerings. Since commencement celebrations cater to a younger crew, Branco notes that keeping the food casual and familiar is always a crowd-pleasing approach. She likes to offer grab-and-go fare like mini mac and cheese boxes, charcuterie cups, mini-sliders, and a make-your-own taco bar. For dessert, Villarreal sets up tables with an abundance of options, since picking and choosing is half the fun.

Curate a playlist. “Music has a way of activating memories and bringing people together,” Wofford says. Therefore, she recommends creating a playlist of the graduate’s favorite songs from high school and/or college that are sure to strike a chord with the graduate and their friends. Villarreal adds that having music welcome guests upon arrival is key, and suggests pacing the playlist with tunes that are appropriate for cocktail hour conversations and then progressing to danceable tracks.

Create a photo op area. “No party is complete without an Instagram-worthy photo station,” Branco says. Whether you hire a photographer or simply encourage guests to take their own pictures, everyone loves an area set up for a perfect photograph. For a personal touch, Branco recommends having props on hand that nod to the graduate’s extracurriculars, future university or city, or intended major or career. If you’re feeling particularly festive, up the ante with a life-size stand-up of the graduate that begs guests to strike a pose.

TSG Tip 420 from Carolina Villarreal, founder and designer of MINT Event Design in Austin, Texas; Caitlyn Branco, CEO and creative director at Bivardi Designs in Midland, Texas; Megan Lentz, owner of Vida Events in Purcelleville, Virginia; and  Rachael Wofford, co-founder of MW Events in Knoxville, Tennessee. MINT Event Design appears in The Scout Guide Austin. Bivardi Designs appears in The Scout Guide West Texas. Vida Events appears in The Scout Guide Hunt Country. MW Events appears in The Scout Guide Knoxville.