What Do Graduates Really Want?

Tips and Resources For All of Your Graduation Needs – 2nd Edition

It’s graduation season, and that is such an exciting time in the lives of high school grads and their families. When you think about it, they have worked for at least 13 years to get to this point, and they need to be celebrated! I think everyone wants to celebrate them, but what do graduates really want?

graduation celebration grads throwing caps

As a high school counselor who deals with graduation every year, you would think I would have a little more insight into this question of what graduates really want. When I thought about it, I didn’t have a clue, so I did a little research.

I thought the perfect way to find out what graduates really wanted was to ask them. I put together a survey and sent it out to my students last year and again this year to get their thoughts and opinions. Some of the responses were exactly as expected, and others were a surprise to me.

Two students in red graduation gowns and caps are standing indoors, smiling and holding up drawings of stars. The student on the left has a white sash that reads "Salutatorian," and the student on the right has a sash that says "Valedictorian." This moment captures what graduates really want – recognition for their hard work.
Valedictorian and Salutatorian holding up pictures from Kindergarten students.

High School Graduate Survey Questions

  • Are You Planning on Decorating Your Cap?
  • What Party Themes Are You Planning?
  • What Gifts You Would Like to Receive?
  • Do you have an Amazon wish list to share with friends and family?
  • What Other Thoughts or Ideas Do You Want to Share?
A joyful African American graduate in a red gown and black stole, smiling and reaching out with her diploma in front of green trees, embodying what graduates really want.

Cap Decorating

Although this is not a completely new thing, it was not around when I graduated, nor when my kids did. At first I didn’t care for the idea, but it has really grown on me. The students get really creative, and they are very talented! More than half of the students plan to decorate their caps. I was a little surprised that the numbers were not higher.

Four graduates in red gowns sit with their backs to the camera, displaying their creatively decorated graduation caps. The room is filled with other graduates in red gowns, seated at tables, all engaged in discussions and celebrations about what graduates really want.

If you are going to be helping someone decorate their cap and need ideas, I have found a wonderful resource. See the post, “70 Creative Graduation Cap Ideas That Stand Out From the Crowd.”

Graduation Party Themes and Ideas

Graduating students in red gowns tossing their caps under a night sky illuminated by fireworks at an outdoor ceremony celebrating what graduates really want.

For the most part, the graduates who completed the survey didn’t really seem to care what party theme they had. The common factor in almost all of the answers was that they wanted to be with their family and people who had played a large role in their life. How wonderful is that?

The Types of Themes Mentioned Were:

  • Bonfire/Cookouts
  • Pool Parties
  • Family Dinners
  • Minecraft
  • Dinosaurs with Graduation Hats
  • Money
  • College Themes
  • School Colors
  • Glamour
  • Whimsical and Enchanting
  • The Great Gatsby

If you are looking for party decorating ideas, here are a couple of other resources:

Graduation Party Centerpiece Ideas with Joann

Remember the party I had for my husband with the “Big Head” cut outs? You could definitely use that idea for a graduation party. There are also some simple food ideas for parties in this post.

A lively group of graduates at a dinner party, some holding large cut-outs of a man's smiling face, enjoying a joyful gathering at a restaurant with televisions in the background.

In addition to that, I found an idea on a post that is like the big head, but it is full body decorations. I love it! Check out, “DIY Photo Graduation Party Decorations and Momentos.”

Refined Rooms shared a very comprehensive post on “How to Plan a Graduation Party to Remember: The Ultimate Graduation Party Planner.”

Graduate Gifts

So what is it that graduates really want? You can probably guess that the number one answer to this question (both years) was – MONEY! This really makes the perfect graduation gift, because they are setting out on the next chapter of their life’s journey. Whether they are going to college, the work force, military, or trade school, they will need money.

Gift cards was the second choice and things for an apartment or dorm was third. Although gift cards are like cash, they can be a little more personalized if you know what the recipient likes. I received the neatest graduation party invitation this year. Knowing that she was going away to college and would need items to set up her dorm, she included a QR code that took people to her Amazon “Dorm” Wish List. Brilliant!


It is important to know what the new grad plans to do after graduation. Dorm rooms are typically a small space, so keep that in mind while looking for the perfect gift. If they will be moving into their first apartment, they will need more items than if moving into a dorm room.

Here are some of the items on some of the wish lists, with the affiliate links listed below. These students have very good taste. After seeing the lists, I have actually ordered some of these items myself!

Personal and Unique Gifts and Resources:

  • A friend of mine used Shutterfly to make her son a photo book of all of his school years. It was really nice and a great keepsake.
  • When my daughter graduated, we found a notebook kit called, “Life Lessons.” It was a scrapbook where you could put mementos from their school years into it, but the main focus was on gathering letters from relatives, former teachers, principals, Sunday School teachers, etc. The letters were written with advice to the graduate. This was priceless. Two years later when our son graduated, we could not find these. Our daughter made a scrapbook for him, and we gathered letters on our own.
  • I am still working on the Bibles for my granddaughters. This is definitely not a last minute idea. Start this at least two years in advance. For more information, see the post, “Eternal Gifts for the Ones We Love.”
  • Make a time capsule over time (start this in elementary) with letters and notes from your child’s teachers and coaches.
  • Here is a post I found with great ideas, “High School Graduation Gifts on a Budget.”
  • If you decide to give money, which is usually our choice, here is a unique way to present it, “Graduation Cap Mason Jar.”
  • Other things listed in the survey were: jewelry, nice blankets, lava lamps, snacks, clothes, things for hobbies, art supplies, small snacks, things that allow them to be creative, and photo albums filled with pictures.

Other Graduate Gift Ideas From a Social Media Survey

I wanted to get a few more ideas that I felt like would be great gifts for the graduates, so I took part in a social media survey. There were too many ideas to list, but I have to say that these are some of the best graduation gift ideas:

Physical Gift Ideas

  • Travel backpack with an Amazon gift card
  • Fill a basket with essentials (paper towels, paper plates, toilet paper, napkins, cleaning supplies, etc.)
  • Laundry basket filled with laundry detergent, dryer sheets, a roll of quarters, and other laundry items (I received a monogrammed laundry bag from one of my teachers 40 years ago, and we still use it today for our dry cleaning. It was a great graduation gift!)
  • Emergency kits: first aid, sewing kit, car kit, small tool set, flashlights, etc.
  • Portable car battery jump starter
  • Personalized journal or planner
  • School supplies: Sticky Notes, dry erase markers, scissors, stapler, etc. in a cute container
  • Photo album filled with pictures from all of their school years
  • Homemade recipe book filled with easy recipes for college students
  • 3 Drawer plastic bin filled with snacks, condiments, plastic utensils, instant meals, etc.
  • Beach towel and bag
  • Water bottle or tumbler with gift cards inside
  • Small crock pot, microwave, or air fryer
  • Popcorn popper
  • Brita water filter pitcher
  • Portable phone chargers
  • Luggage (for weekend trips home) add luggage tags (for weekend trips elsewhere.)
  • Air tags
  • Apple watch or the latest tech gadgets
  • Favorite board game
  • Candle Warmer
  • Cozy soft blanket
  • Nice towel set
  • Umbrella
  • IKEA gift bags
  • Money Tree
  • Stocks or savings bonds
  • Fire-proof lock box
  • Walmart+ Membership
  • AudioBooks or Audible Gift Memberships

Gift Card Ideas

There are many thoughtful ways to give gift cards. You could go in with others and make a gift card bouquet, or fill a photo album with gift cards. You could also simply add gift cards or money to a graduation card.

Purchase gift cards or certificates from places near the graduate’s college dorm or new apartment. These will be the most useful to them.

  • Gas cards
  • Coffee shops
  • Restaurants
  • Visa gift cards
  • Grocery store cards
  • Movie or bowling gift cards
  • GrubHub, Uber Eats, or Door Dash
  • Uber or Lyft
  • Amazon

WOW! People really showed up to share their best gift ideas for graduates! Hopefully something in this list stood out to you. With all of the options, we should be able to find the right graduation gift for everyone on our list.

Inspiring Graduation Quotes

You probably know by now that I am a quote girl! I collect quotes and share them weekly. I hit the jackpot on inspiring quotes a few weeks ago when I received this post in my email, “300 Best Graduation Quotes and Sayings to Inspire.” You’ve got to see these.

Simply 2 Moms shared, “Class of 2024: 101 Inspirational Graduation Quotes to Guide on Life’s Journey.”

A young woman stands in a sunlit field holding a sign that reads "newest, proudest member of the fightin' texas aggies" to celebrate her acceptance and what graduates really want

Miscellaneous Resources for Parents of Graduates

Graduation is such a roller coaster ride for parents. The emotions run from proud, relieved, happy, sad, nostalgic, and everything in between. It is exciting but draining.

Two graduates in red gowns and caps stand smiling in front of large, decorated letters spelling "GRAD" against a brick wall. Holding diplomas, they epitomize what graduates really want: recognition for their hard work. The light-colored tile floor grounds the scene, while gear and science-themed designs embellish the letters.

If you are a mom or other family member going through this experience, live in the moment and enjoy every moment with your child! The following article is specifically written for you. It is an encouragement, a prayer, and lessons to learn through the process. Read, “Confessions of a Mom Whose Baby Will Graduate Soon.”

Whether you are a parent, friend, student, or neighbor, it is always helpful to know what graduates really want when May rolls around each year. Hopefully this has given you some ideas a great gift for that special graduate. Please share any of your unique or thoughtful gift ideas in the comments.

Until next week…

A delicate circular floral wreath encircles the message "have a grace & joy-filled day—controlling the tongue!" with the name "susan" below, all depicted in soft brown and green
I disclose

disclosure: Amazon affiliate links are used on this page. Thank you for supporting Home with Grace and Joy. When you purchase an item, I receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. See my full disclosure and privacy policy on the website. 

“For I know the plans I have for you”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”
Jeremiah 29:11

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  1. These are all such creative ideas, Susan, thanks so much for putting this together. My neice is graduating from middle school to high school and my cousin is graduating from high school and I didn’t have a clue has to how to make it special for them. This definitely helps! Hugs and thank you for all you do as a school counselor. I know it means so much to the kids and faculty to have you there. Hugs, CoCo

    1. I really enjoyed this one, since the kids had a part in it! I hope it really helps. I’ve got one of their wish lists I’m going to add onto the post. She pretty much has the same taste as me. I’m going to have to order some of the items. 😂

  2. I love that you went right to the source!! I always think money when I think Grad gifts too though my mom always gifted us kids a nice luggage set. We were at a graduation party last year and someone put a dorm care kit together by using items like laundry soap, shower caddy with supplies, cheap flip flops for the shower, favorite snacks, all these little odds and ends that most people would hardly even remember to pack until they got to their dorm. The grad love it and I thought that was a great idea.

    1. I love that idea! My parents did something similar for us for Christmas, early in our marriage. It was really needed and one of the gifts that stands out in our memory. I think graduates would love it. Thanks for sharing!

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