College Graduation Traditions That Might Shock You

Graduating from college is a significant achievement that marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. From throwing caps in the air to walking backward, college graduation traditions vary widely and can be quite surprising to those unfamiliar. 

It’s a time for celebration, reflection, and a bit of shock as graduates are introduced to various traditions that they might not have known existed.

In this article, we will explore some of the most unique and unexpected traditions during college graduations, providing insight into the history and significance behind these rituals. 

Whether you’re a soon-to-be graduate or simply curious about these traditions, read on to discover the fascinating world of college graduation customs that might shock you.

College Graduation Traditions That Might Shock You

Throwing Caps

The origin of throwing caps in the air during college graduations is not entirely clear, but it is believed to have started in the United States in the late 19th century. 

One theory suggests that it began as a way for graduates to show excitement and relief at completing their studies. Another theory proposes that the practice may have originated from military academies, where newly commissioned officers would toss their hats in the air as a sign of victory. 

Whatever the origin, the tradition has become a popular and iconic part of graduation ceremonies worldwide. It represents achievement, accomplishment, and the start of a new chapter in the graduates’ lives.

Walking Backwards

Some colleges require graduates to walk backwards during the graduation ceremony to symbolize their reluctance to leave their alma mater and their desire to remain connected to the institution. 

This tradition is most commonly seen in Ivy League colleges such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, where graduates are expected to walk backwards down the stage steps after receiving their diplomas. 

The practice dates back to the medieval period when students would walk backwards out of respect for the learned professors who had taught them. 

Today, it serves as a reminder to graduates that they are leaving behind a significant chapter in their lives and should maintain a sense of gratitude and reverence for their educational experiences.

Wearing A Cap And Gown

The significance of wearing a cap and gown during graduation dates back to medieval times when universities were first established. 

The traditional academic regalia served as a uniform that distinguished scholars from the rest of society. 

The gown symbolized the clerical robes worn by the clergy at the time, signifying the scholarly nature of the university. The cap, or mortarboard, is thought to have evolved from the biretta, a type of hat worn by Catholic clergy. 

Today, the cap and gown continue to be worn to show respect for the academic tradition. It signifies the achievement of earning a degree. 

The colors of the gowns, hoods, and tassels also have specific meanings. They represent the field of study or degree earned by the graduate. Wearing academic regalia is considered an essential and respected tradition that honors the significance of higher education and academic achievement.

Graduation Accessories

Graduation accessories are a meaningful part of the academic regalia worn during graduation ceremonies. Here are some common accessories and their meanings.


Honor cords are typically worn by graduates who have achieved academic excellence or participated in extracurricular activities. Cords are usually worn around the neck and come in different colors depending on the achievement they represent.

To learn more about what graduation cords mean and their various colors, check out my other article.


A hood is a triangular or crescent-shaped garment worn over the gown. The color of the hood represents the graduate’s academic discipline or field of study. On the other hand, the length and shape of the hood indicate the level of the degree earned.

Wearing a hood during a college graduation ceremony is a long-standing tradition with significant meaning. The color of the hood varies according to the degree earned, with the master’s and doctoral hoods having more elaborate designs than those of the bachelor’s degree. 

Wearing hoods at college graduation ceremonies dates back to the Middle Ages when universities began to grant degrees. Monks and scholars originally wore the hood, and it later became an important part of academic regalia. 


The tassel is a decorative element that hangs from the cap or mortarboard. At the beginning of the ceremony, the tassel is worn on the right side of the cap. 

When graduates receive their diplomas, they move the tassel to the left side of the cap, symbolizing the completion of their degree.

The tradition of wearing tassels during college graduation ceremonies dates back to the early 20th century. And it has since become a crucial symbol of academic achievement. Today, wearing a tassel is a key part of college graduation traditions and a symbol of the graduates’ accomplishments and success.

Different colored tassels on graduation caps represent various aspects of a graduate’s academic achievements. Typically, the tassel’s color corresponds to the graduate’s academic discipline or field of study. 

In some cases, the tassel may also indicate the level of the degree earned or any honors that the graduate has received. For example, a gold tassel in the United States may signify academic excellence or a high GPA. In contrast, a red tassel may represent a graduate’s affiliation with a particular student organization or honors society.


A stole is a decorative cloth worn around the neck and over the gown. Stoles may represent membership in a specific honor society, fraternity, sorority, or student organization.

For example, some students may wear stoles that represent their membership in a particular student group or club. Others may wear stoles recognizing their academic achievements, such as graduating with honors or a high GPA.

The practice of wearing stoles during college graduation ceremonies has a long history and is deeply rooted in academic tradition. It serves as a visual reminder of the accomplishments and contributions of the individual graduate. And symbolizes their connection to a larger community of scholars and peers. 


Some institutions award medallions or other special symbols to graduates who have achieved a high level of academic excellence. Or those who made significant contributions to the university.

Some students may wear medallions representing their academic achievements, such as graduating with honors or earning a particular scholarship. Others may wear medals that acknowledge their leadership roles in student organizations or extracurricular activities.

Final Thoughts

College graduation traditions are deeply rooted in history and serve as a meaningful way to recognize and celebrate the achievements of graduating students. 

From the practice of throwing caps in the air to the significance of wearing a hood, tassel, stole, or medallion, each tradition carries its own unique meaning and symbolism. 

While some traditions may seem surprising or unusual to outsiders, they hold a special place in the hearts of graduates and their families. College graduation traditions help create a sense of community and belonging among graduates. Plus, they remind them of their academic accomplishments and personal growth. 

As such, these traditions will continue to be essential to the college graduation experience for years to come.

1 thought on “College Graduation Traditions That Might Shock You”

  1. Sam Andrews

    Wow, reading this article makes me feel more excited about my niece’s college graduation next week. Considering she still has several items to get, I hope she visits the right shop to accessorize her attire. Meanwhile, I like it when you reiterated that stoles can be worn to indicate someone’s academic excellence.

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