10 Famous Commencement Speeches


Kurt Vonnegut's Fictional Speech at MIT, 1997

kurt vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was credited as the author of one of the most famous commencement speeches -- one that he never actually gave. Oliver Morris/Getty Images

"Wear sunscreen ... The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience."

So begins one of the most popular commencement addresses in recent history, which also included such gems as "Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements. Get to know your parents. Travel" [source: Schmich].

Famed American novelist Kurt Vonnegut sure had a way with words, didn't he? Within days, the sage-but-simple advice he supposedly offered to Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates in June 1997 was racing across international borders via forwarded e-mails.

Except Vonnegut didn't write the commencement address. Or share it from the podium during MIT's graduation ceremony. In fact, MIT's 1997 graduation speaker was actually Kofi Annan, then-secretary-general of the United Nations, who encouraged graduates to pursue multilateral diplomacy rather than save old love letters [source: MIT].

Turns out the commencement address wasn't an address at all, but a satirical column penned by Mary Schmich that was published in the Chicago Tribune. "It was witty," Vonnegut later said, "but it wasn't my wittiness." Of course, this didn't stop the prose from becoming nearly as famous as its mistaken author [source: MIT].

Within a year, "Wear Sunscreen" had even been adapted into a hit single in Australia that rose to No. 1 in the U.K and No. 45 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100 [source: Alvarez]. Schmich made a book out of it, too.