12 Motivational Quotes College Grads Need To Hear

Before the real adventure starts.

by Jacqueline Burt Cote
Originally Published: 

New college grads need a lot of things (a job, a place to live, real furniture, a winning lottery ticket so they can pay back their student loans), but perhaps what they're in need of the very most is some real-life wisdom. In the coming years, new grads will be weathering such indignities as sleeping on futons in basement studio apartments while working internships that teach little more than how to balance five Starbucks cups at once, and sometimes, they'll want to give up. So what are some inspiring college graduation quotes that will motivate them to enter the next phase of their life head on and give them strength when times get rough?

Whether these words came from commencement speeches given by smart and creative celebrities, books, movies, or interviews, the quotes on this list aren't just useful for those who've recently completed their higher education. These are the sort of powerful, insightful sentiments that everyone of every age should probably write on sticky notes and put up all over the house so you can remind yourself what really matters every time you walk past the bathroom mirror or the coffee maker (the most popular destination in many a family's home).

Getting back to the college grad thing, though, these quotes can be posted on social media, scribbled into a Hallmark card, or perhaps even recited aloud as part of a graduation dinner toast. If they know what's good for them, everybody should be listening!


“I wish you clarity tonight. Clarity of self, clarity of purpose, a direct line between who you want to be and how to get there.” — Lin-Manuel Miranda

If there’s one thing multiple award-winning playwright and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda understands, it’s clarity of purpose: His own creative visions resulted in the likes of Hamilton. It’s all about knowing exactly who you are, what you want, and how to get it.


"Don't be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered." — Michelle Obama

Fear is the enemy of progress, and it’s something Michelle Obama never let stand in her way. And with such strong examples to light the way, what is there to be afraid of, anyway?


"It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all — in which case, you fail by default." — J.K. Rowling

As one of contemporary culture's most heartwarming (and jaw-dropping) success stories, J.K. Rowling's Harvard's 2008 commencement speech was of course filled with gems like the above quote. Clearly, this is someone who knows what she's talking about!


"The key to realizing a dream is to focus not on success but on significance — and then even the small steps and little victories along your path will take on greater meaning." — Oprah Winfrey

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The truth is, essentially all of Oprah Winfrey's words are inspirational (even "I love bread!"), but this quote listed in Entrepreneur serves as both a revelation and straight-up sound advice. (Because if you're going to take advice from anybody, Oprah should probably be first on your list.)


“When you take risks you learn that there will be times when you succeed and there will be times when you fail, and both are equally important.” — Ellen DeGeneres

Another entertainer/talk show host with a huge heart and a wise soul, Ellen DeGeneres shared these empowering words in her best-selling book Seriously... I'm Kidding, as Health reported.


"Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking." — Steve Jobs

A crucial reminder that "success" and "fulfillment" aren't always the same thing, this quote from Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford commencement address embodies a principle anyone embarking on a new life should take to heart.


“Your path at 22 will not necessarily be your path at 32 or 42. One’s dream is constantly evolving, rising and falling, changing course.” — Conan O'Brien

As Conan O'Brien's 2011 Dartmouth College commencement address so skillfully pointed out, not everybody knows exactly how they want to spend the next several decades the second they graduate from college — and that's perfectly okay.


“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” — "Dead Poets Society"

O Captain, my captain! If ever there were a movie capable of inspiring young people (even if they weren't quite college grads yet) to "seize the day," it was Dead Poets Society — and this line is one the next generation needs to believe and live by.


"Trying to please everybody is impossible — if you did that, you’d end up in the middle with nobody liking you. You’ve just got to make the decision about what you think is your best, and do it." — John Lennon

This oft-repeated quote from the brilliant and outspoken Beatle is the kind of counsel that could save the average young adult from years of self doubt and second-guessing their every decision.


"You can't do it alone. As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration. Other people and other people's ideas are often better than your own. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life." — Amy Poehler

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In Amy Poehler's Harvard University 2011 Class Day speech, the hilariously talented star spoke about the importance of building a support network and collaborating with like-minded people, pointing out that nobody can do it alone (or surrounded with the wrong-minded people, so to speak).


"Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and about what makes the universe exist. Be curious." — Stephen Hawking

When one of the world's most uniquely gifted minds in history shares his thoughts on how to live your life — as he did in a message for his 70th birthday celebration, according to The Guardian — it's in your best interest to listen to every word. (Especially if you're a kid who just got out of school and could seriously use some guidance.)


"Having your own standards allows you to perceive success where others may see failure." — Stephen Colbert

When you're just starting out, the fear of failure can make you question your own instincts and beliefs. But as Stephen Colbert told Wake Forest University grads, success and failure aren't always so black and white. A little perspective changes everything.

There’s no question that college grads are in need of advice, but you might not have the opportunity for a big sitdown talk at graduation. These perfect bite-sized bits of wisdom are just enough to send them in the right direction.

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