This past weekend marked a milestone for us as we celebrated Madison’s graduation from high school. Maybe it was the fact that we were juggling life in a pandemic or perhaps a serious medical crisis, but the time seemed to really fly by. A few months ago, I asked Madison if she had any ideas, preferences or plans for her graduation party. She did not, chiding, “It’s still several weeks away.” By mid-April, we didn’t have any details solidified so I decided to start working on some kind of photo display to show off a fraction of the mass of photos on our personal cloud drive. At the same time, I began calling around about renting tents and chairs. What I discovered is that planning for a graduation party needs to start a whole lot sooner than that if you want to minimize the stress. Here are some of the decisions you’ll need to make along with some tips for planning the graduation party.
When to start planning your graduation party
The ideal answer is: When you plan your senior photos, prepare to attend a college fair or at the start of senior year then it’s time to start thinking about your graduation party. The more realistic answer is: January of senior year. There are a couple of reasons to get a jump start on the process. First, you can lock in reservations early for limited resources. Rental locations, tents, tables and chairs all run at a premium rates during graduation season and the earlier you commit, the more likely you are to be able to secure your preferred date. Second, things get busy – and I mean REAL busy – as the end of the school year nears.
What date to have your graduation party
Most school districts release a calendar during the summer and that usually includes the date for graduation. We already know the commencement date for next year so technically preliminary plans – like the party date – can be made an entire year in advance.
Location to host a graduation party
First and foremost, decide whether you want to host an open house or rent out a space. Country clubs, banquet halls, restaurants, golf clubhouses, churches and parks are all potential locations outside your own home. If you go with any of these then you can mostly rule out weather issues. We opted to host the party at our home which saved money, but presented other challenges. We had to monitor the weather forecast then pivot our plans at the last minute when we realized the grass would be too wet. We had to shift from the yard to the driveway as well as move the locations of the food and decorations.
Invitations for your graduation party
You’ll likely have a handful of formal invitations for the commencement, but it’s best to have a separate flyer for the open house. We created photo postcards (some mailed, some delivered in person) along with a Facebook event and cross-promoted through both of those routes. We received multiple invitations strictly through Facebook and at least one utilized a party service (Evite, I believe). No matter which route you take, make sure your invitation includes the date, time and location. If you require an RSVP then include an email or phone number as well. Get those invitations sent out 3 weeks to a month in advance. That gives you time to follow-up if any invitations are returned.
Tents, Tables and Chairs for your graduation party
If you’re renting a location, you can skip to the next section. For those of you hosting at home, you can utilize an E-Z Up tent or rent a larger one. If you decide on an event tent then order it early. Like in January. As of mid-April, I couldn’t even get rental agencies to return my calls and emails. Also, heed this advice: Get more tables than you think you’ll need. It’s better to have extra space to display awards, food, beverages and even the cake than not enough. We actually ran out of space so used a pallet and sawhorses to create a separate table for drinks. So glad we did because early in the party someone spilled and we didn’t need to worry about the entire table of food being a mess.
Displaying photos at your graduation party
About every graduation event that I’ve been to has included some type of tribute to the days of past. There are a lot of ways you can showcase photos at your party and there isn’t a wrong answer. Some people set out scrapbooks filled with pictures compiled over the years, but the vast majority select their favorites and only show those off. All you need are a handful of craft supplies and you can create unique boards to suit the party. Grab some science fair style poster boards and tape the photos up. Drape string and use clothespins to hang row of pictures across the ceilings or walls. You can easily make these on your own or grab some inexpensive clothesline photo kits on Amazon. My cousin adhered several rows of line to wood pallets and leaned them against the wall atop of tables. We opted to tape photos to long strands of school-color ribbons and hang from the walls. When we had to change plans due to the weather, we had to use sheets as makeshift walls that we hung from the garage door tracks. Whether you set out 30 or 300, it’s a great way to showcase the friends and family who helped make the graduate’s years memorable.
Centerpieces for your graduation party
Whether you rent a facility or host the event at your home, you’ll want to add something to the tables to give guests something to look at or talk about. We picked up inexpensive tablecloths from Party City to give a fresh look to the old tables we were using. You could be fancy by incorporating flowers or fairy lights inside jars or stick wire clip notecard holders into floral foam. We decided to go with centerpieces that really represented us as a family. We filled mason jars with board game pieces like the ones from our Goodwill Outlet adventures.
Decorations for your graduation party
The biggest piece of advice I can offer is to be creative. Keep your eyes out at yard sales, Goodwill and holiday clearance to find items in your school colors. There are a multitude of discounted tissue paper and ribbon after Christmas so try to find simple patterns that could be used as part of your decorating plans. A couple years ago at Goodwill, I found several rolls of wrapping paper in our school colors. The plan was for the girls to use it to decorate their lockers, but they weren’t able to do that because of COVID. Instead, we used the paper to create a box for people to drop their cards. When you’re done with the party, tear into it for the cards then recycle the box!
Showcase your graduate’s achievements
When you’re figuring out your decorations, try to make a point of showcasing some of your graduate’s achievements. Whether they were in sports, fine arts, robotics, a club or something else, find things that they were proud of during their high school years and put those items on display. Their favorite pieces of art, an instrument, medals, achievements, letters from teachers or even a paper or assignment they were extremely proud of.
Posters and Customized Items for your graduation party
Okay, I’m not going to lie… Facebook targeted ads work. Not only did the neighbor and I purchase customized posters from Personalization Mall, but we saw others with the same poster on display. We attended another party that had customized M&Ms, something that also came across my feed more than once. None of these things are necessary, but if you’re able to add even one to the event then it can really make the graduate feel extra special. The poster we purchased was only $20 and I felt it was money very well spent.
Food for you graduation party
There is no wrong answer here. Serve whatever you like and people will be happy. During graduation season, it’s likely that your guests will be attending more than one on the same day. You don’t need to feel like you have to serve an entire meal. Some people will enjoy a main dish, others may snack on chips while many will be happy with just dessert. Prepare coolers with water and other beverages and whatever assortment of food can fit your budget. We provided burgers, brats and hot dogs and the fixings along with chips, vegetables and potato salad. A couple parties we attended provided appetizers while others catered everything from a taco bar to nuggets, sandwiches and a nacho bar. It’s not uncommon to simply offer a dessert bar that includes cake, Bundt cakes, cupcakes, cookies and a candy bar. One graduate had a fire pit and supplies for gourmet s’mores! No matter which option you select, be sure you pick up enough paper products and flatware. Running out means you’ll have to scramble.
There are a multitude of things you can incorporate into your event including guest books, words of wisdom, thank you note envelopes for guests to pre-address, games and activities, baskets filled with sunscreen, hand sanitizer and bug spray, balloons, photo booths and hashtags (to name just a few things) and all those things are great. Encourage the graduate to participate in the preparation so they can select the things they really want and ditch the concepts that they don’t like. Once you have things all planned out and ready, consider asking a friend to help with keeping things on track (like cutting cake, refilling foods and snapping some pictures) so the parents and graduate can focus on connecting with each guest who is there to celebrate this monumental achievement.
Most important, enjoy being in the moment. We only took a handful of pictures during our open house because we were busy talking to all the guests. While we didn’t capture the event through a lens, we were engaged with everyone who attended!
What tips would you add to this list?