March 13, 2018

10 Graduation Party Ideas That Actually Worked In Real Life

It's been a little less than a year since my firstborn's high school graduation party, and now that we've managed to clear all the leftover meatballs out of the freezer, I think I can finally talk about it.

Of course, you don't need this post to find graduation party ideas. Pinterest is crazed with them. But if a graduation party is in your future and you want some practical ideas that have been road-tested and grad-approved, here's what worked for us.

1. Remembering the point of the party. 

I'm a mom who freaks out about everything. I'm especially notorious for doing this when we're hosting people at our house. So my family's skepticism that I would be able to pull off an event for a couple hundred people without totally losing it was understandable. 

But I knew that no matter what else happened--if we had torrential rain the day of the party or no one came or everyone came or 300 cupcakes fell over en route to the dessert table or whatever--the only thing that could really ruin the party for my daughter was me. 

If I freaked out as usual and made everyone miserable for weeks or months ahead of time, or if I freaked out the day of the party and made everyone miserable for hours ahead of time, that misery would be all my graduate would remember. So I prayed over and over again that God would help me keep the main thing the main thing: whatever went right or wrong, if, at the end of the day, my daughter was honestly able to say that she felt loved and celebrated and cherished (which she very much deserved to feel), the party would be a success. 

I reminded myself of this when a March wind storm took off most of the shingles on the barn where we were having the party. I reminded myself of this when the roofing crew said they would "do their best" to get the barn roof fixed before the party…and their best was not nearly good enough. 

I reminded myself of this when I was trying to figure out how we could have a party in the half of the barn that would not be wet if it rained the day of the event. I reminded myself of this when our pump went out while I was attempting to power wash our trampoline in case young party guests wanted to play on it. I reminded myself of this when ants got into some of the lemon meringue cupcakes I had so carefully blowtorched the morning of the big day. 

Having an overarching goal in mind through all the months leading up to the party helped me to be uncharacteristically calm(ish) about things that normally would have sent me over the edge. My own mom, who knows me better than anyone else, said several times, "I'm so proud of how you're handling all this." That meant so much to me, not only because it told me I was getting something right, but also because you really just never get too old to want your mama to be proud of you.

2. Weatherproofing. 
We planned to have our party in our 100-year-old barn. While that came with some challenges (see #1, above), staging our soiree in a sheltered, protected spot lessened my worry about weather. An outdoor event with open-air tents is lovely if the weather is dry and sunny and not too hot or too windy or too cool. But I didn't want to play those odds, and I figured that if the weather ended up being spectacular, people could always wander outside. 

3. Lemonade trio. 

Otherwise known as "streamlining the beverage options." I didn't have the energy to round up 17 kinds of pop (soda to some of y'all), but I did want to offer more than just bottles of water. We decided to make a couple beverage coolers' worth of basic lemonade from a good-quality mix, with lots of fresh lemons added to it, and then flavor it three ways. I bought a trio of Mason-jar type beverage dispensers and loaded one up with plain lemonade, one with strawberry lemonade, and one with blackberry lemonade. The ease-factor was that we used flavored syrups added directly to the glass dispensers so we didn't have to try to guess ahead of time which flavor of lemonade would be the most popular. (Spoiler alert: it was the blackberry.) We had our lemonade three ways and a giant tub of bottles of water in two different sizes, and that was it. Options...but not so many that people were overwhelmed and just gave up and were thirsty.

4. Memory clothesline. 
My absolute favorite element of our party (other than my graduate and our guests, of course). We strung a length of clothesline rope across one corner of our barn and used it to display my daughter's life as told by clothing. The first item was the first outfit I bought my daughter once I knew she was a she. The last item on the clothesline was a t-shirt from her future university alma mater. In between, we hung her favorite dance costume and her marching band uniform and her prom dress and her graduation gown. We used regular clothespins to hang the clothing items, but I wrote captions describing each item on special clothespins with little chalkboard labels attached that I found at the craft store. Even guests of guests who didn't know our grad very well were able to see who she was and what she loved by "reading" this visual story.

5. Divided plates. 

I didn't want my baked beans co-mingling with my fruit salad, and I didn't think our guests would, either. We spent the money on some slightly more expensive, heavy-duty, three-section plates and didn't regret a penny of it.

6. FAQ cards. 
I knew from past parties I'd been to that the graduate usually spends a lot of time answering the same questions over and over. I understand this: guests want to know what's going on. But I wanted my daughter to be able to use her limited time with friends and family to interact more meaningfully with them and to be able to ask about their lives. So I created "FAQs About the Grad" cards and scattered them around on tables where guests would be eating. The cards answered the questions most grads get, plus a couple that were specific to our girl: 
  • Is she going to college?
  • Does she know what she's going to major in?
  • What is she going to do with her life?
  • Will she keep playing her clarinet?
  • Will she keep dancing?

7. Friends on duty. 

Leading up to the big day, I delusionally thought I'd be able to greet and converse with guests in a relaxed manner and refill the meatballs and realize when the trash needed to be taken out. (I did say I was delusional.) Fortunately, I had a wise friend who knew better. She told me in no uncertain terms that she was taking over those kinds of tasks and that it was my job just to be the mother of the graduate. She's a dear friend of our family who can talk to anyone, but she was also free to do all those housekeeping duties. She ran around like a maniac for the entire party, and I have absolutely no idea how we would've done it without her. (I'm on deck to do the same thing for her kids, by the way.) I also have no idea how we would have pulled off the party without the help of my parents and my in-laws and several other friends and family members. If you are reading this and you are one of those people, thank you. Also, THANK YOU!!

8. Graduation hat cupcakes. 

My daughter opted for a cupcake buffet instead of a full-on cake, and these edible mortarboards were the centerpiece of the display. Any flavor of cupcakes and any color of frosting works, along with upside-down mini peanut-butter cups, chocolate-covered graham crackers, and fruit-leather tassels. An assembly line made up of my girls and my sister and her kid-crew (visiting from out-of-state for the occasion, THANK GOD) proved the truth of the adage, "Many hands make light work."

9. Parking on purpose (and a repurpose). 

As a guest, I'm always stressed when I go to graduation parties and don't understand where I'm supposed to park. We wanted to make our guests feel welcome and relaxed from the start, so we tried to make it clear both where the party was and where they were supposed to park once they got here. We mowed down some of our back field, and my daughter painted sections of a dismantled picket fence--with the perfect arrow shape for directional assistance--for signs that pointed guests to our house from the main road and to our "parking lots" once they turned in.

10. Card collection minus the frustration factor.

Not long before our celebratory shindig, I helped cater another grad party and observed many guests awkwardly trying to maneuver their cards through a narrow slot in one of those graduation-hat card collectors. We went with ease and accessibility and set out a wooden bin with a chalkboard label that fit with the rest of our decor AND gave my daughter something she could use afterwards. Our guests tossed their cards in and moved on to more important the cupcake buffet. (See #8, above.)

At the end of the night, when all those leftover meatballs had been packaged and stashed in the freezer, I asked our girl how she felt. She said, "I feel loved and happy." And that's when I knew our party had been a success and that we'd given our sweet graduate a gift she'd remember forever.

Are you a grad-party veteran yourself? What real-life ideas would you add to this list? 
Or, if you're planning your own bash and have a question you'd like answered by a craft-deficient, Pinterest-intimidated control freak, feel free to ask away in a comment or on my Facebook page
And about those meatballs: here's the famous family recipe that got our whole party started.

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Previous post that has something to do with this one: "Things You Think When You Are the Parent of a High School Senior."

This post may have been shared at some of these blog link parties.


  1. Thank you so much for this valuable resource!!! As a mother of a high school junior, it's hard to believe that a year from now I'll be planning a graduation party of our own. I'm pinning this to refer back to for sure!

    That memory clothesline idea is amazing!! AND I love the flavored lemonade and water idea for beverages. Most of all, I need to keep firm hold of your mantra to remember the point of the party.

    1. AH, Tracey, I'm so glad you saw this, because I had promised it to you quite awhile ago! ;) I know that "I can't believe it" feeling well! But I also know you will put together a lovely event for your sweet graduate-to-be when the time comes. I will look forward to reading all about it! But for now, enjoy what's left of this penultimate year of your firstborn's high school's such an exciting time of looking forward while still celebrating the "now." Blessings, mama!

  2. How fun to read this post! And I've never heard of that clothesline idea - SO CUTE! Totally stealing all of this for Gv's big day, which, even though it feels oodles of years off, I'm sure will be here before we can blink!

    1. Steal away...but, yes, for a loooong time away. When you get to it, though, I know it will be glorious. I already wish I could be there to be #7. xoxo

  3. These are some great ideas! Mine doesn't graduate for another 4 years, but I'm saving up ideas!

    1. Thank you so much, Cherryl! You're at that fun stage where you can start thinking and planning, but you've still got lots of time to collect ideas. Thanks so much for taking time to stop by and see what worked for us! :)

  4. While picking an eatery for this kind of occasion, plan to know as much as you can about the area and the individuals who work there. larosa'

  5. Great tips! I am always worried about where to park when I go to a home party; so often the hosts don't seem to think of that and parking gets crazy. I love the idea of adding fact cards around so the grad isn't always answering the same questions over and over again. I too go a bit nutty when we host and drive my family batty with all my grand ideas. Pinned.

    1. Exactly! (About the parking.) I get so nervous about that as a guest myself, so I really wanted to tackle that issue with our party. Thanks so much for taking time to read this and for the pin! :)

  6. Thanks for sharing these great tips. It was quite useful, as I’m also planning for my daughter’s graduation party. It is quite stressful managing every detail in advance, but it’s also a lot of fun. I enjoy hosting parties but hate cleaning up afterwards. That’s why I’m organizing my daughter’s grad party at one of my favorite Los Angeles venues.

  7. So many fun ideas, graduation hat cupcakes are good.


I'd love to hear from you! Feel free to tell me what you really think. Years ago, I explained to my then-two-year-old that my appointment with a counselor was "sort of like going to a doctor who will help me be a better mommy." Without blinking, she replied, "You'd better go every day." All of which is just to say I've spent some time in the school of brutal honesty!