Commencement vs. Graduation (Aren’t They the Same Thing?)

Two college graduates having an animated conversation after the ceremony, with other graduates in the background.

After reading the title, most of you are probably thinking the same thing—“Wait, these two things are different?’

I don’t blame you. I went through most of my adult life using graduation and commencement interchangeably. It’s not until I was graduating from college that I learned of their differences.

What Is the Difference Between Graduation and Commencement?

Graduation is the term used when you have officially completed all the degree requirements. You should have already passed the college audit.

To get your graduation date, you need to apply for graduation. Once you know the date, you can now apply to attend the graduation ceremony or ‘commencement.’

Commencement, to put it simply, is just a ceremony. Think of it as an advanced celebration for students that are projected to graduate at the end of the academic year. 

If you are a graduating student, you can participate in a commencement ceremony. This is if you have applied for graduation before a given deadline.

Does Attending a Commencement Ceremony Make You a Graduate?

A female graduation candidate holding a diploma and smiling at a commencement ceremony, along with other graduates.

Commencement is not actually an official document that says who’s graduating or not. As I said, it’s just a nice ceremony. It’s possible to have a commencement ceremony and not graduate the same year for some reason.

The majority of attendees have not graduated yet. Most are projected to graduate. Some students choose to attend after they get their graduate forms, though.

How Many Semesters Are in an Academic Year?

Before we discuss the commencement ceremony dates, let’s first discuss the academic term in the US.

There are three calendar systems used by most American colleges: quarter, semester, and trimester. Take note that there are other academic systems in use but we’re only going to focus on the commonly used ones.

Semester System

This divides the calendar year into two 16 to 18-week semesters. This is excluding the optional summer session of varying lengths.

This equates to practically the same amount of education compared to the quarter and trimester systems. The only difference is you only get one break—the widely popular spring break.

Here’s how each semester is divided:

  • Fall semester – early September to mid-December
  • Spring/Winter semester – late January to early May
  • Summer session (optional)

This is used by over 70% of colleges and universities.

Quarter System or Trimester System

A school calendar with the date the semester starts encircled with black ink.

The quarter and trimester systems are used interchangeably. The only difference is the quarter includes the summer session, which the trimester does not. Apart from that, these two are practically the same system.

This calendar system divides the year into four parts, three of which complete an academic year. Each quarter is 10–12 weeks long, which equates to 30–36 weeks of learning per year (52 weeks).

Since you’re only enrolled in fewer courses, the total hours per week per class is longer. This means that the amount of material covered in a 10-week trimester will be comparable to a 15-week semester.

You can complete 9 courses in a trimester-based academic year (3 courses x 3 trimesters). Compare this to 8 courses in a semester-based academic year (4 courses x 2 semesters).

Here’s the start of each quarter:

  • Fall quarter – late September to mid-December
  • Winter quarter – early January to mid-March
  • Spring quarter – late March to early April/ mid-June
  • Summer quarter (optional)

This is used by around 20% of universities.

How Do You Know Which Commencement Ceremony to Attend?

College graduates wearing their academic robes and caps, facing the stage during an outdoor graduation ceremony.

Now that we know how an academic year is divided, we can now determine which commencement ceremonies you’re eligible to attend.

Most colleges hold only one commencement ceremony, which falls in May. Some colleges do offer two commencement ceremonies in May and December.

You have two choices: you either attend the commencement ceremony before or after you graduate. If you want to attend before you graduate, you must’ve already applied for graduation before the deadline.

As for students who want to attend the commencement after they graduate, they can do so by presenting their completed transcript.

The same rule applies to colleges with two commencement ceremonies.

What Can You Expect from a Commencement Ceremony?

Most commencement exercises or ‘graduation’ will follow the same outline. So, if you’ve ever attended one, chances are, this one won’t be any different.

Every student wears a graduation robe or toga and waits for their turn to get their diplomas on stage. You get to shake your headmaster’s hand, too.

But before that, you get to hear from your esteemed faculty members and speakers.

The graduation ceremony lasts about 90–120 minutes, depending on the number of graduating students. It also depends on the duration of all the speeches.

Written by The Metamorphosis

The Metamorphosis is a lifestyle blog about the journey of college to adulting. Here you can find the tips for college, self-improvement, adulting, and more.

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