Commencement vs. Graduation: What's the Difference?

Most fields and institutions have their own commonly used lingo, and that’s true for the world of education, too. Some of these terms are more straightforward than others. For example, you probably know what college graduation means—but what about commencement? If you’re suddenly second-guessing yourself, read on.

Commencement vs. Graduation

Some people use these terms interchangeably, but they’re not actually synonyms. Here’s what to know about commencement vs. graduation.


Commencement is the ceremony that honors graduating students. Commencement refers to the start of something, and in an academic context, this ceremony signifies you’re starting your career and the next phase of your life. Students may be allowed to participate in commencement prior to completing all of their graduation requirements.

Commencement ceremonies are typically celebrations, and graduating students often invite their friends and family members to support and cheer them on. In most commencements, a designated speaker addresses the graduating class with a speech, and a university president, provost, or dean may hand graduates a congratulatory document or folder as they walk across the stage. Students who have fulfilled their graduation requirements will receive their diplomas in the mail following the ceremony.

Students may receive honors at commencement. For example, graduating students might be recognized as “cum laude,” “magna cum laude,” or “summa cum laude.” All of these terms reflect high grade point averages.


Graduation means you’ve completed the requirements to earn a degree or diploma. In colleges and universities, you’re able to graduate once you’ve:

  • Earned the required number of credits
  • Taken all the necessary courses to satisfy your major
  • Completed any other requirements, such as internships or service hours

Sometimes people use the phrase “graduation ceremony,” which differs from graduation. By adding the word ceremony, they’re actually referring to commencement (also called “commencement ceremony”).

Why These Terms Matter to You

It’s easy to see how commencement vs. graduation might be used to mean the same thing. But when you know what each term means, you can better understand how they’re related to each other and how they differ. For example, you can have one without the other. You can graduate but choose not to walk in commencement. In that situation, you meet the requirements for your major and earn your degree and diploma, but you don’t participate in the traditional cap-and-gown ceremony.

At many colleges and universities, you can also walk in commencement without officially graduating. In this scenario, you may be permitted to take part in the commencement ceremony with your classmates as long as you’ll meet the graduation requirements soon after commencement.

At Azusa Pacific University, you’re invited to participate in commencement if you have no more than three units remaining and if you’ll complete them in the term immediately following the ceremony. Of course, you’ll also need to meet your financial obligations and complete your service credits.

Taking the Next Step toward a Brighter Future

Graduating from college and walking across the stage in your commencement ceremony are two different things, but they’re intertwined. College graduation marks the completion of your degree requirements, while commencement celebrates those accomplishments and looks toward the future. If you’re interested in working toward these milestones, reach out to APU to learn more about the degrees and programs that can put you on the path to success.