In a sea of black graduation robes, it’s hard to stand out. And if we’ve learned anything, it's that millennials really want to stand out.

But as rows of college students stream through commencement ceremonies, loved ones in the audience are having an easier time spotting their proud graduate.

It might be tiny real estate, but mortarboards increasingly are a playground for self-expression as students grab their diplomas. Fueled by ideas from Pinterest and other social networks, grads are decorating their graduation caps with clever quotes, colorful ribbons and lots and lots of glitter.

“I thought it was witty and fun and different,” said Amy Strafelda, who graduated from the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth this month with a degree in physical therapy. She emblazoned her cap with a quote from the 2004 teen movie “Mean Girls”: “The limit does not exist!”

“It’s a calculus joke, so it was nerdy and a little bit silly — kind of like me,” she said. “And it’s kind of inspirational. It’s the triple threat.”

Pinterest ideas range from Dr. Seuss-inspired designs (“Oh, the Places You’ll Go”) to TV series spoofs (“Game of Loans”), even to creations made from chemistry modeling sets.

Olivia Martinson, who was to graduate Saturday from the U’s Twin Cities campus with a degree in family social science, planned to rock a Disney-inspired cap. For her, decorating was more about bonding with her friends.

“It’s not necessarily about the graduation cap itself as much as the fact that I don’t get to walk with my friends” with different majors at the ceremony, she said. “It’s a way that we can all celebrate.”

At Strafelda’s ceremony, there were a couple of decorated caps in each row of students. “Anything to make the family be able to pick you out in a crowd,” she said.

Some colleges, however, would like to keep the deep tradition of the commencement uniform intact. Warnings against modifying graduation attire are posted on the University of St. Thomas’ website.

“Some kids still try to get through with” decorated caps, said Kristi Ames, office manager for university relations at St. Thomas. “So the staff and faculty have to monitor.”

The University of Minnesota, on the other hand, is more relaxed about its mortarboards. When asked, a spokeswoman had to check with each campus before providing the official word: Graduates are allowed to decorate the tops of their caps without any specific rules about content.

Free to decorate away, students such as Martinson and her friends have seized the opportunity.

“I think our generation expresses ourselves through art more than other generations,” Martinson said. “Our caps are just one way to do it. It shows our personalities that we’ve gained through the last four years.”

Many graduates choose motivational quotes and updates on the next phases of their lives. Descriptions such as “grad school bound” or “doctor to be” are common, but some, such as Martinson, make a bolder statement. Next to a glittery picture of Ariel from “The Little Mermaid,” her cap read, “I want to be where the people are … Employed!”

Martinson said she wanted to design a “sarcastic” cap because she feels like career stresses overshadow the excitement of graduation. Student loan payments are fast approaching and jobs are hard to find, she said.

To her, standing in a sea of graduates who all look alike is comparable to entering a job market already filled with qualified candidates.

“So this at least makes us feel like we have something different as we’re graduating,” she said.


Libby Ryan is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.