When it's time for you to graduate from high school or college, you'll have to prepare a few things before participating in your school's graduation ceremony alongside all of your classmates. First and foremost, you'll have to wear the cap and gown you purchased. But, depending on your involvement and achievements throughout your time in high school or college, you may also earn the opportunity to adorn yourself with a graduation stole to wear on top of your gown as well as graduation cords.

While you should be proud of yourself for having made it to graduation in the first place, you should also be extremely proud of anything else you've achieved during your time in school. These honors and achievements can usually be shown with colorful graduation stoles and cords. But, if you, your friends and your family are wondering what all those colors mean, you can soon surprise them with what you know about graduation stole colors.

The Parts of a Graduate's Outfit

On graduation day, students will be expected to dress in uniform, in an outfit that's been worn by graduates for centuries. In fact, the first graduation uniform came into existence sometime during the 1300s. Members of faculty in European institutions wanted to create some unity among their students, so the cap and gown were soon born. Since then, there have been some changes, and today, graduates will wear a cap and gown that's worn by students worldwide. In addition to the cap and gown, though, there's also a hood, which is a part of the uniform that hangs over your shoulders in the back. Depending on the preferences of your high school or college, you may just have to wear the cap and gown, whereas other schools or institutions may require their students to wear all three aspects of the attire.

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What's a Graduation Stole?

A graduation stole is also sometimes referred to as a sash. It's something that a graduate wears over their gown when they walk at graduation as it showcases the experiences of this student over the last four years in high school or college. Graduation stoles or sashes can represent anything from the academic department the student is in, what degree level they're earning, any organizations they were involved in or which honors, if any, they've achieved throughout their time in school. Stoles and sashes can really distinguish a student, but in order to do that, the sashes must be distinguishable themselves. That's why graduation stoles come in different colors, with each color signifying something different. If you want to understand more about the students you see at a graduation ceremony, it's important to have some familiarity with these colors and what they mean.

The History of the Graduation Stole

The cap, gown and hood have been around for quite some time, but so have the stoles and cords. Stoles and cords have actually existed longer than the cap and gown, but not necessarily in an academic setting. Stoles have been around since the 12th century but were usually worn by priests to symbolize their position, and this idea eventually spread to academic institutions.

While the American Academic Costume Code – part of the American Council on Education that formed in 1893 – dictates the standards for the cap, gown and hood, they don't dictate any standards on stoles and cords. That's because the decision of whether or not students wear stoles and cords, and in what colors, is left up to the discretion of the individual institution.

The Difference Between Graduation Stoles and Cords

In addition to stoles, some graduates may also adorn cords, which look like colorful ropes or pulleys with tassels on the ends. Cords are very similar to stoles, except they typically only represent honors achieved by the student. Stoles, on the other hand, are usually much more diverse in what they can represent. In most cases, an honors cord has to be earned by the student, and because of this, there's no limit as to how many different color cords they can wear since some students achieve many different honors throughout high school or college. Stoles have to be earned as well, but students usually have a choice as to which one – and only one – they want to wear. In some cases, students will need to get approval by the dean of students before choosing the stole they want to wear. This is especially true in institutions that don't require students to wear stoles based on their field of study, but rather, their achievements or participation in a certain organization.

High School Graduation Cords and Stoles Meaning

In high school, whether or not students can wear graduation stoles is really up to the administration. Some schools may give students a choice to wear stoles or grant stoles to individual students based on their achievements. For instance, the valedictorian and salutatorian are usually granted stoles as well as the student body president. Sometimes, stoles are granted to high school graduates who did volunteer work throughout their high school career or won a foreign language award.

The same goes for honors cords. While both stoles and cords certainly aren't as common in high schools as they are on college campuses, some high schools may opt to include them in the graduation ceremony and offer them to students in the honor society, language club, a science club, etc. Again, it really just depends on the high school and what they feel is the best representation of their school and their students.

College Graduation Stole Meanings

Graduation stoles in college are considered much more significant than those that may be worn in high school unless, of course, you were at the top of your class or attended a very prestigious high school. Stoles in college can also signify valedictorian or salutatorian, but they're primarily worn to represent the field of study or specific school the student is in. Some stoles can be worn to show your dedication to a fraternity or sorority or they can signify another type of academic achievement. Or, the school will decide whether or not students can wear stoles altogether in order to make sure there's unity among the graduates.

What Different Color Stoles Mean

If you've noticed students wearing stoles, or you're just curious what the different color stoles mean, the colors usually follow a standard that's recognized by most institutions in the United States. While any school can choose to deviate from these colors and create their own meanings, it's safe to assume that the colors you see represent a specific field of study:

  • White: Humanities, Arts, English, etc.
  • Beige: Business.
  • Green: Medicine, Pharmacy and Physical Education.
  • Orange: Engineering.
  • Brown: Fine Arts and Architecture.
  • Gray: Husbandry and Veterinarian Science.
  • Light Blue: Education.
  • Pink: Music.
  • Purple: Law.
  • Yellow: Science and Mathematics.
  • Dark Blue: Philosophy and Political Science.

Of course, these are just a handful of the colors and the majors they're assigned to. With the emergence of new majors and the growth of certain majors separate from the categories within which they used to exist (for example, social work and economics have their own stoles, too, even if they could be considered part of other fields), it's easy for a graduation attendee to see a whole rainbow of colors at the commencement ceremony.

What Different Color Cords Mean

Stoles and cords are a little bit different, as cords are strictly related to honors achieved by the student. The color could depend on achievements in a specific field of study, or it can apply to all students in the school who have achieved a certain GPA, or recognition for cum laude, magna cum laude and summa cum laude. It could even represent students who made the President's List or Dean's List, or a specific honor society for your major, such as Kappa Delta Pi. Like stoles, the colors of cords can differ from one academic institution to another, but in general, they follow a set standard:

  • Silver: Typically represents honors achievements in fields of medical science, math or agriculture.
  • Black: Represents honors achievements in the field of business or economics.
  • Gold: Signifies Latin honors for high GPA, honor society membership and other similar achievements. 

There are, of course, many other colors and color combinations for cords, like green and purple, purple and gold, purple and white, etc. Again, the school may choose from a set of certain colors for their honors students, sometimes making that choice based on the colors found in that school's emblem.

How to Earn a Graduation Stole

Since many graduation stoles represent fields of study, anyone can theoretically earn a stole once they've completed their degree in their major. Additionally, those who have been in a fraternity or sorority throughout their four years in college can earn a stole for that as well. But, because different universities set different rules for whether or not stoles can be worn, and if so, which kinds of stoles, it's not so much about earning one as it is having permission to wear it.

If you're permitted to wear a graduation stole, in most cases you'll have to purchase it yourself from either your university's bookstore or online at one of the various companies that sell them. Of course, if you're at the top of the class or you've earned some major achievement, there's a chance your school will provide you with the stole.

What Color are Graduation Gowns?

If you're wondering whether or not your stole and cords are going to match your graduation gown, don't worry. Schools that celebrate achievements with stoles and cords want to make sure that the colors don't clash and actually stand out quite nicely. After all, the point of adorning a stole or cords is to highlight your achievements throughout your academic career. This might be one of the reasons why graduation gowns are typically very neutral colors like black, emerald green, navy blue, white, red or gold.

Other Colors During Graduation

If you've ever attended a graduation ceremony, including your own, you may have noticed the rows and rows of students look like a sea of colors. This is especially true when students are permitted to wear stoles in addition to their honors cords. At first, this can be confusing to a person trying to decipher what the different colors mean, but after getting familiar with the standard color meanings beforehand, you should have a better idea of what all of these colors represent. If the school likes to march to its own tune as far as deciding the colors they want to use, then the school should list the colors and their meanings in the graduation program that's distributed to friends and family at commencement.

About the Author

Hana LaRock is a freelance content writer from New York, currently living in Mexico. She has spent the last 5 years traveling the world and living abroad and has lived in South Korea and Israel. Before becoming a writer, Hana worked as a teacher for several years. Hana enjoys reading, cooking, and watching foreign films.