How to Throw the Perfect Surprise Graduation Party in 9 Easy Steps

Throwing a surprise party is hard enough, but it is even more difficult when you’re trying to corral the friends and family of a graduate. The graduate’s peers are hard pressed not to brag about it online, and your graduate could see the event page online by accident. Then there’s the sheer complexity of scheduling it, planning it and arranging it, often while the graduate is still living at home. Here’s how to throw the perfect surprise graduation party in nine easy steps.

Plan the Budget

Plan the budget for the graduation party. Decide how much you’re willing to spend, then plan the event based on that amount. This may force you to downsize the party plans you’ve imagined, but it is better to adjust your own expectations and get creative than send out invitations and then have to alter them because you can’t afford the venue or ask people in a second email to bring food because you can’t otherwise afford to feed everyone. It is better to know in advance you’ll be putting up streamers from the dollar store in school colors instead of paying for a big banner than make one set of plans and alter them.

If you live with a graduate and share finances, such as planning a graduation party for a spouse who just finished school or partner who finished college, plan on buying items for the party in cash so that there isn’t a line item in Quicken that says “graduation party supplies” or “graduation party rental”.

Plan Where and When

The first thing you need to do is pick a date, time and location for your party. Pick a date and time for the party that doesn’t interfere with the official graduation ceremony or studying for final exams. Try to select a time the graduate’s friends and family can attend without telling them the purpose of the party, just in case the details change or they have trouble keeping a secret. Don’t forget to pick a date and time the graduate can attend, too.

If your graduate lives at home, it is easier to make it a surprise by planning on it being held somewhere else like another relative’s home. You can choose another venue, too.

Tell Those You Invite It Is a Surprise

Once you decide when and where, you can send out the formal invitations to invitees. Send invitations to those on your invitation list with bold, explicit text proclaiming “this is a surprise party, don’t tell X”. You may need to remind younger invitees not to tell the graduate in person or post the invite information on social media. If you allow the invited individuals to bring friends, make it clear those individuals have to keep the secret a secret, as well.

When you inform the invitees, make sure they don’t plan their own activities and invite the attendee to those events.

Plan the Decorations

When you plan on decorating for a graduation party, you may need to hide the décor at someone else’s home or location the graduate doesn’t visit until right before the party. If the party is being held somewhere else, you still have to be discrete selecting the party favors, balloons and plates so the graduate doesn’t see these things in grocery bags in the back of the car.

Plan the Food

Food is the biggest line item in graduation party budgets if you aren’t renting a venue. You don’t have to cater a graduation party as if it is an upscale wedding. Chicken nuggets, pizza, sandwich trays, chips, popcorn and other finger foods are fine. Set it up buffet style to minimize the work involved in setting it up.

You can save a lot on a graduation party by making it alcohol free. If you want to serve alcohol, you can save yourself money and hassle by having a small selection of alcohol offset by a lot of flavored waters, energy drinks, soda and bottled water. The non-alcoholic drinks are cheaper than most alcoholic ones, and it is much more difficult for someone to get drunk and disrupt the event.

If cost is a concern, put on the invitations that you’d like people to bring beverages or snacks to share.

Plan How to Get the Graduate to the Party

One of the challenges you face with a surprise party is how to get the center of the celebration to the event without knowing about it. If you hold the event at a relative’s house, you can simply frame it as a family visit to that relative. If it is being held somewhere else, you’ll need an excuse to take them there that the graduate won’t try to get out of.

Plan Activities

You can skip a DJ and play songs via playlists instead. Plan party games for the graduation party like trivia games, especially regarding the graduate. Games like Twister or volleyball depend on the interests of those present and age ranges. If this is a family affair, have activities for the younger children.

Take Pictures

Don’t forget to take pictures of the party. One trick you can borrow from weddings is to put disposable cameras around the event and invite others to take pictures; it gives those who are reluctant to join in with activities a chance to participate in another way and creates many unique photos that you can sort through for the fun shots. You can set up a single shared location on social media or sites like Shutterfly where people can upload photos they take of the event whether on digital cameras or cell phones.

Say Thank You

You don’t have to give gift attendees gift bags as they leave, especially if the party was thrifty but fun. Graduation themed souvenirs are a “nice to have”, not a necessity. However, you do need to say thank you – especially if gifts were given to the graduate or they contributed items to the party. Many online party planning sites offer not only invitations you can send or print, but they have printable thank you cards as well that let you send personalized, signed “thank you” notes without the effort of creating one yourself or buying them at the store.


Before you do anything else, plan the budget for the party before you plan the date, time and location of the event. Ensure that everyone you invite and anyone they may bring keep it a secret. Make arrangements for the food and decorations. Plan on the excuse you’ll have to bring the graduate to the party. Plan activities for the party beyond just eating food and giving gifts. Set things up to capture pictures of the event. Then thank those who attend the party, especially anyone who helped plan the event or gave gifts.


Wife, mother, grandma, blogger, all wrapped into one person, although it does not define her these are roles that are important to her. Entering into their 'empty nest' stage in life, Becky, and her husband Roger are learning to live with their youngest away at school more than not. Becky enjoys way too many TV programs but her favorites are normally criminal based or something to make her laugh. Keep an eye out because 2017 is going to be her year!

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Veronica Lee

Will keep these great tips in mind. My son will be graduating next year. Thanks!