Graduation season is upon us, and that means students from all over the country are preparing for the next chapter in their lives. But before they further their educations or enter the job market, they must first participate in a long-running tradition: the graduation ceremony.

At this event full of pomp and circumstance, graduates will be required to wear some sort of unifying, formal dress to set themselves apart from others.

This consists of a robed gown and tassel-topped mortarboard that usually coordinate with the official school colors. Graduates also may wear other accoutrements depending on the level of their degrees.

This tradition dates back to medieval Europe when students wore special uniforms each day to denote they were scholars. But today’s students dress up in academic regalia only during commencement proceedings or other graduation-related events.

Of the various components of graduation dress, the one that may give graduates the most difficulty is the mortarboard. The square academic cap is referred to as a “mortarboard” because of its similarity in appearance to the hawk or hod tool used by masons to hold mortar.

It can be a cumbersome piece that may slip off if not worn correctly or if it is sized incorrectly. The cap of the mortarboard should fit snugly on the head. It should not rest on the top of the head, but fit well enough to cover at least the top one-third of the head.

If the cap seems loose, graduates may want to use a few bobby pins to keep it in place. The mortarboard should be positioned so that its point faces the middle of the forehead. When viewed from above, it should create a diamond shape, not a square.

Also, the mortarboard should be horizontal (parallel) to the floor. Imagine it to be a flat surface on which a cup or book can be placed. If the mortarboard is tilted upward, it is worn incorrectly. Some graduates position the mortarboard poorly to accommodate hairstyles. However, it should be flat and secure on top of the head.

A tassel is the final component of the mortarboard. It is affixed to the top of the cap by a loop around a button. The tassel indicates the level of academic achievement.

Graduates who will be receiving a high school diploma or an undergraduate degree from a college or university will wear the tassel so that it hangs over the front-right side of the mortarboard.

Once the diplomas are received, graduates will be instructed to flip the tassel over to the left-hand side. Graduates frequently keep their tassels as mementos.

The graduation ceremony is rife with tradition, from the processional to the speakers to the manner of dress. Mastering the mortarboard can help graduates look their best on this special day. 

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