Vanessa asked if I’d do a post on college graduation gifts. At first I misread the request as high school graduation gifts, so I was all, “Hot pot and a box of Ramen! X-long sheet set! Gift certificate for pizza place near dorms!”
College graduation is a little trickier, because the way people live in college (and their plans for what’s next) can vary so much. It’s similar to buying a wedding gift, where it depends if the couple are leaving their parents’ houses for the first time, or if they’ve been living together for years, or if they’re combining two households. Some college kids live in the dorms the whole time, so they could use “first apartment” gifts. Other kids get an apartment at some point during college and so they pretty much have everything—oh, except the coffee pot belongs to this roommate, and the silverware belongs to that roommate, and the furniture was all found at the curb, and actually they do kind of need new-apartment stuff. Some kids are going to move back in with their parents for awhile; some are launching off next week to a new job in another state.
So my first recommendation is to take the post-college plans into consideration, and see if you can buy something that would be useful for that. Helpful! The old “Hey, how about buying them something they’d like and/or could use!” gift suggestion! But someone who just graduated nursing school and is going to get an apartment with several other nurses is going to be a different case than someone who just got an MFA and is going to be getting a small dank starving-artist apartment on their own—which is going to be a different case than someone starting a desk job and getting married next month.
If I knew someone was going to be very busy/poor for awhile, I’d be inclined to get them a gift certificate for a take-out place near where they’d be living. If I knew someone was going to be starting out with almost nothing, I’d be more inclined to get them a gift certificate for a home store, or a bed/bath store, or maybe to somewhere like Target.
The classic, I think, is the expensive pen-and-pencil set (photo at top of post from Amazon.com). This works for either high school graduation (”You’ll need these for school!”) or for college graduation (”You’ll need these for work!”). The thrill factor of the gift is low, but the tradition factor is high. They can be engraved to make them more sentimental.
A good clock has similar sentiment levels, plus the symbolism of the passing/significance of time, plus it’s practical. An alarm clock would likely appeal to the same people who say things like “Now you’ll have to join the real world, har har!” I think a shelf/mantel/desk clock would be my choice: something that would look kind of cool on a set of plank-and-brick bookshelves, but would also look good on with nice furniture later on.
Along those same lines: a nice decorative hygrometer/thermometer/barometer. Or a fire-proof documents safe. These are sensible gifts, but also have a “You’re a real grown-up now” feeling to them.
A briefcase used to be a common/significant/practical college graduation gift, but it seems like most people would want to choose their own—and of course not everyone needs a briefcase. Luggage in general can be a good idea: one of those rolling three-piece sets (check-it size, overhead-bin size, and under-the-seat-in-front-of-you size), or an expensive toiletries case. (Those are good high school graduation gifts, too, especially if the graduate is going to a college far away and will be flying back home a couple of times a year.)
Stationery is a good one because the price range is so wide. If you want to go all out, you can get personalized Crane. If you’re just barely scraping by yourself, the unpersonalized Crane is $13. I’d aim for something that works for interview thank-you notes.
A bottle of liquor or case of wine can be a great gift if you think it will be appreciated: if someone would just as soon drink wine from a box (*points both thumbs at self*), there’s probably no sense buying them expensive alcohol they’ll just add to the table at a graduation party. I’ve heard of people getting a good bottle/case of wine from the year of graduation, with the idea that they should save it to drink on a later occasion, and that seems charming.
Even more charming is the “important book with sentimental inscription” idea. Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is a popular choice. But I’m imagining something leather-bound being inscribed with a fountain pen.
I’m hoping that others will be able to give good ideas: I’ve never bought a college graduation gift, and I don’t remember receiving any, so this is the first time I’m turning my mind to the topic. It would be especially fun to hear stories of really bad gifts—even/especially if they’re things I just finished saying would be good ideas!