36 perfect gifts for high school and college grads

Courtney Thompson, CNN Underscored
Updated Mon May 18, 2020

High school and college students have worked hard to reach their graduation milestone, and unfortunately celebrations are going to look a little different this year, if they happen at all.

How do we make up for the lack of in-person merriment? With thoughtful, inspirational gifts, that's how.

Yes, all graduates will likely accept cash, a check or a gift card. But we're staunchly in favor of the alternative route: tangible, inspiring gifts that will set them up for success, whether they're heading off to university or starting in the workforce. Below, we've rounded up a slew of ideas that are sure to breed positivity in grads' new lives — from sentimental wall art and a goal-setting journal, to adulting must-haves like a stylish watch and spiffy luggage.

High school and college graduation gifts

College Town Drinkware (starting at $18; etsy.com)

College Town Drinkware

Whether they're heading off to college or saying goodbye to their beloved alma mater, graduates will love this line of college town drinkware from Etsy shop WellTold. With nearly 100,000 products sold and more than 10,000 positive reviews, the New Hampshire-based retailer is churning out some high-quality, affordable wares. We love the pint glass pair, the insulated tumbler and the rocks glasses.

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Mantra Bracelets ($75; uncommongoods.com)

Mantra Bracelets

The real world is full of hurdles, so keep your graduate on track with one of these motivating mantra bracelets made from recycled brass by Austin metalsmith Nina Berenato. Featuring motivational phrases crowdsourced from an Uncommon Goods social media contest, the unisex bracelets will remind them to "be real not perfect," that their "mindset is everything" and that it's always time to "get sh*t done." Styling tip: Buy more than one for stacking!

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Custom Graduation Mini-Message in a Bottle (starting at $18.09; etsy.com)

Custom Graduation Mini-Message in a Bottle

This cute little gift is great to share among friends who are graduating and going off in different directions. Choose from various glitter colors, packaging and even customize your note in the bottle, all for less than $20.

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Flight 001 5-in-1 Universal Travel Adapter ($35; nordstrom.com)

Flight 001 5-in-1 Universal Travel Adapter

They may not be traveling much now, but if they've got the travel bug or have their eyes on an international career, then this will be a gift that keeps on giving. It's colorful, packs small and works in over 150 countries.

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Homesick Candles ($29.95; homesick.com)

Homesick Candles

Missing their hometown or home state or Grandma's kitchen is inevitable when they're out on their own, but you can help cure your grads' loneliness with these cozy state-, city- and scenario-inspired scents. Homesick Candles not only will make their new abodes — be it a crowded dorm or a tiny studio apartment — smell amazing, but will also conjure up memories of home via scents based on those specific locales.

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Vintage Palm Reading Chart ($12.99; amazon.com)

Vintage Palm Reading Chart

Regardless of the state of the world, most grads are unsure about the future and what lies ahead. This unique 11-inch by 17-inch palmistry print may not have the answers, but it will remind them that people have been wondering what the future holds for ages — and they are not alone. Throw in a copy of "Palm Reading: A Little Guide To Life's Secrets" ($5.83; amazon.com) for added fun.

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GreenUp Box ($38.33 every two months; cratejoy.com)

GreenUp Box

If your grad is passionate about reducing their negative impact on the planet, this subscription from GreenUp will send them tools and tips for living a plastic-free life every other month. It's sold out for May shipments, but will ship in June and every other month thereafter (should you choose to subscribe for more than one month).

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Sonos Move ($399; sonos.com)

Sonos Move

Let us be clear: This is a splurge gift that will likely be met with squeals of joy. Why? Because your grad is about to be the life of the party — whether it's indoors or out. Meet: the Sonos Move. Weatherproof, drop-resistant and battery-powered, Move is ultra smart — it can be controlled by voice (it's both Alexa- and Google-enabled), the Sonos app or Apple Airplay 2 when at home, or streamed via Bluetooth when in the great outdoors. The best part, however, is the sound. Move is chock-full of rich bass and has technology that adapts the sound being emitted to its surroundings.

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2020 Grad Socks ($14.33; etsy.com)

2020 Grad Socks

Celebrate the Class of 2020 by letting them put their feet up. These socks come in a few celebratory options from "grad squad" to the classic "Class of 2020" and a handful of color combinations.

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"Essential" Shoe Cleaning Kit by Jason Markk ($16; nordstrom.com)

"Essential" Shoe Cleaning Kit by Jason Markk

Keep their kicks looking fresh for longer with this handy shoe cleaning kit designed to work on everything from mesh sneakers to suede suit shoes.

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LifeAround2Angels Bath Bombs Gift Set of 12 ($27.85, originally $38.95; amazon.com)

LifeAround2Angels Bath Bombs Gift Set of 12

Now that classes are over, they'll be able to spend a little more time relaxing. These best-selling bath bombs will make their bath time a little more fizzy and fun.

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Seuss-isms! A Guide to Life for Those Just Starting Out ... and Those Already on Their Way ($8.95, originally $10.99; amazon.com)

Seuss-isms! A Guide to Life for Those Just Starting Out ... and Those Already on Their Way

Who is better at dispensing life advice than Dr. Seuss? No one, you silly goose! Featuring dozens of quotes from his greatest hits — "The Cat in the Hat," "Green Eggs and Ham," "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" and more — the book offers up lots of whimsical inspiration.

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MVMT Astro Blue ($195; mvmtwatches.com)

MVMT Astro Blue

Watches are a quintessential graduation gift for a reason — they're the perfect accessory for giving off established vibes! We love the high-quality yet affordable options from direct-to-consumer brand MVMT, including this brushed and polished silver option, which has a blue dial and interchangeable gray and black leather straps (that cost an additional $35 each).

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Minted Preppy Stripe Personalized Stationery (starting at $35; minted.com)

Minted Preppy Stripe Personalized Stationery

Nothing says "adulting" quite like a handwritten note — on personalized stationery! This set from Minted is simultaneously modern and preppy and suitable for family, friends or colleagues. The classic colorways — navy, ruby, grass and denim — and the four silhouettes mean you can tailor the final product to your grad's personality.

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Dagne Dover Dakota Backpack ($135-$195; dagnedover.com)

Dagne Dover Dakota Backpack

A backpack is always a welcome gift, and this neoprene dream from Dagne Dover is a doozy. Available in three sizes and 10 colors and patterns, the super-soft Dakota backpack oozes organization, with pockets, pouches, key clips and laptop sleeves galore. The small size is recommended for daily commuting; the medium can fit a 13-inch laptop and is a great office-to-gym option; the large can accommodate a 15-inch laptop and is the best one for travel, given its luggage sleeve handle.

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The 7 Virtues Peace Blend Box ($29; sephora.com)

The 7 Virtues Peace Blend Box

This sleek set of essential oils is designed to be blended according to your grad's ever-changing personal aromatherapy needs — detailed on the box — and is ethically sourced from around the world to boot.

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Custom Year Necklace (starting at $23.10; etsy.com)

Custom Year Necklace

Not only can you give them a rad necklace for their year of graduation, you can also choose the finish, chain length and even include a birthstone for an added cost if you'd like.

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Away The Bigger Carry On (starting at $245; away.com)

Away The Bigger Carry On

Ensure your grad is traveling in style with the Bigger Carry-On from Away. Made with a ribbed polycarbonate shell that comes in 19 colorways (we're partial to the high-shine limited edition options!), the suitcase fits in most airplanes' overhead compartments, has 360-degree spinner wheels and comes with a hidden laundry bag. Add a personalized luggage tag for a mere 10 bucks, or splurge an extra $50 on the ejectable battery that is TSA-approved and can charge a phone up to four times — allowing your grad extra time to post airport selfies on the 'gram!

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DOWELL 10 Piece Small Tool Kit ($23.99; amazon.com)

DOWELL 10 Piece Small Tool Kit

The real world comes with all sorts of curve balls, often in the form of clogged pipes, loose door hinges or worse. Ignite their inner handyman with this solve-it-all home tool kit, that includes everything from a hammer and pliers to a tape rule and hammer -- for all the wall art they're about to hang and any other DIY projects they dare to tackle themselves!

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Self Journal by BestSelf ($31.99; amazon.com)

Self Journal by BestSelf

If you're looking for a thoughtful gift that will set your grad on the most productive path ever, look no further than this Self Journal by BestSelf. The 13-week goals planner features a daily progress tracker that aims to nip procrastination in the bud and encourage positivity — essentially a road map to success.

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Society6 Face Your fear Art Print by Marco Melgrati (starting at $29.99; society6.com)

Society6 Face Your fear Art Print by Marco Melgrati

Pretty wall art is always appreciated, but beautiful pieces that are also inspirational? Well, that's a double whammy. And lucky for us, Society6 has lots of motivational options that are going to get your grad out of bed and ready to tackle the day ahead. We love this one by artist Marco Melgrati depicting a tiny surfer about to dive into an enormous wave in front of him. The piece is perfect on its own, or can be combined with other pieces to create a gallery wall.

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Nespresso Essenza Mini Espresso Machine by De'Longhi ($117.99, originally $149; amazon.com)

Nespresso Essenza Mini Espresso Machine

Keep 'em woke — and focused! — with this at-home coffee solution can make everything from a simple espresso to cappuccinos and lattes. But our favorite part about this home brew system is the fact that Starbucks is now creating Nespresso capsules — meaning your grads can now get their Starbucks fix at home for a fraction of the price. Seriously, the pods are roughly 72 cents a piece vs. in-store lattes that cost four dollars or more!

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Minted Custom House Portrait Art (starting at $32; minted.com)

Minted Custom House Portrait Art

They may be headed into the great big world, but remind your grads that they'll always have their home sweet home to come back to, with this custom line drawing from Minted. Simply upload an image of your house and choose from 26 hues of pigmented ink to create the print. The result is a modern piece of wall art that is super sentimental, too. Another idea: Feature a prominent campus building as a college memento. _______________________________________________________________________________

MasterClass ($180; masterclass.com)

Master Class

Scheduling a sit-down with someone like Martin Scorsese, Jane Goodall or Serena Williams is next to impossible, which is why a subscription to MasterClass is the ultimate gift. It offers intimate online classes from more than 80 A-list experts, so your grad will have access to everything from a creativity and leadership class from Anna Wintour to a lesson on self-expression and authenticity from none other than RuPaul. Covering the realms of film, TV, culinary arts, sports, business and more, this is the gift that will give all year long.

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Coach Metropolitan Portfolio Bag ($450; coach.com)

Coach Metropolitan Portfolio Bag

Get their briefcase game up to speed with this two-in-one work bag that is simultaneously fancy and cool. Made of refined pebble leather and available in brown or black, the bag can fit a 15-inch laptop and can function as a traditional brief or a messenger bag, thanks to the detachable crossbody strap.

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"Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know" by Malcolm Gladwell ($17.58; amazon.com)

"Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know" by Malcolm Gladwell

Some say that life is all about the people you meet and the opportunities that come from them. Well, this book by Malcolm Gladwell will give your grads more perspective into what it means to meet strangers and in turn learn something about themselves as they embark on their life's path.

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Madewell The Zip-Top Medium Transport Tote ($178; madewell.com)

Madewell The Zip-Top Medium Transport Tote

This zip-top version of Madewell's bestselling Medium Transport Tote hits all the right design points. Available in four colors, the leather bag can be carried with the top handles or the detachable strap and has exterior and interior pockets. More to know: Madewell now offers a slew of super cute customized bag straps.

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MacBook Air (starting at $979; amazon.com)

MacBook Air

Make all their computer dreams come true with Apple's latest iteration of the MacBook Air. Ultra-light — it comes in at less than 3 pounds! — thin and portable, the brand-new Air includes some big upgrades, like double the storage capacity, Touch ID, the Magic Keyboard and faster performance. They're also going to love the improved sound system, considering that the laptop now boasts twice the bass and 25% more volume. More to know: The MacBook Air is made from 100% recycled aluminum, making it a sustainable gift, too.

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Foreo Luna 3 ($199; foreo.com)

Foreo Luna 3

Teach them that it's never too early to invest in your skin, with this vibrating cleansing device that is worth every penny. Not only does the Swedish-designed Luna 3 lift dirt, oil and makeup off the skin in one minute flat, but the silicone tool also delivers a targeted firming massage designed to give skin a smoother appearance.

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Apple AirPods Pro ($249; apple.com)

Apple AirPods Pro

Another grad must-have? Swagger-inducing headphones. And if you're going to splurge, the Apple AirPods Pro are the way to go. Lighter than ever, the earphones have active noise cancellation (perfect for late-night study sessions) and an effective ear seal, plus they're crazy comfortable, thanks to the silicone tips that mold to the ear's contours. More to know: They can be personalized with an emoji, name, initials, phone number or date for free!

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Yeti Hopper Backflip 24 Soft Cooler ($299.99; yeti.com)

Yeti Hopper Backflip 24 Soft Cooler

Yeti is the gold standard when it comes to mega-durable hard coolers, but we're loving the portability of this backpack version from the brand. Convenient (and comfortable!) to carry to tailgates or Sunday fun days in the park (when those things are safe again), the waterproof and leakproof cooler can hold 20 cans of beer or 25 pounds of ice, all of which will stay cold thanks to the closed-cell rubber foam insulation. And thanks to its sharp design, no one will know that a case of beer is tucked away inside.

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Aura Sawyer Digital Frame ($299; auraframes.com)

Aura Sawyer Digital Frame

Keep your grad feeling connected to far-flung friends and family via the Sawyer digital frame from Aura, which counts Oprah and Jennifer Garner among its fans. Sync it to the Aura app on your phone, then upload unlimited photos (with nary a subscription fee!) from unlimited people. The totally chic frame has incredible resolution and can also be preloaded with images, making it just about the best gift ever. Bonus: It comes in multiple materials and sizes. See all your shopping options here.

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GadgetsTalk Engraved Basketball Gift ($49.95; amazon.com)

GadgetsTalk Engraved Basketball Gift

For those times when their parents aren't there to lift their spirits, this engraved basketball's meaningful message will remind grads just how loved they are. Featuring inspirational lines such as "you're capable of achieving anything you put your mind to" and "just go forth and aim for the skies," the 29.5-inch basketball can also be used on courts indoors and out. Choose who the inscription is from: Mom, Dad or grandparent.

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State Cashmere Full Zipper Cashmere Hoodie ($160; statecashmere.com)

State Cashmere Full Zipper Cashmere Hoodie

Upgrade her hoodie game from a bulky sweatshirt to this sleek 100% Mongolian cashmere version, which is soft as butter and will immediately dress up her everyday look. Available in nine colorways, the sweater's design is casual and cool, while the luxe wool gives off a posh vibe.

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Conquest Maps Push Pin World Map Board (starting at $109; amazon.com)

Conquest Maps Push Pin World Map Board

If your graduate has the travel bug, give them inspiration to continue visiting new locales (once we're traveling again) with this chic world map poster that will double as wall art. This one comes with two sets of colored push pins for marking each new pit stop on their journey and is available in four sizes.

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Parachute Classic Starter Bathroom Bundle ($225; parachutehome.com)

Parachute Classic Starter Bathroom Bundle

Now that adulthood is setting in, let's ramp up the bathroom routine with this towel starter bundle from Parachute. Including four bath towels, four hand towels, four washcloths and a bathmat. The Turkish cotton set, which is actually made in Turkey, is soft and absorbent and available in five colors.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailers' listed prices at the time of publication.