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What is a Diploma?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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Diploma is a Greek word that translates as folded paper. The term usually applies to the certificate people receive when they complete studies in high school, college, trade or professional schools, or the like. It’s a bit ironic that the word is used currently, since diplomas are seldom folded, and are either handed or mailed to graduating students in flat form.

Not all countries use the term and or they use it more limited fashion than does the United States. The US tends to use the term to indicate successful completion of a program of study and to refer to the document received at or after a formal ceremony celebrating completion of study. Generally, high school students, trade school students, people receiving an Associated Arts or Associated Science Degree, and people receiving bachelor’s, master’s and higher degrees all receive diplomas in the US. Canada, conversely, tends to use diploma to refer to graduating from studies at colleges that specialize in arts and technology. In the UK and Australia, diploma may refer specifically to the level of studies completed, while the document you receive in a graduation ceremony may be called a testimonium.

Many people wonder if they need to keep their diplomas to prove they have graduated from a particular school or program. Actually, it’s fairly easy to fake this document, so it is generally more helpful to keep a copy of certified transcripts from your school. It’s not a bad idea to hang onto diplomas, and they are frequently suitably decorative and very nice for framing. A number of people, especially with advanced degrees keep what is called a “vanity wall” in their office, where they frame and display each diploma and board certification document to prove competency to clients. Usually high school diplomas are not displayed, but again, they are often attractive and represent a significant amount of scholastic work.

When you graduate, and unless you’re graduating from a very small school, it’s unlikely you’ll be presented with an actual diploma at the ceremony. These are usually sent a few weeks after you’ve completed a study program. It is usually too confusing to try to keep student names in order during large graduation ceremonies. Sometimes students who fail to meet all requirements for graduation will receive a document similar to a diploma, called a certificate of completion, and at other times, certain programs only offer completion certificates and do not offer actual graduation or a degree.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By ProudMom2 — On Jun 02, 2010

AZgirl my employers have never asked to see my high school diploma, so I know what you're talking about. But if you think about it, what does a H.S. diploma really qualify a graduate to do? Kids can start working at age 16! Heck, in this economy, not even a college degree is a guarantee for a good career.

By AZgirl32 — On Jun 02, 2010

How can someone prove they graduated from High School? I know a girl who lied on her resume about receiving her diploma. Apparently the requirement isn't too important because none of her 4 employers have ever figured it out!

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor...
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