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How to Organize a School Prom or Formal

Updated on September 12, 2012
Prom Ideas
Prom Ideas | Source

Formals – High School Prom

Do you know how to organize a school prom or formal? What about a similar event, like a beauty pageant or homecoming dance? I’ve helped out with all of the above, as a teacher, a club sponsor, a pageant director, and as a member of a service club. All these events are more similar than you might think. The details might be different, but they all require similar event planning, creativity, and work. If you’re organizing a prom for the very first time, you’ll have your work cut out for you. It’s a tough job, but it can be very rewarding. Many students look forward to their prom all year, and it’s worth all your time, work, and worry to help the kids realize their prom dreams. Don’t try to do the job alone – you’ll need help, along with some great prom ideas. Perhaps you can benefit in some small way from my experience. Below, I’m going to give you some guidelines for how to organize a school prom or formal, along with some prom planning tips.

Event Plannning

You’ll need to do your event planning pretty far in advance. Unless you’ve done something of the magnitude of prom planning or organizing other formals, you have no idea what all is involved – and what can go wrong. If you plan far enough in advance, there’ll be a much better chance for your high school prom or formal to go off without any major hitches.

Which students are going to be allowed to attend prom? Most high schools include grades 9-12, so will all the students be invited, or just the juniors and seniors? Once that decision is made, you need to discuss some tentative dates. Most schools create calendars at the beginning of the school year that list the major functions of clubs and organizations, so you’ll need to find a date that doesn’t conflict with other big events.

Most high school proms are held on a Friday or a Saturday night, but which of those is best? Personally, I think Saturday is better. If the prom is on a Friday night, many students will miss school that day in order to get ready. If the event is on a Saturday night, the kids will have all day to get ready. Teachers and other chaperones will be more rested, too.

You might want to start thinking about your prom in terms of seasons. Do you want a fall, winter, or spring formal? Many schools opt for spring formals because it allows more time during the school year for prom planning. Also, at our school, fall is pretty booked up with football, and in the winter, basketball is big. Late spring formals give the seniors sort of a “last fling” before graduation.

Prom Ideas - visit party supply stores
Prom Ideas - visit party supply stores | Source

Prom Ideas

You’re going to have to come up with all sorts of prom ideas! Keep track of them, as you never know when you might have a great thought. Whenever I’ve been involved with event planning, I always kept a small notepad and pen with me at all times. When I had prom ideas, I jotted them down. Later, I’d sift through my notes and toss out the bad ideas and add the good ones to my computer file. Sometimes I’d discuss my impromptu thoughts with other members of my team before deciding to keep them or throw them away.

This brings up another point. You need to be in frequent contact with your prom committee. Get each other’s phone numbers and email addresses. Of course, you’ll need to have regularly scheduled meetings, but you’ll need to be able to get in touch with each other between meetings, too.

Always be open to reasonable suggestions, especially those from students. Good prom ideas might come from anywhere, and a student doesn’t necessarily have to be on the committee to come up with a good idea. Parents, administrators, friends, and family members could easily think of some details that you haven’t considered. Don’t be a prom tyrant!

For your own sake, you need to learn to delegate when you’re organizing a prom. If you’re like me, this might be a problem for you. It’s often hard for me to trust others to get the job done, but sometimes I just have to give in, and you will, too. Form sub-committees of students and let each one be in charge of a specific duty. If at all possible, have an adult head each sub-committee. Ask for help from parents and other staff members.

Prom Themes
Prom Themes | Source

Prom Themes

The first thing you’ll need to do with your event planning for proms and formals is to discuss prom themes. You’ll have scores of prom ideas from which to choose, so you’ll need some help. High school students can be pretty finicky when it comes to prom themes, so I definitely suggest that you get some suggestions from the student body. If your school has a prom committee, that’s a great place to start. If you don’t have a committee, enlist the help of another school organization that’s representative of the student body, like student council, for example. Of course, you’ll want some input from teachers and administrators, too.

You definitely need to make friends with other teachers who have organized proms in the past. They can tell you which prom themes have already been used, and which ones were hits and which were misses. Once your group has narrowed down the choices to three or four high school prom theme ideas, you might want to let the entire student body vote on the choices. Hopefully, you can assign the voting to homeroom teachers. If you don’t have homerooms, ask each teacher to allow voting during a certain period in the school day.

Allowing the student body to choose from the list of high school prom themes serves a couple of functions. For one, it allows the kids to have some “ownership” of their prom. It also generates some excitement among the teens. They’ll be talking about the prom and the prom themes for weeks.

High School Prom Theme Ideas - Under the Sea
High School Prom Theme Ideas - Under the Sea | Source

High School Prom Theme Ideas

How do you come up with high school prom theme ideas? The best way is through brainstorming with a group, especially with students. To get the ball rolling, you might want to flip through some prom decorations catalogs. Of course, the students in your prom planning group might already have some pretty specific prom ideas of their own.

I’ll share with you some of the prom themes we’ve used in the past for formals. They include:

All that Glitters

Garden of Eden

Bungle in the Jungle

Vegas Nights

Evening in Paris

Midnight in Paris

Under the Sea

Mardi Gras

Masquerade Ball



1001 Arabian Nights

Here are some other high school prom theme ideas you might want to toss around with your prom planning committee:

  • African Safari
  • Almost Paradise
  • Aloha
  • Ancient Greece
  • A Night at the Oscars
  • A Night on the Town
  • Atlantic City
  • Atlantis
  • A Walk in the Clouds
  • Bali Hai
  • Beautiful Dreamer
  • Big Band Era
  • Big Easy
  • Black Velvet Nights
  • Blame it on Rio
  • Blue Bayou
  • Blue Moon
  • Bon Voyage
  • Brigadoon
  • Broadway
  • By the Sea
  • Cabaret
  • California Dreaming
  • Camelot
  • Candy Land
  • Caribbean Skies
  • Carnival
  • Casablanca
  • Casino Night
  • Catch a Falling Star
  • Cheek to Cheek
  • Cinderella
  • City of Lights
  • Cruise Ship
  • Dancing in the Dark
  • Diamonds and Pearls
  • Disco Inferno
  • Do You Believe in Magic
  • Dragonheart
  • Dreamscape
  • Egyptian Mystery
  • Enchanted Castle
  • Enchanted Evening
  • Enchanted Forest
  • Enchanted Garden
  • Endless Love
  • English Garden
  • European Tour
  • Fairies
  • Fairytale
  • Fantasy
  • Fantasy Island
  • Fifties
  • Fire and Ice
  • Forever Yours
  • French Quarter
  • Gilded Age
  • Glitz and Glamour
  • Gods and Goddesses
  • Groovin’
  • Hearts and Flowers
  • Heart to Heart
  • Incense and Peppermints
  • In the Heart of the Night
  • In the Pink
  • In the Still of the Night
  • Islands in the Stream
  • Italian Villa
  • Jazz Age
  • Jewel of the Nile
  • Kentucky Derby
  • Key to My Heart
  • King Tut
  • Knights and Ladies
  • Legends
  • Lights, Camera, Action!
  • Lion King
  • London Fog
  • Lost Horizon
  • Love is in the Air
  • Love Potion
  • Magic
  • Magic Carpet Ride
  • Manhattan Skyline
  • Mexican Fiesta
  • Midnight at the Oasis
  • Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Moonlight and Candles
  • Moonlight and Magnolias
  • Moonlight and Memories
  • Moonlight and Roses
  • Moonlight Feels Right
  • Moonlight Serenade
  • Mountain of Love
  • Mt. Olympus
  • Music of the Night
  • New York City
  • Night Magic
  • Ode to Love
  • Old South
  • Once Upon a Dream
  • Opening Night
  • Opera Night
  • Over the Rainbow
  • Paradise Found
  • Phantom of the Opera
  • Pirates
  • Puttin’ on the Ritz
  • Retro
  • Rhapsody in Blue
  • Riviera
  • River of Dreams
  • Roaring Twenties
  • Rock ‘n’ Roll
  • Rock You Like a Hurricane
  • Roman Holiday
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Sealed with a Kiss
  • Secret Garden
  • Secret Rendezvous
  • Shanghai Nights
  • Shangri-La
  • Sherwood Forest
  • Singing in the Rain
  • Sleeping Beauty
  • Space Odyssey
  • Spanish Courtyard
  • Spring Fever
  • Spring is in the Air
  • Springtime in Paris
  • South Beach Sizzle
  • Southern Nights
  • South Pacific
  • South Seas
  • Stairway to Heaven
  • Starry, Starry Night
  • State Fair
  • Summer Breeze
  • Summer Sunset
  • Sunken Temple
  • Sunrise, Sunset
  • Surf’s Up
  • Swan Lake
  • Sweet Nothings
  • Sweets for the Sweet
  • Swingin’ on a Star
  • Swing Time
  • Taj Mahal
  • Tales of the Vienna Woods
  • The Dark Continent
  • The Great Frozen North
  • The Great Gatsby
  • The Moon and Stars
  • This Magic Moment
  • Three Coins in a Fountain
  • Tonight’s the Night
  • Those Summer Nights
  • Tradewinds
  • Tuscan Village
  • Twilight
  • Under the Big Top
  • Under the Boardwalk
  • Unforgettable
  • Vampires
  • Venice
  • Walking on Sunshine
  • When I Fall in Love
  • Whispers in the Dark
  • Wild Hearts
  • Wild West
  • Window of the World
  • Winter Idyll
  • Wizard of Oz
  • Winter Wonderland
  • Wishing on a Star
  • Wonders of the World
  • Xanadu
  • Yacht Club
  • Yellow Brick Road

Prom Tickets
Prom Tickets | Source

Prom Tickets

What type of prom tickets are you going to use, and how much will the students have to pay for tickets? Before making this decision, do a little research. Find out how much prom tickets were in previous years, and go from there. Don’t overprice the tickets. It would be better to have 200 kids at $25 a head than to have 50 kids at $50 a head.

You’ll also need to make a decision about free prom tickets. In other words, are you going to allow students to earn their tickets by working? A lot of high school proms do that. Students will have to log in so many hours in order to earn their prom tickets. This is actually a pretty good idea, as you’ll need lots of help and lots of worker bees.

Party Finger Food Ideas
Party Finger Food Ideas | Source
Finger Foods
Finger Foods | Source
Party Foods
Party Foods | Source

Party Finger Food Ideas

You’ll want to serve some party foods at your prom, but choose carefully. The girls are going to be wearing some expensive prom dresses, and they certainly don’t want to stain them. Avoid any party foods that are “messy.” Instead, come up with some party finger food ideas. Make sure they’re easy to pick up and easy to eat. With most finger foods, you won’t have to worry about forks, knives, and spoons, either.

Many of the students will go out to dinner before prom, so there’s no need to serve a full meal. In fact, you probably don’t even need to serve heavy hors d’oeuvres. Stick to finger foods, instead. Some good party finger food ideas might include cookies, brownies, crackers and cheese spread, fresh fruits, chips and dips, canapés, small tarts, filled phyllo cups, olives and cheese cubes on toothpicks, and small sandwiches. In addition to finger foods, you might want to serve some foods on themed party pics. Again, ask for help from parents. You’ll find some that will be more than happy to help out by baking some cookies or brownies. They’ll probably come up with some of their own party finger food ideas, too. By the way, choose party foods that will keep at room temperature – not ones that have to be kept hot or chilled.

You’ll also need lots of punch. Kids can really work up a thirst dancing. Have more punch than you think you’ll actually need. It’s also a good idea to have several punch bowls, in several different locations. This will avoid long lines and punch bowl traffic. Have plenty of ice available, too.

Prom Music
Prom Music | Source

Prom Music

You’ll need some prom entertainment ideas, of course. Since a prom is a dance, music has to be provided. Let the students choose the type of prom music – within reason. Of course, if you hire a live band, you probably won’t have much of a choice as to individual songs, but you can still choose a band by the type of music they play.

Live bands can be very expensive, depending on how popular they are and how far they have to travel. There might be a good student band that’s willing to play for a small fee, or even for free. Our high school prom has used student bands before, but they didn’t play the entire time. They took turns entertaining the crowd with the DJ.

Many proms use DJs as entertainment, and this might be your best bet. They’re usually a lot cheaper than a live band, and you’ll have a much wider selection of prom music and songs from which to choose. Have the DJ provide a good mix of songs, including all the different genres the students enjoy. Be sure some slow dance songs are played!

Prom Photo Backdrops - keep 'em simple
Prom Photo Backdrops - keep 'em simple | Source
Prom Photographers
Prom Photographers | Source

Prom Photographers

Using the right prom photographers can play an important part in your event planning. This is an important night for the students, and they’ll want to remember it through their prom pictures. Find out what prom photographers have been used in the past at your school, and ask if the students were happy with the results.

Once you decide on a photographer, meet with him or her. You’ll need to discuss your theme and the prom photo backdrops. Some prom photographers might have a collection of prom photo backdrops for you to look at, but others won’t. If your photographer doesn’t have an appropriate backdrop, you’ll need to make your own, or have an artistic student do the job. Make sure the backdrop is fairly simple, as you don’t want it to detract from the prom pictures.

You’ll also need to find prom photographers who charge reasonable prices. Most will offer students several package choices, too. You’ll also need a few informal prom photographers. These are often from the high school newspaper staff or the yearbook staff. Candid snapshots taken at the event will make great additions for the paper and yearbook.

School Fundraisers

Will you be holding school fundraisers to help pay for prom? After a few event planning sessions, you should begin to get a good idea of how much the prom is going to cost. Do you have any funds already? Check with an administrator. Some principals have some money set aside to use at their discretion, so you might find some financial help there. There might also be funds left over from last year’s prom.

You’ll need money for party foods, prom decorations, tablecloths, plates, punch cups, and entertainment. If you find that you’re short, you can hold prom fundraisers. I’ve been involved with numerous school fundraisers, and I’ve learned that some fundraisers work much better than others. If you’re new to school fundraisers, ask around. Find out what’s worked and what hasn’t. Again, ask the students for some of their thoughts.

Any prom fundraisers you have should be done well in advance of the date of the formal. That way, you’ll know in advance about how much money you’ll have to work with, and that could help you decide on a price for the prom tickets. It can also help you make a budget for prom décor and entertainment, along with food and prom décor.

If school fundraisers aren’t an option, but you still need some financial help for the event, ask for donations from the community. You don’t have to ask for money. Instead, ask for goods. For example, a local bakery might donate a few dozen cookies. A printer might give you a great deal on prom invitations. Party supply stores might be willing to throw in some freebies if you buy your prom decorations from them. Never be afraid to ask for help! Hearing “no” won’t kill you.

Prom Invitations
Prom Invitations | Source

Prom Invitations

Prom invitations is another area in which you’ll need a lot of student input and feedback. Hopefully, you’ve already decided which students will be invited to the prom, so you’ll know how many prom invitations you’ll need to purchase. In fact, you might be able to shave some off that number. You’ll discover that there’ll be some students who don’t care a thing about going to formals, so why send them an invitation? Have a sign-up sheet for students who plan on attending. Explain that adding their name to the list isn’t a commitment, and that you’re just trying to get an estimate of the number of people to expect. Prom invitations can be expensive, so don’t buy more than you’ll need.

Your committee will need to decide what type of prom invitations they want to use. You can choose ones in the same theme as the prom, or you can choose more generic prom invitations. Some students and organizers like to send out formal invitations. I suggest including an R.S.V.P. It’s always easier to plan when you know how many guests you’ll be expecting.

Prom Decorations
Prom Decorations | Source

Prom Decorations

A significant part of your prom ideas will concern prom decorations. Sure, you want the event to look nice, but how much do you have in the budget for prom decorations? Believe me, as long as the prom décor is attractive, the students won’t care how expensive or how inexpensive it was. The one place you might want to splurge is on the prom photo backdrops. You might also want the entryway to be especially appealing.

Prom decorations include tablecloths, table centerpieces, wall décor, and freestanding structures. You can order themed kits that will include just about everything you’ll need, but these can be expensive. If money is tight, just make your own prom decorations! I’ve done it, and it really isn’t that difficult. You might also prefer taking a middle-of-the-road strategy for your prom décor. You could purchase or rent a few big focal pieces and fill in with homemade prom decorations.

Prom Decoration Ideas
Prom Decoration Ideas | Source

Prom Decoration Ideas

Once your theme has been decided, you need to brainstorm for some prom decoration ideas. Your committee will most likely have some good suggestions, but you might need more. Look at some old yearbooks from your school and from other schools. Check out the photos of their school prom. Look online at prom supply stores, or check out their catalogs. Even if you can’t afford their products, they might give you some great prom decoration ideas for things you can construct yourself.

Visit all the party supply stores in your area, too. Not only will you get some ideas, you can also begin to do some preliminary pricing and price comparisons. Take photos of some of the items and share them with your committee. If you do these tasks several times, by the time prom rolls around, you’ll be ready with a plan.

Keep in mind that you’ll need to be careful putting up some of your decorations. You can’t afford to cause any damage to your venue, and that includes the walls, floors, ceiling, and windows. Even some types of tape can take paint from a wall, so be careful. If some of your prom decorations need to be plugged into an electrical outlet, make sure the cords aren’t tripping hazards.

Cheap Prom Decorations
Cheap Prom Decorations | Source

Cheap Prom Decorations

Cheap prom decorations might include anything you and the students can make yourselves, borrow, or have donated. Streamers are cheap and easy to make, and they’re festive and colorful. A large candle in a hurricane lamp can serve as a centerpiece. You don’t have to purchase tablecloths – rent them. It’s a lot cheaper, and you won’t have to worry about cleaning them afterwards.

Some of the best cheap prom decorations, in my opinion, are balloons. The great thing about balloons is that they come in every color imaginable, so you’ll have no problem finding balloons to match your prom décor. Transparent helium balloons can be filled with glitter or confetti, too, which makes them even more festive and appealing. A balloon arch would make a nice addition to your entryway, and you could tie balloons in your theme colors to the backs of chairs.

Other cheap prom decorations include greenery, which could be in the form of live plants or cut fronds. Borrow palms and other live plants from parents and friends. A local nursery might be willing to let you borrow some potted plants for the night of your even, too.

Other cheap prom decorations might include fountains and statuary. No, these wouldn’t be cheap if you had to buy them, so don’t. Borrow them. If you and your committee members don’t know of anyone with statues or fountains, hit up local businesses that sell these items. If they won’t allow you to borrow them outright, they’ll probably at least rent them to you for a low fee.

Columns, anyone? Make your own! Get empty carpet holders and spray paint them. Cut out cardboard stars and paint them with glitter paint. String up lots of white Christmas tree lights. For a prom with a Vegas or casino theme, make giant dice from cardboard boxes. Make life-size silhouettes from stiff cardboard and paint them black. Turn on those creative juices! Some of the very best prom decoration ideas are cheap – maybe even free.

Prom Favors
Prom Favors | Source

Prom Favors

Are you going to have prom favors? If so, are they going to be free, or will the students have to pay for them? Depending on your budget, you might want to give each prom guest a small, inexpensive item, along with giving them the opportunity to order other items that they have to pay for. This is usually done before the event takes place. Some cheap prom favors might include buttons, pins, key tags, colorful beads, lip gloss, sunglasses, boas, stickers, and masks.

Some of the most popular prom favors include picture frames, stemware, candles, photo albums, cookie tins, water bottles, glass mugs, drink coasters, tote bags, pillows, note pads, flower vases, photo snow globes, photo cubes, and candies with graphics. Also available are candy jars, CD holders, travel mugs, compact mirrors, tiaras, crowns, and sashes. Most of these prom favors, by the way, have the name of the high school, the date of the prom, and the prom’s theme displayed.

Prom Gowns
Prom Gowns | Source
Prom Jewelry
Prom Jewelry | Source

Prom Gowns

Prom gowns can be ridiculously expensive! You’ll probably think I’m being sexist here, but the girls usually spend a lot more on prom than the guys spend – or at least the parents of the girls spend more. Yes, I know the boys generally have to rent tuxedos, buy a corsage, and pay for the prom tickets. Many will take their prom dates out for dinner, too. Even so, this pales in comparison with the amount of money the girls have to fork out. Think about it: The girls have to pay to get their hair done. Most get manicures and pedicures before the prom. They’ll probably have to buy a pair of formal shoes. A lot of the girls will get tanned or spray tanned just prior to a high school prom. They might also decide to purchase new necklaces, earrings, and bracelets just for a school prom. All this, and I haven’t yet mentioned the most expensive item of all – prom gowns!

Formal gowns, prom dresses, ball gowns – whatever you want to call them, they can run into some big bucks. I don’t know how it is with high school prom in your area, but around here, it’s nothing for some girls to pay over $1,000 for prom gowns. Sadly, the prom dresses are worn to just one prom, too. Most girls don’t want to be seen in the same prom gowns twice.

Cheap Ball Gowns
Cheap Ball Gowns | Source

Cheap Ball Gowns

Some students and parents are going to have a difficult time coming up with the money for prom dresses, so you might want to help them locate some cheap ball gowns. There are several ways to go about this. You can steer them to Ebay for used prom dresses. You might also have a special bulletin board hung in the cafeteria where girls can advertise prom gowns for sale. If you have a school newspaper, female students could advertise their used prom dresses there, too.

Another way to help the students get cheap ball gowns is to work with local dress shops. Believe me – most will be willing to work with you on this. At least, that’s been my experience. For example, they might offer a discount with student ID. If that’s the case, you need to spread the news to the student body. Some formal shops might also have discontinued lines that they sell at a reduced price – sometimes at a drastically reduced price. I lucked up on such a deal years ago, when my youngest daughter was planning to attend her school prom. We found a drop-dead-gorgeous dress that she fell in love with, but I wasn’t too crazy about the cost. The price tag said $800. Fortunately, the sales clerk saw us eyeing the dress and walked over to inform us that the price had been reduced to just $300. I was a happy camper!

Another source for cheap ball gowns and prom dresses might be your local thrift store. Believe it or not, I’ve seen some lovely formals at two of our local second-hand clothing stores. Surprisingly, the formal gowns were priced at under $25 each. Now that’s what I call cheap ball gowns!

It might also surprise you to discover that Amazon has a nice selection of cheap ball gowns, with several under $100. I wish I’d had this option back when my three girls were teenagers! The formal gowns on Amazon range in colors, styles, designs, lengths, and sizes, so you should be able to find an appropriate dress for prom, without having to take out a loan.

Free Prom Dresses

You’ll have to face it: Unless the high school prom is for an expensive private school, some of the girls who really want to attend simply won’t be able to afford appropriate gowns – even cheap prom gowns. So…what’s the solution? I like what my school does. They gather up used dresses and offer free prom dresses to needy students. With a free prom dress, a girl who might otherwise be forced to stay home can attend her high school prom.

How does my school work the free prom dresses? As I said, they collect used gowns from parents, teachers, and the community. All the prom gowns are taken to the guidance department, and an announcement is made over the intercom alerting the students to the free prom dresses. As far as I know, a needs assessment isn’t made, but I’ve never heard of any students trying to get free prom dresses unless they really had a financial need. Besides, our guidance counselors know the students well, so they’d most likely know if a girl from an able family was trying to get a free prom dress.

I love our school for doing this! High school prom is such an important event in the life of a highschooler, and for some, it's one of the high points of their high school years. As prom organizer, it's not your responsibility to help girls get prom gowns. You can totally ignore this aspect of prom and let the girls worry about it themselves, if you wish. But if you can get other staff members involved, offering cheap or free prom dresses for the needier students could be a great part of your prom ideas.


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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      i love this programe tips

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      awesome help!!! :-)


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    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)