Prom 101 - What Happens on Prom Night and What to Expect

Find out everything you need to know about this major teen event, including when prom is, who goes to it, and how to make it fun.

Updated March 17, 2023
Teenagers slow dancing

Prom night is a custom where high school juniors and seniors dress in formal attire and participate in activities surrounding a dance. Prom activities vary across the United States, but most traditions involve dates, prom dresses, tuxedos, dinner and dancing.

Traditionally considered a major rite of passage for teens, planning starts months in advance in order to remember all the little details that go with the event. This isn't just any dance, though. We're talking fancy gowns, flowers, jewelry, and limousines - plus all the other associated awesomeness of this night.

What Is Prom?

Prom is a formal dance and is usually the last dance of a senior's high school career. It's one last chance to get together as a class, have fun, and celebrate their accomplishments. In many schools, the junior prom and senior prom are held together, especially if the class isn't super large. However, in big schools, these can be two different events. Juniors usually have a lower budget for prom, so the event isn't quite as over-the-top when it comes to decorations and location.

Fast Fact

Prom is actually a shortened version of the word "promenade," which means to walk around in a formal and showy way. Back in the 1800s, it was an event for couples to walk together at a dance and show off their good manners and fine fashions. By the 1900s, it became the ultimate high school dance, and eventually, the walking or promenade part fell out of favor.

Why Is Prom Important?

Culturally, prom is a big deal. It's a rite of passage to adulthood from adolescence, and it's a major social event for teens. It's also a chance to show off your fashion sense (many little girls dream of their future prom dresses for years before the big event).

Prom couple

It can be a time for teens to have one last get-together with friends and classmates and celebrate the end of teen's high school career. It can be a special event for dating couples or those who choose to go solo. However, there's no requirement to attend prom, and not everyone feels it's important to go.

Who Goes to Prom?

In most schools, the juniors and seniors are allowed to purchase tickets for prom (costs generally range from about $20 to $200 for tickets). Each student can usually bring one date, and that person can be from another school or even a college. Asking someone to prom is a major social undertaking, and in recent years, promposals have become popular. Historically, it was common for a guy to ask a girl to prom, but things have changed in that respect. Today, pairs of any gender (or non-binary partners) go together.

Female prom couple

Some students go to prom as a large group of friends, foregoing the date thing altogether. This is an awesome way to keep the event chill and take the romantic pressure off the social interactions.

It's important to note that not everyone goes to prom. Some people choose to skip it because it's not their thing, while others find the hefty cost of this event too high for their budgets (going to prom can cost several hundred dollars).

When Is Prom?

Prom is a springtime event, but the exact timing can vary depending on the school. Prom season can last for a couple of months with different area schools having prom on different weekends throughout the spring. Most proms happen in April or May when the weather is warm enough to make heavy winter coats unnecessary (nothing wrecks your formal look like a giant coat).

Although some schools hold prom on a Friday night, prom usually happens on Saturdays.

How Long Does Prom Last?

A typical prom is held on a Saturday evening for about four hours sometime between 7 p.m. and 2 a.m.

However, the events leading up to prom can make it into a multi-day event. In addition to the traditional prom planning tasks of buying or renting formalwear, arranging transportation, and other getting-ready tasks, many people extend the event by having before and after parties. There are lots of things to do before prom, including having hair and makeup done, getting a manicure, and getting dressed together as a group.

When Does Prom Planning Start?

Months before prom, the junior and senior classes start planning the event. They need to book a prom venue, arrange for music, and choose a prom theme.

About two months before the event, people start choosing formalwear and arranging for dates or groups of friends to go together.

Prom Day Traditions

Prom celebrations can start early in the day as everyone gets ready for the dance. If prom is being held on a Friday, some schools give kids a half day off to get ready. It takes time to get dressed and go through some of the major prom day traditions. These are a few of them:

Getting hair done for prom
  • Hair styling - Many people choose to have their hair professionally styled for prom. This usually happens a few hours before the dance.
  • Makeup - Not everyone wears makeup to prom, but those who do tend to take a little extra time to make sure it's perfect.
  • Manicures - Pretty nails can be an important part of the prom look, and it's best to have them done close to day of the event so they don't get chipped or broken.
  • Transportation - A lot of people choose to go to prom in a special car, either one that belongs to a family member or a rented limo. Picking up this car or confirming timing are part of the prom day activities.
  • Flowers - Most people wear flowers for prom. These can be a gift from a date or something you choose for yourself. Because the flowers or corsage need to be fresh, it's traditional to pick them up the day of prom.

Groups of friends often get ready for prom together at one person's house. They might have a light snack and do one another's hair and makeup before taking photos.

Going to Prom

After everyone is ready, it's time to start the fun. Pre-prom events usually begin a couple of hours before the prom starts.


Pre-Prom Group Photos

The beginning of prom night usually kicks off with group photos. Teens, with and without dates, usually meet up in larger groups before dinner and prom. This is a chance for close friends to get pictures together and create a new memory. Look for a public place with a beautiful backdrop or get permission ahead to use a private location if you plan to take photos yourself.

Pick a specific time for photos and make sure all your friends and their parents know the plan. Depending on the size of the group, allow at least a half-hour, and up to an hour, for pictures. This is usually the only time parents are involved in prom night activities.

Once dates and groups are gathered, parents usually take pictures or have a photographer get some shots. Usually, everyone tries to get pictures of each teen alone, with their date if they have one, and with the entire group of friends. Teens can try out different serious and silly poses. Parents and teens can share these photos on social media for other family members to see.

Transportation for Prom

After the photos, people usually go to dinner. If there's a limo, the limo picks them up and takes them to a restaurant or the prom itself (if it includes dinner). If they're driving themselves, they leave after photos to attend.

couple about to leave for prom

Prom Night Dinner Plans

If your prom includes dinner, you'll head straight there after photos. This is more common if the prom is held at an event center or banquet hall. Dinner can take anywhere from one to two hours and may be a served meal you chose ahead of time or a buffet.

If your prom doesn't include a sit-down dinner, many teens make dinner plans with their dates or a small group. There are lots of options for prom dinner:

  • Make reservations at a fancy restaurant. In this case, make sure you arrive on time so they don't give away your table.
  • Drop in at a fast-food restaurant or diner. These places don't require reservations, are good for last-minute planning, are more affordable and make fun photo ops where teens are all dressed up in a casual place.
  • Have a potluck dinner at home. One person hosts the dinner in their home and everyone brings a dish to share for a homestyle family meal.

Getting to the Dance

After dinner, it's time to go to prom. Prom locations include school gymnasiums, local banquet halls, and other event spaces. Parents need to know the name and address of the prom location in case of an emergency. However, this information is generally printed in a newsletter to parents, the tickets themselves, and even on a school's website.

What Happens at Prom

The actual events of prom start when people get to the dance. They hand their tickets to a teacher or parent chaperone helping with the event. Then they enter the venue, which is usually decorated in things like fancy streamers and sparkling lights.


Prom Pictures

The pictures you take at home aren't the only photographic record of prom night. Most schools have a photo booth set up for taking prom pictures. Couples or groups of friends pose together in front of a fun backdrop and get photos taken. You can buy prints of these photos or order digital files for sharing online.

Dancing at Prom

Although there are a ton of other traditions involved with prom, dancing is the main event. Most schools have a DJ to play music from a playlist the prom planning committee has arranged ahead of time. There's usually a mix of slow songs and fast songs. Couples dance together during the slow songs, and the faster songs often involve everyone dancing as a group.

Prom Court

Prom court nominees are selected during the school day in the week or two before prom. Some schools don't do prom court because it's viewed as an unnecessary popularity contest. Traditionally, only seniors can be nominated for king and queen, but sometimes juniors are also nominated for prince and princess.

Voting for prom court happens a few days before prom or at the actual event. Only teens get to vote, but teachers and administrators tally the votes and keep them secret until the announcement. During prom, chaperones announce and crown the winners in front of everyone. The elected king and queen usually share a dance together as well.

Prom Night

For many teens, a prom is an all-night event. After dinner and dancing, teens look for other ways to keep the fun going and spend more time together before graduation. These after prom activities are planned by parents and teachers or groups of teens.

teens sitting after prom

School-Sponsored Events

Some schools, parent organizations, or community clubs host drug and alcohol-free after-prom parties, usually in the school building. These events start as soon as prom ends and feature organized activities, snacks, and raffle drawings. Events are usually free.

Teachers and parents volunteer to plan and chaperone, and the party can last until 8 a.m. Teens who attend are typically required to stay for the entire event, which can include a quiet area for those who are ready to get some sleep.

House Parties and Sleepovers

If your school doesn't offer an after-prom event, consider hosting one. Teens coordinate with their parents to plan activities and invite friends for an all-nighter, and some teens find ways to host unsupervised parties while parents are away. These parties typically involve word-of-mouth invites.

Most parties are supervised and don't involve drinking and drug use, despite the depictions in movies and on TV. Teens can't legally purchase alcohol, although some find a way to get beer and liquor anyway. About 29 percent of teens drink alcohol, including on prom night.

Prom Night Sex

In movies and TV shows, you often see teens losing their virginity or expecting sexual experiences on prom night. In one survey of over 12,000 teens, results showed that only 14 percent of girls said they had sex on prom night.

This real data seems to say that prom night sex is more of an urban legend rather than a popular activity. Your teen can talk to their date about sexual expectations before prom night and should feel comfortable expressing their preference to not engage at any point in the evening.

Parents can talk to teens about views on sex and other sexual activities before, on, and after prom night. When you talk to your teen about sex, remember to:

  • Listen to them
  • Provide factual and accurate information
  • Be prepared to answer uncomfortable questions
  • Withhold judgment

Everyone's Prom Night Is a Little Different

The prom experience is unique to each person and varies from school to school. Learn all you can about the times and locations of various prom night activities to be best prepared for the evening. The goal for teens is to have fun with friends, celebrate the transition from childhood to adulthood, and just have a great time dressing up and dancing.

Prom 101 - What Happens on Prom Night and What to Expect