For many, earning a degree with honors is considered a major recognition of all the hard work that went into that degree. If you’re on your way to graduating with honors, you probably agree.
You may have heard of the three Latin honors: cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude.
Mainly awarded at colleges and universities, these distinctions are mostly used in the U.S. and a few other institutions around the world.
These certainly aren’t the only form of honors you can earn with your degree. Some schools confer other honors at graduation, such as the Dean’s List, academic distinction, and valedictorian.
Whichever honors your school uses, they all recognize students with the highest academic performance in their class.
This article will explain summa cum laude: the required GPA, what it means in Latin, and whether it matters in the grand scheme of things. You’ll learn the differences between summa cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude. We’ll put all this information in context so that you know exactly what it means to graduate with this honor.
This Is the GPA for Summa Cum Laude
Summa cum laude is the highest Latin honor, given to students with the highest cumulative GPA: 3.9-4.0 or the top 5% of the class.
There isn’t a national standard for GPAs considered for this honor, so it will depend on the specific stats of your school.
For high schoolers, earning the summa cum laude could mean earning a cumulative GPA above 4.0. This is possible through acing multiple AP, IB, and weighted honors classes.
Earning Latin honors usually hinges on your GPA, but some schools may also require the successful completion of an honors thesis.
If you’re at the top of your class but don’t get the summa cum laude distinction, that could be because the highest honor at your school is different.
Sometimes it’s the magna cum laude instead, or sometimes it is simply known as “highest honors.” Sometimes the cutoff for receiving the summa cum laude is as high as the top 1-2% of your class. Every school will do things a bit differently.
Frequently, summa cum laude recipients at universities are chosen based on their performance in their particular college or department.
For example, engineering students in the top 5% of the College of Engineering can receive the summa cum laude even though their GPA is lower than that of the top 5% of students in the College of Fine Arts. This ensures that students in more academically strenuous disciplines have a fair shot at earning high honors.
Most colleges and high schools that confer these honors host honors convocations, ceremonies where faculty administrators and students give speeches and award special graduation regalia. These can include cords, stoles, medallions, and/or certificates.
Students in attendance wear their cap and gown and, afterward, take pictures and celebrate with peers, family, and faculty.
Think of the honors convocation as a smaller, more intimate pre-graduation ceremony among other high achievers in your class.
Meaning of Summa Cum Laude
In the U.S., Latin honors are usually used only for bachelor’s degrees and the Juris Doctor (JD) law degree. They’re generally not conferred for master’s degrees, PhDs, or MD degrees.
Summa cum laude translates from Latin to “with highest honors” or “with highest praise.”
Harvard College, the undergraduate college of Harvard University, began awarding cum laude and summa cum laude to its graduates in 1869. Starting in 1880, the college introduced magna cum laude.
Harvard was the first college ever to award Latin honors, and today students must earn at least a 3.956 to be eligible for summa cum laude.
Universities around the world use different honors systems to recognize outstanding undergraduates.
For example, UK universities often award First-Class Honours to the top 30%, then Upper Second-Class Honours to the next 10% below, and so on.
Countries once part of the British Commonwealth — including Australia, Hong Kong, Ireland, Jamaica, Pakistan, Nigeria, Singapore, and South Africa — tend to use the British undergraduate degree classification.
Latin honors are primarily used in the U.S., although some institutions in other countries have followed suit. These nations include Israel, Indonesia, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, and Canada.
There are slight variations in honors systems and naming across a single country and even more variation from country to country. Not every American university uses Latin honors, so expect the same variability when looking across country lines.
Difference Between Magna Cum Laude and Summa Cum Laude
Compared to magna cum laude, summa cum laude is the higher honor. In fact, it’s often the highest. The order for the three Latin honors is generally as follows:
- cum laude: “with honors” (or “with praise”). GPA requirements range from 3.5-3.7, or even starting as low as 3.0. These graduates are in the top 20-30% of their class, depending on their institution.
- magna cum laude: “with high honors” (also “with great honors” or “with great praise”). GPA requirements range from 3.7-3.9, or even starting as low as 3.4. These graduates are in the top 10-15% of their class, depending on their institution.
- summa cum laude: “with highest honors” (also “with greatest honors” or “with greatest praise”). GPA requirements range from 3.9-4.0. For high schools that award Latin honors, this range can be even higher than 4.0. These graduates are in the top 1-5% of their class, depending on the institution.
As we’ve mentioned, not every school will award all three Latin honors. Some will only recognize cum laude and magna cum laude, while others only magna cum laude and summa cum laude. Some institutions only award the summa cum laude in exceptional cases, such as for the absolute top student of the entire class.
Plus, instead of only setting aside the top students overall, large universities often take the top students from each individual college or department. This enables a more equitable chance at earning the school’s top distinctions at graduation.
As far as the differences between magna cum laude and summa cum laude go, they’re relatively minuscule.
Both types of recipients are exceptional academic achievers. These students are likely to have also earned special recognition from their major department or faculty within that department.
However, it’s important to note that academic or disciplinary violations can disqualify you from receiving Latin honors, regardless of your final GPA.
Does Summa Cum Laude Matter?
And now, the moment of truth: does summa cum laude really matter?
Considering that more and more highly qualified students have graduated with Latin honors in recent years — sometimes more than those who didn’t graduate with honors — the answer seems to be maybe.
For example, more than half of the 2018 graduating class of Middlebury College graduated with Latin honors, since the GPA eligibility requirement was at least 3.4.
It’s never a bad thing for students to be doing so well, but the phenomenon has caused officials at colleges and universities nationwide to rethink their eligibility criteria so that the honor isn’t diluted.
That said, it’s true that summa cum laude earners make up the tiniest fraction of Latin honors recipients. It’s the most selective of the three tiers, and it represents the very best that the school has educated.
Latin honors are most helpful in helping students get placements in competitive fields of employment or top-tier graduate schools.
All the said, magna cum laude and summa cum laude, in particular, are helpful for job candidates in finance, management, consulting, and engineering. These fields tend to require the most technical knowledge, so if you demonstrate how well you’ve learned them in college, you’ll be a stronger candidate to employers.
Latin honors are also helpful in terms of landing an entry-level position straight out of college, but afterward, work experience tends to take precedence. This is because, in the long run, real-world experience is more valuable than academic performance.
So to conclude: yes, summa cum laude matters, but only in certain circumstances. If these circumstances don’t apply to you (you’re not going into finance or applying to grad school), it’s nice to have a Latin honor, but you shouldn’t stress if you don’t get one.
Bottom line: people are rarely rejected for a specific opportunity solely based on the type of Latin honor they received upon graduation. Ultimately, your holistic knowledge and experience matter more, so be sure to emphasize the skills you can bring to the table rather than the Latin honors you don’t have.