Magna Cum Laude vs. Summa Cum Laude: An Overview

“Summa cum laude.” “Magna cum laude.” Plain old “cum laude.” Collectively known as Latin honors, these three terms signify varying levels of high academic achievement. Latin honors are conferred at many colleges and universities in the United States and other parts of the world. Some U.S. high schools also offer them.

Here’s how they typically work in American academia: Summa cum laude is the prize granted at the pinnacle (think “summit”), awarded to a small fraction of college graduates each year. Magna cum laude comes next in prestige, followed by cum laude.

Key Takeaways

  • Magna cum laude and summa cum laude are distinctions awarded to high-achieving students at colleges.
  • Magna cum laude is for students who have graduated "with great distinction," while summa cum laude is for students who have graduated "with the highest distinction."
  • There is no universal standard for granting the honors, rather, it is up to each individual school, and in some cases, each school's individual department, to determine what constitutes the award.

Magna Cum Laude

For college graduates who haven’t managed to squeeze in a Latin course or don’t have a Latin-English dictionary handy, the term is often loosely translated as "with great distinction." It stands above cum laude, which means "with distinction." It might be handed out to a student who has earned high grades or some other mark of academic achievement, but not the highest possible.

Summa Cum Laude

Like summiting a mountain, the student who has achieved summa cum laude has achieved "the highest distinction." This student has earned grades within the highest percentage of their school or department or has achieved some other metric that the school considers worthy of the highest recognition.

The Latin word “laude” can also be translated as “honor” or “praise,” as in the English word “laudatory.”


Magna Cum Laude

How Colleges Decide Which Distinction to Award

There is no national standard for what it takes to qualify for these honors. Colleges and universities are free to set their own criteria.

At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, students need a grade point average (GPA) of 3.8 or higher to graduate summa cum laude, 3.6 for magna cum laude, and 3.4 for cum laude. Ohio State University’s College of Arts and Sciences sets the bars at 3.9, 3.7, and 3.5, respectively.

Even the individual colleges or schools within a particular university sometimes have different requirements. For example, at the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering, graduates must have a GPA of at least 3.75 to qualify for summa cum laude, while Michigan’s Law School graduate needs a 4.0 to qualify for the same honor. 

Rather than using GPA, some colleges award Latin honors based on a student’s class rank. For example, New York University confers summa cum laude honors on the top 5% of its undergraduate class, magna cum laude on the next 10%, and cum laude on the next 15%, meaning that 30% of its graduates receive one of the three honors. At Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences, summa cum laude goes to graduates in the top 5%, magna cum laude to the next 8%, and cum laude to the next 12%, for a total of 25%.

In addition to the numerical requirements, some colleges have other criteria, such as faculty recommendations or a requirement that students complete a certain number of advanced courses and/or write an honors thesis.

At many schools, academic or disciplinary infractions will disqualify students from receiving Latin honors, no matter how good their grades are.

As a result of all of these factors, colleges and universities can vary widely in how many such honors they bestow on their graduates each year and how difficult or easy it is to obtain them. Some schools, such as Stanford University, don’t offer Latin honors at all. Most do, however, have an alternative system, so that stellar students don’t go unrecognized. Stanford, for example, awards a Bachelor’s Degree with Distinction to the top 15% of its graduating class based on their GPAs.

Most colleges that offer Latin (or other) honors post information about their criteria on their websites, frequently in a section devoted to graduation or commencement policies.

Special Considerations

While Latin honors can look good on a diploma, college transcript, or résumé, do they make any difference in real life? Two researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Pauline Khoo and Ben Ost, attempted to answer that question in a 2017 working paper titled “The Effect of Graduating With Honors on Earnings.” 

“We find that obtaining honors provides an economic return in the labor market, but this benefit only persists for two years,” they wrote. “By the third year after college, we see no effect of having received honors on wages, suggesting that firms may use the signal for new graduates, but they do not rely on the signal for determining the pay of more experienced workers.” They also found that the economic benefit applied only to students who had graduated from selective schools.

Critics of Latin honors are less concerned with their potential post-graduation benefits than the unintended effect they may have on students while they’re still in school. A 2011 editorial in Harvard University’s student newspaper, the Crimson, called for their abolition at the school, arguing that “by rewarding students who achieve a minimum GPA across classes, the Latin honors system does more to discourage academic achievement than to encourage it. It encourages students to view classes outside of their concentration as a means to an end, the end being the highest possible grade, rather than an opportunity for intellectual exploration.”

Harvard, however, appears to have been unmoved by that argument and continues to award Latin honors as of this writing.