Summa cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude are Latin honors that are awarded to students who have achieved a certain grade point average or another measure of academic excellence. They are given out at many colleges and universities in the United States and other countries. A number of U.S. high schools also give them out.

The terms translate to highest honors for summa cum laude, high honors for magna cum laude, and honors for cum laude. The precise achievements necessary for each of these honors degrees vary among institutions.

Having a high honors degree is most important for job candidates in the fields of finance, management consulting, and engineering. These jobs pay well at the entry level and are quite competitive, with more than 100 applicants for each spot.

Key Takeaways

  • An honors degree is a big boost for candidates going for jobs in finance, management consulting, and engineering.
  • An honors undergraduate degree is virtually a requirement for entrance into the top law, medical, and business schools.
  • It helps any candidate get the first or second job. After that, experience counts.

What the Honors Levels Signify

Each of the Latin honors signifies a certain high level of academic achievement. It is understood that they are bestowed on only a select number of students and that the honor is a badge of excellence.

Typically, in the American education system, the highest summa cum laude honor is given to a small number of students who are considered to be the highest achievers of their class.

Magna cum laude, next in terms of prestige, represents a high level of achievement. Cum laude means "with distinction."

The word "laude" is synonymous with "distinction." It is also translated from Latin as the words "honor" or "praise," similar to the word "laudatory."

How Are Honors Determined?

There is no universal standard for honors degrees, though grade point average is always a factor. Some schools, including New York University, confer honors based on class rank, with the top 5% receiving summa cum laude honors, the next 10% receiving magna cum laude honors, and the next 15% receiving cum laude honors.

Some schools also require students to garner faculty recommendations, finish a certain number of advanced courses, or write an honors thesis.

Why Does Magna Cum Laude Matter?

Using grades is an easy way for employers to narrow the field. High grades reflect a strong work ethic, discipline, and intelligence. These attributes are necessary to do good work in any field.

In fields that require graduate degrees, including law and medicine, a magna cum laude degree is quite important in gaining admission to a top institution.

When It Matters

Students from the best graduate schools tend to get the best job opportunities. For most graduate schools, admission is based on undergraduate grades and standardized test scores.

For all of the jobs mentioned, grades only matter for the first or second job. After that, experience and accomplishments play a much larger role, as well as references from past supervisors and colleagues.

Essentially, a magna cum laude degree signals that a candidate is capable of working hard and competently.

Of course, this does not guarantee success in the workplace. Career success ends up being more about being able to work well with others, form meaningful relationships, and create value. These characteristics are different from the drivers of academic designations. Nevertheless, an honors degree is an asset that can help a candidate get a foot in the door.