Summa cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude are honors that are awarded at graduation to students who have achieved a high grade point average or other measure of academic excellence. They are used at colleges, universities, and some high schools in the United States and other countries and can be important for getting a job in certain industries. Here is what you need to know.

Key Takeaways

  • Graduating with magna cum laude honors can help a student get a job in certain fields or gain admission to a top graduate school.
  • It is particularly useful for job candidates in finance, management consulting, and engineering.
  • Magna cum laude and similar honors are most helpful in landing a first or second job. After that, work experience tends to count for more.

What the Three Honors Signify

While the criteria for awarding them can vary from institution to institution, each of these so-called Latin honors signifies a high level of educational achievement. It is widely understood in both the academic and employment worlds that they are bestowed on only a select number of students and represent a badge of excellence.

Typically, in the American education system, the summa cum laude ("with highest distinction") honor is awarded to a small number of students who are considered to represent the very top of their class.

Magna cum laude ("with high distinction") is next in terms of prestige and 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 the Honors Determined?

There is no universal standard for honors degrees, though grade point average (GPA) is almost always a factor. Some schools, such as New York University, confer honors based on class rank, with the top 5% of graduates receiving summa cum laude honors, the next 10% receiving magna cum laude honors, and the 15% after that receiving cum laude honors.

At the University of Arizona, Latin honors are also awarded based on GPA: 3.9 and higher for summa cum laude, 3.7 to 3.899 for magna cum laude, and 3.5 to 3.699 for cum laude.

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

When Does Magna Cum Laude Matter?

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

Using Latin honors and grades is an easy way for employers to narrow the field. High grades are believed to reflect a strong work ethic, discipline, and intelligence—all of which employers value.

In fields that require advanced degrees, including law and medicine, a magna cum laude degree can be important in gaining admission to a top graduate or professional institution. Students from those schools tend to get the best job opportunities in their fields. For most graduate and professional schools, admission is based on undergraduate grades—a major factor in Latin honors—and standardized test scores.

In general, these academic credentials only matter for the first or second job. After that, experience and work accomplishments play a much larger role, as well as references from past supervisors and colleagues. Essentially, a magna cum laude degree signals to a first or second employer that a candidate is capable of working hard and successfully.

Of course, that 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 at least help a candidate get a foot in the door.