Magna cum laude, summa cum laude, and cum laude are Latin honors that are bestowed upon 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 nations. They are also given out by a select number of U.S. high schools, as well.

Having a magna cum laude degree is most important for jobs in the fields of finance, management consulting and engineering. These jobs are well-paying at the entry-level and quite competitive, with more than 100 applicants for each spot.

Key Takeaways

  • Magna cum laude, like summa cum laude, and cum laude, is a mark of academic achievement typically handed out to college graduates; the three distinctions are known collectively as "Latin honors."
  • Magna cum laude translates as "with great distinction;" in terms of the accomplishment, summa cum laude, or "with the highest distinction," is more prestigious, and cum laude, or "with distinction" is less elite.
  • Having Latin honors is a way for a job candidate to stand out from the pack, and is a particularly useful distinction for people applying for jobs in finance, management consulting and engineering.

What Does Magna Cum Laude Mean?

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

Typically, in the American education system, Summa cum laude is considered to be the highest honor or the pinnacle—like the "summit"—and is given to only a small number of college graduates yearly. It is usually translated as meaning "the highest distinction."

Magna cum laude is second in terms of prestige. While it's not as elite a distinction as summa cum laude, it still represents a high level of achievement. Magna cum laude means "with great distinction." The third level of achievement is cum laude, which 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 as to what grade point averages correlate to which level of distinction. What constitutes a summa cum laude at one school might be a magna cum laude at another school. Some schools, such as NYU, 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.

In addition to GPA, some schools also require students to garner faculty recommendations or finish a certain number of advanced courses or even write an honors thesis.

Studies have shown that the impact of Latin honors is negligible beyond the first two years after a former student has graduated from college, suggesting that the honors are most helpful for new graduates.

Why Does Magna Cum Laude Matter?

Using grades is an easy way for employers to narrow the field. High grades reflect a candidate's 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, having a magna cum laude degree is quite important in gaining admission to top institutions.

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 to employers and graduate schools that the candidate is capable of working hard and competently. Of course, this does not guarantee success in the workplace, as there is little correlation between career success and academic success.

Career success ends up being more about being able to work well with others, forming meaningful relationships and creating value. These characteristics are different from the drivers of academic designations. However, a magna cum laude degree is an asset that can help a candidate get a foot in the door.