What Is Summa Cum Laude?

Summa cum laude is an honorary title used by educational institutions to signify a degree that was earned "with the highest distinction." Summa cum laude indicates the greatest distinction of three commonly used types of academic honors, expressed in Latin, recognized in the United States. The other two are called magna cum laude and cum laude, representing degrees earned "with great distinction" and "with distinction," respectively.

The guidelines under which students achieve each level of academic honor differ from institution to institution. Increasingly, high schools across the United States also include Latin honors for students upon graduation. Although Latin honors are quite common in the United States, very few other countries around the world use the system.

Key Takeaways

  • Summa cum laude is the highest of three Latin honors that may be bestowed upon students earning a bachelor's degree.
  • Criteria for the summa cum laude may include grade point average, class rank, hours and special projects (i.e., senior thesis) completed, and recommendations from an academic department.
  • Latin honors are impressive, but it's impossible to know how critical they are in landing a job.

Understanding Summa Cum Laude

Summa cum laude is one of the three Latin honors traditionally given to select students upon receiving a bachelor's degree, although it can in some cases be included with other types of degrees as well. Students who graduate with honors may wear colored stoles or other designations during commencement ceremonies, and the honor is read aloud along with the person's name.

Criteria for Latin honors may include grade point average (GPA), class rank, number of hours completed, and honors designations from an academic department.

Every university or college outlines its own expectations for each program. Some higher education institutions do not bestow Latin-termed honors at all. Others, like Stanford University, have a separate set of non-Latin honorary titles (such as "with Distinction") that are typically seen as roughly equivalent to the traditional Latin titles.

GPA-Based Requirements

Many institutions use cumulative grade point averages (GPA ) to determine who graduates with a summa cum laude designation. Students at the University of New Mexico, for instance, need to complete 60 credit hours toward graduation in addition to a GPA of 3.90 or higher. By contrast, Denver University (DU) requires students to have a 3.95 GPA and completed 90 quarter hours; they must also submit a senior thesis or complete a senior project. (If they have less than 90 hours, they must receive a departmental recommendation.)

Because summa cum laude is typically the highest distinction of the three traditional Latin honors, it is typically reserved for the smallest number of graduating students. In some cases, only a handful of students will receive the summa cum laude designation upon graduating.

At institutions selecting students for Latin honors based on GPA requirements, the number of individuals receiving summa cum laude honors may vary from year to year. There may be no limit, potentially, to the percentage of students in a graduating class who could receive summa cum laude distinction, provided that those students meet the GPA requirement.

Summa Cum Laude and Class Rank

Although GPA-based requirements for Latin honors are the most common throughout higher education institutions in the U.S., there are other factors that may be included as well. One of these is class rank; some institutions reserve the summa cum laude title for students graduating at the highest levels of their class. In this case, GPA is a factor in determining whether a student receives this honor at graduation, but that student does not necessarily need to obtain a particular GPA in order to make that achievement.

As an example of how class rank-based Latin honors work in practice, graduates of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst need to finish in the top 5% of the graduating class of a particular college and complete 45 credits in order to receive the summa cum laude designation. In other cases, Latin honors are dependent upon students' performance in particular classes, often either honors classes or those relevant to their major area of study.

Latin honors like summa cum laude appear on a student's official transcript and diploma.

Students at the University of Notre Dame, for instance, earn Latin honors within the college that oversees the student's major. Graduates must finish in the top 5% of the class in order to receive the summa cum laude distinction. Because class rank changes based on the performance of other students, the GPA changes each academic year. In 2019, students in the College of Arts & Letters at Notre Dame needed a 3.94 GPA to earn summa cum laude honors. In contrast, in 2009, students needed a 3.927 GPA to earn those honors.

Harvard's Latin Honors

Harvard University is generally credited to be the first U.S. institute of higher education to bestow Latin honors at graduation.

Harvard College introduced two Latin honors in 1869—cum laude and summa cum laude. Magna cum laude followed in 1880. As of May 2020, a student must have a GPA of at least 3.956 to be eligible for a summa cum laude.

Harvard's Latin honors stand out from other institutions, both historically and through to the present day. Harvard faculty members consider candidates for summa cum laude in their field by weighing the student's grades in the courses for their major and the rigor of those courses, and a demonstration of student's mastery of their field, such as a senior thesis and/or some type of written or oral examination.

Only students who graduate in the top 5% of their graduating class may earn summa cum laude honors in their field. Graduates earn summa cum laude over the entire university based on the 5% class rank, and Harvard sets standards for the academic year each May.

Special Considerations

In most colleges and universities, the large majority of undergraduates completing a bachelor's degree do not receive Latin honors of any kind. For those who do, these honors are likely to impact their future in different ways depending upon a number of factors, including their field of study, future interests, and more.

Some graduate schools, for example, are particularly focused on academic rank and GPA; top law schools are famous for their stringent GPA requirements. In other fields, academic honors may be less crucial to success.

For graduates entering the job market, a Latin honor listed on a resume could well impress a potential employer, as it suggests a level of intelligence and diligence. For other employers, though, a candidate's personality and skill set might be more important—or the fact that they attended a prestigious institution, like a Harvard, regardless of how well they did there. Job listings often specify a B.A. or B.S., but rarely require a certain GPA or level of academic honors.

Summa Cum Laude FAQs

What Does Summa Laude Mean?

Summa cum laude is an honorary distinction awarded by universities to a small fraction of college graduates each year. A Latin term, it literally translates as "highest honor" or "highest praise." These students have earned grades within the highest percentage of their class or department, or have achieved some other metric that the school considers worthy of the highest or, the summit of, recognition.

What Is Higher, Summa or Magna?

Summa is higher than magna. "Magna cum laude" is Latin for "with great distinction." "Summa cum laude" translates as "with the highest distinction."

What Is the Highest Honor in College?

Generally, the highest honor in college is the summa cum laude. The next highest is the magna cum laude, and the third is the cum laude.

How Do You Get Summa Cum Laude?

There is no universal standard for granting a summa cum laude. Rather, it is up to each individual school, and in some cases, each school's individual department, to determine what constitutes the award.

In general, though, summa cum laude is based on a student's grade point average. Usually, it has to be high: 3.9 or above. A student's class rank, number of course hours completed, and requirements such as a thesis or senior project, might also be part of the qualifications for a summa cum laude.

How Do You List an Honors Degree on a Resume?

An honors degree is often listed directly after your degree, separated by a comma. If you include your major or field of study, it could come after that: B.A. in History, magna cum laude. If it is a Latin title, like summa cum laude, the honors degree should be lower case letters and written in italics.