What Is Summa Cum Laude?

Summa cum laude is an honorary title used by educational institutions to signify a degree that was earned "with highest distinction." Summa cum laude is the highest distinction of three commonly used types of Latin honors 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. Every university or college outlines its own expectations for each program, and some higher education institutions do not bestow Latin honors at all. Others, like Stanford University, have a separate set of non-Latin distinctions that are typically seen as roughly equivalent to the traditional Latin titles. 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 honor may include grade point average, class rank, hours completed, and honors designations 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. Latin honors generally appear on a student's official transcript and diploma after graduating. Criteria for Latin honors may include grade point average (GPA), class rank, number of hours completed, and honors designations from an academic department.

GPA-Based Requirements

Many institutions use cumulative 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 to earn this Latin honor. By contrast, Denver University (DU) requires students to have a 3.95 GPA and 90 quarter hours. Students at DU must also submit a senior thesis, complete a senior project, or receive departmental distinction to graduate summa cum laude.

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 54 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 after graduation.

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's Latin honors stand out from other institutions, both historically and through to the present day. Harvard is considered to be the first institute of higher education to bestow Latin honors at graduation. This practice began in the mid-19th century and quickly spread throughout the nation.

Today, Harvard faculty members consider students for summa cum laude in their field by weighing the student's overall class load, 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 students entering the job market, a Latin honor listed on a resume is likely to impress a potential employer. The question of whether or not that distinction will be the difference between winning the job or not, though, is one that is perhaps too difficult to generalize.