Magna Cum Laude Vs. Summa Cum Laude GPA

By Kristin Kizer - Oct. 17, 2021

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If you’ve heard of someone graduating cum laude, you may have wondered what that means. We’re here to clear up the mystery of cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude.

They’re all similar and related to your grade point average, or GPA. Each of these designations is Latin, which is why the terms seem so unfamiliar.

  • cum laude means with honor or with praise.

  • magna cum laude means great honor.

  • summa cum laude means highest honor.

So, a cum laude graduate is one who graduates with honors, magna cum laude is a graduate with great honor, and on top of the mountain is someone who has the highest honor, or summa cum laude.

Who Can Earn a Cum Laude Designation?

Latin honors are often given out to college students earning their bachelor’s degrees. Each of the three honors lets people know that you are a high-achieving student. They’re typically determined based on your grade point average, but there is no official, set rule or parameter that determines which category you’ll fall under.

As mentioned, this is usually a designation for colleges and universities. You will find that some high schools are beginning to use the Latin honors system to award their high achieving students. But it’s not common in high schools, and you won’t find it in a graduate studies program.

Another way high schools honor high academic achievers is by designating a valedictorian or salutatorian. These are, again, Latin terms and related to your GPA. A high school doesn’t have to choose between the two ranking systems; they can have both.

These cum laude designations are given to college and some high school students with very high grade point averages.

GPA Requirements for Latin Honors

While no two schools or programs have identical requirements to achieve Latin honors, this breakdown works well as a starting point:

  • cum laude GPA: 3.5 to 3.7

  • magna cum laude GPA: 3.7 to 3.9

  • summa cum laude GPA: 3.9 to 4.0 or even higher

What Is summa cum laude?

summa cum laude is the very top of the class and the highest Latin title given to the best achievers. If you want to wow and impress people with your academic superpowers, then you’re going to be shooting for the summa cum laude designation.

Because there are no set rules on the required GPA to be given this title, it’s easiest to roughly say that the top one to five percent of your class will achieve it. Yes, this is just an estimate.

It is possible that no one in your graduating class has earned a high enough GPA to qualify for this honor. It’s also possible that you have an extremely brilliant class, and many of them are top grade earners.

That’s why it’s generally safe to use the top 1-5% as an estimate.

What Is magna cum laude?

magna cum laude comes right below summa cum laude in the Latin hierarchy of grades. Typically, you can earn this distinction if you get all A’s with only one or two exceptions. Because you’re this close to the higher ranking, you might want to take those few classes over to see if you can raise your grade.

If you think the rankings aren’t all that important, you’ll probably be just as happy with the magna cum laude title.

Roughly the top 5-20% of student are awarded with the magna cum laude distinction.

What Is Cum Laude?

Cum laude is granted to the top 20-30% of students, typically. In many schools, these high-ranking students are also recognized as being on the dean’s list, chancellor’s scholars, or honors students.

They have GPAs and stand out as above-average, but they’re not quite at the level that the highest-achieving students in their school are.

Don’t get us wrong, this is still a tremendous achievement, and it’s a great honor to add to any resume. Earning honors-level grades is truly commendable and shows great work ethic and intelligence.

Understanding summa cum laude

If your goal is to earn the summa cum laude distinction, you better plan on earning all A’s and pulling out a 4.0. That might not even be enough in some schools or programs. If that’s the case, you’ll have to take honors or advanced level classes to pull out a high enough GPA.

If this is very important to you, you might want to look at the GPA requirements for summa cum laude at the different colleges you wish to attend. You could be surprised at the differences and choose a college that has more relaxed standards.

It’s also essential to make your goals clear to your advisor long before your anticipated graduation date. This way, you can set the course of your education to better align with your academic goals.

Understanding magna cum laude

magna cum laude students are very close to a 4.0, but they typically have a couple of classes where they just couldn’t pull out the highest grade possible. They are still to be applauded for all of their efforts because they’ve proven that they’re incredible academicians; they’re just not perfect – but then again, who is?

Understanding cum laude

The label cum laude means that you’ve earned honors in a school program. A GPA of 3.5 or higher (in most situations) is enough to earn you this designation. You are an outstanding student, but you haven’t earned A’s across the board.

Perhaps there was one subject or class that wasn’t your best. Or maybe you decided to challenge yourself, and you took a lot of difficult courses on unfamiliar topics. You may not have earned the highest grades, but you pushed yourself to be a better learner.

cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude Requirements

It all comes down to your GPA and your ranking within your class. While we’d like to give one set of guidelines, there can even be some variation even between departments within a university.

Let’s say you’re in the engineering program at a university. While your school may have set GPA standards for a Latin honors designation, your engineering program may have its own set of criteria. That might mean it’s even harder to earn a designation for you than a communications student going to the same university.

Going above and beyond might be the standard at the school you attend. While you’d think a perfect 4.0 would earn you the highest Latin honor, a summa cum laude, that’s not always the case. Some schools require their highest students to do more and have a higher GPA. This can only be achieved by taking advanced-level courses and scoring the highest grade possible in these courses.

Now you can see why these designations are so important. They require true grit, determination, and higher thinking skills.

How Schools Decide on summa cum laude Requirements

The three basic requirements that schools use to award for Latin honors are:

  • GPA. Many schools and programs assign a GPA minimum as a base-level requirement for achieving a cum laude distinction. Some programs may differentiate between your overall undergraduate GPA and your program GPA when determining whether you’ve met the threshold.

    GPA requirements are the most straightforward, but many schools have other requirements beyond this.

  • Class rank. Another very common requirement for Latin honors is class rank. This helps account for the fact that some programs and school years will have more high-grade earners than others. Using rank helps show how good a student was in comparison to their peers.

    This is usually expressed in one of two ways (that are essentially the same thing). Either a school will say the top X% of students are awarded, or the top X percentile is awarded. For example, a school could say that the top 95th percentile gets summa cum laude, or they could say that the top 5% does — it means the same thing.

    What that means in practice is that you’ll need to do better than 95% of your classmates. Typically, policies like this also require a certain GPA, to prevent middling students from getting high awards just because their class wasn’t very strong that year.

  • Additional coursework. Some programs might not be satisfied, even with a #1 class rank and 4.0 GPA. They might expect a summa cum laude recipient to participate in higher-level study or research, or write an additional thesis/dissertation.

  • Faculty recommendations. It’s not as common, but some schools or programs will also require the personal recommendation of a high-ranking member of the department. This is to show that the student not only achieved academically, but also stood out for their character, passion, and dedication to their field of study.

Special Considerations

Why would you want to get this distinction? It looks fantastic in your resume’s education section or on your application to an advanced degree program.

It might not be the determining factor in your next job or your master’s degree program, but it could play a role in your success. It could also be an essential element in your entire body of professional work and lead to a higher income level in the long run.

Many students who achieve these honors are singled out by their school in a ceremony called an honors convocation. Convocation is similar to graduation but only includes those high-ranking students. The event usually happens around the same time as other graduations.

Students wear their cap and gown, and sometimes faculty and students give speeches. You’ll often be awarded honors cords, which you then wear to your graduation to signify your academic achievements. You could also receive a certificate or other symbol of your academic prowess.

While you’d think that having a cum laude, of any kind, attached to your college education would be a benefit, it might not be as important as you think. People who are critical of the Latin honor system say that placing a lot of significance on GPA encourages students to take easy classes and not expand themselves educationally.

There may be some merit to this argument, but it’s not likely to change the system anytime soon.

Additionally, the effect of honors on earnings is only noticeable in the first two years after graduation. Moreover, higher economic results were more pronounced in honors students from prestigious schools.

magna cum laude GPA vs. summa cum laude GPA

So, there’s been a lot of talk about the difference between these levels of educational achievement being related to your GPA. We’ve made it pretty clear that there’s no set standard, but we can give you some basic rule of thumb guidelines for GPA and Latin honors.

  • cum laude students generally have a GPA of 3.5 to 3.7.

  • magna cum laude students are typically expected to score somewhere between 3.8 and 3.9.

  • summa cum laude students will have a 4.0 or higher GPA.

If earning one of these designations is important to you, and you want to put summa or magna cum laude on your resume, it’s a good idea to chat with a school guidance counselor or your academic advisor early in your college career. They can help put you on the right path and help you select classes that will give you advanced credits toward your GPA.

Remember, a summa cum laude designation is the highest available, but magna cum laude is just below that, often only separated in GPA by 0.1 or 0.2 points. That can be the difference between an A+ in a class and a standard A. That’s not a big difference in grades, but it might be worth doing some extra work to ensure that your grades are on track so you can get the recognition you want.

Additional Academic Honors

Latin honors aren’t the only ones out there. Many colleges have these other common academic awards and honors, all of which can be included on your resume:

  • Honors student. Different schools have varying honors programs, but in general, students either enroll in honors-students-only classes or change regular classes into honors classes by taking on a more advanced workload than their peers. In either case, completing your degree in an honors program shows that you were willing to go above and beyond in your field of study.

    Graduating as an honors student shows employers that you’re not happy to just do the bare minimum, but care about achieving at the highest level.

  • Chancellor’s scholars. While this award is given to incoming college students rather than departing ones, it’s still an attractive line item for a resume. This award is granted to a very small minority of students who apply, and is granted on the basis of the applicant’s commitment to leadership, character, academic achievement, intellectual curiosity, and the ability to clearly articulate ideas.

    All of which demonstrates great professional qualities that, making it immensely helpful for landing your first internship and first few jobs.

  • Dean’s list. Getting on the Dean’s list simply means you attained a certain GPA for a specific period of time, usually one semester. The bar is usually around the same as it is for cum laude (3.5 GPA). In most cases, we don’t recommend including your position on the Dean’s list on your resume unless you maintained that position for your entire undergraduate experience.

  • Valedictorian/salutaorian. Typically a high school award, the valedictorian is given to the class’s top achiever. This could take into account GPA and other factors such as participation in advanced programs, if there are many students in a class with the same 4.0 GPA. Salutatorian is given to the class’s second-highest academic achiever.

  • Academic distinction. The process of earning academic distinctions varies between schools, but in general, they’re awarded for completing a certain amount of credits and achieving a specific letter grade or better.

  • AP Scholar. This is another pre-college academic honor, but it does show a certain precocity that makes it worth putting on your resume when applying for your first few jobs and you don’t have much formal work experience yet. The AP Scholar Award is given to high school students who score a 3 or higher on three or more AP exams.

    You can also earn an additional honor or distinction for getting even higher scores of 3.25+ and 3.5+ respectively.

Tips for Putting magna cum laude or summa cum laude on Your Resume

  • Italicize the phrases. All Latin words and phrases are italicized when written in the context of the English language. That rule applies to your resume, so be sure to write them out as magna cum laude and summa cum laude

  • Lowercase the phrases. It’s also important to note that these phrases are always kept lowercase, even when they stand alone as a line item on your resume.

  • Don’t add anything else. Both of these phrases should be kept as stand alone items. Writing that you “Graduated magna cum laude” is incorrect.

  • Put it beside/below your degree or under your honors/awards. The most convenient place to list your Latin awards is either directly below or beside your degree. You can also include a GPA in parantheses to give more context. If you have a few honors and awards you want to show off, you can create a separate subsection in your resume’s education section and include it there.

    You can also mention these honors in your resume summary statement.

  • Ditch it after a few years. Latin honors are a valuable thing to include on your resume when you don’t have much or any formal work experience. They serve as a stand-in for the fact that you possess enough professional qualities to achieve great things academically. But as you progress through your career, your academic performance matters less and less.

    Once you’ve had one or two good jobs, you can ditch these Latin honors and use the extra space you’ve freed up to detail more recent and work-related accomplishments.

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Kristin Kizer

Kristin Kizer is an award-winning writer, television and documentary producer, and content specialist who has worked on a wide variety of written, broadcast, and electronic publications. A former writer/producer for The Discovery Channel, she is now a freelance writer and delighted to be sharing her talents and time with the wonderful Zippia audience.

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