Magna Cum Laude vs Summa Cum Laude GPA

By Chris Kolmar - Dec. 4, 2020

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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 based, which is why they use unfamiliar Latin terms.

  • Cum laude means with honor or with praise.

  • Magna means great honor.

  • Summa 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?

These 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.

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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.

What Is Cum Laude?

Cum laude is granted to the top 20-30% of students. 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 academic scholars, but they’re not quite at the level that the most intelligent 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 grades is truly commendable.

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. 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 challenging 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. But then again, maybe it doesn’t. Yes, high grades are of utmost importance, but there can be some variation even within a university.

Let’s say you’re in the engineering program at a university. While your university 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.

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.

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.

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 crave.

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Chris Kolmar


Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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