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Written by Debbie BrideDebbie Bride

Summa cum laude vs. magna cum laude — what’s the difference?

13 min read
Summa cum laude vs. magna cum laude — what’s the difference?
Artwork by:Alexandra Shevchenko
Cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude — any of these hard-won claims to bragging rights may sound like mumbo jumbo to those who are both unfamiliar and impressed. Be mystified no more, as we decipher and differentiate these Latin terms using relatable language.

Almost everybody thinks it’s impressive when someone graduates summa cum laude or magna cum laude. Just plain “cum laude” sounds great too. Even those who never set foot inside any halls of higher learning are aware of high achievers who earned these academic honors — whether it’s someone they know personally or a celebrity brainiac they hear about in a biographical profile.

But how many people know what summa cum laude or magna cum laude actually mean? And what’s the difference between summa and magna? What might sound like all Greek to the uninitiated — including top students at colleges where these distinctions don’t exist — is, in fact, Latin lingo. And if all the different Google keyword search configurations are any indication, Latin-English dictionaries are not a common household item these days.

So we’re here to demystify this ever-popular subject for those who are unfamiliar. Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • Definition of cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude
  • The difference between "summa" and "magna," and which one is higher
  • At what schools Latin distinctions are awarded
  • How students qualify for Latin honors
  • Frequently asked questions about Latin honors and GPAs

Cum laude, magna and summa: it’s that simple

Let’s start with the easy part. You’ll likely be amazed at the lack of mystique when it comes to deciphering the meaning of cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude. With that comes their automatic ranking by three levels of high academic achievement. We’re even providing the phonetic pronunciation in each case!

Latin Honor Meaning
cum laude
kuːm ˈlaʊdeɪ 
with honor (praise or distinction)
magna cum laude
mæɡnə kuːm ˈlaʊdeɪ 
with great honor (praise or distinction)
summa cum laude
ˈsuːmə kuːm ˈlaʊdeɪ 
with the highest honor (praise or distinction)
Expert tip

The English word “laudatory” is derived from the Latin “laude, meaning “honor” or “praise.” An easy way to remember that summa is the top Latin award is to think of the summit (pinnacle or peak) of a mountain. And magna can be associated with middle magnitude.

It’s all relative

We’ll have more to say shortly about the less straightforward matter of qualifying criteria for cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude. But for now, just think in relative terms: students are granted these honors based on where they rank against other students in the same school, or even within the same department.

Cum laude may be conferred on students who have earned a certain GPA or class rank, but not as high as those qualifying for magna cum laude. Students in the middle category, in turn, have earned high grades or some other achievement, but not the highest possible. And summa cum laude is reserved for students worthy of the top prize.  

Where are Latin honors conferred?

Different versions of the tri-level Latin honors system are most commonly implemented for undergraduate degrees at colleges and universities, primarily in the United States. Some U.S. high schools also award cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude.

Elsewhere, there are applications in a handful of countries, notably Indonesia, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Although some Canadian institutions have adopted the Latin honors scheme, variations of the UK undergraduate grading classification model, using English terminology, are more widely used. The same goes for Australia, Bangladesh, Barbados, Canada, Georgia, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Kenya, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, and many other countries. 

There are also instances where students receive a degree certificate showing their Latin award status, while a UK equivalent appears on their transcript. 

Who started the Latin awards tradition?

Harvard University is credited with inaugurating the cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude awards back in 1866. Interestingly, some modern-day detractors at Harvard have proposed eliminating the Latin honors system, contending that its current application can actually deter students from academic excellence rather than the other way around. Yet, there is no indication that the status quo at Harvard will change.

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What are the criteria for summa cum laude and magna cum laude?

Now it becomes tricky to explain with any precision what cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude mean. That’s because they mean different things to different schools in different places. There are no uniform criteria to qualify for Latin honors. It’s up to individual schools to use their own metrics, and so there are vastly wide discrepancies. It’s not uncommon for individual departments within the same university to apply different qualifying criteria, sometimes reflecting course difficulty. GPA-based determinations may be on an overall average or program major basis. 

Information about qualifying honors criteria — Latin or other systems — is typically posted on individual college websites. It may be found in a section devoted to graduation or commencement policies.

GPAs — generally speaking

Just to give you a general idea, below is merely an average of the GPA requirement, on a 4.0 scale, for each Latin honors category:

  • Summa cum laude: 3.90 - 4.00
  • Magna cum laude: 3.70 - 3.80
  • Cum laude: 3.50 - 3.60
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Here are examples of GPA-based levels for three institutions:

University of Florida College of Pharmacy 

  • Summa cum laude: 3.8 - 4.00
  • Magna cum laude: 3.60 - 3.79
  • Cum laude: 3.50 - 3.59

The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania 

  • Summa cum laude: 3.80 - 4.00
  • Magna cum laude: 3.60 - 3.79
  • Cum laude: 3.40 - 3.59

University of Washington School of Social Work

  • Summa cum laude: 3.97 - 4.00
  • Magna cum laude: 3.95 - 3.96
  • Cum laude: 3.92 - 3.94

Class rankings — another way to qualify

For schools awarding Latin awards on the basis of where students rank among their classmates, these are the typical top-ranking ranges:

  • Cum laude: Top 20-30% of students
  • Magna cum laude: Top 10-15% of students
  • Summa cum laude: Top 1-5% of students

Here are three different college examples of class ranks:

University of Chicago

  • Summa cum laude: Top 25% of students
  • Magna cum laude: Top 15% of students
  • Cum laude: Top 8% of students

48% of all students receive a Latin honor

University of Columbia Engineering

  • Cum laude: Top 10% of students
  • Magna cum laude: Top 10% of students
  • Summa cum laude: Top 5% of students

25% of all students receive a Latin Honor

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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

  • Cum laude: Top 11% - 15% of students
  • Magna cum laude: Top 6% - 10% of students
  • Summa cum laude: Top 5% of students

22% - 30% of all students receive a Latin honor

At some institutions, and sometimes for specific degree programs, Latin awards criteria may extend beyond numerical requirements for GPA or class ranking. For instance, faculty recommendations may come into play, or eligible students may be required to submit an honors thesis for evaluation, to be part of an honors program, to complete a prescribed number of advanced courses, or to graduate early. 

And at many schools, academic or disciplinary infractions are grounds for disqualifying students from receiving Latin honors, regardless of high grades or class standings. 

Expert tip

Resist any temptation you might have to “translate” an English honors distinction to comparable Latin terminology on your resume if you graduated from an institution that doesn’t use the Latin honors model. Plain English equivalents such as “with High Honors” or “with Highest Honors” are no less honorable. The wording on your resume should match exactly what appears on your diploma. The same advice applies in reverse — don’t convert Latin honors into English.

Frequently asked questions

  • What are the summa cum laude and magna cum laude GPA requirements?

As discussed previously, no uniform standards are in force for awarding the Latin distinctions of cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude. Individual schools can set their own criteria based on GPA, class ranking, and/or other requirements. 

  • Is a 4.0 GPA worthy of summa cum laude?

At colleges where Latin honors are awarded at three levels of distinction, students with a 4.0 would likely graduate summa cum laude, as long as any additional criteria were met.

  • What GPA is considered “honors” or “honor roll” level?

Policies for honors-based distinctions other than cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude vary from one college to the next. Honor roll or dean’s list inclusion is an example. This should not be confused with honors courses or honors programs' special enrollment and graduation criteria. In any of these instances, there may be an overlap with students who are awarded Latin honors.

  • What is the highest GPA you can get in university?

With atypical exceptions, 4.0 is the highest GPA attainable in postsecondary institutions.

Expert tip

Wondering when and where this kind of information belongs on your resume? Check out our advice for listing cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude in your resume’s education section. We also offer tips for including GPAs and awards, plus an easy guide for listing college degrees .

Key takeaways

  • Variations of the tri-level Latin awards model have been widely adopted by many U.S. colleges, and to a lesser extent in other countries.
  • Where the Latin system exists, graduating students are recognized in these three progressively higher achievement categories: cum laude — with honor, magna cum laude — with high honor, and summa cum laude — with the highest honor.
  • Criteria for awarding cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude vary from one university to the next. Eligibility may be based on overall or major course GPA, class ranking of students in percentage groups, and possibly other requirements.
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