Magna cum laude is a Latin phrase meaning “with great honor,” and is a title awarded to students when they graduate to recognize sustained academic achievement. Latin honors are typically only used for undergraduate university degrees, although they sometimes appear in high schools and at the graduate level. There is no universal standard for assessing who should receive honors and who should not, which means that a magna cum laude award can mean slightly different things depending on the institution. The distinction is most common in the United States, but occasionally appears in other countries as well.
Levels of Honor
There are typically three levels of Latin honors. The first and most basic is cum laude, which means “with honor.” The “magna” distinction comes next, followed by the prestigious summa cum laude — “with highest honor.” Students who graduate at the top of their class typically receive one of these three distinctions.
Announcement and Distinction
The magna cum laude honor is usually announced at graduation alongside other honors and awards. Students who receive this distinction often wear a special rope or cord on their graduation gown to signal their achievement to others. The honor isn't just about an opportunity to bask in praise, however; being able to say that one has graduated magna cum laude is a lifetime distinction that can attract attention on resumes and graduate school applications, especially if the award comes from a prominent university.
Latin honors are typically awarded based on cumulative grade point average, though different schools are usually free to set their own standards. Students who graduate “summa cum laude” typically have near perfect grades during all of their years of study. A magna graduate may have a few imperfect marks, but is generally regarded as being among the school’s strongest academic performers.
Though most Latin honors are awarded to students based on how they stack up against others in their graduating class, some departments will offer separate honors within a degree program. A chemistry student who had excellent grades in required science classes might be awarded a chemistry degree “magnum cum laude” by her department even if her grades on the whole were not high enough to qualify her for that honor at the larger university level. Much of this depends on individual university policy.
There may also be certain requirements in terms of course load or difficulty in order to earn a magna cum laude distinction. For example, many schools require students to take an honors class or write an honors thesis in order to graduate with a Latin distinction. In some cases, students must also be nominated by professors or fellow students. Extracurricular activities may also be taken into account when considering awards so as to recognize well-rounded students rather than pure academic talents. Strong grades are almost always a prerequisite — they just may not be the final means of calculation.
Problems With Grade Inflation
Due to grade inflation, a high grade point average alone is not always a great indicator of academic success. Grade inflation happens when professors award high grades to students who may not necessarily have earned them, or when classes are easier than average, which can lead to a disproportionate number of high marks.
Academic honors help to distinguish especially high performing students from the rest of the school, ensuring that the top performers in each graduating class get special recognition for their work. The number of honors to be awarded in any given year is often capped so that the system will not be cheapened by an excess of recognized students.