Magna cum laude is an academic distinction given to undergraduates who perform near the top of their class. In order to graduate with this distinction, a student must check with his or her particular educational institution upon enrollment to determine the criteria by which he or she will be evaluated near the close of the four-year term. The criteria are typically based on a person's grade point average (GPA), but might involve extracurricular activities as well.
A rule of thumb for graduating with cum laude honors is to maintain a GPA of 3.5 or better. Typically, a 3.5 to 3.74 GPA will earn a cum laude honor, a 3.75 to 3.99 GPA will earn a magna cum laude honor, and a 4.0+ GPA will earn a summa cum laude honor. Some schools may instead award the distinction to a top percentage of a graduating class, instead of basing it on GPA. The honor is usually written on the face of the diploma.
There is no universal standard, however, for earning the honor. Each educational system is afforded the right to set its own guidelines for bestowing the honor upon a group of undergraduates. For example, one institution may rely solely upon grade point averages in order to determine the recipients. Another may take into account a certain amount of extracurricular activities or the difficulty of the classes taken when evaluating the students.
Typically, a graduating class will have a valedictorian and salutatorian, representing the two top spots in the class academically. Honors such as magna cum laude recognize those students who performed near the top of their class but could not make the two top spots. There are other levels of honor that can be bestowed upon students as well.
Magna cum laude is a lesser honor than summa cum laude, but a greater honor than cum laude. It is a Latin phrase that literally translates to "with great honor" or "with great praise." Cum laude means "with honor" or "with praise" and summa cum laude means "with highest honor" or "with highest praise." Other Latin honorifics may be used as well. For example, the term egregia cum laude refers to students who have maintained a high GPA while pursuing a more difficult curriculum.
Latin honorifics have been used in the United States since the 1800s, and their current usage varies across the globe. The United States and Canada use a similar system of honors, as do many countries in Europe. Some countries have digressed from the Latin verbiage to English translation.