In Latin, summa cum laude literally means "with highest honors." This is usually the highest academic honor that a university can confer upon a graduate. Requirements for receiving this honor are determined by each individual college or university, so students striving to graduate with this distinction should inquire about their institutions’ rules and processes.
Summa cum laude is generally the highest honor in a series of three. Cum laud, meaning "with honor," is the first level of distinction. Magna cum laude, meaning "with great honor," is usually the second. Schools may have far more stringent requirements for summa cum laude and magna cum laude graduates than for those who graduate cum laude.
Colleges and universities frequently use cumulative grade point averages to determine which students graduate with honors. This may mean that all students who earn a specific grade point average will graduate summa cum laude. It may alternatively mean that the honor is conferred on only those whose grades are within a specified percentile of all student grade averages.
Class rank is another factor often used to determine which students graduate with honors. Some universities may also impose additional requirements, such as enrollment in a minimum number of honors courses or completion of academic research. The summa sum laude and magna cum laude distinctions may be based on different criteria than the cum laude distinction.
The cum laude, magna cum laude and summa cum laude academic distinction series is used in the United States, Canada and much of Europe. It most often applied to undergraduate degrees, but may sometimes be applied to graduate degrees as well. In the United States, for example, the distinctions are often applied to individuals graduating from law school with a juris doctorate degree. Many institutions print the distinction on the graduate’s diploma.
Every class a student takes may affect her chances of graduating with honors. Those who wish to graduate summa cum laude should investigate their university’s requirements as early as possible in their college careers. If the college has requirements outside of grades, such as honors courses, the student will need to work with her academic advisor to plan for the necessary courses.
All students pursuing an honors distinction will need to earn the highest grades possible. This may mean joining study groups or seeking out tutoring to help with any subjects in which they find themselves struggling to excel. In many institutions, a summa cum laude is automatically conferred upon those who meet the requirements. In others, however, the student may need to apply for honors and provide proof that she has met the requirements. In these cases, necessary paperwork may need to be completed and turned in well before graduation.