Summa cum laude is a Latin phrase that means “with highest honor,” and is used in academic settings to recognize students who have demonstrated a history of exceptional performance. The honor is almost always dependent of grades and academic record, but it may also include some reflection of extracurricular activities and overall well-roundedness. Latin honors were once reserved only for undergraduate university students, but the tradition has spread to a range of schools at varying levels. How the honor is earned and what exactly it means can vary from place to place, but it is always very prestigious.
Hierarchy of Honors
Latin honors typically come in three varieties, representing three primary levels of achievement. Cum laude, which means “with honor,” is the first and most basic distinction; next comes magna cum laude, which translates to “with great honor.” Both are considered quite prestigious and praiseworthy, but neither quite approaches the “summa” distinction in either value or rarity. The highest honor distinction is, in most cases, reserved for those who are truly unmatched in academic pursuits. These students typically graduate at the very top of their classes.
Timing of Award
It is customary for Latin honors to be awarded at the conclusion of studies, normally at graduation. This way, students can be distinguished based on their cumulative good work. Simply doing well in one class or during one academic term or year is not usually enough to qualify. Success must be sustained over time in almost all cases.
Graduates who have earned the summa cum laude honor are usually specially announced during the graduation ceremony and will often wear special ribbons, sashes, or cords to further set them apart from their peers. The distinction is traditionally printed next to graduates' names in the program and, in most cases, will also appear on the diploma and all formal transcripts as well.
Who Is Eligible
Latin honors remain most common at the undergraduate level, particularly in North America and Europe, but they can be used in any academic institution that chooses to do so. It may be possible, for example, to find Latin honors in middle and high schools, as well as in some graduate programs. There are no firm boundaries or rules about who is eligible and who is not, and as such, the award can mean slightly different things in different places. It is always highly prestigious, but there is no universal rule about what, exactly, it signifies, nor is there any formula to earning it in most cases.
The summa cum laude award, like all Latin honors, is generally determined based on grade point average — students who receive this honor typically have near perfect academic records. Schools may add additional requirements, however, such as extracurricular activities or community service involvement. Some programs might also require eligible students to write an honors thesis or participate in an advanced seminar or series of honors courses in order to prove their worthiness. Nominations from professors and peers may also be required.
Students who are interested in learning about Latin honors within a specific school structure should speak to a knowledgeable representative relatively early on in their academic career. Academic counselors and department heads are usually in the best position to help students understand exactly what is required, as well as how they can best position themselves to be in the running.
Ramifications Past Graduation
Being able to say that one has graduated summa cum laude isn't just a bragging point. Latin honors usually become part of a student’s permanent record, and as such allows him or her to stand out from the crowd on job applications, in graduate school admissions, and in competitions for scholarships and other awards. Having "summa" status often conveys not only book smarts but also superior organization and the ability to balance work and life. Having this distinction can set applicants apart and can be the key to getting ahead, whether in a career or in further schooling.