Your parents will be beaming at your graduation ceremony when they see you walk across stage wearing honors regalia with your graduation gown. Graduation honors denote academic achievement beyond completion of the basic requirements for earning a college degree. Before commencement, school administration and faculty select students deserving special recognition for outstanding grades, leadership and other exemplary qualities. Graduating with honors is a big deal because it reflects your work ethic and intelligence. Being an honor student can impress prospective employers and graduate school admissions committees more than an average GPA.

Graduating vs. Graduating With Honors

Graduating means you met all the school’s requirements for general education and a major area of concentration and will receive a college diploma. That is a special accomplishment considering only 36 percent of the U.S. population holds a four-year college degree. Students in the upper percentile of their class – as delineated by each school – graduate with honors. Each school establishes criteria for choosing and awarding honors. Graduating with honors typically means the student received Latin honors like cum laude. Latin honors are nationally recognized symbols of undergraduate excellence.

Latin Honors

Latin honors identify the cream of the crop of the graduating class. Minimum requirements are generally 3.4 GPA for cum laude, 3.6 GPA for magna cum laude and 3.8 GPA for summa cum laude, but it varies by school. Translated, the Latin words mean the student is graduating with high praise, great praise or highest praise. Colleges only award this distinction to a small percentage of the graduating class. The highly coveted Latin honors usually show up on the students’ diplomas and transcripts compared to other types of honors and recognitions. Some schools confer a distinctive Honors Scholar diploma.

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English Honors

Students favored by faculty may get department honors in their major area of concentration. Each semester, academic departments review graduating seniors and choose those most deserving of “highest honors,” “high honors” or “honors” based on GPA in their major and other qualities that come esteemed in that discipline. If academically qualified, these students may also get recommendations from faculty for Latin honors. It is not uncommon for distinguished graduates to receive both Latin and English honors. For instance, a high achiever’s transcript may have the notation, “Magna Cum Laude with Highest Honors.”

Organization Honors

On graduation day, many student groups, clubs and professional organizations award high performing members in good standing with colorful regalia that sets them apart from other students walking in commencement. For example, many schools have chapters of national honor societies, such as Phi Kappa Phi and the international Golden Key Honour Society. In addition, fraternities and sororities have honor societies. Being affiliated with an honor society looks good on a resume and may help you network when looking for a job.

About the Author

Dr. Mary Dowd is a dean of students who holds a doctorate in educational leadership from Minnesota State University. Dr. Dowd has also led many administrative offices such as affirmative action, women’s center and student conduct. She enjoys teaching, writing and advising students on how to succeed in college. Dr. Dowd's literary accomplishments include published research, training materials and hundreds of practical online articles. Her writing reflects years of professional and personal life experience. As a parent of two adult children with master's degrees, Dr. Dowd authentically understands the many challenges, milestones and decisions that parents and their college age students face from admission to graduation.