Generally, a college or university's degree regulations give clear rules on the requirements to be met to obtain specific honors distinctions. These may be a specific grade point average, a requirement that the student submit an "honors thesis" or "honors project" for evaluation, a requirement that a student be part of an honors program, or graduate early, or a combination of the above. It should be noted that each university sets its own standards, and these standards often vary greatly among universities. Thus, comparing Latin honors across universities is often meaningless; the same level of Latin honors attained at different universities may actually indicate very different levels of academic achievement.
These honors are almost always awarded to undergraduates earning their bachelor's, and, with the exception of law school graduates, much more rarely to graduate students taking their master's or doctorate. The honor is typically indicated on the diploma. Latin honors are often conferred upon law school graduates receiving a Juris Doctor or J.D., where they are generally based upon class rank or grade point average.
It is difficult to generalize what percentage of top marks correspond to each of the degrees of honors, given that the percentages or grade point averages required for each rank can differ from university to university. Degrees summa cum laude used to be quite rare — often reserved for the top one percent of students at the most — and degrees magna cum laude only slightly less so. This situation has changed somewhat and there has been a trend towards less selectivity in assigning honors degrees. Still, a rough measure of the selectivity of the different honors is the common assumption in the graduate admission policies of British universities that summa cum laude is the equivalent of first class honors, magna cum laude degree translates into an upper range second class degree (a 2:1 in the United Kingdom) while a simple cum laude is the equivalent of a lower range second class degree (a 2:2 in the United Kingdom). A fourth distinction, egregia cum laude, "with outstanding praise", has occasionally appeared: it was created to recognize students who earned the same grade point average required for the summa honor, but did so while pursuing a more rigorous honors curriculum. One of Fordham University's student newspapers translated this as "with hysterical praise", and so the university dropped the distinction and awards such degrees with summa honors, and a notation In cursu honorum, "in the honors course". This latter notation is used by some other schools as well.
A rarely used distinction, maxima cum laude, "with very great praise", is an intermediary honor between the summa and the magna honors. It is sometimes used when the summa honor is reserved only for students with a perfect academic record (4.0 GPA).
A degree awarded without the above honors often includes the notation rite instead, Latin for "duly" (that is, that the degree is "duly earned").
The term honoris causā ("by reason of honor"), on the other hand, is used when a university bestows an honorary degree.
In Italy, the cum laude notation (e lode being the equivalent in Italian) is used as an increasing level of the highest grade for both exams and degrees, in all its levels; sometimes passing an exam cum laude has only an honorific meaning, sometimes it influences the average grade and can be useful for a student to be awarded on his or her degree cum laude.
In Germany, the range of degrees are: rite ("duly" conferred, that is, the requirements are fulfilled), cum laude (with honors), magna cum laude (with great honors), summa cum laude (with highest honors). These degrees are mostly used when a doctorate is conferred, not for diplomas and the newly introduced bachelor and master degrees.
In France, the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris (Paris Institute of Political Studies, or "Sciences Po") attributes a cum laude honor to those graduating in the best 5% of their class and a summa cum laude honor to those graduating in the best 2%. Otherwise, honors are generally given with French expressions: assez bien ("quite good"), bien ("good"), très bien ("very good"), très bien avec félicitations du jury ("very good with praise from the board") for high school graduation (baccalauréat); and honorable, très honorable, très honorable avec félicitations du jury for doctor's degrees.
In the Netherlands, only two classes of honours are used: met genoegen ("with pleasure") and cum laude, typically only to mark exceptional achievement. These are dependent on an absolute minimal grade point average, and an outstanding thesis. Generally, less than 20% receive the "with pleasure" distinction, and "cum laude" is even harder to attain. Requirements vary among universities but, unlike the Anglo-American system, the honour is typically reserved only to the best students in an undergraduate course (somewhat equivalent to summa or magna cum laude in the US, depending on the university). It is also possible to receive a graduate (PhD) degree cum laude, although this honour is even rarer than for master graduates. Typically less than 5% of graduating PhDs can receive this mention, and only if their research results are considered outstanding. Due to the difficulty of determining this, some universities/ fields of study very seldom award doctorates cum laude.
In Switzerland, the degrees rite, cum laude, magna cum laude, insigni cum laude and summa cum laude are used.
The Finnish Matriculation Examinations at the end of high school equivalent lukio uses the grades of improbatur (I, failing; "not accepted"), approbatur (A; "accepted"), lubenter approbatur (B; "willingly accepted"), cum laude approbatur (C; "accepted with praise"), magna cum laude approbatur (M; "accepted with great praise"), eximia cum laude approbatur (E; "accepted with excellent praise") and laudatur (L; "praised"). Finnish universities, when grading Master's theses and Doctoral dissertations, use the same scale with the addition of the grade of non sine laude approbatur (N; "not accepted without praise") between lubenter and cum laude.
The Faculty then prepared regulations for recommending candidates for the Bachelor's degree, either for an ordinary degree or for a degree with distinction; the grades of distinction being summa cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude. The degree summa cum laude is for those who have attained ninety per cent on the general scale, or have received Highest Honors in any department, and carries with it the assignment of an oration on the list of Commencement parts; the degree magna cum laude is for those who have attained eighty per cent on the general scale, or have received Honors in any department, and carries with it the assignment of a dissertation; and the degree cum laude is to be given to those who attain seventy-five per cent on the general scale, and to those who receive Honorable Mention in any study together with sixty-five per cent on the general scale, or seventy per cent on the last three years, or seventy-five per cent on the last two.... [Annual Reports of the President and Treasurer of Harvard College, 1877-78]
Instead of attempting to fix the rank of every individual student by minute divisions on a scale of a hundred as formerly, five grades of scholarship were established and degrees were conferred upon the graduating classes according to their grades. If a student was found to be in the first or lowest grade, he was not considered as a candidate for a degree, though he might receive a certificate stating the facts in regard to his standing; if he appeared in the second grade the degree of A.B. was conferred upon him rite; if in the third, cum laude; if in the fourth, magna cum laude; while if he reached the fifth grade he received the degree summa cum laude. The advantages of this course, as stated to the trustees by the president, are that it properly discriminates between those who, though passing over the same course of study, have done it with great differences of merit and of scholarship, and that it furnishes a healthy incentive to the best work without exciting an excessive spirit of emulation.
The new system of administration, of which the above is a part, is so original and peculiar that it is known as the Amherst System...