What Percent of College Students Graduate With Honors

You’ve worked hard. You didn’t just coast along to earn your degree. You went the extra mile to distinguish yourself from your classmates. It’s graduation day, and you can feel your parents’ eyes watering. They are filled with pride, because they raised a winner.

That’s what makes graduating with honors so special. It’s proof that you are a person who accepts a hard challenge. You aren’t satisfied with being middle of the pack; you want to excel and rise above mediocrity. Or, you just have very restrictive parents. I know that feel.

Graduating with honors is quite the achievement. Graduating from college is challenging. Add the fact that you must be among the best students in your class, and you’ll realize how big of an accomplishment it is.

But how many students actually graduate with honors? What are the requisites to do it? And why should you bother with it? Does it have any benefits in your life beyond academia, or is it just a symbolic achievement?

In this article, we are going to learn how many people graduate with honors, the types of honors, and what you should expect from your graduation.

How Many Students Graduate with Honors?

It’s hard to give an exact percentage because each school has its requisites. The percentage is between 20 and 30%, because that’s the range most schools use to determine if a student deserves the honors.

For example, New York University gives honors to the top 30% of its students. It’s the most common percentage, but some universities have stricter requirements, so the real number is lower. Probably around 25%.

But being at the top of your class is often not enough. Many schools have minimum GPA requirements too, varying from school to school. The system is in place to avoid giving honors to average students who are in a class of underachievers.

For example, the University of Alaska Fairbanks requires students to have a minimum GPA of 3.5 for the cum laude honors, 3.75 for magna cum laude, and 3.9 for summa cum laude.  

Editor’s note: always email a school if you plan to attempt graduating with honors. There might be requisites you missed on the page. It’s always best to ask the people responsible for them.

How to Graduate with Honors

Read the requirements of each school. No two schools are the same, but there are many similarities.

Most colleges ask for a minimum GPA, and for you to be among the top performers of your class. But these are often not enough. Some schools will ask you to complete an honor thesis, others want you to get a certain number of credits in advanced courses.

Check each school’s website to know the exact requisites.

There are 3 grades of honors. The vast majority of schools use their Latin names:

  • Cum laude
  • Magna cum laude
  • Summa cum laude

But some schools use their English counterparts:

  • Honors
  • High honors
  • Highest honors

These are all the academic honors you can get. But there are other types of honors you can get, such as those from student clubs.

Can excellent students not receive honors?

Some people are excellent students but make poor life decisions. They think that their brilliancy lets them get away with behaving like a dunce.

If you are a brilliant student but you misbehave, expect your school to not give you any honors with your graduation.

Naturally, minor demeanors won’t make it happen, but if you do something awful, don’t be surprised if the school decides to not give you honors. Even if you are the best student in your class.

If you are looking forward to graduating with honors, avoid doing anything silly.

Also, a single course where you perform poorly can also block you from getting honors. Some universities require students to pass every course with at least an A- for summa cum laude honors. Even if your finishing GPA would make you eligible for these honors, finishing a course with B+ would block you from getting the highest honors.

Do honors matter outside of academia?

Yes, they do. Somewhat.

Let’s say you are looking for a job, and the employer has to pick between two candidates. If all other things are equal, employers will prefer the candidate with honors.

But don’t think having honors is the only way to get a job. It’s not even the easiest one. Experience and attitude matter much more. The right attitude was necessary to get the honors.

If you don’t want to work extra hard to get the honors, you can easily beat out students who do by getting real world experience in your field of study. Volunteering, internship, or summer jobs are all great way of building up a curriculum vitae that will smash any honors student for finding a job.

Honors really matter only for your first jobs. Once you’ve accrued enough experience, they stop mattering. They are a badge of honor, more so than something you should rely on to prove you will be an excellent employee.

It also depends on the field. If you got summa cum laude honors at law school, you have way welled chances of getting a job at a top firm. The same doesn’t happen in other fields where it’s easier to get real world experience.

Ultimately, it’s all about you. If you want to get honors because you want to prove the world you are a person who overcomes challenges, go for them. If you think it’s the best way to distinguish yourself from other graduates, go for them. If you don’t care about them, you are better off redirecting your efforts towards more useful enterprises, like getting a job in your field of study.

Honors can be an academic trap

This is a classic issue with the public-school system. Students try too hard to please the teachers instead of developing critical thinking skills. The honors system can be a big reason for that. Instead of exploring the field and developing a deep understanding of it, students just parrot books and teachers.

While that’s the best way to get top grades, and therefore honors, it’s not a good idea when your goal is to get the most out of your college time. You’ll get very good at memorizing facts and repeating them.

But what about challenging the status quo, and unveiling new knowledge? That’s hard to do if all you are doing is chasing honors.

Colleges are supposed to be institutions where human knowledge is challenged and expanded upon every day. If students never drift off their lane, that doesn’t happen. Challenging the status quo is how you get science to progress. Never stop questioning the world and asking yourself what if? But, these ambitions can be squashed by believing the honor system is the only thing that matters.

Plus, honors don’t matter that much in the real world, as we showed in the previous section. They are helpful for sure, but compared to the effort required to get them, they aren’t that efficient. You’re better off studying the field in your spare time, and getting a job to deepen your understanding of the subject.

It’s a matter of perspective. If you feel you must get the honors at all costs, then go for them. If you aren’t 100% sure about honors, then you should look into more efficient ways of using your time.

Conclusions

We’ve seen that between 20% and 30% of students graduate with honors. The real number is hard to calculate, because of the differences between each school’s requirements. Plus, not all of eligible students always graduate with honors because of past misdemeanors of poor performance in certain courses.

Graduating with honors is an amazing achievement. It shows a strong work ethic and discipline, two traits that employers value a lot.

But, it’s more of a personal achievement than anything else. It might give you a boost in your job search, but there are other, more incisive factors that will affect it.

Real world experience always trumps theoretical knowledge. Which is why honors will only affect the search for your first job, and maybe the second. But beyond that, honors will just be a pretty title nobody really cares about.

Graduating with honors is something you must want to do for yourself. Don’t rely on external validation. You must want to get honors to prove yourself you can accomplish hard things. Don’t get them just because your parents said so.

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