The Types of Graduation Honors and Distinctions

The Types of Graduation Honors and Distinctions

Melissa W.

In a sea of graduates donned in caps and gowns, only a few truly stand out. You notice the brightly-colored cords, draping stoles, and distinctive medallions, but what do they mean? What did the graduate do to earn those? We’re taking a look at a few of the more widely-known honors and the meaning behind them.

Honor Society Membership

One of the most popular distinctions seen in a commencement ceremony falls with honor societies. Depending on the school/university, students who maintained and ended their degree with a high GPA (usually a 3.0 or higher) get recognized for their accomplishments with the opportunity to wear an honor cord. There are about 100 different color combinations of cords and each hold their own special meaning depending on school, GPA rank, field of study, etc.

Overall Class Rank

While most students with a high enough GPA will be wearing honor cords, the highest-ranked students earn separate titles and don even more hardware. Their accomplishments are often denoted in the commencement program.

  • Summa Cum Laude - meaning “with highest distinction” students must earn a minimum of 3.9 GPA
  • Magna Cum Laude - meaning “with distinction” students must earn a minimum of 3.75 GPA
  • Cum Laude - meaning “with praise” students must earn a minimum of 3.5 GPA
  • Valedictorian - the highest-ranked student in the graduating class
  • Salutatorian - the second highest-ranked student in the graduating class

Fraternity/Sorority/Campus Organization Membership

While not technically an honors distinction, many campus clubs and organizations choose to recognize their graduating members with cords and/or stoles to thank them for their service and participation. Cords will often be worn in the colors representing the organization and stoles often have the Greek letters or the name of the organization printed on it to separate them from traditional honors graduates. These often include the class officers (president, vice president, secretary, etc.)

The next time you attend a graduation ceremony (in-person or virtual!), pay attention to what the graduates are wearing on top of their caps & gowns and see how many distinctions you can count!

Did you graduate with honors? How were you represented? Let us know in the comments!


Photo by Steven Aguilar on Unsplash

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