Latin honors generate little commotion

The grade point averages required to receive general academic honors at Commencement this past May remained in line with last year’s cutoffs.

The cutoff for summa cum laude, awarded to the top 5 percent of the graduating class, remained at 3.93. Magna cum laude, conferred to the next 10 percent of the class, also held steady at the GPA of 3.85. There was a slight increase in the required GPA for the cum laude honor, which is given to the next 15 percent of the class. Members of the class of 2009 were required to have a grade point average of 3.77 to receive cum laude, up from 3.75 in 2008.

University regulations established in 1988 require that general Latin honors be awarded only to the top 30 percent of each graduating class, but students agreed that they play a minor role in academic life on campus. Though Abby Sheehan ’09 was “thrilled to receive Latin honors,” she did not know she would be graduating with them until the announcement was made at Commencement.

“As far as I was aware, there was really no sense of competition,” Sheehan said regarding general honors. “I was a bit surprised at how high the cutoff was, but I did not know of anyone who was upset about graduating or not graduating with Latin honors.”

Adam Bildersee ’09 agreed that most seniors were “fairly satisfied with the outcome [of the honors distribution],” but he did notice some anxiety among seniors at the May ceremony. “When people earlier in the alphabet came back with their degrees, others who had yet to walk demanded to know what their GPAs were and if they had received honors,” Bildersee explained.

Still, most students attributed generally calm attitudes toward Latin honors to a non-competitive academic culture at Yale.

“If you working hard to get good grades, it’s because you simply want to do well rather than for an honor at graduation,” said Hayley Born ’10. “Even speaking as a pre-med, this is not a competitive school.”

Wes Phillips ’10 agreed, adding that Yale’s academic prestige helps in preventing a cutthroat atmosphere. “You don’t need to be first in your class to succeed after graduation,” he said.

Some students recognized flaws in using general honors as the sole measure of a student’s success at Yale.

Mason Marshall ’11 found that since some majors require more difficult classes, the honors given by individual academic departments offer a better comparison between students. These honors, officially entitled Distinction in the Major, require grades of A or A- in three-fourths of the department’s courses as well as on the senior project or essay. Marshall maintained that, compared to the general honors, “the departmental honors offer a better indication if someone has been outstanding.”

Born added that in terms of life after Yale, there are more important means to success than receiving honors at Commencement. Research, fellowships and a senior essay all play important roles in getting into graduate school or finding job opportunities, she believes.

At Princeton’s June Commencement, 41.5 percent of the graduating class received honors. Latin honors at Harvard are given through departments to at most 50 percent of the class by university regulations, and 15 percent of Stanford’s seniors graduate “With Distinction.” There are no equivalent graduation honors at MIT.


  • Bob

    It is interesting that 30% of the class had GPAs about 3.77. Not that there’s any grade inflation or anything.

  • Engineer ’08

    MIT students are hardcore. I actually, found it very ironic that I received honors for my engineering degree but no cum laude recognition. Usually it would be the other way around.

  • snark

    Well, #2, given your nice comma fault, I guess we’re not surprised that you’re an engineer…

  • To Bob

    I’m sure most of those 3.77 people are humanities/social science majors. Honestly, the disparity of grades between those subject types and math and science is ridiculous.

  • Agreed

    The comments in the article regarding Yale not having a competitive atmosphere may reflect the grade inflation talked in this thread Why would anyone feel an urge to compete if at least a third are getting, on average all A grades?
    The disparity between science and humanities was particularly evident in Introductory classes when I attended — the science classes used a curve, which meant someone was filling the lower grade slots. By contrast, English classes, for example, were smaller classes with no curve for grading. In my second semester English 125 class most of the students I kew got A grades and no one failed, while the Chem 115 class had C and D students.

  • snarky snark

    Well, #3, in part because of your use of the royal “we,” I would not be surprised if you were a pompous ass.

  • Also to Bob

    The percentages don’t sum. Still 15% with an A/A- is pretty high.