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.

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