Magna Cum Softly

I will have to register my gripes with the summa cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude ranking systems. The way they are used in many undergraduate programs in the United States, they are rather unfair, and place more emphasis on finagling course selection than any actual academic achievement.

For example, at the University of Maryland, these awards are given out across the board to people who meet certain GPA thresholds. The problem is that many of the more rigorous majors, especially the scientific ones, pretty much rule out any contention. For example, one of my friends is a physics major, and there was a course he had to take as part of his major. There were twelve students in the class. My friend got the highest overall grade, yet even he was given a B; nobody in class received an A. Combine that with another class with a strict instructor and my friend is ruled out of the highest honors by sheer virtue of having tough classes and strict professors.

Meanwhile, an English major can cruise along getting all As with less effort and academic diligence than it takes to get mostly As in a hard science major. The grading expectations are completely different. As a result, if you look at Maryland’s list of cum laude awards each year, they’re heavily biased against science majors and in favor of humanities majors. The only fix I can think of is to get rid of the GPA requirement and just assign a set amount of the honors to the top-scoring people in all majors.

Never mind that there’s the issue of course selection. If you have an open major with few courses that are required, and those that do have required courses have many different potential professors per class, then you can optimize your schedule for As by looking at grades from previous semesters and taking the courses with the most lenient professors that are most likely to assign good grades. I will admit to having done this slightly, that is, if a course I want to take has multiple professors I ask around and find out which one is a better professor, but with services like Pick-A-Prof you can really optimize a four-year schedule to be with only the most lenient of teachers.

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