What is Summa cum Laude and how do you get it (USA)? Is this equivalent to First Class Honors in Australia? What is the equivalent of an Australian University medal in the USA?
The typical Latin honors are "cum laude" ("with honor"), "magna cum laude" ("with great honor"), and "summa cum laude" ("with highest honor"). These are essentially a coarse form of ranking within the graduate class, telling you something about GPA or relative rank.
They are widely but not universally used in the USA, depending on the philosophy of the individual institution: for example, MIT does not use Latin honors or provide any sort of ranking information on its students because it wishes them to be judged individually. As with many other aspects of formal academic organization the US, however, there is no central authority or shared definition, and organizations vary rather wildly in how they actually determine Latin honors, if they even use them. Thus, the only way to know precisely what it really means is to look it up for the individual institution---and even then, they might shift their policies over time.
Bottom line: a Latin honor on a degree means that a student went to an institution that uses Latin honors and they ranked roughly "good", "better", or "best" in their performance there.
Each university can define summa cum laude and magna cum laude as it choses. Honours/honors/medals cannot be considered directly comparable between American and Australian universities. Keep in mind that American universities do not have to adhere to national regulations or standards. They are much more variable than Australian universities and also far more numerous.
There might not be an exact comparison between the Latin honours system in US universities and the letter-grade honours system in Australian universities, but there are effectively three classes of each, so this indicates that there might be a rough correspondence. In most Australian universities, the classes of honours are:
- 1st Class Honours (a High-Distinction average);
- Upper 2nd Class Honours (a Distinction average);
- Lower 2nd Class Honours (a Credit average);
- 3rd Class Honours (a Pass average). *
Unless some more reliable information arises (e.g., some data on GPA conversions, etc.), I would suggest the following rough correspondence:
- 1st Class Honours = summa cum laude
- Upper 2nd Class Honours = magna cum laude
- Lower 2nd Class Honours = cum laude
* The case of 3rd Class Honours generally only occurs if a student is selected into an honours year, but then receives only a Pass average in that year. This is usually considered to be similar to not getting honours.