Get honors programs on your student’s radar

By Wendy Worrall Redal

Is your student a high academic achiever, self-motivated, and inspired by rigorous thought and debate among like-minded peers? Then encourage her to consider college honors programs.

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Honors programs — and honors colleges within larger universities — provide accomplished students the opportunity to work closely with professors in an intimate and demanding academic setting. While individual programs vary, they share defining features:

  • Small seminar-style courses (typically one per semester) where students engage in advanced critical thinking and analysis.
  • Honors classes which require higher-level writing and communication skills than standard courses, with more in-depth papers.
  • Opportunities to pursue independent or team-based research or creative work, with an individual capstone project or thesis at the end of the program.
QuoteTo hear from actual honors students about their experiences, visit the National Collegiate Honors Council website.

Honors programs began to pop up after World War II when demand for higher education surged. Elite private colleges could not accommodate all qualified applicants, nor could all students afford them. State universities and less-selective private schools responded with richer study opportunities to attract talented students, in the form of honors programs.

Today, these programs can be an attractive alternative for a bright student seeking academic rigor without the steep price tag of a top liberal arts college or major research university. Most honors students take at least one-quarter of their classes in the program. At a large state university, an honors program can provide the equivalent of a small private college education for a much lower cost, and the intellectual challenge keeps high-achieving students motivated.

Additional features and benefits of many honors programs:

  1. Honors students may have access to priority registration, highly personalized advising, expanded study abroad options, and exclusive scholarship opportunities.
  2. Freshmen enjoy small classes with top professors from the outset.
  3. Classes are smaller than regular courses — generally 12 to 20 students — encouraging meaningful engagement and discussion with professors and fellow students.
  4. Honors students may live together in a dedicated residence hall, enhancing the motivation provided by a community of scholars.
  5. Honors coursework often emphasizes leadership skills, personal engagement with social problems, and community involvement.
  6. Students may have the chance to attend honors conferences to share their research.
  7. Honors students often have opportunities to teach or mentor other students and may be more competitively positioned for internships, graduate school, and professional programs.
  8. Students in some honors colleges, such as those at Oregon State University and Virginia Tech, graduate with an Honors Baccalaureate degree, the institutions’ most prestigious undergraduate achievement.
story-icon-bar-convo-3Read Frank Bruni’s New York Times article “A Prudent College Path” here.

If all this appeals to your student, she should research the admissions requirements for the schools she is interested in. Many automatically consider all applicants for honors status (for example, it may be offered to the top 10% of admitted students); at others, students must apply separately. Be aware that honors program deadlines may differ from a school’s regular admission deadline.

Some or all of the following criteria will be considered for entrance:

  • High GPA
  • Strong test scores
  • Demanding high school curriculum
  • Top 5 or 10% of graduating class
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Well-written essay

Making a positive impact on society is certainly not limited to honors students — but such programs tend to be geared specifically toward that goal, as with Northern Arizona University’s mission to produce graduates who are “learners, leaders, citizens, and catalysts.” If your student would flourish in such a setting, encourage her to pursue the rich resources an honors program can provide.

A few more things to know about honors programs… If your student is accepted into an honors program but decides to defer college to take a gap year, the honors status can usually be deferred as well. Space in honors residential programs is often limited so honors-accepted students who want this option should make their deposit ASAP in order to proceed with a housing application. Students must maintain a certain GPA to remain in the honors program. Transfer students are usually eligible for honors programs but must demonstrate a qualifying GPA from their previous institution plus meet with an academic advisor on the new campus before proceeding. At many schools, students who did not enter the honors program as freshmen can be considered as sophomores (or older) if they have compiled an “honors-qualified” GPA.

Did you enjoy reading this article? Sign up for UniversityParent’s new High School Parent eNews and purchase the Guide to Supporting Your Student’s Freshman Year for a preview of what’s ahead. You can also add to the discussion and get feedback from fellow High School parents by joining our High School Parent Facebook group.

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