An Inside Look at College Honors Programs: Pros and Cons


Students from college honors programs in a group holding textbooks

Honors programs are designed to give excellent students additional educational opportunities. These programs are challenging on purpose. They encourage students to push themselves academically and personally. Students in an honors program often form small communities on campus. They may live together in an honors dorm or take special classes together.  

If you are a prospective college student interested in applying to a specific honors program, study the fine print first. The curriculum and requirements of honors programs will vary college to college. In your search, you will find that most honors programs genuinely want to support high achieving students. Up for a challenge? By all means, proceed.

Advantages

Many of the advantages of honors programs are completely educational. Kayla Larkin, a graduate of Pennsylvania State University, says, “Being a part of the Schreyer Honors College was awesome... [It] allowed me to have the perks of attending a large university while also granting me the benefits that come with a smaller school, such as smaller class sizes and more one-on-one attention.”

Colleges may further incentivize their honors programs through special housing, financial aid, and career assistance.

  • Honors classes: Students may be required to enroll in specific honors classes to fulfill requirements. These classes are more intensive than others offered by the school. The curriculum caters to students who wish to be challenged, so get ready for more assignments. The good news is that you may be in classes with the same peers each semester. These classes are typically small so professors can devote more attention to each student’s work.
  • First chance at class registration: While your peers worry about getting into their first-choice classes, your schedule is set. Many programs permit students within the honors society to register for classes before the rest of the student body does.
  • Priority housing: Large universities typically offer special housing for honors students. Some learning communities are designated to specific majors, which is conducive to study groups and making friends with similar interests. Kayla Larkin was placed in a centrally located honors dorm at Penn State. Compared to freshmen in regular housing, she had easy access to campus. Her honors dorm also had perks, including a computer lab and a communal kitchen.
  • Additional financial aid: Many schools encourage honors college enrollment with half- or full-tuition scholarships. Colorado State University, for example, grants honors students a $1,000 scholarship per semester. To qualify, a student must enroll in the honors college from the get-go: fall of freshman year.
  • Academic advisors: Some programs assign honors students to specific guidance counselors. These advisors are familiar with the requirements of the program. They also serve fewer students. If you have a specific honors advisor, you can take the time to get to know him or her personally.
  • The honors degree: Employers are impressed by candidates who hold honors degrees. Completing four years of difficult coursework demonstrates that you work hard, think critically, and don’t shy away from a challenge. This degree will help your future job application stand out against other applicants’.

Challenges

Honors programs aren’t all fun and games. You’ll have to work hard if you intend to stay in good standing. For some students, this proves particularly difficult.

  • GPA requirements: Honors programs often require their students to maintain an above average GPA. It’s possible that one bad semester could mean the revocation of your position in the program or your scholarship money.
  • Extra assignments: Your college may require that honors students complete a certain number of volunteer hours or additional essays. These higher expectations are not for everyone, and you should research each program’s requirements before you make your decision. “You may miss out on opportunities to party or travel with friends who are not in the honors program,” warned Megan Reynolds, a graduate of the Emerson College Honors Program who now works as the executive director here at Student Caffé. “On the flip side, you’ll bond with your peers who are also stuck in the dorm writing their 20-page research papers.”
  • Finding balance: Compared to the average college student, you have a lot on your plate, so you must prioritize well. There will be times when it is necessary to make sacrifices. Maybe you’ll have to drop out of a club or team so that you can focus on maintaining your place in the honors program.
  • Finding your strengths: In a competitive program, you’ll feel discouraged at times. Don’t let it get you down. When looking back on her own experiences, Megan Reynolds relayed a reminder: “Everyone in the program will bring strengths to the table. Find yours, and don’t let your self-esteem take a hit when you don’t stand out every time.”

Your Initial Research

If an honors program seems like a good fit for you, it’s time to start digging into the information provided by each college on your shortlist. Don’t stop your research until you can answer the following questions about each honors program to which you are applying.

  • Are there scholarships or other financial aid resources reserved specifically for honors students? If so, how much is available? What are the requirements to maintain the financial assistance provided?
  • What additional opportunities (e.g., internships and career mentoring) are open to honors students? Are these opportunities that other students do not have?
  • Does the program encourage study abroad trips? Does it dictate which programs and destinations are permitted?
  • Are upper-level courses offered or is the curriculum solely based on lower-level general education courses?
  • Is a high GPA the only requirement to remain in the program?
  • Is there a probation period for students who fail to maintain a certain GPA?
  • Are there academic advisors who are specifically assigned to work with honors students?
  • Do honors students have access to special academic resources and tutors?
  • What is the honors housing situation like?
    • Where is the honors dorm located?
    • Is it close to the academic buildings?
    • How long are honors students required to live in this dorm?
    • Does an honors scholarship cover room and board?
    • What are the benefits of living in honors program housing?
    • Is there a computer lab for honors students?
    • Are there quiet hours?

If you are having trouble answering these questions based on information available on the program’s website, don’t hesitate to speak to an admissions counselor or current student. Focus on getting the information you need to make the most informed decision.

Once you know more about a specific program, ask yourself if it will motivate and challenge you in a healthy way. If the requirements seem too overwhelming for you, think about saying no. Being offered admission to an honors program does not mean you must accept your spot. The choice is yours.


About Katelyn Brush

Katelyn likes learning, good health, traveling, and pizza on Fridays. Her mixed education, composed of SUNY the College at Brockport, a semester at a community college, and one abroad at the University of Oxford, helped her earn a bachelor’s degree in English. College also gave her a few lessons in Taekwondo and sleeping in a hostel dorm with total strangers. She’s a yoga teacher, author and illustrator of the children’s book, “Signing Together: A Guide to American Sign Language for Everyone.” As a Student Caffé writer, she hopes to help you through the highs and lows of college with a laugh ... or 20.

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