Everything You Need to Know About College Honors Programs

Among other factors, the various honors programs offered at your top schools can make or break your decision of where to go to college. The thing is — not many high school seniors know that they should be checking out the amazing honors programs available at nearly every college in the country! Honors programs are designed to reward high-achieving students with advising, financial assistance, and post-grad guidance. Honors Programs operate within a college, enrolling a select number of impressive students until they graduate, usually.

These are typically programs you apply for after you enroll and every school’s range of programs is different — some are diversity-based, some are interdisciplinary, some are targeted towards students interested in graduate studies. Take a look around your top choices’ websites to see if there are any programs which suit your goals. When I applied for a full-ride scholarship at my school, I was rejected. But a student ambassador called me and told me to apply for another, smaller scholarship program for students interested in the arts. Later on, I applied for and was accepted into another honors program designed for students with multidisciplinary interests! I wish I had known all of this when I was applying to schools.

I was lucky enough to chat with my friend, Cierra Martin, the College Assistant for Scholar Programs at Hunter College, for this article! She’ll tell you a bit more about the specific experiences you could have at an honors program from an inside perspective!

1.  Money

Everyone wants a bit of cash when they apply to college. Whether or not you’re offered a scholarship package upon acceptance, that there will always be more opportunities to receive money, funding, and stipends once you’re enrolled. The range of financial packages is vast and varied — some offer tuition waivers, others a stipend, some offer reduced-cost, free, or priority dorming, some offer grad school application waivers, and sometimes programs offer allowances for textbooks, technologies, and transportation. Other opportunities for work remuneration include research allowances if you’re interested in field work, study abroad funding if you’re interested in taking an international semester, sliding-scale scholarship packages based on your SAT scores, test scores, GPA, and application strength, and more. Funding via honors programs is totally different from acceptance scholarships because it’s more specialized; it’s meant to be used for things that matter to you, your ambitions, and your studies. The money is out there — you just have to know where to apply.

“Some honors programs, like the Scholar Programs at Hunter College, will award incoming freshman different scholarship packages based on their high school SAT scores and GPAs. Not all college honors programs are aimed towards incoming freshman though, so that’s something important to look up before you finish applying to schools,” says Cierra Martin, a junior at Hunter College.

2. Advisors

Almost all prestigious honors programs will pair you up with a department or program advisor. While this may not be as enticing as a hefty financial package, the support of an experienced academic advisor who is wholly committed to you and your goals is priceless. All colleges have advisors available to help their students graduate on time, find interesting internship or job opportunities, pick the right classes, and get help when needed, but honors advisors have more time to invest in you, specifically. These professionals can offer you wisdom and direction, they can introduce you to the right people, they can write your recommendation letters, they can be a shoulder to cry on when you fail your first midterm (speaking from experience.) This will be an advantage that the average student will not have. Your advisors will offer you jobs and introduce you to some of your most valuable professional connections. Your advisors will always believe in you.

“Some honors programs may ask you to mentor younger members when you’re a junior or senior. Having an older student mentor really gives younger honors students a chance to communicate openly and honestly with a peer who can give candid advice. This is a really great resource for incoming honors students, as well as awesome work experience for older students, especially those interested in social work, education, or advising," Cierra says.

3. Jobs & Opportunities

Did your ears perk up when we said that your academic advisors will offer you jobs? It’s not a guarantee, obviously, but the odds are definitely in your favor when you’re working closely with a program that has the right networks and knows your skills, interests, and ambitions. Honors programs are all about opportunity and putting you in the best possible position to be offered those opportunities. These programs want you to succeed! Invites to conferences, e-meets with notable professors, and even job openings are constantly sent out to members of any academic honors program. Other times, you’ll be invited to meet with your program cohorts for fun events, fundraisers, and parties! These are also great places to network, gain some field experience, and make friends! You’ll find yourself with tons of possibilities at your feet thanks to a team of academics and peers that just wants you to find success.

Amanda Goecke, a senior at Carthage College, is a member of Lambda Pi Eta, the communications honors society. "We don’t meet very often but when we do, we’ve organized events such as fundraisers to donate money to causes that connect with our society (i.e. public libraries),” she says.

Similarly, Lizzy Balboa, a recent graduate of Grand Valley State University, says that "the greatest perk of honors programs, I’d say, is the opportunity to build community with students as serious about their academics as you are. I met all of my closest friends and roommates through honors classes and honors housing, and they provided constant intellectual stimulation, challenged me to stay focused, and encouraged me to spend my time doing meaningful extra-curricular activities."

4. Grad school help

Even though you’re still in high school, if you’re already thinking about graduate studies then you should definitely look through your top schools’ honors programs. So many undergraduate schools have scholarships, fellowships, and honors programs just for students hoping to earn their masters or doctorate after they graduate. If this sounds like a goal you have in mind, then consider attending a school that has resources and support available for students with graduate studies in mind. These resources include application fee waivers, letters of recommendation, e-meets with graduate professors, guest access to graduate lectures… The list goes on! Getting into a great school for your undergraduate degree is important, but if you’re looking ahead — like, way ahead — then checking out the opportunities waiting for you after you enroll is just putting you one more step in the right direction.

5. Career-building

Even if you're not considering pursuing a graduate degree, an honors program is a great place to explore your post-undergrad options! Especially if you're enrolled in an honors program catered to a specific field of study, there will be plenty of opportunities to participate in career-building alongside your peers. These are great chances to determine whether or not a certain career, major, or discipline is a good fit for you! Allison Easton, a member of the engineering honors program at the University of Michigan, says that her favorite part of being in her cohort is "getting to know other engineers and seeing what all these amazing people are doing. It gives me ideas for what I might want to do after college."

6. Our advice

Getting into and keeping up with honors programs is not always easy. They are academically demanding and often time-consuming. Excelling in high school is hard enough, so congrats to you for putting in such an awesome effort so far! But take time to prepare yourself for the spike in difficulty if you're considering applying for honors. The last thing you want is to be overwhelmed while you're trying to get ahead. 

Lizzy has some great advice on this: "The coursework is naturally rigorous, and the professors demand relatively high levels of critical thinking and communication. I’d bet most honors students, even those anticipating a challenge, come in expecting to breeze through the classes like they did in high school, but many are startled by the caliber of competition. They graduated at the top of their high school classes and aren’t used to rivalry from other people similarly skilled. My advice, then, is to enter the program with humility, and focus more on doing your personal best rather than on outperforming other high-caliber students. Prioritize learning the material over competing for the highest GPA."

Take a minute to look through the undergraduate scholarships, fellowships, and honors programs on your top schools’ websites. Get familiar with the kinds of opportunities that may be waiting for you once you enroll. Know your strengths, know your goals, and know your interests— there will absolutely be a program that fits your needs, even if you have to wait to apply. Getting in is important, but what may be waiting for you later on is just as exciting.