There’s a bit of a binary between being an under- and upperclassman at UW; while we spend the two former years knocking out gen ed requirements, major prerequisites, and joining every RSO that piques our interest, we spend the latter more involved with any extracurricular experiences that add to the breadth of our resumes. As UW students typically declare their major at the end of their sophomore or beginning of their junior year, most of them get an exciting opportunity waiting in their inboxes soon after: the flashy title of departmental honors.
Departmental honors, offered by most (but not all) majors, is a special program awarded for selected students that allows them to further their knowledge and involvement in their majors, typically from the start of senior year up until their declared graduation date. Students typically apply for this status changer in the middle of their junior year (hence the timing of this article) and receive an admissions decision soon after, just in time for a series of spring quarter orientations. It’s important to note that departmental honors differ from interdisciplinary honors, a title given to students involved in a more rigorous and structured schedule of gen ed requirements throughout most or all of the course of their undergraduate career. The two programs can be mutually exclusive; a student can choose to pursue one honors program or the other, or perhaps both, if they elect themselves to the challenge.
The requirements for the completion of departmental honors in your major differs slightly, depending on your program of study, but you can primarily expect three major components to satisfy completion: a strict GPA requirement; the enrollment in extra class credits with other honors students; and the completion of some variation of an independent study project, such as a thesis, ad hoc project with a group, and/or presentation at an undergraduate symposium. For more information on what your major’s requirement is for honors enrollment, check out the departmental honors option tool for a look into what extra load you can expect.
You may have a variety of reasons for considering throwing your hand in the honors ring: an extra cord at graduation, a fancy footnote on your transcripts, or perhaps a new mention in your Instagram bio. All of these would be appealing to any motivated UW student, anxious for a bit of extra merit in their future job search to make them a more marketable hire. However, after nearing the end of my bulk of departmental honors work, I’ve thought about what it means to be a truly effective, dedicated, and involved student. If you’re considering completing that application, meticulously preparing every answer to a tee, you should first ask yourself,
Am I so interested in my major that I need more out of it than what I’m getting right now? And even then, am I ready and willing to embark on a journey that requires rewarding, yet sometimes tedious, time-consuming, and banal tasks?
In my specific case, as part of the Public Health-Global Health major, what’s been required of me for my senior year hasn’t been too much of a stressor—for fall quarter, I completed both an ad hoc project in a group of three, centered around an infectious disease topic we collectively decided on, along with a book group discussion meeting once a week. Then, for this winter quarter, I’ve been thrown into another group project, working on creating health communication materials for a Seattle nonprofit that advocates against dangerous usage of alcohol and marijuana for King County adults. Lastly, before my walk with a cap and gown, it’ll be my responsibility to decide on what I’d like to present on, which can be anything related to the scope of public health, at the undergraduate symposium in May, which, thankfully, I have the option of partnering up with a friend I embarked on a study abroad program to Italy with last summer. If you haven’t picked up on the main theme by now, let me sum it up: group work. Lots, lots, and then some more group work. Even when something is an individual task in departmental honors, you’ll be encouraged to consult other students, faculty, and advisors for constant feedback. Truly, nothing you do on your honors track will be alone. Depending on the person you are, you may consider that to be an asset or an annoyance.
The idea behind the entire gold star that honors will give you, at least in my major (and I’m sure in others), is that collaboration with others will educate you into viewing your major with different lenses that you may not be offered through the traditional course work. The application will most likely ask you what you aim to gain from working with others that come from different backgrounds than you, and how you’ll correspond with those contrasting viewpoints to largely achieve the same, or at least similar, outputs. However, my biggest advice to you, before you run that honorary extra mile, is this—the cultivation of a final project can sometimes be slow, and, under the watchful eye of the faculty and advisors there to help you, may sometimes not go exactly the way you originally planned. So, if you have a very specific version for what you’d like to accomplish in an honors stint, without the openness to modify it, the departmental honors track may not be for you. On the flip side, if you’re still unsure and hopeful about what you could possibly learn, open to ideas and to fusing your preliminary thoughts to those of others, you’re probably bound to get more out of the whole experience.
Again, check out this informative departmental honors information page for everything you possibly need to know before you hit the submit button in a few weeks. Remember, do what’s right for you as a person, not your cover letter.