Choosing an Honors Program: Twenty Questions to Ask

We have noticed that many students apply to prominent public universities and then, almost as an afterthought, begin to wonder if the honors program at University A makes that school a better choice than regular admission to the higher-ranked University B.

A far better way to look at honors is to evaluate programs in some depth at the earliest stages of the college application process.  Otherwise, students realize too late that the honors application or scholarship deadlines have already passed, or find themselves searching for anecdotal evidence with little time to spare.

Honors colleges and programs differ greatly in size, quality, curricula, housing, overall philosophy, and financial aid opportunities.  Working through the maze of differences can be a daunting prospect, especially when time is an issue.   When it comes to honors programs, many of the most important questions can be answered only by consideration of those all-important “details.”  Below are twenty steps that should be very useful in helping you make the best decision regardless of whether you want a public or private university honors program:

1. Match basic admission requirements with your test scores, GPA, and essays.

2. Request actual average admission statistics.  These may vary greatly from basic (minimum) requirements.  In general, honors students will have average test scores 6-10% higher than the 25th percentile of accepted students for the university as a whole.  The 25th percentile scores are available from U.S. News and other sources.  If there is a wide gap between the basic and average stats, and your stats are much closer to the basic stats, then you can probably find a better option.  That said, if the admissions requirements are more holistic and less stats-driven, you may be fine.

3. Determine the size of the honors program (mean size in major public universities is ~1,700, but programs may be as small as 140 or as large as 6,000).

4. Ask the fish-to-pond question: Are honors students big fish in a small pond or is the pond full of sizable fish?  The more selective the university as a whole, the bigger all the fish.   Some parents and prospective students might prefer an honors program that stands apart on campus, while others might like a program that is more expansive.  Perhaps if you are not sold on the overall quality of the university, you might choose the former; if you think the university as a whole has a strong student body or you simply prefer a non-elitist atmosphere, then you might like the latter.

5. Assess the quality of the city, surrounding area, and climate.

6. Determine the curriculum requirements as a percentage of graduation requirements. Generally, the number of honors hours should be at least 25% of the total required for graduation.

7. Determine the number of honors sections per semester/quarter.

8. Evaluate the reputation of university in preferred or likely areas of study.

9. Ask whether there are special research opportunities for undergrads and if an honors thesis is required.

10. Ask about staff size, the number of advisers, and availability to students, as well as special freshmen orientation programs.

If the above check out, then:

1.  Ask about the number of honors sections, by discipline, per semester or quarter and try to verify; determine the average enrollment in honors seminars and sections.  The average class size can vary greatly among honors programs, from fewer than 10 students per class to more than 35.  Most seminars and all-honors sections should have around 25 students or fewer, although in almost every case you will find that there are a few large classes, notably in first-year sciences and economics.  Some honors programs have few or no honors courses in certain disciplines.

2.  Ask about the types of honors sections: all-honors seminars; all-honors sections offered by honors or a department; “mixed” sections of honors and non-honors students; and the percentage of honors contract/option/conversion courses per average student at time of graduation.

Mixed sections may be small or, more often, large sections that can have more than 100 total students in 3-4 credit hour courses.  Of these students, maybe 10-20 could be honors students, who then meet for one hour a week (rarely, two hours a week) in separate “discussion” or “recitation” sections.  These sections can be led by tenured professors but are typically led by adjunct faculty or graduate students.  Ask how many sections are mixed, and of these, ask how many of the main section classes are large.

Contract courses are regular–and often larger–sections with both honors and non-honors students, mostly the latter, in which honors students do extra work or have their own discussion sections.  While most programs have some contract courses, they are generally more prevalent in large honors colleges and programs.  There are advantages and disadvantages associated with contract courses.  They can speed graduation, offer more flexibility, expand the influence of honors in the university as a whole, and foster contacts with mentoring faculty. But their quality and size may vary greatly.

3. Ask about tuition discounts, scholarships, continuing financial aid, including special recruitment of national merit scholars.

4. Determine if there is priority registration for honors students and, if so, type of priority registration.

5. Research the types of special honors housing for freshmen and upperclassmen, if any, including basic floor plans, on-site laundry, suite or corridor-style rooms, air-conditioning, location of nearest dining hall, proximity of major classroom buildings (especially in preferred disciplines), and availability of shuttles and other transportation on campus. If there is no special honors housing, it is often a sign that the honors program does not want to foster the big fish in a small pond atmosphere.  The absence of priority registration may be an additional sign.

6. Research the study-abroad opportunities; some universities have a separate division for study-abroad programs.

7. Ask about the presence and involvement of advisers for prestigious scholarships, such as Goldwater, Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, etc., and program success in achieving these awards.

8.  Ask about additional fees for participation in honors and ask about the percentage of honors “completers.”  These are honors students who actually complete all of the honors requirements and graduate with some form of honors.  There are many programs that have completion rates as low as 25% and a few with completion rates higher than 80%.  (This is different from the graduation rate, which, for freshmen honors entrants, is anywhere from 79%–99% after six years.)

9. Now, try to assess the quality of the honors program versus quality of university as a whole.

10. VISIT the college if you have not done so and try to question current honors students.  Some of the information mentioned above can only come from a personal visit or be learned after a student has been accepted.

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