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Why should I consider honors programs in college?

A couple schools I've applied to have extended an invitation to apply to their honors programs, but why should I? How does it help me in life?

college honors question why engineering

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Steve’s Answer

Best of the Village

If you'll forgive the pun, it's an honor to be nominated. As for value, there are two benefits: 1) You'll be exposed to smart people like yourself and 2) it looks good on a resume.


It's a shame but many classrooms are filled with people who aren't very inquisitive or are just taking the class because it's required for their major. An honors program may introduce you to people who are more interesting and more interested in their course work. Throughout your college experience, think about networking. The more people you know, the more you can access them for ideas, references, and job opportunities. As for your resume, it shows that you not only attended the school but went beyond the basics to participate more fully than other students.


FWIW, Every single job I've gotten (except my first) came through my personal network, not from college placement or sending resumes or applying online.

Steve recommends the following next steps:

It never hurts to do a pros and cons list (or a Franklin "T"): How will the honors program cause you pain (time? money?) and where will it bring you gain (networking, deeper engagement with peers beyond the classroom).
Ask the program for a reference. Who else has been in this program? How would they describe the program's benefits?
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Peter’s Answer

Luke:


I am now retired and attended college, earning my graduate degree in civil engineering a long time ago. Although I attended two top-tier universities, I never encountered a college "Honors Program", so I do not know exactly what this is. It certainly sounds as if this program would lead to a more rigorous and challenging path in college. It may be that, as a result, you get considerably greater exposure to college professors. Perhaps there will be an opportunity to join in a research project. Check out the honors program carefully. If this is the case, it is definitely worth going into the Program. Your college experience and value will be greatly enhanced and any research project will be an outstanding addition to your resume after you graduate.

Peter recommends the following next steps:

See above.
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Matthew L.’s Answer

Great question, Luke.


I would agree with what the others have said and add this.


Being invited to join the honors college (HC) is great opportunity that is usually reserved for exceptional students. Typically HC invitees have scored highly on standardized admissions tests (ACT, SAT) or have very good high school GPAs or both. Accepting the invitation is a great opportunity but there are plenty of things to consider before you sign on the dotted line, both positive and some that may seem negative. 


In my own case, I was invited to join the honors college at a large university in Michigan. It was mostly based on my high ACT score because my grades in high school were just so-so. Unfortunately, I was not really ready for it. I was too immature to understand the amazing experience I had blundered into. The honors college classes I took were very interesting, the professors were the best of the best, and the other honors college students were really smart and really unique. But, in spite of all that, I didn't apply myself, got bad grades, and eventually they kicked me out. And I should have been kicked out, because I had taken the spot of another student who was ready for that amazing experience.


So here is what I wish I had known then: 


The Good

  • You have the chance to take unique courses and seminars that are only available to honors students. This is the best part. I loved the special stuff we got to do. Within the first 2 weeks of college as part of a political science seminar I had already met a sitting congressman (in a small room with just 10 other people), a famous writer, and the manager of a major city (again, in a small intimate setting). 
  • You get access to an enriched academic environment that provides high-achieving students like you with the intellectual and social support to reach their full potential, both professionally and personally. You will be stimulated. You will be amazed by what you can learn and what the world has to offer.
  • Most honors programs strive to be very interdisciplinary. In other words, they intentionally try to expose you to many different areas of study not available to non-HC students. If you have other interests outside your major, you get the chance to explore those passions, while other students usually don't or they have to work a lot harder to find them.
  • Usually you have a very small class size. In some of the regular classes I had (like Psych 101 and Geology 101) the classes were held in huge lecture halls with over 100 people in each class. In most HC courses, you might have 10 or 12 people in the class. Sometimes even less. You get lots of one-on-one time with the profs and they all know your name. We used to have class at a restaurant or at the prof's house over dinner. Some of the best discussions and debates I had were in college in these small classes. 
  • You likely will be assigned a great mentor (or mentors) in your major area. You'll get special attention and special career advice that regular students don't get. Ask a recent college grad how much help the guidance or placement offices were to them during school and you'll probably learn service level was somewhere between the DMV and the worst restaurant you've ever been too. Not impressive.
  • Many honors colleges offer special housing. HC students often live together in a special dorm or residence hall. You make really good friends and it's easier to study, because the other HC students usually have pretty good study habits or they wouldn't be there. If you're not a good studier, you can learn a lot from your fellow HC members who are. I lived in the regular dorm and it was a zoo. Luckily, we also had an honors lounge which was like a big, plush living room with couches, huge pillows and beanbag chairs (do they still have those?) where we could hang out, drink coffee, study or take a nap. And it was just for us. 
  • You get access to special trips and off-campus events that other students don't have.  
  • Your classes are taught by the best, most in-demand professors. Let's face it, they love teaching the smart kids and really get into it. These are the profs who really love to teach. No bored grad students, amateur adjunct professors, or old guys about to retire (like in my psych glass). And you get to know the profs very well, which is great for things like recommendations and introductions later.  
  • Most honors colleges make up less than 10% of the school student body, so it's very prestigious. You'll probably meet the dean at a special dinner event that only you guys get to go to.
  • One of the best perks is that you get access to special study opportunities, like study abroad, internships, research opportunities with top professors, and writing opportunities. You get first crack at these opportunities and are not fighting for a few spots with everyone else. <span style="color: rgb(68, 68, 68);"> It's not uncommon for honors college members to get plumb research assistant jobs as freshman, which is highly unusual. </span>
  • Some programs offer special, early access to graduate schools (medical school, law school, business school) in fields that are highly competitive. 
  • You receive an honors degree and special recognition at graduation. This looks great on a resume and gives you a significant edge over other students after graduation when you are competing for grad school spots, jobs and other opportunities. 
  • Many honors colleges offer scholarships. Some offer a full scholarship for all 4 years if you maintain your grades. 
  • Going to an honors college at a public university is like going to an elite, small private college or an Ivy League school, but at a much lower cost. You get a private college education at a public university cost. Smart.
  • To get into an honors college you don't need a perfect 4.0 GPA and perfect ACT like do for an Ivy League school. You have a much better chance to get into an honors college than an Ivy League school. You often also have a chance to get into the HC (or be invited) sophomore year if you do great during freshman year. 
  • You get great networking opportunities. Most schools keep track of their honors college grads and help you tap this network when looking for jobs, research spots, internships and other opportunities. Plus your fellow students are pretty sharp and will likely go far in life. You can tap that network too. 
  • You get a much better and more well-rounded educational experience. You also get the best profs and are surrounded by the best, most interesting students who will challenge you and argue with you and support you and show you what you are really capable of in a very supportive environment. You will be forced to formulate your own ideas, think really hard about things, and logically defend your positions.
  • You will probably have lots of cool study abroad and other travel opportunities during the school year or summer with special grants and scholarships to pay for them.

But let's be real. It's not all rainbows and unicorns. There are some challenging aspects, too.


The Less Good Parts

  • The classes are challenging. You're running with a smart crowd and will have demanding profs. But this is good for you. The honors college understands this and supports you with tutors and help if you're struggling. You don't get this as a regular student. Everyone wants to help you succeed. You can absolutely do it. That's why they have picked you for the program.
  • Your professors will challenge you. You won't be able to hide in a giant lecture hall. When you have not done the assignment the prof will know and so will the other 7 people in the room. But it helps keep you motivated in a way that a giant class never can.
  • You may have an extra project to complete at the end of college like a thesis or other writing/research project. It comes at the end when you don't want it and may just want to be done with school, but, here again, it looks great on a resume and is a REALLY GREAT writing sample to submit to grad schools and potential employers. It is well worth the extra work. 
  • Some people may be jealous (my friends were until they kicked me out). People will wonder how you got in, who you know, who your parents know. They'll ask about that restricted study lounge where you get to go. When you get that great internship or research position they will be jealous and say snotty things. They may call you a nerd. These people are probably not your true friends. And nerds are the ones running the world anyway. It's all so worth it.  
  • Not all your classes will be honors college courses. You'll still be stuck in some big classes and you'll have to adjust to being one of the herd. However, at some schools you may have what is called an "Honors Contract" (they may have some other name for it). An Honors Contract may allow you to "upgrade" a regular class to an honors class for honors credit by doing some extra work or research (usually not a lot). It makes the class more interesting and you'll get the attention of the prof.

Some Myths you may Hear: 

  • Myth: You have to do a bunch of extra work in the honors college. Fact: Your classes will be challenging but you don't get stuck with a bunch of extra classes or extra work on top of your regular course load. You may have to write an honors thesis during your senior year, but it's well worth the effort and you can usually do it on a topic you choose and really enjoy. What's better than that?
  • Myth: Honors colleges cost more. Fact: You may receive a scholarship , and sometimes even a full scholarship (HINT: they really really want you). Otherwise, tuition, books, room and board, etc., is the same as for other students. Oftentimes any study abroad and travel opportunities come with scholarships or grants so you don't have to pay anything extra.
  • Myth: Honors colleges are impossible to get into. Fact: You have a much better chance to get into an honors college than you have of getting into an Ivy League or top ten school and they usually cost at lot less. 
  • Myth: I'll miss out on the other great experiences in college. Fact: Honors colleges work very hard to give you the standard college experience plus a lot more. You'll have non-honors college friends and the chance to go to all the football games and parties and pep rallies you want. You can join a sorority (well, girls can), play sports, act in a play, and write for the school paper if you want. It's the regular college experience but on steroids. 

Whatever you decide about honors college, do it for the right reasons. Don't reject it out of fear that you are not smart enough or that it will be too much extra work. And don't do it just because it looks good on a resume. Do it because you really want to and feel that you will get something special out of it. If you're just doing it to check a box, you're probably taking the spot from someone else who really would love the experience. 


And above all, do your due diligence. Investigate each college that has given you an honors college invitation. Learn all you can. Visit the schools. Meet the people running the honors program and the profs who will be teaching you. Talk to current and former students. Find the program and school that fits you best.


I made a terrible mistake by not taking the amazing honors college opportunity I had seriously enough, and I still regret the poor choices I made. Joining an honors college program will give you a better college experience, with better classes, better opportunities, better support, a better network and better career choices for the rest of your life. It is a great gift. Your job in college is to find what you love to do and every honors college out there wants to help you do just that.

Matthew L. recommends the following next steps:

Pick the program that is the best fit for you, your interests, and your goals. Don't worry if you don't know what your future goals are yet. That's what college is for. But go with what you like. Rely on your gut. It's rarely wrong.
Visit the schools and talk to the program directors, profs and current honors college students.
Do your due diligence on each program and school. Thoroughly research all your options. Find out what is good and what is bad about each school's program. Make a spreadsheet with the criteria you will use to decide.
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