Honors Programs- What Questions to Ask

Updated: Dec 9, 2020


Choosing An Honors Program: Twenty Questions To Ask

Inside Honors 2020-2021: Ratings and Review of 40 Public University Honors Programs

John Willingham


If two or three public universities are in your target group, carefully research the honors college or program in each of them and do so as early as possible. Some of them will have scholarship and application deadlines that are much earlier than the deadline of the universities of which they are part.


Honors colleges and programs differ greatly in size, quality, curricula, housing, overall philosophy, and financial aid opportunities...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.


First Ten Questions


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

  2. Research actual average admission statistics. 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.

  3. Determine the size of the honors program (mean size in the major public universities is 1,700 - 2,000 but programs may be as small as 140 or as large as 9,000.) There are quality programs of all sizes.

  4. Ask the 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 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 the 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 the 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. Some students do not want the extra challenge; others realize how important it can be for attending graduate or professional school, or even for employment opportunities

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

Then Ask


  1. The number of honors sections, by subject, per semester and 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 17 - 22 students or fewer, although in almost every case you will find that there are a few large classes, notably in first-year sciences, business, economics, and political science. Some honors programs have a 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 the time of graduation. Mixed sections may be small or, more often, larger sections that can have more than 100 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 large - sections with both honors and non-honors students, mostly the latter in which honors students do extra work and meet occasionally with the instructor one-on-one. 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 up 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 class size may vary greatly.


Experiential Courses are something of a trend in honors education. Some are service-oriented (think volunteering, community service) and some are related to developing leadership skills or practical knowledge through internships. Experiential courses can be exciting, broadening, and influential. They can also be time-consuming, and some do not offer course credits. It is important to check out this aspect of an honors curriculum and decide you are comfortable with experiential requirements.


  1. Ask about tuition discounts, scholarships, continuing financial aid, including special recruitment of National Merit Scholars

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

  3. Research the types of special honors housing for freshman and upperclassmen, if any, including basic floor plans, on-site laundry, suite or corridor-style rooms, air-conditioning, location of the nearest dining hall, the proximity of major classroom buildings (especially in preferred subjects), and availability of shuttles and other transportation on campus. Many honors educators believe that traditional corridor dorms are better for first-year students because they require more socialization. On the other hand, some students would much prefer suite-style dorms. If there is no special honors housing, it is often a sign that the honors program does not want to foster an elitist atmosphere. The absence of priority registration may be an additional sign.

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

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

  6. 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 some programs that have completion rates as low as 30% and a few with completion rates higher than 80%. This is different from the graduation rate, which, for freshman honors entrants is anywhere from 75% - 99% after six years.

  7. Now, try to assess the quality of the honors program versus the quality of the university as a whole. In some cases, the reputation of the university will be such that the honors program seems less important. But in many cases, the honors program is a significant value-added feature.

  8. VISIT the college if you can and try to question current honors students. Some of the information mentioned above can only from a personal visit or be learned after a student has been accepted.


See CPC's list of 40 ranked Honors College programs.

More questions about Honors Programs? Schedule a no-obligation chat with us.

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