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An Introduction to Honors and Scholars Programs at Top Colleges

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If you’re an academically ambitious high school student, you’re most likely interested in getting admitted to colleges that offer well-regarded academic programs. Not only will these schools offer the opportunity to learn and grow, they’ll also be positive additions to your academic record and look great on your resume.


However, there’s more to getting a top-notch academic experience than which colleges you choose. Honors and scholars programs, which are available within the undergraduate programs of certain colleges and universities, are another option to consider.


These special programs, which are smaller and more selective than the overall student body, can come with a range of benefits, including enhanced advising, small seminar-style classes, independent research opportunities, and access to prestigious faculty members. Some even include perks like guaranteed housing and extended library-loan periods, which can be more advantageous than they might appear at first.


Does the opportunity to study with a small group of like-minded students and access to exceptional academic resources pique your interest? Read on to learn more about honors and scholars programs at some of the country’s best-known colleges.


What is an honors program?

You’re probably familiar with the term “honors” from your time in high school. It’s usually attached to a course or program intended for students whose academic performance is above average, and typically indicates that the course or program has high expectations. Having honors courses or an honors diploma on your record can demonstrate to colleges that you’re able to handle advanced academic material. (For more details, check out our post Should I Take AP/IB/Honors Courses?)


Honors programs at the college level are similarly intended for students who are academically advanced. Getting in is usually a competitive process, which makes your participation in such a program an achievement to be proud of.


College-level honors programs vary a great deal from school to school, but their participants typically get access to some significant benefits, such as exclusive seminars, independent project opportunities, and high-quality advising. Some schools additionally offer honors students special enrichment activities, perks (like designated honors dorms), and possibly access to specific sources of financial aid.


You’ll often find honors programs at flagship state universities, where they can offer a more rigorous academic path at a state-college price. An honors program might even be considered its own “honors college” within the university, in which case it may be separately administered and have its own facilities, student groups, and policies.


Flagship state universities generally have very large student populations, so being chosen for a smaller honors program within the university can make a significant difference in terms of the opportunities and personal attention you’ll encounter there. At smaller schools, the difference may be more subtle, but participating in an honors program can still be of benefit to you.


Frequently, but not always, admission to a college’s honors program is decided based on your first-year application; in these cases, you’ll know whether you’ve been accepted to an honors program before you choose a college. Often, in order to be considered for an honors program, you’ll need to submit additional application materials, such as another essay. 


What is a scholars program?

The term “scholars program” is used in a broad variety of different ways within higher education. In this context, we’ll be discussing undergraduate scholars programs within universities that operate in much the same way as honors programs to provide special educational opportunities for academically advanced students.


Sometimes, scholars programs are smaller or more selective than honors programs. A scholars program would generally not be large enough to represent its own college within a university, for example. Individual scholars programs may also be especially prestigious, making them potentially valuable additions to your resume.


Sometimes, however, the difference between an honors program and a scholars program is minimal. It really depends upon the individual school and program; each one is different, making it extra important that you do detailed research before deciding where to apply.


You should know that the term “scholars program” can cover other programs that don’t fit this description. For instance, if you receive a scholarship that’s named after a particular person or thing, you might be referred to as a “[Program] Scholar.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll receive any additional benefits, resources, or academic opportunities as a result.


Which top schools have honors or scholars programs?

Now that you know what you can get out of an honors or scholars program, you’re likely wondering which schools that are of interest to you offer programs like these.


Here are nine especially well-regarded honors and scholars programs for you to consider:


  1. Boston University: Kilachand Honors College: Students in this honors college within BU are also enrolled in one of the regular BU undergraduate programs and apply by completing additional requirements within BU’s Common Application supplement. The course of study includes unique faculty access and a substantial senior keystone project.
  2. Columbia University: Columbia Undergraduate Scholars Program: All first-year applicants to Columbia are automatically considered for this program, which offers selected students a wide range of activities, academic opportunities, and the inspiration of speakers, leaders, and other professionals.
  3. George Washington University: University Honors Program: This honors program places special emphasis on interdisciplinary studies and seeks “intellectual omnivores” who will take creative advantage of its resources. Prospective first-years can apply using the directions found in GWU’s Common Application supplement.
  4. Rutgers University: Honors College: In this unusual program, selected students from various academic programs at Rutgers share housing and community facilities while pursuing advanced coursework, interdisciplinary seminars, and service projects. Rutgers also offers academic honors programs within each of its undergraduate programs.
  5. University of California, Berkeley: Regents’ and Chancellor’s Scholarship: This scholars program includes financial aid funding as well as mentorship and guaranteed on-campus housing for all four years — something that not all students at UC Berkeley can depend upon. All applicants are considered automatically for this program.
  6. University of California, Los Angeles: College Honors Program: If you’re admitted to UCLA as a first-year, meet academic criteria, and complete an application with essay, you may be considered for this program, which allows access to advanced coursework, research opportunities, and even special library privileges. UCLA offers several other honors and scholars programs in addition to this one.
  7. University of Michigan: LSA Honors Program: This program within the College of Literature, Arts, and Sciences has a proud history of nearly sixty years providing UM students with small courses, advising, and community among academically advanced students. As its culmination, you’ll complete a senior thesis.
  8. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Honors Carolina: All UNC Chapel Hill applicants are considered for admission to this program, which provides priority access to small seminar-style classes as well as special opportunities to conduct research, study abroad, and network with faculty and alumni.
  9. University of Virginia: Echols Scholars Program: This scholars program is inspired by UVA founder Thomas Jefferson’s intellectual ideals, and offers selected students “unusual academic freedom” and resources so that they can pursue individual academic goals. All first-year UVA applicants are automatically considered for this program.


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My local college has an honors program — why don’t some top schools have one?

As you can see, there are many big-name schools that don’t appear on the list above. In fact, many top colleges don’t have honors or scholars programs of this type.


At the same time, there are plenty of less-known colleges that do have honors or scholars programs. Some college applicants might find this confusing — if a college is academically prestigious, why wouldn’t they have a program to identify and reward high levels of academic achievements?


There are various reasons why a particular college, even one that’s highly focused on academic excellence, might choose not to have an honors program.


Here are a few that might be relevant to the colleges you’re considering:


  • The college feels that all its students are doing honors-quality work. Honors programs set certain students apart as particularly academically promising, but upper-tier schools with very competitive admissions processes already have exceptionally high-achieving student bodies overall. It may not make sense for such a college to attempt to further stratify such a talented group of students.
  • The college is able to extend the perks typical of an honors program to all of its students. As we’ve described above, many honors programs are characterized by access to special opportunities, such as advanced seminars and one-on-one advising. If a college is able to offer these opportunities to all of its students, it may not see a special honors program as being necessary.
  • The college feels that an honors program isn’t in keeping with its intellectual approach or campus culture. Some colleges are more competitive than others, not only in terms of admissions, but also in terms of how current students interact with each other. Others place less value on markers of recognition like membership in an honors program. A particular college might decide that maintaining a separate honors program doesn’t match up with their larger educational goals and atmosphere.
  • The college feels it’s too small to have an effective honors program. A selective honors program at an already-small college could end up being positively tiny. Such a program might not strike the college as being a worthwhile investment.


What should I do if I’m interested in honors programs?

If these programs sound enticing to you, it’s wise to start thinking about their application requirements early.


Here are a few steps you can take while preparing for college application season if you’re potentially interested in attending an honors program:


  • Look into honors programs at colleges that you might not have considered otherwise. Not only are honors programs more selective, they may also be quite different in atmosphere and reputation than the general undergraduate program at the same college.
  • Make sure you meet the qualifications for a particular program. An honors program within a college will almost definitely have higher standards than the college as a whole. Before you apply, research any set requirements the program has for things like GPA and test scores, and also take a look at the performance of the average accepted applicant to see whether you’re a good fit.
  • Find out whether you need to apply directly to the honors program. Some honors programs select students from the general application pool based upon the information submitted in that application. Others require you to specifically apply to that program.
  • Check whether the honors program has additional application requirements. You might need to submit additional essays, recommendations, or other materials to be considered for an honors program. Every program is different, so do your research and budget your time accordingly.
  • Get help with preparing your application. Getting a second (or third) set of eyes on your application is invaluable, and it’s all the more important when you’re applying to a selective honors or scholars program. For suggestions, check out our blog post Whom Should I Ask for Help With My College Essay?
  • Keep in mind that honors programs may have different deadlines from the admissions deadlines. Some honors programs may have earlier deadlines; others won’t allow you to apply until after you gain admission to the college itself. Don’t miss your chance at admission just because you weren’t aware of the due date!


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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.