As you start filling out the 2016-17 Common Application, you will have to consider your honors and awards from the past four years of high school. Additionally, you will have to decide which honors to list under the Honors section and which to delegate to the extracurricular activities section. Keep reading for tips of smoothly navigating the Honors section!

What Counts?

An honor on the Common App is technically any award, achievement, or distinction you received throughout your four years of high school. This can range from a school award to an international award. Basically, if you were recognized in a special, official way for your accomplishments, conduct, performance in an event, etc., you can list that as an honor on your application.

Types of Honors

There are different types of honors, based on the pool from which you were selected to be honored. In general, international honors are given more weight in college admissions, then national, then regional and state, then school. To put it differently, the bigger the pool of applicants, the more impressive your honor usually is.

So, what are the types of honors?

International: An international honor refers to any honor received wherein the competitive pool spans more than one country.

National: A national honor refers to any honor received where everyone, or nearly everyone, in the nation was eligible to compete. (If an award is open only to women, for example, but it is open to all women in the nation, this would be considered national, even though it is not technically open to every single student in the nation.)

State and Regional: A state or regional honor refers to any honor you received out of a competitive pool of anything larger than “school” and smaller than “national.” Usually, it will be clear by who gives the award (a committee appointed by the state, a regional alliance of artists, etc.).

School: A school honor refers to any honor you received out of a competitive pool of only students in your high school. This is an award that only a student in your school could have received. In other words, you did not have to compete against anyone except for fellow students at your high school.

How to Order Honors and Awards

It is important to pay attention to the order in which you are listing your honors and awards on your application. The first thing an admissions officer reads will stick in their mind most, so you want to put your best foot forward first.

You should list your honors in descending order of prestige, or impressiveness – meaning, list your best awards first. The best awards are the highly competitive or international awards. Then, list national awards, and then state and regional awards. School awards should go last.

Honors and Awards Section vs. “Honors” on the Extracurriculars List

Often the most confusing part of listing honors is deciding what should be listed as an honor under the Honors section of the Common App and what should be listed as part of the Honors section of the extracurriculars list. There will be a place to list your honors tied to excurricular activities in the extracurriculars section so that you can devote your honors and awards sections entirely to your biggest and most standalone honors. This will help you make clear what kind of applicant you are and what, of your talents, people most recognize. But, separating honors and extracurriculars honors can get tricky. Fortunately, there are some helpful rules to guide you through this.

In general, if an honor or award can be tied directly to an extracurricular activity, then you should write it in the extracurricular list section. For example, if you received a varsity letter in soccer or won first place in a science olympiad competition, you should list those awards along with your description of soccer or the science olympiad team, respectively, in the extracurricular activities section. In contrast, if you received an honor or award that was not tied to an extracurricular activity you do regularly, you should list it in the Honors section. An example of this would be winning a scholarship for an essay that you wrote outside of your extracurricular activities.

This rule can be broken if you find that you do not have enough standalone honors and awards for the Honors section (i.e. less than five). In this situation, you should take one of the honors tied to your extracurricular activities and add it into the Honors section.

The rule can also be broken if you have an extracurricular activity for which you have too many awards to fit into the extracurricular section. For example, if you have won a nationwide saxophone competition, been selected for all state band, played at Carnegie Hall, and more, you may want to move one of your most impressive saxophone honors and put it in the Honors section. This will have the added benefit of spreading out your accomplishments throughout your application and creating a theme. Alternatively, you can list the rest of your awards in the “Additional Info” section. Ultimately, though, your goal is to leave as few “holes” in the application as possible, so be smart about how you allocate your honors.

In general, selective summer camps (such as RSI, Boys / Girls Nation, SSP, TASP, Governor’s School, and PROMYS) can be listed in either the Honors section or the extracurriculars section. If you have a lot to say about the summer program, the extracurricular section is probably a better bet because there is more space to describe the activities. Or, if you do not have many honors in the Honors section, you might list the summer program there. Overall, be thoughtful about spacing your honors so that no section of your application is empty or sparse. As always, strive for balance.

How to Write Descriptions of Your Honors

Once you have figured out what you want to list in the Honors section, you have to write a description for each award so that the admissions officers understand what the award is. In addition to using clear and concise language, you will want to keep two other things in mind when writing descriptions of your honors:

  1. Show Competitiveness: When listing an award, it often helps convey how difficult the competition was to list the size of the pool of students. It is more impressive to say that you were chosen out of eight-hundred students than to let the admissions officer wonder if it was out of fifty or five-hundred students. An example way to phrase it is, “Nordstrom $10K Scholarship Winner – 1 out of 80 Nationwide.”
  2. Show Scope: If your award had a monetary amount associated with it, list how much you won. Or, if winning first place in an art contest got your work displayed in a museum, be sure to write that in, “Gold Award in So-and-So Art Contest (piece featured in MoMA).” By listing what came with the award, you show that the award meant a lot and led to great consequences. This gives the honor more weight.

What If I Have Too Many Honors?

Because you have only five spaces to list honors or awards, you may find yourself with too many honors to list. If you are in this situation, first make sure that you are not counting honors or awards that are associated with extracurricular activities. Remember that these should go in the description part of the extracurricular activities section.

If you have checked your list and you still do have too many awards, put the five most impressive and uncommon ones in this section. That way, you will really stand out on a first glance. Then, list the remaining honors in the “Additional Info” section at the end of the Common App.

Miscellaneous Questions

Is National Honor Society an honor or award?

Not really. It is usually better to list this as an extracurricular activity, unless you have no specific accomplishments to cite for the club and have a shortage of awards on your application. In this situation, you can put it in the Honors section.

On the other hand, if you participated in National Honor Society in a meaningful way (examples might be community service or leadership positions), describe this in your extracurricular activities list (or even the “Additional Info” section) so that you have more space to describe said accomplishments.

Should I List National Merit Semifinalist?

If you have less than five awards or honors in the Honors section, you should definitely include National Merit Semifinalist. While it is more common at top schools, it is still a good way to demonstrate your testing capabilities to colleges. Furthermore, this award can be counted as a national award, which adds an extra boost to your application. The only circumstance where you should not add National Merit Semifinalist to your the Honors section of your application is if you have five other honors or awards that are more impressive or uncommon than National Merit Semifinalist, and it is already obvious that you have good test scores from your actual SAT or ACT. In this case, you can put National Merit Semifinalist in the “Additional Info” section to make room for other awards that will better convey your talents.

In conclusion, while the Honors section can be a little confusing, it can be easily worked through with attention to the details and by following the outlined strategies. Getting into college is the next honor on your list!

(And, if you are not yet applying to college and are trying to figure out what awards to strive for and how to pick extracurriculars, check out CollegeVine blog posts on the subject here and here!)

If you still have questions on honors, describing honors, or want help formatting the “Additional Info” section, fill out our free consultation form below and one of our admissions specialists will reach out to you with personalized assistance on your admissions process! [gravityform id=”2″ title=”false” description=”false”]

Julia Mearsheimer

Julia Mearsheimer

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Julia Mearsheimer attends the University of Chicago. She is considering majoring in Philosophy, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, or Political Science, but remains undecided. In addition to writing, she enjoys listening to Nina Simone and baking bread.
Julia Mearsheimer