Honors are a great way of distinguishing yourself from other applicants, especially at top-tier schools, where most applicants have high test scores and excellent GPAs. An honor refers to any award or achievement you received at any point during your four years of high school. So even if you aren’t a National Merit Scholar, chances are you’ve received some kind of recognition worth mentioning.

The Honors section appears in Education in the Common App. First, it will ask you how many honors you wish to list. Because you are limited to five, you may need to choose the ones that are most important to you, or those that best represent your academic achievements. If you need more space to list other honors, include your most impressive and relevant achievements in the Honors space, and use the additional information section to discuss other awards, or consider sending a resume as a supplement to your application. You should aim to fill out all five spaces available, even if you are including fairly common honors, such as Honor Roll.

You are allowed 100 characters to describe each honor. If it is a common award such as National Merit Scholar, you won’t need to elaborate any further on the application, since colleges will be familiar with the distinction. You should designate which type of award you received, though (i.e. Commended Student, Semifinalist, Finalist, or Scholar).

However, if the award is particular to your school, or is something that may not be self-explanatory, you may need to describe it a bit more. For example, if you received an award for your performance in Latin at your high school, you might list it as “Marcus Jones Award—awarded to a Junior for excellence in Latin.” If there is a large pool from which recipients are chosen, mention the number of candidates and indicate the competitiveness. If there is a monetary award tied to the honor, mention the exact figure as well, such as “Smith Library Scholarship for Excellence in Writing—$5,000.” You should also list non-monetary prizes associated with the honor. For example, if you won an award for your artwork that enabled it to be showcased in an exhibit, mention that. Overall, try to be as specific as possible within the space available. Avoid using acronyms unless they are widely known.

Next, you will be asked to designate the grade level in which you received the honor. This is fairly straightforward. If you received a particular award in multiple grades, you can check off as many grades as apply here. If you received an award during the summer, designate the rising grade. For example, if you won a writing competition the summer before your sophomore year, you would check 10th grade.

You will also be asked to designate the level of recognition: School, State/Regional, National, or International. This list is in ascending order of importance, meaning that an international award is considered the highest level of honor, because the domain of students eligible for the award is the largest at this level. If you are unsure of which level of recognition you received, consider the pool of candidates who could have received it. A school award indicates that the students in your high school were eligible; a state or regional award means that people in your state, beyond just your school, could have won; national refers to honors students in your country could have received; and an international award is any honor for which the candidate pool spans more than one country. List your honors in order of descending importance, with the most selective or competitive (such as international awards) at the top, before state/regional and school awards.

Honors and Awards vs. Activities

You may be wondering which awards you should list in the Honors section and which ones you should list in the Activities section, since you are asked to list awards won under those activities as well.  In general, you should list an honor or award in the Activities section if it can be directly tied to a specific activity mentioned. For instance, if you receive a varsity letter for basketball, you should list it under your basketball entry in the Activities section. Similarly, if you place first in a Mathletes competition in which you participate as part of Mathletes club, you should list that under your Mathletes entry in Activities.

However, if you receive an honor that isn’t tied to a particular extracurricular activity, or is associated with a class, this type of award should be included in the Honors section. That includes scholarships and contests that aren’t awarded within the context of an extracurricular activity. For example, if you win a statewide essay contest for a piece you wrote for your English class or on your own, you should list that award here.

Feel free to break this rule if you have trouble filling the five slots in your Honors section. In that case, you can list an award you received through an extracurricular activity as an honor instead.

Similarly, if you have won numerous awards through a particular extracurricular, you may want to highlight a particular achievement, as well as keep to the character limit in the Activities section, by including it in the Honors section. For example, if you won a national saxophone competition and have been selected for All State Band and All State Jazz Band, as well as performed at Carnegie Hall, you may want to include the honor you deem most significant in the Honors section. Of course, you should never make up an honor—that is an ethical violation and could result in a severe penalty.

Summer Programs

Prestigious and highly selective summer programs, such as Research Science Institute, Boys Nation and Girls Nation, Summer Science Program (SSP), Telluride Association Summer Program (TASP), and the Program in Mathematics for Young Scientists (PROMYS), can be included in either the Honors section or Activities section, depending on how many slots you have filled in each. However, if you have a lot to say about your involvement in a particular program, you should probably include it in Activities, where you have more space to describe it.

Ultimately, you want to leave as few holes in your application as possible, as well as present the  most comprehensive picture of yourself. Doing so may require some juggling and shifting of entries. Other than for the grades and testing sections, there are few hard and fast rules about what to include and where it should go, so if you find yourself short of awards but with a surplus of extracurriculars, move some activities around.

Common questions about national honors and awards

Because some national honors are fairly common among high-achieving students, you may not need to highlight these in your application. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t include them at all; you just may want to add them to the additional information section or your resume instead of using one of your five Honors spaces.

National Honor Society

In general, National Honor Society (NHS) should be included in the Activities section, especially if you made a meaningful contribution to the club, no matter if it was in the form of leadership, community service, etc. That way you will be able to describe in further detail how you contributed to the group. If you don’t want to use one of your ten allotted activities spaces for NHS, add it to the additional information section. If you didn’t do much for the club and haven’t used all five of the available spaces in the Honors section, you could also add it there. You should designate it as a school-level award because you the pool from which you are chosen for the club is comprised of students at your high school.

National Merit

If you have fewer than five awards listed in your Honors section, feel free to include a National Merit designation here. Commended Student and Semifinalist should be listed at the state level, while Finalist and Scholar should be listed at the National level. However, if you have five awards that are less common and more impressive than a National Merit award, you may choose to include it in the additional information section or your resume. It will already be clear that you have high test scores from your SAT or ACT.

Other National Honors

Some awards, like AP Scholar, are reported by the institution granting them, such as College Board. Of course, if you have room, you can still list these in the additional information section, and if they are particularly selective or uncommon, in the Honors section. However, if you don’t have enough room, keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need to include them twice. Check with the institution granting the award or your guidance counselor if you are unsure about whether or not a particular award is reported independently.

Still have questions about filling out the Common Application? Our Personal Admissions Specialists are here to help. Click here to find out more about our College Application Guidance Program. 

Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works in publishing. She also writes, dreams of owning a dog, and routinely brags about the health of her orchid.
Laura Berlinsky-Schine

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