Seven Secrets of the College “Honors Experience”

There are about 40 four-year colleges and universities in Los Angeles County alone. Yet each fall when I work with college-bound kids, one of the biggest challenges is convincing them to apply outside of their comfort zones. How comfy are those zones? They usually include only two college choices! In Los Angeles, it’s often just “USC or UCLA” or “Northridge or Long Beach” or whatever combination of schools my students have visited or at least heard of. Across the U.S., this “same-two-schools” application fixation translates into “NYU or Columbia,” “Kent State or Akron,” “Virginia State or UVA,” etc.

Talk to big achievers and that comfort zone sometimes expands to maybe ten or twelve schools – the “elites,” who last year stunned even us college advisors by edging down into the “lower than 10%” admit rate. Note to self (and to YOU): with Stanford turning away thousands of valedictorians annually and big state schools receiving tens of thousands of apps each year, only applying to a small handful of schools…that EVERYONE ELSE IS APPLYING TO…is not a win-win strategy.

So here’s the big, encouraging number – there are more than 1500 four-year, regionally accredited, residentially based, bachelor-degree granting colleges and universities in this country. And wrapped inside many of those 1500+ “traditional” undergraduate experiences, are dazzling gems known as “honors experiences,” where a small, selective group of students gets to work with distinguished faculty in a specialized environment and enjoy all of the top resources of that college. Thanks to the hundreds of honors experiences across the country, even the most competitive student now can cast a net across dozens of appealing schools and still land an outstanding undergraduate education.

Honors experiences come in a variety of fantastic formats. First up are honors colleges. Remember that universities are collections of colleges (e.g., College of Engineering, College of Liberal Arts, etc.). At many schools, there is a distinct honors college with its own admissions and financial aid process, curriculum, and more. Next up are honors programs (sometimes referred to as “scholars” programs), which can be a series of specialized courses, sections or a major track that is part of the many academic offerings at a college. Finally, honors semesters are more focused experiences, often associated with internships and/or travel. Colleges may also have their own mix-and-match versions of an honors experience, as well.

If you are an academically motivated student who enjoys stretching your mind and spirit, here are seven not-so-top secret reasons why at least one school with an honors experience belongs on your college wish list.

  1. The ultimate academic experience. The honors experience on any campus usually offers close contact with their most prestigious faculty members, the most challenging courses, and the cream of the student crop.
  2. Dedicated facilities. Many honors colleges have their own residential housing for students. At a minimum, honors programs generally offer special lounges, private computer labs or other exclusive facilities for their honors students.
  3. Same price, best education. When you are accepted into an honors experience, you generally pay the same tuition, fees and residential bills as all of the other students on campus – but you get an “upgraded seat.” Some programs and colleges do charge additional fees for the extra resources you can access, but they often have special scholarships to help pay for those.
  4. The best of both worlds. Love the idea of a big state school experience? Even on the largest campus, an honors experience gives you many of the benefits of a smaller, private college. So you can paint yourself blue for Big Game over the weekend, and debate the allegory of the cave on Monday – it’s the same campus with two wonderfully different experiences.
  5. An expectation of self-actualization. Unlike some high school honors classes, college honors experiences aren’t about doubling your workload, they’re about radically expanding your world view. You can look forward to leadership grooming, service learning, specialized internships, field trips, personal advisors, recreational events, advanced undergraduate research, trips abroad and more.
  6. The honors pipeline. Honors experiences earn well-deserved bragging rights from how successful their students are. That means as an honors student, you might benefit from special mentorships, assistance garnering fellowships, personalized career counseling, introductions to important career contacts and even early grad school admissions!
  7. A new comfort zone. Ironically, even as they sometimes shelter you inside a small group of similar achievers, honors experiences cannot help but dramatically expand your exposure to, understanding of and embrace of a far vaster world than you will have experienced previously. So perhaps you will consider at least three different grad schools.

So…are you ready to find the honors experiences that are right for you? We make it easy on The CLIC Network! Just search for honors offerings, visit their CLIC College pages and click on “Honors Link” to jump directly to their dedicated sites. You don’t need a 4.0 GPA to apply! A 3.0 and up is a good start; check specifics on the colleges’ official Web sites.

One last tip and one clarification. First, the clarification: just because you participate in an honors experience on a campus does not automatically mean you will graduate “with honors.” Be sure to talk to your department advisor to learn the academic and thesis writing requirements for that distinction at any school you attend. Now for the tip: honors colleges often have separate applications and separate application deadlines and fees. As you are compiling your school list, count these as separate schools because in many ways, they are.

But if you can apply to the general institution and their honors program with the same application – consider that a terrific “two-fer” that is going to change your life either way.

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As always, share your own recommendations and experiences below!

DMA is the CEO of The CLIC, the revolutionary new site where students can powerfully plan for college and institutions can effortlessly recruit students from a single home page in our FREE interactive network. CLIC students can connect to college matches, scholarship searches, college access programs and the nation’s first master calendar of all college-related deadlines and events, with streaming video tips and much more, at