For students who are really set on enrolling in a quality honors program, it’s important to learn about some of the best honors colleges before making that big decision. That’s especially true because your honors program will dictate how difficult your classes are...and the perks you get from doing well in them!
We’re here to help you get all the information you need about the top honors programs in the country so you can pick the program that’s right for you. In this article, we’ll do the following:
- Explain what an honors college is
- Provide our research-based ranking of the nine top honors colleges and programs at U.S. colleges and universities
- Give you five tips for applying to top college honors programs
Ready? Let’s dive in!
Feature Image: slgckgc/Flickr
What Is an Honors College?
Honors colleges and honors programs are supplemental and/or alternative learning programs that exceptional undergraduate students can complete while pursuing a traditional bachelor’s degree.
Honors colleges typically function as an independent entity within a larger university system, similar to the college of business or the college of arts and sciences at a big university. Like these colleges within a university system, honors colleges typically come with their own funding, facilities, faculty, course offerings, and perks for their students. In many instances, honors colleges can offer their students more rigorous educational opportunities since they serve fewer students and often have better funding than the bigger colleges within a university system.
College honors programs, on the other hand, are more like an academic track that eligible students can follow to receive a more rigorous education and an honors distinction at graduation. At many universities, these honors programs are managed by individual departments.
To earn an honors degree through an honors program, you often have to take more higher-level courses, complete additional work, and sometimes even defend a thesis or capstone project within your major. And while honors programs aren’t big enough to constitute a college within the university system, honors programs can still offer students the opportunity to take special courses and participate in extracurricular activities that aren’t open to “regular” students.
If honors colleges and honors programs sound similar...that’s because they are! They both give qualifying college students the opportunity to pursue a more challenging educational track and graduate with an honors distinction. Even more importantly, honors colleges and programs provide students with the opportunity to get an elite education at colleges and universities of all kinds.
While honors colleges across the U.S. are pretty similar in terms of their rigor and individualized attention, some honors colleges stand out from the rest. The best honors colleges support and reflect their universities’ mission and identity, create ties to their community, and offer top-tier resources to support their students’ career goals. Enrolling in an honors college can help set you on the path to long-term success.
If you’re still not quite sure what an honors college is—or if you just want to know more about them—go check out our introductory guide to honors colleges in the United States (coming soon).
We considered many different factors, like academic rigor and funding opportunities, when deciding which schools to put on our list.
Our Methodology for Choosing the Best Honors Colleges
Now that you know a little more about honors colleges, it’s time to look at the best honors colleges in the US. Here’s our methodology for our honors college rankings.
To put together our list, we evaluated the national honors college rankings from the past two years. We also evaluated honors colleges based on admissions requirements, curricular and extracurricular program offerings, emphasis on fostering an honors student community, financial aid opportunities, and unique or innovative approaches to the honors educational experience. The colleges that made our list offer rigorous coursework, tailored learning plans, excellent funding opportunities, and unique or out-of-the-box learning experiences.
During our research, we found that there are many different types of honors colleges and programs out there, and every university takes a somewhat unique approach to designing its honors college. And you know what? That’s a great thing! Every high achieving student is different, so our goal is to include an array of honors colleges so you can find your niche.
Now that you know how to navigate our list of the nine best honors colleges, let’s look more closely at our picks for the nine best honors colleges and programs in the U.S.
Barrett College at Arizona State University tops our list of best honors colleges in the United States.
The 9 Best Honors Colleges
Keep reading to learn more about the top honors colleges at nine U.S. colleges and universities! Instead, we’ve divided up our list of the nine best honors colleges into three main categories: the best honors colleges, best honors programs, and best “bang for your buck” honors colleges.
The Best Honors Colleges
Are you interested in going to a stand-alone honors college? If so, you probably want to know which ones are considered the best in the United States. Here are the ones that are at the top of PrepScholar’s list.
Barrett College, Arizona State University
- Location: Tempe, Arizona
Barrett College, the honors college at Arizona State University, is a stand-alone college within the ASU system. Ranked #1 among honors colleges in the United States, Barrett College has a presence on ASU’s four campuses in Phoenix, Mesa, Tempe, and Glendale, Arizona
In the 2016-2017 academic year, Arizona State had an 82.5% acceptance rate, which means it’s an accessible school for many students. Though Barrett College doesn’t publicize its acceptance rate, it does provide other stats that can help prospective students know where they stand as applicants. For example, the average unweighted high school GPA of students admitted into Barret in 2019 was 3.82. In terms of test scores, the average composite score on the SAT was 1360, and the average composite ACT score was 29. If your GPA and test scores are above average, you have a better shot at getting into Barrett.
So, what makes Barrett College unique as an honors college? Despite the large number of students attending Barrett College, honors class sizes are still small, and Barrett boasts a 15 to 1 average student-to-faculty ratio. In addition to offering a required sequence of signature honors courses (the central theme being “The Human Event”), Barrett College provides robust faculty support for students’ individual research and thesis projects, a private writing center for Barrett students, and an array of global internship, study abroad, and real-world service opportunities. Barrett College also provides an amenity that is rare for a public university of its size: quality housing facilities for the majority of its nearly 7,500 first- and second-year undergraduate honors students.
Because of its rigor and prestige, Barrett College attracts some of the best and brightest minds in the nation. For instance, Barrett College has the most National Merit Scholars of any honors college in the nation. It’s also the only honors college that has a Nobel Prize recipient teaching undergraduates. Barrett’s other strengths include a very high percentage of students who graduate having successfully completed all honors requirements, and generous merit-based scholarship opportunities.
Schreyer Honors College (SHC), Pennsylvania State University
- Location: University Park, Pennsylvania
Schreyer Honors College is Penn State’s honors college. Considered one of the top honors colleges in the nation, Schreyer provides approximately 2,000 honors college “Scholars” with an educational experience that is dedicated to academic integrity, fostering a global perspective, and rich opportunities for leadership and civic engagement.
The acceptance rate to Penn State is 56%, but the average acceptance rate to Schreyer Honors College is between 19-25%, making this one of the more competitive public university honors colleges. Another unique feature of Schreyer Honors College is it doesn’t consider SAT/ACT scores or high school GPA as part of the application process. Instead, the Schreyer admissions committee is interested in the creative thinking and authenticity applicants demonstrate in their admissions materials.
Schreyer also offers an abundance of honors-specific courses for admitted students. In fact, Schreyer offers over 220 smaller-sized honors courses to its students, usually taught by senior faculty members. Schreyer students also have the benefit of access to priority registration and living learning communities (LLCs) in residence halls that primarily house honors students.
One stand-out offering at Schreyer Honors College is the Integrated Undergraduate Graduate (IUG) Program. The IUG program allows exceptional students to complete their undergraduate and graduate degrees concurrently, or at the same time. Eligible students will be able to meet the requirements for this accelerated program by completing an honors thesis that meets both undergraduate and graduate standards and taking a series of cross-listed undergraduate and graduate courses. If you’re interested in enrolling in an honors college and completing an accelerated graduate degree program, Schreyer could be a good fit for you!
Calhoun Honors College at Clemson University offers honors students a rigorous academic experience. Spyder_Monkey/Wikimedia
Calhoun Honors College, Clemson University
- Location: Clemson, South Carolina
Clemson University’s honors college is called Calhoun Honors College. This honors college is located on Clemson’s campus in Clemson, South Carolina, and is a stand-alone college within the university system.
The admissions rate for Clemson University is approximately 51%. Of the first-year students admitted to Clemson each year, just under 10% are accepted into Calhoun Honors College. That’s just 325 new Calhoun honors students each year, which means getting into Calhoun is tough. That selectiveness is reflected in the test scores of Calhoun students: the typical profile of past and current Calhoun honors students includes an SAT score of 1500 or ACT score of 34.
There are plenty of benefits to being an honors student at Clemson. As members Calhoun Honors College, honors students receive priority registration, extended library privileges, and are eligible to apply for research grants to support their Departmental Honors research projects at the beginning of both the fall and spring semesters.
Another stand-out feature of Calhoun Honors College is the brand new Honors Residential College (HRC) facility, which includes housing and dining for honors students, Calhoun’s administrative offices, a library, study rooms, classrooms, and a kitchen. These facilities are available exclusively to Calhoun honors students, so you’ll have the space you need to study (and have fun, too).
Calhoun Honors College also offers many unique academic opportunities, including the highly selective EUREKA! Program. The EUREKA! Program brings approximately 33 incoming freshmen (who have already been accepted into Calhoun) to the Clemson campus to participate in research projects over a five week period just before the start of the fall semester. Many EUREKA! Program participants go on to receive elite scholarships and fellowships, such as the Rhodes, Fulbright, Goldwater, Marshall, and Truman scholarships.
Rutgers University Honors College
- Location: New Brunswick, New Jersey
The Honors College at Rutgers University is both a stand-alone school and a student living-learning community. The goal of the honors college is to blend the classroom and the community to create a transformative learning experience for its students.
The Rutgers acceptance rate is 57.8%, and while the honors college doesn’t publish its admissions rates, it’s safe to assume that getting in is slightly more competitive. The test scores of accepted students reflect that idea: the median SAT score for the Honors College class of 2022 is 1530 (the composite SAT score for non-honors students is 1300).
Luckily for incoming students, there isn’t a separate or additional application for the Honors College. The Honors College admissions committee uses the general Rutgers application to determine who will be admitted into the honors program.
Once admitted into the college, honors students have access to top-notch facilities and academic resources. The Honors College at Rutgers has its own state-of-the-art building, which is the hub for honors courses and seminars, research opportunities, an Innovation Lab, on-site academic advising, and lounges where honors students can build community and even get to know live-in faculty.
One of the best things about the Honors College at Rutgers is that all honors students receive a four year renewable scholarship. The Honors College also provides additional scholarship opportunities for study abroad, research projects, and even has an Honors College Student Emergency Fund for students who encounter unexpected financial hardship. So if you’re looking for an excellent academic experience at a great price, you should take a closer look at the Honors College experience at Rutgers.
The University of Texas at Austin takes the top spot in our list of the best honors programs in the United States. Kumar Appaiah/Flickr
Best Honors Programs
The biggest difference between an honors college and an honors program is that honors colleges are stand-alone schools within the university system, and honors programs are not. For our list, we focused on finding the best university-wide honors programs in the United States.
Plan II Honors Program, University of Texas at Austin
Location: Austin, Texas
The College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin offers the Plan II Honors Program, which is an interdisciplinary arts and sciences major with a core curriculum. Unlike stand-alone honors colleges like the ones listed above, the Plan II Honors Program is housed within UT’s College of Liberal Arts.
Sometimes called a “public Ivy,” UT has a 40.4% acceptance rate. Plan II usually receives around 1600 applications with each fall term, and offers admission to 385-400 applicants, which allows the program to reach its ideal number of about 175 freshman honors students. (In other words, getting into Plan II can be a little tough!) Applicants to Plan II will encounter three somewhat unique application components: a five sentence personal statement, a short answer response to the question, “What do you see as the largest problem facing society today?”, and an “expanded resume.”
Plan II Honors is a prime example of the difference between an honors college and honors program. As an honors program, Plan II Honors doesn’t offer special housing, study abroad opportunities, or clubs and organizations. However, Plan II does offer small, discussion-based courses, walk-in advising office hours, and peer mentors. Finally, Plan II also has its own scholarship and grant programs that its students can apply for to cover their tuition, study abroad trips, and/or research projects.
Another major perk of the Plan II Honors Program at UT is its flexibility. For students who are interested in double majoring, combining multiple UT honors programs, or even getting a second degree concurrently, Plan II Honors is a great choice. Over 70% of Plan II Honors students complete the requirements for a second, third, or fourth major, and close to 35% complete the requirements for a second degree. That makes the Plan II honors program great for ambitious students who are pursuing a more interdisciplinary course of study!
Echols Scholars Program, University of Virginia
- Location: Charlottesville, Virginia
The honors program at the University of Virginia (UVA) is called Echols Scholars Program. Like the University of Texas’ Plan II Honors Program, UVA’s Echols Scholars Program is not a stand-alone entity—it’s housed within the College of Arts & Sciences at UVA.
The acceptance rate to UVA is 29.9%, making it one of the most competitive schools on our list. Instead of requiring a separate application in order to gain admission to the Echols Scholars Program, all applicants to the College of Arts & Sciences first-year class are automatically reviewed for selection to Echols. Each new class of Echols students typically has between 225-250 students, so if you want to get into Echols, you’ll need to make sure your UVA application stands out from the crowd.
The key value that most defines the Echols identity is student self-governance. The Echols Council is a student-led governing body that represents Echols students, keeps Echols students informed, and works with the honors program’s administration to design and implement initiatives that give Echols students the best possible experience. On top of that, the Echols Scholars Program offers its students exemption from College of Arts & Sciences area and competency requirements, proactive academic advising, priority registration ahead of non-honors students within the same class year, and on-campus honors housing for first-year students.
Another unique opportunity that the Echols Scholars Program offers is the Echols Interdisciplinary Major. The Echols website states, “The principle underlying the Echols Interdisciplinary Major is that no existing major, or combination of majors, fully satisfies a student’s broader interests.” This means that Echols students have the chance to define their own course of study to best fit their interests and their future career goals. If you want the chance to chart your own course in college, you may be a great fit for the Echols Scholars Program.
University Honors Program, the University of Kansas
- Location: Lawrence, Kansas
The University of Kansas Honors Program, which is more commonly referred to as “University Honors,” is a campus-wide honors program open to students of all majors.
The acceptance rate to KU is 93.4%, but acceptance to the University Honors Program is highly competitive. The average GPA for freshmen entering the honors program is 3.95, which is much higher than the average GPA of all incoming freshman, which is 3.6. Prospective students can choose to apply to University Honors as part of the KU admissions application. Applicants who select this option will submit an additional resume and essay response along with their general KU admissions application.
The University Honors program at KU is built on the concept of experiential learning. To graduate from University Honors, students are required to earn “Honors Experience” units by engaging in Enhanced Learning Experiences (ELEs). ELEs at KU include opportunities in public service, cultural literacy and social justice, global citizenship, aesthetic engagement, professional development and social entrepreneurship, leadership, and research. Honors students can even propose alternative experiences of their own design to meet the ELE requirement.
An impressive 87% of Macaulay Honors College students graduate debt free!
Beyond My Ken/Wikimedia
Best “Bang for Your Buck” Honors Programs and Colleges
If you’re looking to get the most out of your educational dollars, you might consider enrolling in an honors college or program that offers significant financial assistance. To help you out, we found two honors colleges that can give you a top-tier education without breaking the bank.
Macaulay Honors College, City University of New York (CUNY)
- Location: New York City, New York
Macaulay Honors College is the independent honors college housed within the City University of New York (CUNY). Macaulay is affiliated with eight senior colleges within the CUNY system and has a presence on the following CUNY campuses: Baruch College, Brooklyn College, City College, Hunter College, John Jay College, Lehman College, Queens College, and the College of Staten Island (CSI). And guess what? All of these campuses are located in New York City!
CUNY is pretty selective—the university’s acceptance rate is 41%. Macaulay itself is also competitive, offering just 520 seats to incoming students across all eight campuses each year. To apply to Macaulay, prospective students must submit a high school transcript, SAT/ACT scores, two letters of recommendation, and two maximum 500 word essay responses.
While Macaulay scholars will spend most of their time studying at their home campus, they will have the opportunity to attend lectures, seminars, and even take courses at the other CUNY campuses in New York City. In fact, Macaulay makes learning about New York City a key feature of its honors education. To that end, Macaulay students receive free admission to hundreds of the city’s cultural institutions, and participate in required honors seminars that use New York City as a teaching tool.
Besides its exceptional honors education, perhaps the most appealing thing about Macaulay Honors College is its financial aid package. Macaulay offers all of its students a merit scholarship package that includes tuition and a laptop computer, plus access to funding to support study abroad, research, and internship opportunities. Most impressively, 87% of Macaulay students graduate debt-free!
Macaulay’s excellent academics, coupled with its generous financial aid package, makes it an excellent value. High-achieving students who have limited funds (but want to get a top-tier education!) should definitely consider CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College.
The University of Alabama Honors College
The honors college at the University of Alabama, which enrolled students call “UA Honors,” is a stand-alone college within the larger University of Alabama system.
The acceptance rate to the University of Alabama is approximately 56%. Admissions into UA Honors is equally competitive: applicants must have a minimum ACT score of 30, minimum SAT score of 1360, and a 3.5 high school GPA or higher to get accepted to UA Honors. There is a fast track into UA Honors for certain students: National Merit Finalists and National Achievement Finalists are admitted automatically once they complete the honors application.
UA Honors offers admitted students tons of academic opportunities. One of the most prestigious is the Randall Research Scholars program, which is the first interdisciplinary research program in the United States. Randal Research Scholars learn how to combine computing skills with their academic interests to perform high-level research in their field.
UA Honors also offers top-tier leadership and service opportunities through the University Fellows Experience. This four-year program allows students to develop elite leadership skills while empowering them to give back to the community around them through service and mentorship. The combination of academics and service offered by UA Honors helps honors graduates stand out as they embark on their future careers.
The amazing academic and extracurricular activities available through UA Honors comes at a reasonable price, too. That’s because UA Honors offers some of the most generous merit aid packages in the country to its students. At least eleven different types of merit and need based scholarships are available to UA honors students. On top of those scholarships, UA Honors students are eligible for study abroad scholarships and research fellowships.
5 Tips for Applying to Top College Honors Programs
Applying to college is already a demanding task. If you’re planning to apply to honors colleges on top of that, you’ve got your work cut out for you!
Our list of five tips for applying to top honors colleges can help simplify the honors application process by giving you a sense of what to expect from the various steps of the application process.
Tip 1: Do Your Research Before You Apply
Lots of prospective honors students consult the annual honors college rankings to help them decide which honors colleges to apply to. But rankings are just the tip of the iceberg! You can—and should!—learn a lot about college honors programs just by browsing university websites before you make any decisions about where to apply.
Honors college applications can be long and involved. You want to make sure you know that an honors college is a good fit for you before you dump your time and energy into a secondary application. By doing a little research up front, you’ll save yourself precious time during college application season.
Tip 2: Learn How You’re Being Evaluated
You can almost always find out the average SAT/ACT scores and GPA of students who are accepted to a school’s honors college before you apply. Many college honors programs have set requirements for standardized test scores and GPAs that determine whether an applicant qualifies for admission.
Though you shouldn’t necessarily let your GPA, class rank, or standardized test scores deter you from applying to honors colleges, these numbers can help give you an idea of where you stand going into the application process. If your scores and GPA are a lot lower than the honor program’s stated requirements, then you may have a hard time getting in.
On the other hand, some schools no longer take SAT/ACT scores and GPA into account as a part of the honors college application process. These schools are more interested in learning about who you are through written essays and short answer questions. If you’re applying to these schools, you can’t plan to simply rely on a perfect SAT score or 4.0 GPA—you’ll need to make sure you’re a well-rounded candidate before you decide to apply.
The bottom line? Go into the application process knowing how different honors colleges are going to evaluate you and what qualities they’re looking for. This will help you know which components of the application to focus your energy on (and which application components you might want to have a teacher or mentor give you feedback on, too!).
Tip 3: Brush Up on Your Writing Skills
We’ve already mentioned that honors college applications are more demanding than regular college applications, but there’s one particular skill that you’ll want to have fine-tuned before you sit down to complete your honors college application: essay writing.
Most honors college applications require you to write multiple essays as a major part of the application process, and the essay prompts usually require you to think creatively about yourself, your intellectual interests, and global issues. While some honors colleges ask standard questions like “why this school,” most are going to ask you to think way outside the box. (For examples of essay questions like these—and to prepare yourself for what you may see on an honors college application—check out the University of Chicago’s essay prompts.)
On top of the honors college application essays, you’ll also want to apply for special scholarships or fellowships available through your selected honors programs. Most merit-based scholarship applications include a required essay section that asks you to explain what experiences, achievements, or goals make you the best candidate for the scholarship. That’s right—more writing!
Are you starting to see how the essays can add up if you plan to apply to an honors college? Don’t worry, though! If you’re prepared to write persuasively about your skills and achievements, you’re prepared to show that you’re the ideal candidate for admittance to an honors college.
Tip 4: Be Ready for an On-Campus Interview
Sometimes (though not always), honors colleges will narrow their applicant pool by inviting select applicants to visit their university’s campus for an in-person interview process. There are some great things about being invited to an on-campus interview: you get to meet honors college faculty and staff, current honors college students, and see the variety of resources that honors students get to take advantage of during their college experience.
But besides those things, you might also have to sit for a one-on-one or group interview that will partially determine whether you’re accepted to the honors college. Sounds nerve-wracking, huh? Don’t worry: you can take a lot of the anxiety out of the interview process with a little preparation. Our guide to conquering the college interview is a great place to start!
Tip 5: Be Yourself!
It may sound cheesy, but many honors colleges encourage you to present who you truly are in your application materials, not the “application version” of yourself. Don’t lie or exaggerate to try and impress the admissions committee! You’re already a great student: all you have to do is put together an equally great, authentic application.
Keep in mind that creativity and curiosity are two of the qualities that honors colleges desire the most in potential students. If you can demonstrate what makes you a creative thinker and what intellectual topics get you excited in your application essays, you’ll be more likely to stand out to the faculty and staff members who evaluate your application materials!
If getting into an honors college your goal, then you need to make sure you’re setting yourself up for success. This starts with having a solid GPA. First, make sure you’re calculating your GPA correctly. Once you figure out what your current GPA is, you can focus on raising it as quickly as possible!
Once your GPA is looking good, it’s time to start focusing on your test scores. Having good test scores is one key to getting into the honors program of your dreams! The first step is deciding whether you should take the SAT or ACT. Then it’s time to start studying. Check out our expert SAT study tips and expert ACT study tips to make sure you’re studying smarter and harder.
But like we mentioned earlier, the best honors programs know that you’re more than just your grades and test scores. Honors colleges want to see that you’re involved in things beyond school, which is where extracurriculars come in. This article will teach you everything you need to know about writing about extracurriculars on your college applications so that you stand out from the crowd.
Want to build the best possible college application?
We can help. PrepScholar Admissions is the world's best admissions consulting service. We combine world-class admissions counselors with our data-driven, proprietary admissions strategies. We've overseen thousands of students get into their top choice schools, from state colleges to the Ivy League.
We know what kinds of students colleges want to admit. We want to get you admitted to your dream schools.
Learn more about PrepScholar Admissions to maximize your chance of getting in.
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.