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Should You Do the Columbia University Science Honors Program?


If you're a high school student who lives near Columbia University and wants to participate in an extracurricular honors program, you can't do much better than the Columbia University Science Honors Program (Columbia SHP).

This honors program experience can give students a big leg-up on college and scholarship applications...but unfortunately, it's really hard to get accepted to the Columbia SHP.

But don't worry: we're here to help. In this article, we'll walk you through the Columbia SHP application process, including:

  • Introducing you to the Columbia University Science Honors Program
  • Explaining what the honors program is like
  • Describing the application process for the program
  • Providing information about the honors program's entrance examination
  • Giving you three tips for succeeding on the entrance exam

Now, let's get started!



What Is the Columbia University Science Honors Program?

The Columbia University Science Honors Program (SHP) is a Saturday morning academic program for high-achieving students. It's held on the Columbia campus, and high school students in ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade who are accepted into the program can participate. The Columbia SHP is specifically designed for high school students who have a strong interest in the sciences and mathematics, and classes are taught by real scientists and mathematicians from Columbia University.

The Columbia SHP is only open to students who go to high school in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut and who live within a 75-mile radius of the Columbia campus. If you attend a high school in one of these areas, you're lucky enough to be eligible to apply to this program! If not, there are other honors programs you can join that are closer to home.

Starting in the 2022-23 school year, new (not continuing) students participating in Columbia SHP will be charged an annual tuition of $600, with $300 being due at the beginning of the year. This is a new policy and may come as a surprise if you’ve heard from past Columbia SHP participants that the program is free. The program doesn’t specify why this change was made, but does note that tuition waivers are available for students with documented financial hardships.

Also keep in mind that you'll be responsible for your own transportation if you're accepted into the program. Classes are located on the Columbia Morningside Campus in New York City, so SHP students will have to commute to campus. SHP students must cover the cost of their transportation to class each Saturday, but the fact that the Columbia SHP is tuition free more than makes up for that!

Finally, if you're interested in getting into the Columbia SHP, you'll have to submit an application (more on that later). If you are accepted into the Columbia SHP, you'll take your honors courses every Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. during the regular academic school year for a total of twelve weeks from September to May. Don't worry, though: the Columbia SHP follows a standard academic calendar. That means you won't have class around federal holidays or over winter break.



One of the biggest benefits of the Columbia SHP is helping students prepare for college.


What Are the Benefits of Participating in Columbia SHP?

One of the biggest benefits that comes with participating in the Columbia Science Honors Program is the opportunity for high school students to get a taste of what college courses are like. Columbia SHP courses introduce students to cutting-edge research in science and mathematics and cover recent advances in these fields--two things that regular high school courses are often unable to do.

In other words, Columbia SHP prepares its students to be successful in more difficult science and math courses at the college-level.

One big misconception about the Columbia SHP is that participating in the program will help you gain admission to Columbia later. While that's not true, listing Columbia SHP on your resume will definitely help your college applications stand out from the crowd. The Columbia SHP is one of the most elite science and math-focused high school honors programs in the country. Seeing that you participated in this program will show admissions committees across the nation that you're already prepared to meet the challenges of college coursework!

There's also one specific perk for students who get accepted to the SHP at the beginning of their freshman year in high school: once you're in, you're in for good. Current SHP members who remain in good standing can continue in the program until graduation without having to reapply for admission.



What's the Columbia Science Honors Program Like?

Now that you know what this Columbia high school honors program is, let's take a look at what being a student in the Columbia SHP is really like!

Attending the Columbia Science Honors Program will probably feel a lot like attending a college course, and that's by design. SHP students commute to Columbia's campus, take courses in university facilities, and are taught by Columbia professors, graduate students, and researchers. Like we mentioned earlier, the goal of the Columbia SHP is to start preparing you for college coursework.


Columbia SHP Course Offerings

Just like college, SHP students get to choose what they study as part of their honors program. Students can select courses from among the ones offered by completing and submitting an online course selections form prior to the first day of SHP classes in September.

The course offerings will address specific topics pertaining to science and/or mathematics and, like in college, the course topics can vary from year to year. For example, the Fall 2024 course offerings consists of the following:

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Classical and Quantum Computing Devices
  • Computer Programming in Java
  • Graph Theory by Example
  • Introduction to Algorithms
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Relativity

To learn more about the focus of each of the courses in the list above, you can check out the course listings page on the Columbia SHP website.

In general, you can expect the Columbia High School Honors Program to cover major or important scientific or mathematical theories (for example, the theories of relativity, Newton's laws, and quantum physics). Oftentimes, students are asked to apply these theories in their own experiments or research. In some experiment-based courses, students even get to visit Columbia's state-of-the-art research labs to test out their hypotheses!


How Hard Are Columbia SHP Courses?

But what can you expect from the Columbia High School Honors Program once you're actually sitting in the classroom?

The format of the class can vary from course to course depending on the instructor's style and the subject matter. Some courses will be heavily lecture-based, while others might ask students to conduct experiments. Other classes could even require students to go out on walks and gather data from observations of the world around them.

So how hard are Columbia SHP courses? Once again, it depends on the course! If you're really good at math, then you're probably going to find a class like Graph Theory by Example easier than someone who isn't quite as strong in the subject. The same goes for teaching styles: if you like hands-on learning, then you'll probably find a lab-based class like Biochemistry easier than someone who prefers lecture-based courses.

One thing that helps make Columbia SHP classes easier—or at least, less stressful—than your typical high school course is that instructors don't assign homework or grades. However, that doesn't mean students won't be asked to demonstrate what they've learned.

Some courses, like the Classical and Quantum Computing Devices course, ask students to create their own projects; this particular course gives students the opportunity to write basic programs to run on IBM's quantum circuit interface. In all courses, students can expect their instructors to connect the course topics and material to real-world problems.

All in all, Columbia SHP students have the opportunity to take intellectually rigorous, cutting-edge courses from experts in math and the sciences alongside equally curious, talented peers.




How Do You Apply to the Columbia Science Honors Program?

If you're excited about joining the Columbia SHP, then it's time to start working on your application packet.

First things first: the application process for this Columbia high school honors program is notoriously competitive and highly selective. You'll have to complete an online application to the program and take a two-hour online entrance examination that covers topics pertaining to algebra, geometry, trigonometry, probability, and elementary knowledge of science subjects. (We'll talk more about the exam in just a minute.)

There are several steps to the Columbia SHP application process. Each of these steps have hard deadlines that are clearly specified on the program's website. These deadlines can change from year to year, but here are the general time frames that you should keep in mind:

  • Mid-April: deadline for completed online application and application fee payment
  • Early May: deadline for mailing official transcripts to the SHP program
  • Mid-May: deadline to select a date to sit for the Columbia SHP entrance exam
  • Late May and June: the Columbia SHP entrance exam is offered on weekends throughout May and June. There is an additional exam date that's only available for students requiring special testing accommodations.
  • Mid-July: students are notified of their admission status

Unfortunately, the Columbia SHP program's application goes live at different times every year. You won't need to obsessively check the Columbia SHP website, though: the SHP program notifies high school counselors when the application becomes available. That means that talking to your high school guidance counselor and letting them know you want to apply to the Columbia SHP is the first step in the application process.




The 4 Steps of the Columbia SHP Application Process

To apply to the Columbia SHP, you'll have to complete four main tasks through a web-based application portal, which include submitting your application packet, official transcripts, and a letter of recommendation.

Like we mentioned earlier, one thing to keep in mind is that the opening date for the Columbia SHP online application, application deadlines, and entrance exam dates can vary from year to year. Make sure you're keeping a close eye on the application deadlines! You don't want to miss out on the Columbia SHP program because you get your dates mixed up.

Having said all that, it's time to discuss the specific application steps you'll need to complete if you want to get accepted into the Columbia high school science honors program.


Step 1: Fill Out the Online Application

The first step of the application process is filling out an application online through a portal that is linked on the Columbia SHP website's "Application Instructions" section.

The web-based application asks students to provide personal and demographic information, as well as details about your high school grades, coursework, course load, and extracurricular activities.

The final—and most important—part of the online application is the essay portion. The essay asks all applicants to explain their interest and background in science and mathematics. The essay is an applicant's chance to show what makes them unique or particularly well-suited to the Columbia SHP. Many past SHP applicants claim that the essay is the second-most important component of the application (right after the entrance exam!).


Step 2: Submit an Official High School Transcript

Though the first part of the application is online, you'll have to have your school submit your official transcript before your application is complete. The process for this varies from school to school, but you'll likely request an official transcript from your guidance counselor or school registrar, and they'll make sure it gets mailed to Columbia SHP.


Step 3: Request a Letter of Recommendation

You'll also need a teacher or counselor to submit a letter of recommendation on your behalf. It'll be your job to approach someone from your high school to request that they write a letter of recommendation for you. Think carefully about who you ask: you definitely want to get a recommender who knows you as a student and can really speak to your potential in science and math!

Once you find a willing recommender, you'll want to make sure you share a link to the application portal where they can go to submit their recommendation letter by the listed deadline.

If you're not sure whether your recommender has submitted their recommendation letter or if the SHP has received a copy of your transcript from your high school, you can check the status of all of your application components through the online application portal.


Step 4: Take the Columbia SHP Entrance Exam

The final piece of the Columbia Science Honors Program application is the entrance exam.

The SHP distributes an examination date selection form to applicants in April, after applications have been submitted. Examination dates are available in May and June, but specific dates will only be specified on the date selection form.

The entrance exam is held online on Columbia University's campus and lasts for two hours, usually starting late morning and ending early afternoon. When you complete the exam, representatives from the Columbia SHP will evaluate and score your exam. Your exam score will be added to your application file, but you won't receive your exam scores. Only after the entrance exams have been scored will the SHP make admissions decisions.

The entrance exam is definitely the most talked about portion of the Columbia SHP application process, so let's look more closely at the SHP entrance exam next!



You have to take the Columbia SHP entrance exam if you want to be admitted into the Columbia SHP program.


What's the Columbia Science Honors Program Admissions Test?

The Columbia SHP calls its admissions test an "entrance exam"...but just taking the exam doesn't necessarily mean you'll be able to enter the program. Scoring well on the entrance exam is an important part of the application process, although the SHP never allows you to see your results.

Generally speaking, the Columbia SHP entrance exam is a standardized test that's designed to test your body of knowledge in STEM subjects. In the past, the entrance exam was administered in person on Columbia’s campus and lasted for three hours. However, as of 2022, the Columbia SHP entrance exam is changing: the exam is now administered online and lasts for only two hours. 

As of now, there's not much information publicly available about how the change in exam duration may affect its format and content. However, past SHP entrance exams tested applicants on “easy” math, survey of science topics, and “challenge” math, and there’s a good chance the exam will still focus on each of these content types. 


Content Type 1: "Easy" Math

The first type of content applicants will have to tackle is "easy" mathematics questions. But what does "easy" mean in this case...and easy for who, exactly?

Past entrance exam takers have claimed that the level of difficulty of the "easy math" section is on par with the Mathematics Regents Exams in Algebra I, Algebra II, and Geometry. Others have compared the level of difficulty of the first section of this exam to the difficulty of the (now discontinued) SAT Math Level I subject test. Students who are able to pass the Math Regents Exams or score well on SAT I math should be well prepared for the first section of this exam.


Content Type 2: Survey of Science

The second type of content on the entrance exam pertains to science. This content area is considered a "survey,” which means it can incorporate a wide range of scientific topics. These topics will cover the environmental and earth sciences, and biology, physics, and chemistry.


Content Type 3: "Challenge" Math

Finally, the third content type on the entrance exam is the one that many exam takers get a little nervous about. This is referred to as the "challenge" mathematics section. Students who have completed the MAA American Mathematics Competitions (AMC) 10 or 12 examinations suggest that that test is a good comparison to the difficulty level of the "challenge" section on the Columbia SHP entrance exam.


What's a Good Columbia SHP Exam Score?

While most applicants are curious about their exam score, the Columbia SHP doesn't share exam scores with applicants. In other words, Columbia never releases your exam you'll never know your final test score!

Basically, no one but the Columbia SHP program administrators knows what a good SHP exam score is.

So how will you know if you've been admitted? Applicants to this Columbia high school science honors program are notified of admissions decisions through an admissions acceptance letter that's sent out in mid-July. To access admissions decisions, applicants have to login to the online portal where they submitted their application to check for updates.




3 Tips for Succeeding on the Columbia SHP Entrance Exam

The Columbia SHP website states that applicants don't need any special kind of preparation for the entrance exam.

Because of this, Columbia University Science Honors Program sample tests and practice questions aren't made available online. Students who want to prepare for the entrance exam might consider talking with their high school's guidance counselor or their math or science teachers about helpful ways to study!

The Columbia science honors program test is definitely the most challenging part of the program's application process, so we've come up with three tips to help you do your best on the exam.


Tip 1: Take Advanced Science and Math Courses

Whether it's in advanced or honors courses or extracurricular activities, the best thing students who hope to get accepted to Columbia SHP can do to prep for the entrance exam is to excel in math and science courses in school.

The more experience you have with science and math-related topics and subjects, the more likely you are to develop the skills and subjects that the SHP exam assesses. Students who take honors or AP courses are more likely to encounter the kind of material that appears on the entrance exam. If you have the chance to take challenging math and science courses before applying to the program, you should definitely take advantage of the opportunity!


Tip 2: Seek Out Study Guides From Similar Exams

If you want to do some serious studying for the Columbia University Science Honors Program entrance examination, practice using materials from other exams that cover the same subject matter and have a similar level of difficulty.

Many students who have taken the entrance exam claim that there are similarities between the SHP entrance exam and the Math Regents and Science Regents exams, the SAT Math Level 1 Subject Test, and the MAA American Mathematics Competitions 10 and 12 exams. All of these exams make practice questions and/or past exams available online--using these materials to study would be a great place to start.

So where can you find these study resources? Well, the archives for the Math Regents exams are conveniently collected on a single website, including the Algebra I, Algebra II, and Geometry Regents exam archives. Similarly, the past Science Regents exams are archived together online. If you look at the webpages for each individual Regents exam, you'll find you can download PDFs of past exams and study on your own time.

To prepare for the "challenge" section of the Columbia High School Honors Program, consulting practice questions for the MAA AMC 10 and 12 exams is also a great idea. There are several resources online that provide practice questions for the AMC 10/12, including the MAA's webpage for the AMC 10/12 and Khan Academy. Adding these to your study pile will help you better prepare for the SHP admissions test, too.


Tip 3: Find Current Columbia High School Honors Program Students Online

If you want to get a first-hand account of what the Columbia SHP entrance exam is really like, take some time to seek out students who have actually taken the exam before!

One place to look for students who have taken the entrance exam is online college message boards, like You can ask current and former Columbia SHP students what content they encountered on the exam, which questions were the most difficult, and what materials they used to prepare for the exam.

Another place to look for students who have taken the Columbia SHP entrance exam is your own high school and high school alumni network. If you attend a high school in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut, chances are there are students at your school who are currently participating in the Columbia SHP. You can also talk to your school's guidance counselor about getting in touch with current and former Columbia SHP students to ask them about how they prepared for the entrance exam. They might even know about exam prep materials that you haven't thought of yet!




Next Steps

Students who apply to the Columbia SHP program will have to submit an essay as part of their application packet. But application essays can be tricky! Learn more about what makes for a good application essay here, then check out this article for even more expert tips on knocking your Columbia SHP essay out of the park.

Like we mentioned earlier, the best way to prepare for the Columbia SHP program is to do well in your math and science courses in school. That means you'll need to hit the books! But not all studying is created equal. We can teach you how to study smarter and harder so you can get the most out of your classes.

If you're serious about math and science, then it's a great idea to take advanced classes in those subjects while you're in high school. AP classes and IB classes can challenge you while helping you prepare for college! Check out the list of available AP classes (and IB classes), and see which ones might be a good fit for you.



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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

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.

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