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What Is an Honors College? Should You Enroll in One?


If you have great grades and high test scores, some of your prospective universities may invite you to enroll in their honors college. Generally speaking, honors colleges and honors programs at U.S. universities offer top-tier students rigorous academic programs, special scholarships, and better job prospects. 

But of course, there’s more to an honors college or program than that! We’re going to introduce you to honors colleges and honors programs so you can decide whether enrolling in one is right for you. This article will: 

  • Answer the question, “What is an honors college?”
  • Discuss what types of students might be a good fit for an honors college
  • Explain the difference between an honors college vs honors program
  • Take an in-depth look at real honors programs at two U.S. universities 
  • List five pros and cons for enrolling in an honors college

Are you ready? Let’s get started!

Feature Image: slgckgc/Flickr


What Is an Honors College? 

What is an honors program in college? Now, don’t be misled by the name “honors college”—an honors college isn’t an independent university. Instead, an honors college is a program that exceptional high school students can apply to and enroll in while completing a traditional bachelor’s degree. 

Put another way, an honors college one of a number of colleges on a university campus. Just like the college of arts and sciences or the business college, an honors college is another on-campus school that forms part of the university’s educational system. 

While every honors college is different, many honors colleges offer enrolled students perks. Here are some unique opportunities that you can find at honors colleges and programs across the nation: 

  • Courses with more rigorous and/or specialized curriculum that are exclusively open to honors college students

  • Smaller class sizes that can be conducted seminar-style, allowing students to interact more meaningfully

  • A smaller faculty-to-student ratio, giving students the opportunity to interact more frequently with professors and advisors

  • Housing and/or housing amenities that are reserved for honors students, giving honors students the opportunity to form a close knit community

  • Priority registration, giving honors students a wider range of course options and the opportunity to curate a semester schedule that suits their needs

If these benefits sound great to you, then you might enjoy the experience of enrolling in an honors college. 




Graduating With Honors From an Honors College

Colleges want to reward students who graduate from their honors college, meaning that you’ll get a special distinction once you graduate. And that’s pretty great, especially since completing an honors degree takes a lot of hard work! 

While you don’t have to be in an honors college to graduate with honors, some universities reserve extra special distinctions for honors college graduates. Students who successfully meet the requirements to graduate from their honors college will usually have the distinction on their diploma, which indicates they’ve received an honors distinction. Honors college graduates may also receive a special medal or regalia to wear at their university’s commencement ceremony to set them apart from their peers.

At most universities, there are three tiers of honors you can receive depending on your final cumulative GPA. The better your GPA, the higher your distinction. Here’s a general range of how the distinctions break down, though your school’s honors college may do things slightly differently: 

Honors Distinction 
Final Cumulative GPA
Cum Laude
3.5 to 3.7
Magna Cum Laude
3.7 to 3.9
Summa Cum Laude 
3.9 and above


Like we mentioned earlier, these distinctions are usually printed on your diploma as a sign of your hard work. For example, if you graduate with a 3.85 GPA with a degree in electrical engineering, your diploma may say you earned a “Bachelor’s of Science in Engineering, magna cum laude.”

Regardless of the tier, getting any version of cum laude on your diploma is a reward the hard work it takes to complete an honors program.




Who Should Enroll in an Honors College? 

So, how do you know if you’d be a good fit for an honors college? Ultimately, it comes down to two things: your GPA and your ambition.

In order to get into an honors college, you have to be an excellent student. In other words, you’ll need to have a high GPA and great test scores to qualify for admission. Most honors programs have minimum score and GPA requirements that you must meet in order for your application to be considered. For example, the honors college at Indiana University requires students to have a 4.0 GPA and either a 33 on the ACT or a 1500 on the SAT in order to be admitted. That’s well above the national average!

Besides having excellent grades and test scores, students who are good candidates for acceptance to an honors college are typically involved in intellectually rigorous or creatively oriented activities during high school, both in and out of the classroom. Students who excel in honors colleges enjoy learning and like an intellectual challenge. Additionally, candidates should also embrace hard work: the classes you’ll take as an honors student are usually a lot tougher! 

If you meet the academic requirements and are ready to be a focused, intellectually curious, hard working student, then you’re probably a good fit for a university honors college or honors program!




Honors Colleges vs Honors Programs: What’s the Difference? 

You may hear the phrases “honors college” and “honors program” used interchangeably, but there are actually some significant differences between the two. So, what is an honors college vs an honors program?

The key difference between honors colleges and honors programs in the United States is that honors colleges function as discrete schools within the larger university system, and honors programs aren’t separated into individual colleges within the university. Put another way, an honors college is a separate school within a university, while honors programs aren’t.

Because honors colleges are stand-alone schools on a university campus, they tend to require more resources. Consequently, honors colleges are more commonly found at big, public universities. On these campuses, honors colleges typically function like the other colleges at big universities, complete with their own on-campus facilities, academic advisors, student scholarships, study abroad opportunities, and course offerings that are open to honors students only.

In contrast, honors programs can often be found at smaller colleges and universities. Smaller institutions may have fewer or no individual colleges within the larger university system. At these smaller schools, honors students will not be a part of a separate college within the university but will follow a special honors curriculum and/or complete extra assignments, like an honors capstone project or honors thesis, in order to graduate with distinction.

Having said that, both honors colleges and honors programs provide academically ambitious students with an enriching educational experience that can give graduates a head-start in their future careers. 



Penn State University's honors college takes the top spot on our list.  (George Chriss/Wikimedia)


In-Depth Guide to Honors Programs: Penn State Honors College and University of South Florida Honors College

Learning about two real honors programs can give you more insight into what it’s like to be part of an honors college. 

To give you a real sense of what honors colleges and honors programs are like, we’re going to take an in depth look at two honors programs: the honors college at Pennsylvania State University and the honors program at the University of South Florida.


Schreyer Honors College, Pennsylvania State University

The Honors College at Penn State is called Schreyer Honors College, and like most honors colleges, it’s a separate school within the Penn State system.

Schreyer prides itself in offering a “best of both worlds” experience to its students. Honors students have access to the cutting edge resources of a big, top-tier research institution, but they have the small class sizes and one-on-one learning experiences characteristic of a small liberal arts college.

So if you’re a student who wants to be part of a community where you know your professors and classmates but you don’t want to miss out on a “big university” experience, then an honors college like Schreyer at Penn State can provide that for you. 


The Admissions Process 

In order to apply to Schreyer Honors College, you’ll need to complete the Penn State undergraduate application and then complete the separate Schreyer Honors College application

There are several components to the Schreyer application. You’ll have to answer three essay questions and a handful of short answer questions, submit two letters of recommendation, and self-report your high school academic record. 

You might notice that standardized test scores and high school transcripts aren’t included in the list of application components. That’s because unlike many honors colleges, Schreyer doesn’t take SAT or ACT scores into consideration as a part of its application process! Part of Schreyer’s philosophy is that test scores and high school GPA aren’t the best predictors of academic success. Instead, students have to explain their high school course load as part of their application. 

Schreyer applicants who submit their application materials by November 1 are invited to an optional Admissions Interview with a Scholar alumnus. If you aren’t able to submit your application early it won’t negatively impact your application, but landing an interview gives you a chance to make a case for yourself in person. (If you want to know more about what a college interview is like, be sure to check out our article that demystifies the college interview process.) 


The Honors College Experience

Now you know what to expect from the Schreyer application and admissions process, but what’s the student experience like? 

Along with the excellent research opportunities and intimate classroom environments we mentioned earlier, Schreyer students also have unique opportunities to learn the soft skills they’ll need to be successful in college and beyond. 

When you’re a Schreyer honors student, you have access to an on-campus community, various academic and student life programs, and career development opportunities that non-honors students don’t. In addition to providing on-campus housing for honors college students, Schreyer has several leadership opportunities for its honors scholars, including a student council, a residence hall Scholar Assistants (SAs) program, Orientation Mentors, and Scholar Ambassadors. The skills you learn in these programs will give you a huge leg up when you embark on your career after graduation. 

Along with a phenomenal academic experience, these community activities give Schreyer students the chance to network with fellow honors students and honors college alumni...which can translate to better career opportunities after graduation, too.  



To remain in good standing as a Schreyer Scholar, you’ll have to meet certain requirements as outlined by the college, including a minimum GPA and completion of honors courses and credits. Scholars are also required to complete an honors thesis in order to graduate from the honors college. Usually, honors theses require students to conduct independent research and present it to a committee of professors. 

Honors students who complete the requirements for an honors distinction will graduate with honors and receive a Scholars Medal to wear at Penn State commencement as well as have honors conferred on their diploma. Schreyer also hosts a separate Honors College Medals Ceremony prior to commencement, during which the Scholars Medals are presented to graduating Scholars. 



(Simon Kellogg/Flickr)


University of South Florida Honors College

Like Shreyer at Penn State, the Judy Genshaft Honors College is its own school on the USF campus. 

The honors college at USF offers the rigorous academic experience of a top-tier research university with the close-knit community that smaller, private institutions are typically known for. That means you’ll have more demanding classes, smaller class sizes, one-on-one interaction with your professors, and unique opportunities only available to honors students. 


The Admissions Process

To become an honors student at USF, prospective students must apply to the University of South Florida before applying to the Judy Genshaft Honors College. While all interested high school students are encouraged to apply, the honors college does take high school GPA and SAT/ACT scores into account. The Honors College has an automatic admission policy for students who meet the following criteria: 

  • Score 1400 or higher on the SAT, or score 31 or higher on the ACT 
  • Have a recalculated USF GPA of 4.0

The recalculated GPA portion of USF’s honors college admissions process takes your high school GPA and then adjusts for difficulty. To figure out your recalculated GPA, the honors college does the following

  • Adds one-half point for honors courses
  • Adds one point for AP, IB, AICE, or Dual Enrollment courses
  • Removes any non-academic courses (i.e. P.E., Band, etc.)

The university points out that most students’ recalculated GPAs are lower than their high school GPA. But don’t worry: while your recalculated GPA might not qualify you for automatic admission into the honors college, the admissions committee places more emphasis on the other aspects of your application than your recalculated grade point average. 

In addition to evaluating applicants based on GPA and test scores, the honors college at USF evaluates applicants based on two other criteria: involvement in high school activities and a 500-750 word essay response. For the essay response, the honors college provides six essay prompts that address the three core honors college values. Applicants are encouraged to choose to respond to one essay prompt that speaks to them! (Be sure to check out this article for expert advice on how to write a killer admissions essay.) 


The Honors College Experience

There are many benefits for students in the Judy Genshaft Honors College. USF’s honors college offers small, discussion-based classes that give students the opportunity to interact closely with faculty and fellow honors students from different majors. This lets honors students receive lots of personalized attention to help them reach their academic and career goals, which is probably why USF honors grads have gone on to do amazing things, like become CEOs and work for NASA

USF honors students are able to register for classes on the day registration opens, which means they get first pick of course choices every year. Honors students also have special academic advisors that help students plan class schedules, make decisions about their majors, and even search for internship opportunities. Another perk of being in the Judy Genshaft Honors College is that students are also eligible to live in a special Honors Living Learning Community (LLC), which is on-campus housing option only available to honors students.

Additionally, the honors college offers a unique program called the Provost’s Scholars Program. This program helps students graduate in three years rather than four, and it provides students the chance to study abroad, learn leadership skills, and gain professional development. The Provost Scholars Program allows high-achieving students to save money on their education while simultaneously helping them jumpstart their future careers. 



As is typical of honors college, the Judy Genshaft Honors College requires its students to complete a research track consisting of either an honors thesis or capstone project. The thesis track is recommended for students who want to go into research-based fields or academia, and the capstone project is for those interested in conducting research with their fellow honors college peers. Capstone projects happen in a classroom-style setting, and the topics vary from semester to semester. 

Like Penn State’s honors graduates, USF honors grads also receive special recognition for their accomplishments on their diplomas and on graduation day. Judy Genshaft Honors College graduates are invited to attend a special graduation ceremony for all graduating honors students. Family and friends are invited to the ceremony, and each graduating honors student is recognized individually during the ceremony. At the university-wide commencement ceremony, Judy Genshaft Honors College graduates wear special honors college regalia to signify their successful completion of the honors program.




5 Pros and Cons for Enrolling in an Honors Program

There are a lot of perks to enrolling in an honors college, but before you decide that being an honors student is the best choice for your academic career, it might be helpful to weigh a few pros and cons that come with honors colleges. After all, participating in an honors program can be a pretty big time commitment! 

Check out our list of five pros and cons for enrolling in an honors college below to help decide whether an honors program is the right choice for you. 


Pro: You Can Get an Elite Education at an Affordable Price

Honors colleges are a more equitable alternative to elite colleges and universities. It’s no secret that most premier universities in the U.S. come with a hefty price tag—one that many hardworking families simply can’t afford to pay for. 

One of the benefits of an honors college is that most provide funding opportunities for both incoming and current students. For example, the University of Utah’s honors college offers scholarships that are only available to honors students, and some of the awards are as high as $10,000. Even better: because there are fewer honors students, you have a better shot at actually winning a scholarship. 

Additionally, enrolling in an honors college at a public school gives high achieving students the opportunity to receive an elite education they can actually afford. Honors colleges offer the kind of highly specialized, rigorous academics that are the hallmark of the most selective colleges. That means that at some schools, you can get an Ivy-style education for a fraction of the price. 


Pro: You’ll (Probably) Get to Register for Classes Early

One of the biggest recurring perks of being an honors student? A little thing called priority registration. Priority registration allows honors students to attend academic advising sessions to plan their semester schedules and register for classes before all non-honors students. 

So, how does priority registration work out in the honors student’s favor? When enrollment periods open for different groups of students at colleges and universities—especially big universities—classes fill up fast. The later you enroll, the less likely you are to get into the courses you need to take, and the less likely you are to come out with a schedule of classes that you find appealing (7:30 a.m. class on Mondays, anyone?). When you get to register for classes before everyone else, you’re much more likely to get into the classes you want, at the times you want!


Pro: You’ll Be Around Other High-Achieving Students

A key feature of honors colleges and programs is that they offer courses—“honors courses”—that are exclusively available to honors students. These honors courses usually have limited enrollment so that the class sizes are small. This means that you’ll probably be seeing the same students over and over again in the classes you take. On top of that, many universities have special housing, classrooms, and study spaces reserved especially for honors students. 

The honors college can form a close-knit community of students, since honors students spend so much time in the same spaces doing the same things. That can be a really good thing: not only will you be more connected to your honors college community, you’ll have the opportunity to make friends, too. Whether they become a consistent study partner or your BFF, your honors college peers can be one of the biggest pros of the honors college experience. 



While there are some pretty big perks to being in an honors college, there are some downsides, too.


Con: Honors Students Do More Work

In general, honors college students are going to be doing more work than their non-honors schoolmates. In general, honors courses require more studying, more homework, and more writing. 

For example, an honors history class may require you to read more than just a textbook. Your professor may give you academic articles, history books, or even a novel to complement what you’re learning in class. And you can expect for your tests and papers to be graded on a tougher rubric, too. That’s because your professors know that as an honors student, you’re the best of the best. It’s their job to push you to expand your skills...which can translate to a heavier workload. 

Honors students also have to do extra work if they want to graduate with distinction. Both Penn State and USF require students to write a thesis or complete a capstone project. This involves (you guessed it!) more research and writing, much of which has to be done on your own time. That means you’ll have to fit the extra work in around your already busy schedule. So if you aren’t ready to take on a heavier workload—or if you’re not great at juggling multiple projects at once—an honors program may not be the best fit for you.


Con: The Perks Can Vary

We’ve mentioned several perks of being an honors college student, like priority registration, select student housing, smaller class sizes, and special on-campus facilities. But before you decide to apply to an honors college, it’s important to recognize that the nature of these perks will vary from school to school. Most often, the resources and opportunities available to honors college students depend on how well-funded the honors college or program is. 

If you want to know exactly what you can expect your experience to be like as an honors student at a particular school, it’s important to ask a lot of questions about the program before you make any kind of commitment. One easy way to find out all the things you want to know about a specific honors college or program is to get connected with a current honors student at the university you’re interested in. Whether it’s through email, social media, or an in-person campus visit, talking with a student who knows the ropes of a university’s honors program can give you the perspective you’re looking for. 




Next Steps 

If you’ve decided that you want to be an honors student but your high school GPA isn’t high enough, it’s time to get to work. Start by reading through this guide to raising your GPA fast, then check out this guide to getting 4.0s or higher in your classes.

Many honors colleges and programs look at your weighted GPA when determining whether you meet the minimum admission requirements. But what is a weighted GPA? Learn about the difference between weighted GPAs and unweighted GPAs, then make sure you’re calculating your weighted GPA accurately

Another good way to get admitted into an honors college is to take advanced courses in high school. (The Penn State honors college we talked about is actually more interested in your high school course load than your GPA and test scores!) Start by learning more about what AP classes and IB classes are, then check out this guide to determining which advanced classes will work best 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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