High school honors can mean a lot of different things. Sometimes it refers to honors courses in your school. Other times it refers to specific honors societies that you can join, like the National Honor Society.
Most high schools offer classes at three different levels: standard, honors, and AP. Standard will set you up with the basics, and AP is clearly connected to the AP exam—but what exactly does it mean when a class is honors level? And are honors classes connected to the various academic honors societies?
If you are having trouble figuring out which is the right fit for you, or deciding which one would do more for your college application, or trying to make sense of the many honors organizations out there, read on for our explanation.
What's the Difference Between Standard, Honors, and AP Classes?
Before getting a sense of whether honors is right for you, it's a good idea to understand the differences between the levels of classes offered in high school. Of course the details vary by school. Some schools don’t even have honors classes, or only have honors classes in the subjects where they do not have AP classes. But here is the typical set up. (Please note that since IB diploma classes are very similar to AP classes in terms of level, for the sake of simplicity we are just going to talk about AP here).
Before you dive off the highest board, make sure you can swim.
Standard (or college prep) classes give you a solid foundation in a particular subject. In other words, you will learn the basics of what you need to know to continue studying that subject in high school and eventually, college.
Honors classes move faster, and are harder, more in-depth, and have more complex assignments than standard classes. That means that you will learn a broader, more contextualized, more richly detailed version of the subject, and be much more ready to study it at a college level. Doing well in an honors class may improve your GPA more than a regular class, especially when your school calculates your weighted GPA. (Confused by what we mean? Let us explain the differences between a weighted and unweighted GPA.)
AP classes are meant to prepare students to take the AP exam for that subject. They are also harder and more rigorous than the standard level, but their focus may be slightly different in order to accommodate everything that is on the AP test. One big difference between honors and AP classes is the question of prerequisites. Honors classes may or may not have a prerequisite for getting in—ask your school counselor for the details. In contrast, any student is by policy supposed to be allowed to take any AP class if that's what he or she wants.
To get the full scoop on the differences between honors and AP classes in your school, talk to a teacher in the Department you’re interested in, or your school counselor for a broader overview.
Should I Take Honors or AP?
If you know that you are ready for a challenge, and want to pursue a higher level of a particular class, how do you decide between honors and AP?
Knowing where you're going doesn't always help with how to get there.
Take the AP class if you are trying to optimize your college applications. AP is a better bet here, especially if you are planning to take the AP test, because this is a nationwide criteria that colleges can use to judge your skills and abilities against of those of applicants across the whole country. Also doing well on the AP test can earn you college credit, or at least place you out of intro classes when you get to college.
Take the honors class if you are interested in a subject and your school does not have an AP version of it. It’s better to take honors than standard level and demonstrate that you are willing to challenge yourself. You should also take the honors class if it is taught by an amazing teacher who doesn't also teach AP. You can never overemphasizes the huge—really, lifelong!—rewards of learning from a fantastic teacher.
One of the single most important parts of your college application is what classes you choose to take in high school (in conjunction with how well you do in those classes). Our team of PrepScholar admissions experts have compiled their knowledge into this single guide to planning out your high school course schedule. We'll advise you on how to balance your schedule between regular and honors/AP/IB courses, how to choose your extracurriculars, and what classes you can't afford not to take.
Should I Join a High School Honors Society?
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For those who are passionate about or excel in specific subjects in school, honors can come from societies set up specifically to recognize these kinds of achievements. If the organization creates opportunities for you to do meaningful extracurricular projects or activities, then it is definitely worthwhile. Remember, unless you can describe a significant project than you did because of the society, simply being a member of one does not make a particularly impressive edition to your college application.
But you have to be careful! There are also organizations that mimic legitimate honor societies in order to make money from naive students. For example, beware for-profit and non-chapter-based organizations like the National Society of High School Scholars which purposefully uses a confusing name that is very close to a legitimate organization, the National Honors Society.
How can you tell the real honors organizations from predatory ones? Legitimate honor societies only work through chapters established in each high school. Any organization that requires you to send in dues or to apply not through your school is most likely a scam or a for-profit company.
What Legitimate Honors Societies Are There?
Here are the most well-known organizations around the country, grouped by subject.
General Achievement Societies
- The National Honors Society is an organization established to recognize those outstanding high school students who have demonstrated excellence in the areas of scholarship, leadership, service, and character. Membership is based on the four pillars of National Honor Society: character, scholarship, leadership, and service.
- The Cum Laude Society is dedicated to honoring scholastic achievement in secondary schools. The founders of the society modeled Cum Laude after Phi Beta Kappa.
- The California Scholarship Federation is a state-wide organization to honor outstanding high school students in California.
- The Sociedad Honoraria Hispánica (SHH) is an honor society for high school students enrolled in Spanish and/or Portuguese, sponsored by the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese (AATSP). The mission of the Sociedad Honoraria Hispánica is to recognize high school achievement in Spanish and Portuguese and to promote interest in Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian studies.
- The Société Honoraire de Français is an honor society for high school students taking French, sponsored by the American Association of Teachers of French (AATF), the largest national association of French teachers in the world. This society provides an opportunity to recognize outstanding scholarship in the study of French language.
- Delta Epsilon Phi (ΔΕΦ) National Honor Society for High School Students of German recognizes the outstanding academic achievement of learners of German.
- The Tri-M Music Honor Society is the international music honor society for middle/junior high and high school students. It is designed to recognize students for their academic and musical achievements, reward them for their accomplishments and service activities, and to inspire other students to excel at music and leadership.
- Mu Alpha Theta is dedicated to inspiring keen interest in mathematics, developing strong scholarship in the subject, and promoting the enjoyment of mathematics in high school and two-year college students.
- Rho Kappa Social Studies Honor Society is the only national organization for high school juniors and seniors that recognizes excellence in the field of Social Studies. Rho Kappa provides national recognition and opportunities for exploration in the social studies.
- The National Art Honor Society (NAHS) is designed specifically to inspire and recognize high school students who have shown an outstanding ability and interest in art.
If you are interested in joining any of these honors societies, talk to you school counselor or a teacher about establishing a chapter at your school.
If you want help deciding between AP and IB classes, let us help you with our guide.
Want to see each subject broken down by year and level? We can explain which high school English, math, science, history, foreign language, and electives you should take and when:
- high school English classes
- high school Math classes
- high school Science classes
- high school Social Studies/History classes
- high school electives
Ready to set up a challenging curriculum? Check out our discussion of just what makes a course load rigorous.
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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.