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Many high school students enroll in honors classes in order to challenge themselves, dive into a particular subject they are interested in, strengthen their college applications, and, in the case of AP courses, earn college credit. While honors courses are common in high school, it is lesser known that students have the option to enroll in university honors programs for many of the same reasons.

University honors programs are created to attract exceptionally motivated students, as classes and their coursework are of a higher caliber than other college courses. If you are selected for an honors program, it is, in fact, an honor as the program sees you as an academically outstanding student. However, it is important to understand exactly what it means to be in an honors program, including the benefits as well as the challenges that may come with a high level of academic rigor.

An honors program is designed to offer high-achieving students an opportunity to dive into their studies more thoroughly than they may in regular classes. A small group of admitted students is selected for the program, and honors programs exist at both public and private universities. Students generally engage in more discussion in honors classes due to the smaller class sizes and independence given to students.

While the academic expectations are higher in honors classes, colleges offer many benefits to these students to aid their studies including smaller class sizes, networking opportunities, research opportunities, extracurricular academic opportunities, and early class registration.

MacKenzie Mantsch enrolled in the University of Denver Honors Program when she began her career at DU. In this particular honors program, students take designated honors classes during their first and second year. During junior and senior years, honors students participate in weekly seminars. The program also puts on various events and activities throughout the year, provides students with funding for special projects, and provides advising and mentoring for students.

“I enrolled in my college honors program because I was in AP classes all through high school and wanted to be pushed. I saw the benefit of more challenging work, but got way more: smaller class sizes, easier access to extracurricular academic opportunities, and having similarly driven people in class with me. Plus, early registration was helpful,” said Mantsch.

Honors students are also often able to live on the same floor during their first-year on-campus living, which allows students to form connections. Mantsch continued on this path throughout her time at the university due to the various academic and professional benefits she received as an honors student. Now as a college graduate, Mantsch shared how the program has benefited her.

“I would so recommend [an honors program]. Some of my best friends in college were my honors friends, and I was able to do some really cool portfolio and extra class work. Now that I’m out of college, it does stand out on my resume and signals that I chose to push myself,” said Mantsch.

Victoria Davis, now the Product Marketing Manager at Peterson’s, participated in the Dana Scholars Program during her time at Muhlenberg College.

“The Dana Scholars Program at Muhlenberg didn’t require me to take certain classes, or major in a certain discipline. Rather, it required me to take a Dana freshman year seminar, complete an internship and mentorship, and participate in a senior year forum. During the forum, we had to partner up and complete a research project that tied in with that year’s theme,” said Davis.

Much like Davis’ research project, students in any honors program typically produce a major project or thesis in their senior year. This allows students to showcase their skills, add to their portfolio, and develop a long-term project.

“For my senior year research project, I partnered with another honors student. We took on a massive topic about international perceptions of American democracy. It was a project that was completely different and more ambitious than anything else I had ever done. I think having something separate from classes related to my majors really helped me step outside my comfort zone,” said Davis.

Honors programs also often mean scholarships. Many honors students are either given scholarships through the program or due to their enrollment in the program, incentivising students to push themselves in this way.

“One major benefit to participating in the program was financial, since they offer an annual stipend. But beyond that, I think the main benefit is that my freshman year seminar threw me in the deep end, in a great way. I learned immediately how to think differently, question what I thought I already knew, and how to communicate it all,” said Davis.

While an honors program gives students many resources to allow them to succeed in high-level courses, Mantsch shared that it’s important to not become completely immersed in academics and under-utilize networking resources and other professional resources. A student’s professional skills are equally important to their academic skills.

“Incoming freshmen should know to advocate for themselves–even though they’re in honors, they will have to take command of their education,” said Mantsch.

Networking is a major benefit of honors programs, as they provide many opportunities for students to practice their networking skills as well as find connections that will help them with internships and post-graduate employment.

“Through the program I definitely met many great professors and students, who I otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to work with,” said Davis.

Davis also shared her advice for students enrolling in an honors program:

“I think it’s really important to have an open mind, and to not be afraid to speak up and ask questions. Freshman year is already a bit of a scary time, but just embracing the challenges and learning from your classmates can go a long way,” said Davis.

In order to apply for an honors program or honors college, you will need to meet the requirements for the program. These requirements typically include a minimum GPA, minimum test scores, and supplemental essays. For example, the University of Denver typically admits students with a high school GPA of 3.8 and above, ACT scores of 30 or higher, and SAT scores of 1300 and higher. Applications may be due with your overall college applications or at a later date. Check with your university for application requirements.

If you’re interested in further challenging yourself in college and getting involved in a smaller group of fellow high-achieving and academically-motivated students, a college or university honors program is for you. Talk with your high school guidance counselor about colleges that have honors programs that appeal to you, or search with Peterson’s college search tool.