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The Scary World of Honors Programs

by Jennifer Graham

“But it’s going to make my life harder, right?”

As an honors advisor, I hear this question all the time. Students are terrified that because they join an honors program, their GPA will suffer, and they will spend countless, not to mention thankless, hours studying for the more difficult courses they will inevitably have by participating. This is a natural fear. After all, a university will not simply give you an honors diploma just because you joined the program, right? They are going to make you work for it. Well, yes, there is a little more work involved, but, no, it’s not meant to make your life harder. And in the long run, it’s well worth it. Many adult students avoid honors programs because they are concerned that the program is designed for the younger, more traditional students. They don’t want to get involved in a program that may not cater to their needs. I understand this concern. However, I feel it is unwarranted. Most honors programs are happy to have eager students; they don’t discriminate based on age or anything else. While much of the programming might be centered on the “traditional” student, honors administrators know that adult learners have very high grades and often are more devoted to their studies than their 18-year-old counterparts. They take their courses more seriously and take more time to get to know their professors. What administrator wouldn’t want a student like that in their honors program?

There are some distinct advantages to being an honors student. Many programs offer scholarship money; this means you are competing with only the honors population, not the university as a whole. Also, honors students often have the benefit of priority registration, meaning that they get to choose their classes before the rest of the university gets a shot at them. This allows you to cater your schedule without the burden of closed classes. Finally, you have the opportunity to get to know some wonderful fellow honors students as well as honors faculty, staff, and administrators. Those relationships can last forever.

As an adult learner, you have made so many sacrifices to head back to school. Work, family, and other obligations tear at your time and your wallet. The best thing you can do is to make that sacrifice worth it. While the completion of the bachelor’s degree is the most rewarding outcome to all of the struggles, completing it as an honors bachelor’s degree is icing on top of a beautiful cake. In order to complete an honors diploma, most schools have similar steps.

What Do I Have To Do?

First of all, a percentage of the bachelor’s degree work must be completed as honors coursework. Many schools, especially those that have a diverse student body, are very flexible with honors classes. They allow students to make any of their classes honors credits simply by completing an extra project in the class. Often, honors students are not required to take any extra coursework to complete the honors bachelor’s degree.

I know what you are thinking. But why make myself do extra work? Well, for starters, the extra project is often something you might be interested in studying. For example, a psychology student might petition her Abnormal Psychology course as honors. For the project, she might explain to her professor that she is really interested in autism. She and the professor agree that her project will be a public information brochure on autism. The extra research with a topic that is interesting could lead to further research and more clout on a graduate school application.

Furthermore, the project allows you one-on-one time with your professor. Suddenly, in a class of 100, you stand out. This could work to your advantage when it comes time for recommendation letters.

Secondly, many schools require some sort of honors senior project that must be completed under the tutelage of a faculty member. This is an excellent opportunity to complete research in your field. Some students shy away from this requirement because it requires a large amount of work, and it can be daunting to approach a professor to help. However, you come out of the experience with amazing credentials. Many universities publish your senior project or thesis and put a copy in the school library. That’s quite a legacy to leave. Besides the great honor of leaving a body of work in your alma mater’s library, however, you also have the distinct privilege of keeping a copy of the project yourself. This allows you to show anyone that you are an expert in something! It’s a great hit at Christmas parties.

But seriously, the published document is an excellent coup for any student. A graduate school admissions counselor or future employer is able to immediately see the best of your work. By flipping through your project, they are able to determine your writing style and your ability to organize your thoughts. The best prize that comes from the senior project, however, is the time you get with your professor. This person not only knows you by name, he/she could become a mentor for the long run. Many of the professors that mentor students in my honors program end up assisting the students with graduate school applications or publications of their own. In a world defined by “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”, this experience is worth its weight in gold.

So Now What?

Now, you need to do some research. Get on your school’s website and search for “honors”. This will give you a clue on where to begin. Meet with an advisor in the program; that is what we are here for! We want to help our students succeed, and we will do the best we can to make the program accessible for all. Look at all the requirements for the program. Is the program flexible? Will they take students with a good number of hours completed? What do they require for the honors degree? What are the resources and benefits available to honors students? Once you have done the research, if the program might work for you, take the plunge! The richly rewarding outcome of an honors bachelors degree and extended knowledge above and beyond the university curriculum is well worth the effort!

Jennifer Graham is an honors advisor and a Texas-based freelance writer.
She graduated Cum Laude with a B.A. in Psychology from the  University of Houston Honors College and earned an M.A. in Sociology from the University of Texas at Arlington where she was selected as a prestigious University Scholar.

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