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In the coming months, as high school seniors make their final college choice, juniors (and some eager sophomores) are just beginning their search for the right college. There are so many different factors and types of schools to consider, and many students will be torn between the affordability of a state institution, and the academic opportunities and benefits of a small, private college. Wouldn’t it be great to have both?  Enter honors colleges. Over the past years, attending an honors college has become a growing trend, and it can be a fantastic opportunity for a high-achieving student who may want a larger school (or the economic value of a public institution), but also the individual attention and opportunity of a private college.

What are honors colleges? 

In a nutshell, an honors college lives within a larger, often public, university. It is essentially a “college within a college,” giving high-achieving students academic and co-curricular perks that they might normally find at a smaller school. While these perks vary, they often include:

  • Smaller classes and/or more demanding and challenging courses
  • Priority scheduling for classes
  • Special housing communities on campus
  • More engagement with professors, including research and internship opportunities
  • Scholarships and grants

Sometimes the honors college provides a specific academic focus, like the University of Texas at Austin’s Plan II Honors program, in which students major in a liberal arts core curriculum. Other honors programs allow for pursuit of a broader range of majors, like University of Maryland’s Honors College, which allows students to take honors courses and pursue research in everything from English to Engineering. Hutton Honors College at Indiana University supports multidisciplinary studies for their select group of students. And one of the many benefits of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State University is an integrated undergraduate/graduate program, which offers students the opportunity to pursue an accelerated BA/MA degree.

Dedicated housing is a perk at many honors colleges, providing students with a smaller community of like-minded students—a residential college experience within the framework of a larger university.  Arizona State University’s Barrett Honors College is a great example of a residential community and campus just for their students. Similarly, Penn State’s Schreyer students at also have access to Living and Learning Communities on the University Park campus.

Who should apply?

Honors colleges appeal to high-achieving students who are likely going to be strong candidates for some of the most selective colleges and universities in the country. They are those students who go “above and beyond” in their academic coursework and involvement in school and community. For students who are excited by the prospect of engaging with professors and pursuing research and independent study opportunities, and who want to be a part of a smaller cohort of other academically-minded students within the framework of a larger university, an honors college is a great option.

How do I apply? What extra credentials/work is involved in the applications?

Like so many responses in college admissions, the answer here is, “It depends.” Some honors colleges, like the ones at Arizona State and Penn State, have a separate and in-depth application, with additional essays that play a crucial role in the selection process. Honors college admission officers are looking for the same level of writing and depth as the application essays for the Ivies and other most selective colleges.

Other schools, like the Hutton Honors College at Indiana and University of Massachusetts’s Commonwealth Honors College, don’t have a separate application, instead offering admission to their honors colleges to the top students in their applicant pool. While acceptance rates can vary from school to school, these programs tend to be extremely selective; the profiles of accepted students often mirror those at the Ivies.

So the bottom line:  Honors colleges may not be for everyone.  But if, in your college search, you’re a strong candidate for highly selective, small, private colleges, don’t rule out your public institution.  An honors college can be a wonderful opportunity to get a phenomenal educational and social experience at a much lower price point.

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Written by Julia Jones
Julia Jones is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Julia previously worked as a senior admissions officer at Brandeis University and was the director of admissions at Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall School.