Honors Programs: Get an Ivy-League Education at a Public School

Fotolia_6237413_XS Christina McIntyre, associate director of University Honors at Virginia Tech and founder of BecomeAlum, says being in an honors program can include opportunities that are outside the norm for individual students. She says it’s a way to get “an ivy-league education at a public university.”

Because honors programs vary widely in structure and mission, McIntyre recommends scheduling face-to-face meetings with honors program staff when you visit schools: “An actual visit can reveal how people involved in the honors program interact with students as individuals.”

Preparing for the Visit: What Should I Ask?

As you research a school’s honors program web page or brochure, consider the primary questions below; then form follow-up questions to ask in person:

Primary Question #1

  • What is the focus of the honors experience? Is it strictly a matter of taking harder/more in-depth courses to achieve an honors diploma, or is there more?

Example Follow-up Questions

  • Are there opportunities/requirements for independent research, creative projects, collaborative projects, community projects, presentations, travel?
  • Is there a series of required courses, or can I shape my own program? For example, can I take a regular course and work with the professor to make it an honors course for me?

Primary Question #2

  • How would the honors program connect with my major?

Example Follow-up Questions

  • How have past students in my major completed the honors diploma?
  • Would my honors courses count toward my major or general education requirements?
  • Would I have an honors adviser and a major adviser?
  • If I enter school as an undeclared major, would I still be able to make progress toward an honors diploma?

Primary Question #3

  • Is there a residential component to the honors program (a “living/learning community” in which honors students live in the same residence hall)?

Example Follow-up Questions
If there is not a residential component:

  • Are there other opportunities for interaction among honors students?

If there is a residential component:

  • Is the purpose mainly to give honors students a quiet place to live, or are opportunities built in for academic and social interaction?
  • Are honors program staff part of the community?
  • Would I have a student mentor?
  • Tell me more.

(McIntyre notes: “National research has shown that students who are part of living/learning communities perform better academically and are more engaged in the university.”)

Primary Question #4

  • What benefits does the honors program offer that I might not have thought about?

Example Follow-up Question

  • I noticed on your web page that honors students get priority registration. What does this mean? Why do honors students get priority registration?

(McIntyre notes: “Comparing the way a variety of schools answer questions like this one can tell you volumes about the working philosophy of an honors program.”

Primary Question #5

  • How would I enter the honors program? (Can I apply on my own, or do I have to be invited? What is the deadline for application?)

Example Follow-up Questions

  • If there is an application process, what does it include?
  • Is the honors program open only to entering freshmen, or can students apply later (for example, during the sophomore or junior year)?
  • If I’m not eligible now but can apply later, what would I need to do to become eligible?
  • Are honors courses available to students who are not in the honors program?

Be Ready to Answer Questions, Too

“A visit to an honors program can end up being an informal interview, an opportunity to stand apart from others who visit – to be identified as someone to keep an eye on,” says McIntyre. “You, the student, should be engaged in this visit whether it’s one-on-one or in a group.”

A Question Likely to be Asked of You

  • Why are you interested in participating in the honors program at this university?

Preparing to Answer

  • Read all the information available and ask yourself: “How does my idea of what I want from a college education align with this school’s honors program mission, philosophy and structure?”

Before you visit a school, see about arranging a visit with the honors program while you’re there.
If the web page doesn’t list a daily information session for the honors program, call and ask to schedule one. The more lead time the better – staff might not be available if you wait and call the day before or day of your visit.

“The interpersonal connection made that day can make a big difference in a student's impression of a school and its honors program,” says McIntyre. “I have seen students completely change their ‘top school’ choices based on these visits.”


Kathie Dickenson is an award-winning higher-education writer and editor and a regular contributor to SmartCollegeVisit.

Z. Kelly Queijo

Author: Z. Kelly Queijo

Kelly is founder of Smart College Visit and Smart College Consulting. When she's not creating content for the blog or clients, tweeting, or hosting #CampusChat, she's planning her next mobile move.

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