Crafting a balanced college list for a high-achieving high school student is one of the most challenging tasks facing juniors and seniors as they contemplate their future.
For many students, there appears to be a solid line drawn across the list of colleges. On one side are the highly competitive colleges that match the profile of the straight-A student, the so-called target schools. Unfortunately, most of these elite universities have acceptance rates of 15 percent or below, making grades simply the table stakes; students must have some other extraordinary characteristics in order to stand out and be accepted. Then there are the University of California schools, which have such unpredictable acceptance patterns that it’s hard to count on them as safety or target schools.
On the other side of that line are approximately 3,300 four-year public and private universities – schools that are less competitive, less prestigious and seemingly a big step down for students who have worked so hard during their 12 previous years of academics and plan to reap the rewards of their efforts.
In reality, the lines around these categories are less hard and more of shifting sands, where honors colleges and unique programs can turn safety schools into incredible learning opportunities and create new options that may not be available at the elite, low-admissions-rates colleges. Exploring the honors colleges and unique programs can engender excitement and new horizons for students.
Benefits of honors colleges
Honors colleges offer myriad exclusive opportunities for students, treating them like VIPs, often including scholarships, identified housing, early registration for classes, dedicated advising staff and honors classes.
These schools are usually smaller in size and focused on more complex concepts, first choice of research and leadership plums and access to networking for both career and graduate programs.
Top-rated honors colleges can be found at public schools such as Arizona State (Barrett Honors College), the University of Oregon (Clark Honors College) and San Diego State (The Weber Honors College). Most of the California State Universities offer honors programs, making them a great value both financially and academically. Most of these programs have the feel of a smaller liberal arts college blended with the facilities and benefits of a large research university.
Private universities also offer honors colleges or programs for students who wish to have the elite experience without the elite price tag and hypercompetition. These programs are often accompanied by scholarships, seminar-style classes and extra assistance in award competitions such as Fulbright, Goldwater and others.
In California alone, there are honors offerings at schools such as Chapman University, Loyola Marymount University, Santa Clara University, the University of San Diego, the University of San Francisco and University of the Pacific.
Typically, honors colleges require an additional application, usually at the same time the admissions application is completed. Most of the honors programs require an additional essay, and some may request an interview, additional letters of recommendation and minimum grade-point average and test scores.
While honors colleges and programs are an excellent way to create a safety list for high-achieving students, they are not for everyone. Because the programs can be quite rigorous and have specific curricula, some students might find them too restrictive. Additionally, students majoring in architecture, engineering and nursing might find the course load of those programs challenging enough and may feel overwhelmed with honors programs.