Should I Take Honors Courses in High School and College?

Written by College Cliffs Team At, our team, comprising seasoned educators and counselors, is committed to supporting students on their journey through graduate studies. Our advisors, holding advanced degrees in diverse fields, provide tailored guidance, current program details, and pragmatic tips on navigating application procedures.

Reviewed by Linda Weems I got started researching colleges and universities about 10 years ago while exploring a second career. While my second career ended up being exactly what I’m doing now, and I didn’t end up going to college, I try to put myself in your shoes every step of the way as I build out College Cliffs as a user-friendly resource for prospective students.

Updated: March 22, 2024, Reading time: 14 minutes

In a University of Nebraska – Lincoln demographic study, the 400% expansion of honors education in the United States after the establishment of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) is truly astonishing!

Nowadays, honors courses in high school and honors programs and colleges in postsecondary institutions are pervasive. Indeed, both public and private institutions, as well as two-year and four-year colleges and universities, offer honors courses, programs, and colleges. 

But there are questions that interested students must first ask themselves before getting onto the honors bandwagon – Is there a value in taking honors courses in high school or being in an honors program in college? Is it the right choice for you? 

Honors Courses in High School and College - fact

An Introduction to Honors Classes in High School and Honors Programs in College

If you want to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges and benefits that come with being in an honors course, program or college, you must first know what these are!

An Introduction to Honors Classes in High School and Honors Programs in College - Image

Definition of Honors Courses, Programs and Colleges

Despite being a pervasive presence in the country’s education system, there are no standard definitions for what makes for an honors course, program or college. The result is a wide variety of content, design, and quality between high schools and colleges, even between honors courses in the same institution. But, we can identify commonalities that result in acceptable definitions. 

In most cases, honors courses are included in an honors program in high school. Examples include honors courses offered by the Montgomery County Public Schools (Maryland), New West Charter School (California), and Alexandria City Public Schools (Virginia).

Examples include Barrett College at Arizona State University, Schreyer Honors College at Pennsylvania State University, and University of South Carolina Honors College

Regardless of the specific definition of an honors course, program or college, interested students must be prepared for a competitive and selective admissions process, challenging coursework, and a demanding schedule. Indeed, these aren’t for the faint of heart or the weak of intellect!

Differences Between High School and College Honors Courses

While high school and college honors courses are characterized by their emphasis on academic excellence above and beyond regular courses, there are a few differences worth noting.

Course content and structure

Where high school honors courses are part of the state-mandated standard curriculum, college honors courses are usually more flexible in their design, content and structure. There’s an emphasis on deeper topic explorations and interdisciplinary themes. 

Student independence

While high school honors courses may provide students with a certain level of autonomy in learning, students are still subject to more guidance and supervision by their teachers. College honors students have more autonomy, independence, and flexibility in their education.

Depth of study

Where high school honors students want to gain a deeper understanding of their subjects, college honors students focus more on originality and creativity, critical analysis and analytical thinking, and advanced concepts in their courses.

Flexibility of study

There are fewer elective choices in high school honors courses than in college honors programs and colleges, meaning college honors students have more flexibility in tailoring their education to their personal interests and professional goals.

Assessment and grading

While high school honors courses are graded based nearly exclusively on academic performance, college honors courses are graded on academic performance as well as based on research papers, conference presentations, and seminars.

Both high school and college honors courses, however, share similarities in terms of smaller class sizes, more personalized attention, and greater emphasis on leadership, initiative, and excellence.

Benefits of Taking Honors Courses in High School and Attending an Honors Program in College

Benefits of Taking Honors Courses in High School and Attending an Honors Program in College - Image

Keep in mind that the specific benefits of being part of an honors class in high school or an honors program in college are different for every course or program. If you’re interested in being part of an honors course or program, you must ask about the specific benefits provided for students. 

Here are general benefits, nonetheless, that honors students can enjoy during and after their stay in honors courses in high school and honors programs in college.

Get Priority Registration

Many colleges and universities offer honors program students with priority registration that allows them to enjoy the first pick of their preferred classes and register ahead of the general student population.

This is a particular advantage when there are limited slots in popular courses or limited-enrollment classes, especially when there’s a guarantee of enrollment in these courses. With such a perk, there’s significantly less anxiety and stress, too, in contrast with jockeying for slots. 

Honors program students can then enjoy optimal class schedules, maximize their learning opportunities, and streamline their time to completion. Since there are fewer class scheduling conflicts, their opportunities for extracurricular activities also increase and, thus, contribute to a more well-rounded college experience. 

Examples of colleges and universities with priority registration for honors program students are Jacksonville State University, Valdosta State University, and Chapman University.

Secure Priority for Merit-based Scholarship Opportunities

Students in honors programs have a greater chance of being considered for merit-based scholarship opportunities offered by academic institutions, scholarship organizations, and government agencies, among others. This isn’t surprising as excellent academic performance is the primary criterion for merit-based scholarships, as opposed to need-based financial aid opportunities. 

The scholarship awards range from hundreds of dollars for books, supplies, and incidental expenses to full-tuition scholarships with room and board, too. Indeed, with the rising costs of college, it may well be the most attractive benefit of being in an honors program in high school and college! 

Examples of colleges and universities with scholarships specifically for honors program students are the University of Nevada – Las Vegas, Regent University, and Washington State University

Of course, being admitted to and staying in an honors program, as well as being eligible for its scholarships, is challenging. Maintaining excellent grades, being active in activities, and demonstrating leadership skills are tough acts to follow!

Enjoy a Boost in Your Academic Record

Being an honors program student demonstrates a commitment to academic excellence and the ability to thrive under academic pressure – and these are character traits that can be applied in life situations, too!

In general, admissions officers appreciate high school students in honors programs for this reason. In colleges and universities with high GPA requirements for prospective students, participation in an honors program will add bonus points to their applications. 

This is true for college graduates with honors designation on their official transcripts! While there are numerous factors used in hiring decisions, being an honors program college graduate can increase your post-college employment opportunities.

The reason is quite simple: You’re not only demonstrating your exceptional intellect but also your willingness to take on difficult challenges, assume leadership positions, and deliver expected results, even exceeding expectations.

Benefit from Honors-only Courses and Activities

Secondary and postsecondary institutions with honors courses, programs, and colleges may offer their honors program students exclusive courses and activities. These honors-only experiences are designed to improve the learning experiences and, in many instances, develop the student’s leadership, innovation, and creativity skills.

These courses and activities can include exclusive seminars, workshops and conferences with faculty members and industry experts, as well as international immersions.  

The Honors College at the University of Arkansas, for example, offers honors-only, seminar-style courses on a wide range of interesting topics (e.g., blockchain, climate change, and gene editing). The University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire and Andrew College also have their honors-specific curriculum and extracurricular activities.

Access to Advising and Mentorship Services

Due to the smaller class sizes in honors courses and programs at both the high school and college levels, students benefit from individualized attention from their professors as well as from the staff members. Students also build deeper and stronger bonds among their peers, particularly when they share the four-year academic journey, perhaps even their accommodations. 

Professors have more time and energy in providing advising services and mentoring their students in honors programs that, in turn, enhance the high school and college experience for students. These advisory and mentorship services can include academic and career planning, engagement in research projects, extracurricular activities, co-curricular engagements, and even mental health wellness. 

Many colleges and universities with honors programs even have dedicated student support and career advising services for their students! Of course, honors program students have access to their universities’ student support services as well as facilities and amenities that regular students can access. But, dedicated student support and career advising services can make the college experience better, too. 

Examples include George Mason University, Rutgers Honors College, and the University of South Florida. These aren’t about VIP treatment that caters to a sense of entitlement that honors program students may or may not possess! Instead, these dedicated honors-only student support, career advising and extracurricular support services contribute to their success in and out of the classroom in similar ways as it is for regular students.

Grow from Leadership Opportunities

Being in an honors program in high school and college presents numerous opportunities for leadership! Students learn to navigate the complex and challenging coursework, engage in intellectually stimulating discussions, and develop their critical thinking, decision-making, and problem-solving skills.

Students also develop their research knowledge and skills, interdisciplinary learning and multicultural perspective, and mentorship skills through their intensive coursework. 

More importantly, honors programs and colleges provide their students with diverse leadership opportunities, many of which are exclusively designed for their benefit.

These include active participation in the honors program leadership council and its committees, being orientation guides for incoming freshmen students, engaging in peer-to-peer mentorship programs, and representing the honors program as ambassadors.

Some honors programs and colleges have their honors students organize cultural engagement programs as well as campus and community events. 

These leadership opportunities are also vital in establishing a meaningful personal and professional network that, over years of numerous activities, can be expanded. Networking is vital to career advancement in any industry, from finding first post-college employment to accessing career advancement opportunities down the road. 

Examples include Indiana University (e.g., participation in the Washington Leadership Program and the Indiana Leadership Program) and SUNY Buffalo State with its leadership workshops, Honors Ambassadors initiative, and Honors Leaders Peer Mentoring Program.

Participate in Unique Research Opportunities

The honors-only benefit is also extended to unique research opportunities where honors program students can have first pickings! Honors students learn from professional researchers and faculty members and, in the process, develop more sophisticated research knowledge and skills.

This is of particular importance for honors program students planning on research-centric careers, such as in public health, pharmaceutical, and technology industries. 

For example, SUNY Binghamton University honors program freshmen students engage in intensive research experiences for three semesters. These faculty-led research initiatives cover topics in sciences and engineering, such as global public health, biogeochemistry, and neuroscience. There’s also the Source Project, wherein first-year students engage in research in the social sciences and humanities.

Enjoyment of Special Resources and Perks

Many honors programs and colleges offer honors students exclusive access to resources, too, but these resources can vary widely between colleges and universities. These special perks can include room and board and designated areas for studying, lounging, and special events for honors program students.

Examples of colleges and universities that offer honors-only housing accommodations are Winthrop University, Georgia College and State University, and Dakota State University.

With such wonderful perks, who can resist being in an honors program or college? But, again, it isn’t for everybody!

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the differences between honors courses and Advanced Placement (AP) courses?

Both honors courses and AP courses are more academically challenging than standard courses, but there are several differences between them.


Admission into honors courses may require completion of prerequisites, but it depends on the school. With AP courses, there are usually recommended prerequisites.

Content and challenge

Honors courses are designed by high schools and colleges based on current curriculum standards but cover more depth and breadth. AP courses are college-level courses designed by the College Board and, in general, are more challenging than honors courses in terms of workload, content, and depth.

College credit

At the high school level, completion of honors courses doesn’t typically result in college credits but boosts overall GPA; there are no standardized exams. Completion of AP courses and passing the corresponding exam result in college credit.

How can you determine if you’re a good fit for honors classes in high school and college?

You must ask yourself the following questions: (If you answered “yes” to all questions, then you may be qualified) 

What are the basic steps in getting into honors classes in high school and college?

Ask about the eligibility requirements for admission into honors courses and programs as early as possible, perhaps in your first year of high school. You can then work toward meeting these eligibility requirements while in high school and, hopefully, being admitted to your dream honors college.

How many honors classes should you take in high school and college to maximize their advantages?

No more than you can handle with your current personal and professional commitments if you’re a working student.

What skills are vital in thriving in honors classes?

A strong work ethic, effective time management skills, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication skills are necessary for success in a competitive honors program. You must also be an active and productive participant in the class, co-curricular and extracurricular activities, as well as be resilient and adaptable.

In conclusion, being in an honors program in high school and college brings numerous benefits for your personal and professional growth! But it’s also an academic journey filled with challenges that can test your intelligence, both at the academic and mental levels. You must then be prepared for these challenges while still enjoying the ride!

Additional Information: