Are you taking the most challenging courses available to you? Colleges will seek the answer to this question as they evaluate your applications. Learn about honors courses and why taking them may help your admission chances.
Honors-level classes give you a preview of college-level academics. They also give colleges a preview of how well you might perform in college once admitted. Taking full advantage of the honors courses available to you, and doing well in them, is a top factor in admission to selective colleges.
Why Honors-Level Courses Are Worth It
Participating in honors-level programs clearly demonstrates to colleges your academic "chops." The classes proceed at a faster pace and cover material in more depth than regular classes. Some honors courses are equivalent to college-level work and you may earn college credit for successfully completing them.
Types of Honors-Level Courses
If you are ready for the challenge, which honors curriculum should you choose? The most common programs are regular honors, Advanced Placement (AP), and the International Baccalaureate (IB). Your school may offer one or more of these programs.
Regular honors courses are more academically intensive and faster-paced than typical college preparatory courses. The content of honors classes varies from high school to high school. They are usually developed by local high school teachers to meet the needs of accelerated students. Most colleges, however, do not consider them equivalent to college-level work.
Advanced Placement courses are equivalent to college-level courses and follow a standard curriculum. AP Calculus, for example, will cover the same material at any high school. To earn college credit for an AP course, you must score at a certain level on an examination administered by the College Board in May. Each college decides what level qualifies for credit at their institution. AP courses are usually available only to juniors and seniors, although some AP subjects are available to freshmen and sophomores.
The International Baccalaureate program is offered at high schools around the world, including many in the U.S. The IB Diploma Programme, offered during the final two years of high school, is an intensive curriculum culminating in rigorous exams in six subject areas. Up to four of the six areas may be studied at the "higher level," which is equivalent to college work. Similar to AP, students must achieve a particular score on an exam to earn college credit, and colleges have their own policies about granting that credit.
How Do You Get Into Honors-Level Courses?
If your academic performance is strong, it is likely that your counselor or teacher will advise you to take honors-level courses. If you haven't been "invited" to participate in honors, let your counselor and teachers know that you are interested. If they believe you have the ability to succeed with a more demanding curriculum, you should be eligible, depending on your high school's requirements.
If more students are interested in taking honors courses than your school can accommodate and you are having difficulty getting permission to enroll, get your parents involved. Ask them to follow up with your counselor and teacher to advocate on your behalf.
The Benefits of Honors-Level Courses
Admissions advantage. Perhaps the most important benefit of an honors program is how it affects a college's perception of you. Taking full advantage of the honors program at your high school signals to colleges that you are serious about your academic career, and that you will continue to challenge yourself in college.
The "weighted" GPA. At many schools, grades you earn in honors classes are given an extra point. For example, an A earns five points instead of four, and a B earns four points instead of three. These extra points "weight" or boost your GPA. (High schools award the extra point so that students who choose to challenge themselves will not experience lower GPAs.) If your high school doesn't weight honors grades, or the college does not consider weighted GPAs, rest assured that most colleges will still factor your honors courses into their admissions evaluations.
College credit. If you successfully complete certain honors-level courses, you may be able to enter college with "advanced standing." This means you start college with college credits already under your belt—anywhere from just a few credits to a year's worth. In addition, your honors work may exempt you from taking certain required college courses, freeing up your time for more electives or advanced courses. This can save you significant time and money on the road to college graduation.
College preparedness. Taking honors-level courses during high school is an excellent way to prepare for college-level work. While significant differences exist between honors-level high school courses and college academics, being accustomed to a high level of challenge and a fast pace will serve you well when you hit the college books.
Some Cautions About Honors-Level Courses
Daunting workload. The load is much heavier than a regular high school curriculum. For AP and IB classes, make that much, much heavier. This can put a lot of stress on an already busy high school schedule.
Less time for other activities. Time spent on honors classes will take time away from other activities that may be important to you. You may have to choose between your AP Calculus course and taking the lead in the school musical.
Taking too many honors-level courses at once. Some students are so concerned with impressing colleges that they take as many as five honors courses at once. Over-committing to honors courses may be particularly stressful, and your grades may suffer. There are many other ways to impress an admissions committee. If you have heavy extracurricular commitments or outside obligations, think twice before taking on a heavy honors course load.
Get some advice. It's important to consider your individual circumstances and college plans before you decide which classes to take. Be certain to involve your parents and guidance counselor in making your decision.
Are honors courses right for you? If you want to build an outstanding academic record that will impress colleges, then the challenge of honors courses may be exactly what you need. For more information about honors courses, see the CollegeData article Are You Honors Material and other articles in Prepare and Apply.