By Corey Bobco for The Real College Guide
Are you registered for an honors class or teetering on the edge of “I’m too freakin’ lazy to challenge myself”? Before you “yay” or “nay” the big league, you need the inside info to decide if the honors track or an honors course is worth the extra work — and whether you can take the heat.
Back in the Day
In high school, what generally distinguished honors (or advanced placement) courses from their standard-level counterparts was that honors classes issued more homework, required more studying and demanded more self-initiative. (But, hey, they looked damn good on your college apps!)
Some high schools require a recommendation or certain GPA to get into a higher-level course. Some offer rewards for taking honors, such as a weighed GPA (on a scale of 0 to 5.0, rather than 0 to 4.0), which explains why those studious, overachievers put themselves through the pain of it all. Other high schools offer no tangible benefits besides a challenge and the risk of ruining a near-perfect GPA.
In the Big League
Your college will have its own unique requirements and policies regarding eligibility and grading scales, so you should definitely check that out sooner than later. One consistency: Like in high school, honors classes in college can be a hell of a lot harder than basic-level courses. So why bother? Not to sound like Mom, but you’re in college to challenge yourself. And you have little to lose, since your college grades often carry less weight than your high school grades. (That is, unless your GPA is securing financial aid, maintaining your parents’ financial support or going on your med, law or grad school applications. In such a case, take extra caution in assessing your capabilities, since risking damage to your GPA can mess up your chances of staying in school and moving on up to bigger and better.)
Clearly, honors courses differ at every school. Here are general details, pros, cons and tips:
Pro: Typically, honors classes are smaller seminars with only 10 to 25 students. A small class size means you can develop a relationship with your instructor — and that he or she may actually know your name! This could prove handy when you need extra help, guidance on a big paper or project, a deadline extension, a letter of recommendation or even a lead on a summer internship.
Con: Smaller, niche classes mean extra attention is paid to attendance so your instructor will notice if you’re a frequent no-show. Plus, it will become painfully obvious if you come to class unprepared.
Pro: Honors classes often focus on a highly specific niche topic, like Caribbean literature and film since 1920. If you are super interested in that — or whatever topic is being offered — then don’t think twice about signing up for a semester’s worth of it, since classes that excite you make extra work worth the effort.
Con: Papers, texts and readings will probably be more challenging than a vanilla English Lit 101.
Pro: Class time in an honors course has great potential to be interesting, since the format of smaller classes tends to be open discussion rather than basic lecture. Plus, part of your grade may be determined by your level of participation, an objective measure you can use to up a not-so-hot score. Don’t be shy!
Con: You may have to participate … and think critically. In order to do either, you will have to complete the course requirements — that is, every page of every reading assignment.
Don’t be scared of the big “H”
Some honors program courses are actually easier in comparison to the gut-wrenching AP biology and calculus you might have taken in high school.
Ensure your enrollment
One tried-and-true trick is to sign up for a few extra credits than you need to take in one semester — especially when you’re thinking about trying out an honors-level course. In the first week of the semester, swing by the class, assess the syllabus and size up the instructor. If it no longer interests you or seems like the workload would take time away from your other classes’ work (aka your social life), then you can drop it without worrying about having enough credits to graduate on time or finding another class to replace it.
Avoid large lecture honors classes
These cover topics at an introductory level with a broader focus, but they might have as many as 80 students and lack the perks of an intimate class setting. And lecture series — honors or otherwise — can seriously bore you to death.
Seek smart company
Honors courses do more than fine-tune your interests and work your brain into a sweat. As a reward for taking on the challenge, they’ll place you among the brightest of your peers and introduce you to faculty members who can offer new perspectives and solid career advice.