Academic Advising Resources


Advising Special Populations: Honors Students
Authored by: Marion Schwartz


The distinctive qualities of honors advisors are based on their own joy in the life of the mind. From this foundation everything else springs. Advisors sympathize with honors students who push towards higher achievements. They provide plentiful accurate information about a wide range of special opportunities. And they serve as companions along the road of becoming a mature thinker. With that in mind, this article will focus on what to expect among honors students, how they develop a sense of intellectual identity, their early integration of theoretical and practical learning, considerations of schedule planning, and dealing with bumps in their progress.


Honors students come in many varieties, influenced not only by their high ability, but also by their home life, socio-economic status, cultural background, school experience, baccalaureate institution, and honors focus. So it is neither easy nor helpful to generalize too much about their characteristics. Some achievements we associate with honors, such as high SAT scores or AP work, may simply reflect high economic status (Zwick, 2013). Honors students at a regional public college will differ from those at a competitive private one. Within their own institutions, individual honors students may demonstrate more dominance than non-honors students, more perfectionism, more self-confidence, or less interest in social activities (Clark, 2002; Dougherty, 2007; Kaczvinsky, 2007; Neumeister, 2004). Or, they may not. Advisors consider such tendencies only to distinguish between adaptive and non-adaptive behavior. That is, when honors students choose to spend more time in the library than going to parties, it is not necessarily a sign that they are asocial. They may meet more congenial peers in the library than in a frat. If some honors students are not brilliant, advisors should not write them off; they may still succeed because their commitment to the program and their higher emotional stability allow them to work more consistently than their non-honors colleagues. (See Smith, Dye, and Szelest’s  (2008) “Helping First-Year Honors Students Make the Transition From High School to College Through Advisor-Researcher Collaboration” on the value of having detailed background information on honors advisees.)

Avoiding preconceptions is most crucial in dealing with honors students from under-represented groups. A significant body of research (e.g. Steele and Aronson, 1995; Nguyen & Ryan, 2008; Fries-Britt & Griffin, 2007) shows that when people feel their performance is being used to judge their group, it leads to significantly lower achievement. Thus a very smart woman may do worse on a math test if she has to indicate her gender along with her I.D. number. And a black student can be undermined when an advisor assumes s/he likes basketball more than opera. Even those who perform extremely well can be worn down by their constant sense of being on display (Fries-Britt & Griffin, 2007).

The bottom line is that honors advisors should meet all their advisees with openness to every aspect of each one’s individuality. Honors students are likely to be surprising!


By committing themselves to an honors program, honors students have already identified themselves with the educational enterprise. Honors advisors support that developing identity by encouraging reflection, cognition, and experiential learning. Baxter Magolda’s extensive work on self-authorship (1999, 2001, 2004, furthered by Pizzolato, Nguyen, Johnston, & Wang, 2012) provides a framework for reflection which can be particularly useful for honors students. They have been noticed for their ability, offered special opportunities, and expected to succeed. What does it all mean? What decisions have they made so far and why? Who or what influenced those decisions? How do their family, culture, and values system play into their choices? How does their situation change when they come to college? For honors students, who often identify more with the world of adults, it is especially important to claim control of their own future.

Self-authorship empowers students to make authentic choices. Choosing a major is a crucial way to affirm academic identity, but it’s often misunderstood. A major is not a career. A career guides what one does in the world; a major shapes how one thinks. Honors students should consider how their chosen discipline will help them see the world, define certain issues as problems, and use a certain set of techniques to solve those problems. Some students, especially accelerated honors students, have enough academic experience to know already which discipline tells them the truth they care about— asking important questions and providing answers they can believe in. They have made an authentic choice about what to study based on their own sense of what matters. Their growth in the major is to explore areas of specialization and application.

However, many honors students do not yet have the intellectual experience to trust one way of thinking over others (on honors exploration see Carduner, et al. 2011, p. 22). Advisors help them reflect broadly on the knowledge domains—natural science, social science, arts, etc.—to judge which ones offer the most satisfying kind of study. With exposure, some students realize that college level work in, say, physics or rhetoric, is beyond them, or is too detailed to maintain their interest; that discipline moves off their list. Some decide to major in one area and turn the other favorites into minors or avocations. Some embrace both left brain and right brain thinking and explore the relationship between them, perhaps in a self-designed, problem-based major. (On exploratory strategies see Penn State’s [n.d.-a] “Exploration Resources”.)

Not everyone is comfortable exploring. Honors students tend to be conscientious and some may have ceded their decision-making to a respected parent or teacher. They foreclose their own identity development to please others, to avoid conflict, or to save themselves from threatening new ideas (Shaffer & Zelewski, 2011). Such students will need guided reflection (Baxter Magolda & King, 2008) if they are to make their own choices. General education requirements may be an important mediating point with such students, a requirement that is also a pathway to experiencing something outside their limited focus.


One logical extension of excelling in book learning is to use it for discovering new things. Working on research projects side-by-side with faculty mentors gives honors students a chance to participate in the cutting edge of their field.  Some honors programs require student research in the form of a senior thesis, but the opportunities for undergraduate research these days are so broad that every honors student should consider it. (See Kinkead’s (2003) “Learning Through Inquiry: An Overview of Undergraduate Research” on the value of the research experience.) Honors advisors provide the first link to research opportunities by introducing the idea to entering students, referring them to lab positions, and making personal connections when appropriate (Schwartz, 2006).

While a large percentage of honors students use academic research as a stepping stone to graduate work, some will find practical experience more appealing. Internships, competitions, consulting, volunteer work, and service learning all provide rich opportunities. Some honors programs require community service. Advisors must know how their honors program supports such outreach. Is there infrastructure (office staff, contact people, transportation, training, mentoring) available to volunteers? Is there financial support? Is there a pathway for starting a new project? Is there a clearinghouse for learning about needs?

Learning with peers is also an important way for honors students to develop self-efficacy and leadership skills. Advisors should be aware of housing options, academic clubs, honors group projects, and the other co-curricular opportunities that further enrich honors education. (For information on the value of honors housing, see Inkelas and Weisman’s (2003) “Different by Design: An Examination of Student Outcomes Among Participants in Three Types of Living-Learning Programs,” p. 337 and Campbell and Fuqua’s (2008) “Factors Predictive of Student Completion in a Collegiate Honors Program,” p. 129.)


If honors students are expected to be leaders in their fields, it is crucial for them to be aware of the global implications of what they do. Whether they are business managers looking for new markets, scientists with colleagues across the ocean, or policy makers addressing trans-national problems, they will have to understand the intricate web of global connectedness. Thinking globally is far more than spending a semester abroad. It means being able to imagine oneself into the mind of another culture. So advisors should help students look for challenging international experiences: study abroad in non-traditional countries, home stays with international families, internships or volunteer work with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), course work on humanitarian issues, co-curricular activities such as Model U.N., or Water (Law, Business, etc.) Brigades. Students can also cultivate home campus friendships with international students. Not every international experience needs to be far away (Chow, 2008; Penn State, n.d.-b)!


Because their goals can be more ambitious and complex than those of other students, it is important for honors students to think of their program as a whole as early as they can. Making and reviewing the plan results in course choices but only after a thoughtful discussion of how everything fits together. Honors students choose courses for multiple purposes—to explore new ideas, complete multiple majors or minors, engage in original research, study abroad, prepare for graduate school, learn leadership skills, and develop their personal interests. The plan shows how these goals will be met over several semesters. It also provides an occasion to articulate the logic of their curriculum. They have to say more than, “It’s a requirement.” Such a review helps students integrate their learning from courses and practical experience. It may also show gaps or new directions to pursue, or prompt something previously unimagined. The plan is a vision, not a law. When students choose to make changes they should explain their reasoning. Advisors can help them by pointing them to the resources resources they need and assessing whether the it will all work. 

Planning for the whole degree at once implies a time frame. However, for honors students the duration of their degree is itself an issue. On one hand they often complete a great deal of college level work before arriving at their undergraduate institution. Some also take course overloads each semester. As a result many expect to graduate in less than four years. Is this healthy? It may save time and money for those concerned about the total costs of their formal education, but it may also narrow their thinking, cut them off from co-curricular activities, or put them out into an adult world without the practical experiences they need. Advisors can help them make thoughtful decisions about balancing these outcomes.

At the other extreme are students who want to complete multiple undergraduate degrees no matter how long it takes. They should know that they don’t need a credential or a course grade in every subject they want to learn about. And they might get more value from a graduate program than from two or three bachelor’s diplomas. Multiple degrees could make sense but they need to be thought through.

Goals and timing are issues that students grasp easily, but the various privileges offered by their honors program can be complex. Every institution finds different resources to challenge and enrich their best students, whether through substituting special classes for standard requirements, living in honors housing, doing field work or original research, working with a mentor, or collaborating with students overseas. It takes digging and judgment for students to mesh these opportunities with their other academic obligations. Advisors have to be current with all the latest details to support student choices.


Honors students are  likely candidates for national level scholarships. Honors advisors may be experts on resources within their department or college, but for anything else they should put students  in touch with their institution’s fellowships office to learn what specific scholarships are appropriate for them. If there is no special resource for national scholarships, advisors can refer students to the appropriate web sites in their field. Also consult the National Association of Fellowship Advisors.


Honors students suffer from the usual adjustment issues of emerging adults—tensions with family, identity issues, intimate relationships, and financial constraints. However, they are particularly vulnerable to time pressure and academic disappointment. They may have done everything in high school without studying much or even knowing how to study (Kaczvinsky, 2007; Carnicom, 2004). Therefore theytake on a bundle of co-curricular activities, not realizing how much time they will need for each one. They may be perfectionists ( Neumeister, 2004 )), for whom getting their first ‘B’ is traumatic. They may be frustrated and frightened in a large institution because they are used to having a lot of control over their lives, and suddenly feel they have lost it.

Advisors can help troubled students clarify priorities, rank their obligations, accept compromises, and decide when something needs to be cut. They can suggest control tools like schedules and to-do lists for those who need to assert some power over their time. When a grade seems intolerable, advisors can discuss consequences by asking questions: What’s the worst thing that can happen? How would you deal with that? What are your alternatives? For those who have never studied in a systematic way aAdvisors might also recommend learning assistance. Even good writers go to the Writing Center for another set of eyes!

Just like anyone else, honors students in real distress should be referred for professional help. Rinn’s (2007) “Effects of Programmatic Selectivity on the Academic Achievements, Self-Concept and Aspirations of Gifted College Students,” p. 157-167.)


As Joan Digby (2007) says, advising honors students is like training a thoroughbred racehorse. Like the horse, the students have magnificent ability. They are often ambitious, creative, multi-talented, emotionally mature, able to make cognitive leaps that amaze us. It takes work to keep up with them. Their advisors have to know more, think more broadly, make more connections, look further ahead, and set aside standard working assumptions. The students, smart as they are, don’t know everything. Advisors can ensure that they don’t miss important opportunities. But, like the horse, the students have spirit of their own. In the end the greatest satisfaction is to see them run free on the track they have chosen for themselves.


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Schwartz, K. M. (2015). Advising special populations: Honors students. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site:

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