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Many honors programs advertise that honors education is what all undergraduate education would be in a world without resource constraints, so it is not surprising that honors programs have more interested prospects than available spaces. The question of how to select first-year honors students is therefore of interest both practically (in terms of finding the optimal student body) and philosophically (conformity to an ideal of justice, for instance). This article provides a general overview of current honors selection processes for incoming first-year students and discusses the ingredients of an optimal process.
The two “ideal types” of honors selection processes, in the sense that many actual processes borrow elements from each type, may be characterized as “skimming” versus “free-standing.” In the skimming selection model, usually called “by invitation” or something similar, the overall flow of applications to the institution is scrutinized according to some numerical threshold—generally some combination of SAT/ACT and GPA/rank. Intake may be limited by fixed program capacity (starting downward from the “top student” until offer capacity is reached) or by fixed entry criteria (all applicants with the specified criteria are offered honors admission). In the free-standing model, only those applicants who complete a separate honors application, supplemental to the institution’s general application, are considered. Because the general application almost certainly has SAT/GPA data, the presumption is that a free-standing honors application contains elements (essays, letters, activity listings, etc.) that go beyond “the numbers.”