How to Complete the Honors Section of the Common App
Depending on your circumstances, the five allotted entries in the Honors section of the Common Application can look like anything from a frighteningly vast and boundless ocean to a maddeningly constrictive kiddie pool. “Normal” high schoolers, those without any prestigious national awards to their names, sometimes feel inadequacy at the prospect of leaving the section blank, while superstar teens often begin melting down at the prospect of abandoning some of their hard-earned distinctions on the cutting room floor. Our advice for the Common App Honors Section will help both types of students, those with a brag sheet as long as Atlas Shrugged as well as those struggling to conjure up a single entry.
What type of honors can I include in the Common App Honors Section?
Many students with superb, even near-perfect GPAs ultimately submit their applications with a blank Honors section. Here’s the good news—you can and should include making the honor roll at your high school in this area. If your school uses different nomenclature (i.e. Principal’s List), then list that. For those at the “I’ve got nothin’!” end of the spectrum, this simple maneuver should allay your anxieties.
The other key fact to know is that “Academic Honors” does mean that the award has to be for Chemistry or British Literature. Distinctions in music, art, poetry, journalism, photography, or community service (The President’s Volunteer Service Award is a popular one) are every bit as valid to include in this section as those earned in a laboratory or standardized testing exam room. The only category that would be misplaced here are athletic achievements (Best Defender, All-Conference Point Guard, etc.) that would be better suited for the Activities section.
Should I list National Honor Society or Cum Laude Society?
Listing membership in these organizations is totally fine, but, rest assured, your National Honors Society affiliation isn’t telling the admissions committee much that they cannot glean from other data points on your application. If you have a high GPA and lots of volunteer hours noted in your Activities section—essentially the criteria for membership—it won’t make much of a difference to prospective colleges whether or not you are among the one million current members of NHS.
Side note: for some reason, approximately 97.2% of members believe the name of the organization in the “National Honors Society.” If including on your Common App, cut the extra “s” and write it correctly as “National Honor Society.”
How much do I need to say about an award?
You have 100 characters to list and describe your award which can feel like either a cruel joke or a MacGyveresque-level exercise in doing a lot with a little. Fortunately, if you captured a prize from a widely-recognized organization like the American Mathematics Competitions, Model UN, or National Spanish Exam, then you don’t have to explain the nature of the organization/competition, only your level of performance (i.e. Bronze, third-place, etc.). However, if the award is regional/specific to your high school, definitely include a brief explanation.
Too often we see students list an award like this:
Winner, Dr. Martin Van Nostrand Award
You may know that the Van Nostrand Award is given annually to the high school junior in Miami-Dade County with the best knowledge of obscure Seinfeld trivia, but the admissions officer thousands of miles away at Stanford has absolutely no clue.
If the award is a school-based honor—instead say: Winner, Dr. Martin Van Nostrand Award for Seinfeld Trivia
Can I abbreviate in the Common App Honors Section?
When referencing a well-known organization, you can absolutely abbreviate when necessary. When needed, you can shorten the names of entities/awards like the American Mathematics Competitions (AMC) or Advanced Placement Scholar (AP Scholar), Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT).
Avoid using abbreviations for lesser-known contests, particularly local ones. A reader may otherwise mistake your shortening the Montgomery County Vocal and Orchestral Regional Competition to the acronym MCVORC for something the Coneheads would order at a fast food restaurant. If you cannot fit the entire name of an organization, include as many key words as you can. For example: First Place, County Vocal/Orchestral Comp, Violin Solo.
How to fill out the “Level(s) of recognition” field
There are four choices:
This sounds amazingly straightforward but we have seen plenty of students make silly errors in this field. In short, school-based honors are usually things like honor roll, Best Junior English Student, or the Best Female Drama Performer in your high school. Anything outside of your school, but not through a national organization likely falls under “State/Regional.” When determining whether something is a national or international honor, simply determine if you were competing against people from citizens of other countries. For example, the North American Computational Linguistics Open Competition is a continent-wide event that can be classified as “International.” The American Invitational Mathematics Examination is “National.”
You can always check more than one box. For example, the aforementioned National Honor Society can be both “School” and “National” since you are a member of your school’s chapter of a national organization.
Ordering your honors in the Common App Honors Section
In general, you want to lead off with your most important, relevant, and recent honors. Here are three sample student honors and an explanation of how you might go about ordering them:
A) Polk High School Honor Roll, Grades: (9, 10, 11)
B) National Merit Semifinalist: (Grade: 11)
C) American Mathematics Competitions, Distinguished Honor Roll (Grade: 10)
This is not a straightforward trio where going by the level of recognition or the grade level in which the award was achieved make the ideal order immediately obvious. Given these three, the correct thought process would be as follows:
High School honor roll is definitely going third because it’s local and not going to add that much since my GPA is a 3.8 and one would automatically assume that I made the honor roll anyway. The other two are both national-level awards and National Merit Semifinalist was earned more recently so it could go in the number one position. Yet, a strong case could also be made to place the AMC award first, since finishing in the top 1% of all test takers in that exam cannot be learned from any other section of my application. On the other hand, the National Merit Semifinalist Award (given to the top 1% of PSAT takers) probably won’t shock the application reviewer since they already saw my 1570 SAT score.
Help! I can’t fit all of my awards in the Honors Section!
This is never a reason to panic. While we recommend using the Additional Information section judiciously, including a few extra honors is a perfectly legitimate maneuver. If you follow the above rules for ordering your activities, you can take a list of a dozen achievements and easily determine the top five. All others can go in Additional Information. However, stop short of including anything from before 9th grade or anything that pales in comparison to something in your top five (e.g. putting a 33rd place Mock Trial performance when your team won second place the following year).
You want your top five to best capture who you are as an applicant, remembering that colleges, contrary to popular belief, are not looking for Renaissance men and women; they are looking for those with particular strengths that will translate on their campus. If you are going the pre-med route, emphasize any awards in competitions like Chemistry Olympiad, National Science Bowl, and USA Biology Olympiad. If you are an engineering applicant, highlight anything along the lines of the Google Science Fair or the First Robotics Competition. Those applying to business school might wish to prioritize DECA or FBLA awards.
Key Takeaways for the Common App Honors Section
To conclude, let’s review basic do’s and don’ts:
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent educational consultant. He is a co-author of the books The Enlightened College Applicant (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Colleges Worth Your Money (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).