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The Honors Experience

students looking at a laptop together


Students normally apply for the program at the end of their sophomore year and must be accepted by the faculty. Proposed honors programs may be accepted, deferred, or rejected by the departments in question (normally students must be accepted by major and minor departments by the end of the junior year, at least). Students may apply as late as the end of the fall term of the senior year as long as they can still meet the requirements. Students may not drop their honors programs after Dec. 1 of the senior year, as this is the time when departments are securing examiners; students should check with major departments about their particular deadlines as some may be earlier, especially in cases where course majors must take a fall colloquium.

Majors and Minors

Students choose a major and a minor in the Honors Program (or an interdisciplinary major which incorporates work in at least two departments). Students who design their own special major honors programs (not those in College-sponsored programs such as Neuroscience) must include work in four related preparations; such programs do not include a minor. Students may choose an honors major from any department. They may choose a minor from a department or program. Students who minor in an interdisciplinary program must be sure to include at least two credits of work for the minor in a department outside the student's honors major. Honors students who want to pursue a double major at the College must do one of their majors as the honors major; the other major serves as the honors minor. Taking honors examinations and completing the Honors Program satisfies the College's comprehensive requirement for the honors major only. For the second major, students must satisfy the regular course major comprehensive requirement. Students are not allowed to have more than two majors.


The Honors Program begins with student preparations in a major and minor or in an interdisciplinary or special major. Each preparation must be at least two academic credits. About three-fourths of these preparations are small seminars. Preparations may also include course combinations, theses or research projects, study abroad, work in the arts, and community-based learning. Students are given a large measure of responsibility for preparing essays, doing research, and leading small group discussions. About half the departments require an honors thesis or project. In planning their two-year schedule of honors preparations, students should try to spread their preparations out as evenly as possible to avoid overloading any one semester. In particular, they should avoid having multiple honors preparations during the spring semester of the senior year when they will be preparing for honors examinations and may be working on Senior Honors Study  projects in some majors or minors.

Senior Honors Study

A student's honors program may include a Senior Honors Study (SHS) component intended to enhance and, where appropriate, integrate the work of the preparations. SHS is optional at the discretion of departments and programs. SHS may be an activity, such as a colloquium for students to discuss their ongoing research or a program for students to meet to revise seminar papers. It may center on the preparation of portfolio materials such as papers, projects, or reading lists to be sent to examiners. Credit and grading policies for SHS are determined by individual departments and programs. SHS portfolio materials are not examined separately, but are included in the examination of relevant preparations. In some cases, students may combine SHS work in the major and minor. The College word limit for SHS portfolio papers is 4,000 words (about 13 pages) for a paper drawing on a single preparation and submitted to that preparation examiner (as in the case of revised seminar papers) or 6,000 words (about 20 pages) for an integrated paper drawing on the work of two or more preparations and submitted to all the relevant examiners in the major (or major and minor). Departments and programs may set lower limits.

Honors Special Majors

Honors special majors who design their own programs (not those in College-sponsored programs such as Neuroscience) will be required to include four related preparations in the major from at least two departments or academic programs. Honors special major programs do not include a separate minor. Honors special majors must either write a thesis drawing upon their cross-disciplinary work, where the thesis will be examined by examiners in different fields; or have a panel oral examination which presents the opportunity for cross-disciplinary discussion. Honors special majors will follow the Senior Honors Study activity and portfolio procedures of the various departments whose offerings they use as preparations in their programs. Individualized honors special major programs require the approval of all departments involved in the program and of the honors coordinator.


At the end of senior year, honors students are assessed by outside examiners-scholars and teachers in the relevant fields by means of both written and oral evaluations. Each examiner gives the student an examination or other written assignment, reads a thesis, or examines some other form of project. Honors students may use a text editor program for taking their written exams in departments or programs where faculty deem this to be appropriate. Some departments (Philosophy and Linguistics) are using a model in which examiners give out questions or topics during the fall and ask students to respond with essays in lieu of the traditional "sit down" examinations. Honors examination questions are checked by Swarthmore faculty to make sure that they do not seem unfair or inappropriate in terms of the preparation materials. Returning examiners fashion new questions each year. Students pick up a copy of their exam from the Registrar's Office 24 hours after the exam is finished; they use these exams to study for their orals. During honors week in late May, all of the examiners come to Swarthmore to orally test the students on each preparation and on any required SHS work. Swarthmore faculty host the examiners but do not discuss the students with them. Oral exams for regular preparations are from 30 to 45 minutes; oral exams for theses are from 45 to 60 minutes. Panel exams are normally 90 to 120 minutes. Each examiner evaluates a student's preparation on the basis of the written examination or thesis (or similar project), the oral examination, and the SHS material where it is relevant to the preparation. Examiners then meet in departmental caucuses to discuss the students' performances and afterwards attend the meeting of all examiners where the decision about each student's overall honors evaluation is finalized. A student may receive highest honors (HHH), high honors (HH), honors (H), or may not be granted honors. The outside examiners determine the only graduation honorifics available to Swarthmore students.

Normally, a student is allowed to bring the following to the oral examination: a copy of the written examination questions, the SHS portfolio essay or materials, and the written exam or thesis. Students are encouraged to go over such materials beforehand and then come to the oral examination ready to engage in a lively and energetic discussion of the materials and the subject without needing to refer back constantly to the materials.

Honors Marks and Transcript Grades

For the purposes of the student transcripts, grades are given by Swarthmore faculty for all course and seminar preparations. Theses and other similar projects are given grades for the transcript by the examiners.