The college admission process offers a lot of choices, possibly too many. Initially, you want a university that's a 'good fit'. Yet, even if the campus is a good fit, does the school offer special programs that might make the fit that much cozier? For example, should you gain admission to Yale, you might want to consider its Directed Studies program-if you have the academic prowess. Or, if you are looking at a range of private and public universities, you might want to consider an honors program. Honors programs, particularly in the bigger public universities, provide students access to top faculty, engaging seminars, research opportunities, and possibly internships. Participants then gain honors designation on their transcripts and diplomas. Such a program is a lot less expensive than a comparable program at an elite private university. These choices might very well dramatically improve your undergraduate experience; they, therefore, warrant investigation.
At Yale, should you be among the top tier of students admitted, making you virtually ethereal, you might be pre-selected to join the Directed Studies program, a special program where you study a range of texts, from the Odyssey to Milton's Paradise Lost, over a series of year-long courses with some of the top professors. The program is limited to 125 students. If your interest is more in the science realm, then you might seek admission to Yale's 'Perspectives on Science and Engineering' program (this program takes only 60 students from the entering class). Please note, even if you're the incarnation of Isaac Asimov, Yale will not let you join both programs. Regardless, each program is there for you to gain a richer, more engrossing Yale experience.
Over one thousand honors programs, for both four and two-year schools (though it is by no means comprehensive-for example UCLA's Honors Program is not part of this list) can be found at the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) http://www.nchchonors.org/memberinstitution.shtml website. Additionally, Peterson's also publishes a reference work on Honors programs, Honor Programs & Colleges, 4th edition (Peterson's Honors Programs and Colleges). One such honors program that you'll find at the NCHC site is for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (CPSLO).
To be considered for one of the 50 spots in the honors program at CPSLO, you will need a composite ACT score of at least 27, an un-weighted GPA of 3.75, two or more AP exams with a score of 4 or 5, a personal essay, and two letters of recommendation. After gaining admission, you will live (at least in your freshman year) in honor's housing, take a range of honors courses, gain access to smaller classes, and enjoy better registration opportunities, while gaining a small community feel within a fairly large public institution: CPSLO enrolls just under 19,000 undergraduates. Furthermore, when you consider that only a fifth of CPSLO students graduate in four years (approximately two thirds graduate by their sixth year), to gain better registration access alone is an invaluable benefit. If you can muster the effort, and you have the qualifications, experiencing a big university, while ensconced in its honors program, is, in many cases, a good way to go.
Do students gain from participating in these special study and honors programs? Specialized programs, such as Yale's Directed Studies, greatly enrich and reward participants. Naturally, how much a student gains depends on the student. When you consider applying, it's a good idea (if the application to the program doesn't already demand it) to go to the program's website and get all the details. If you can get the names of some students already in an honor's program, contact them and find out their opinions: Is the program too demanding and time consuming? Does it position them better for graduate school? Does it substantially improve their undergraduate experience? Get answers. If after investigation the program still appears promising, then it might well earn the honor of your participation.