What Should Go into the Common App Honors Section?

What is the Common App Honors Section?

Filling out the Common App is hard. The personal statement alone can take months to write, so when it comes to the shorter sections, it’s easy to breeze over them. Particularly with the Common App activities and honors lists, you do not want to underestimate their impact. This is a chance to concisely and concretely set yourself apart from your peers. How do you even go about filling in the Common App honors section?

What is it?

In the Common App, this section is meant for academic honors. The term “academic” can be interpreted pretty loosely: arts awards, publications, and even character/sportsmanship awards for athletics are fair game. You can be flexible here, but the honors included should either be selective or recognize that you excelled in one of your pursuits.

You can enter up to five honors, for which you’ll specify the title (up to 100 characters), the grade level, and the level of recognition, from school to state/regional to national or even international. It might not seem like much, but a strong track record in the Common App honors section can really pack a punch.

Where is it?

You can find the honors section under the “Education” tab in the Common App. It’s almost the last item on the list, but definitely not the least important! Which leads me to my next point…

Why should you care?

The honors list is a direct way to add to your impressiveness. You can even envision the honors list and activities section as one piece. Together, they’ll paint the preliminary picture of who you are outside of the classroom. With 100 characters per title, you might think your impact is limited. But if you’re strategic about it, you can maximize the space to your advantage.

Examples of activities you can include:

  • National Merit Scholar – Commended Student/Semifinalist
  • AP Scholar
  • Honor Societies
  • Arts awards
  • Publications
  • Outstanding achievement awards
  • Athletic character recognition awards
  • Awards at the local, state/regional, or national level

For some students, listing 5 honors is a lot! For others, 5 slots are just not enough. If you have more awards than spaces provided on the Common App, pick the awards that are the most unique and impressive. To determine this, ask yourself: “Is this a common achievement for a high school student?” If the answer is no, you’ve found a way to help yourself stand out.

If the answer is yes, don’t worry – you should still list these awards. Common achievements like National Honors Society, AP Scholar, and Honor Roll are honors that admissions officers often see fill this section, but they still help demonstrate your academic excellence!

How to maximize impact:

Keep the order in mind. Your items should be listed from most impressive to least impressive. In theory, you achieve the greatest honors later in your high school career, so the items at the top of your list should also be the most recent. Remember the level of recognition here – the broader the scope, the greater the impact, the more impressive it is!

Tips for the section/Common mistakes to avoid:

  • Don’t waste this precious space. If you can, combine awards from multiple years into one title.
  • Take advantage of all 100 characters by using phrases, not full sentences.
  • Write each number instead of spelling it out. Consider the following examples and notice how the second iteration manages to convey more information in fewer characters without sacrificing clarity:
    • First Place, Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology. I invented a robotic police unit that a policeman could wear. (125 characters)
    • 1st Place, Siemens Competition; built biomechanical, wearable police unit (73 characters)
  • The best honors entries are succinct and not only highlight what the prize was, but also what it was for. Squeeze in as many details as you can about the purpose and meaning of each award!
  • Take a look at the instructions in the Common App honors section: “If you have received any honors related to your academic achievements beginning with the ninth grade or international equivalent, please indicate number of honors. If you received more than five, please add the five most important to you.” Please note that the Common App explicitly states “beginning with ninth grade.” As spectacular as your 7th grade feats may be, do not include middle school awards. The statute of limitations for impressiveness has passed!
  • Do not use abbreviations unless they’re well recognized. Model UN (Model United Nations) is widely recognizable and good to use. NDDL (National Double Dutch League) is not quite common knowledge…

How do you even go about winning these honors and awards?!

In theory, the Common App honors section is great. But are there ways that you can guarantee that you’ll have five awards to include in the section?

  • Keep your grades and test scores up. Honors are add-ons to academics, not substitutes. And let’s not forget that many honors go hand in hand with strong performances in the classroom.
  • Enter competitions. There are competitions for every interest you might have, from poetry to science to economics. Do some research online, ask your teachers, club sponsors, people in the industry, or check out the bulletin boards in schools and universities. No matter your passion, find competitions to show your strength within the field.
  • Get published. Similar to competitions, there are plenty of opportunities for students to get their work out there. Research newspapers at the school and local levels. Submit original work to universities’ literary reviews. Many times, they accept and encourage original work by students. Be persistent and apply. Worst case scenario, nothing happens. Best case scenario, you get published! Here are 10 online journals where high schoolers can get published.
  • Do community service (a lot of it)! The President’s Volunteer Service Award is achievable to any high school student who completes enough hours of community service. So get out there and help the community!
    • Pro tip: choose an organization you are truly passionate about and spend the majority of your time there. This will not only look great on an application, but you’ll be able to make a larger, more direct impact.
  • Use your high school summers wisely. Summer competitions, self-directed project/writing submissions, and well-known summer programs are great ways to add to your honors list!
  • Talk to your guidance counselor! For many awards, you need a nomination. Take the time to get to know your guidance counselor and they’ll go to bat for you.

With just 5 entries, the honors section can instantly make your application more memorable and impressive. Get started early, win awards, and be strategic with this application component. You’ll be thankful later!

About the Author


Growing up splitting my time between Mexico and the United States, I’ve had first-hand experience and personal stake in the unique circumstances that a multi-cultural upbringing brings into the college admissions process and higher education in general. My sustained interest in the matter led me to volunteer as mentor to primarily underrepresented students throughout my high school and university experience.
While at Rice University, I pursued my interests in the sciences and fine arts, both academically and outside the classroom. In addition to serving as the director of a student-founded and student-run art gallery, I undergone training to become an Emergency Medical Technician my freshman year. After graduation, I decided to go international in my efforts to help students get into their dream school and moved to China full-time.

In my free time, I love walking around the city to my inner soundtrack of You Make My Dreams by Hall & Oates, looking for hidden street art, and pretending those dogs at the pet store by my apartment will one day roam free on my made-up ranch in the south of France.