Fall 2020 UT-Austin Honors Programs New Essay Prompts and Tips

Completing 40 hours of introductory Bahasa Indonesia language class

Completing 40 hours of introductory Bahasa Indonesia language class

Many universities have an "Honors College" that houses their best students regardless of their major. UT-Austin instead has ten "honors programs" for students majoring in Liberal Arts, the McCombs Business, the Cockrell School of Engineering, the Moody College of Communication, or the College of Natural Sciences.

In this post, I cover the logistics of how to apply to honors, how the admissions process works, tips and strategies for each program, and a discussion of alternative pathways to honors programs.

How to apply to University of Texas at Austin Honors Programs

Applying to an honors program at UT doesn't require much extra effort. All programs, however, are highly competitive comparable with admission to most selective universities nationwide. My general rule of thumb is ranking in at least the top 5% of your class scoring a 1450 as a minimum to be competitive. Even then, most admits have nearly perfect academics in addition to outstanding essays and resumes.

You must first complete your Apply Texas application for regular admission and check the box "I am interested in applying for Honors Programs." A few days after submitting Apply Texas, you will receive an e-mail allowing you to access the Honors Application on your My Status portal.

One reason UT still has the first and second choice major selection system is to allow students to apply to multiple honors programs. What you select for your majors determine which honors programs you may be eligible.

All honors programs will consider heavily your regular admissions application, resume, and essays to help inform their decision. Because there isn't one Honors College but many different programs, the requirements for each differ some which you can view here.

Most programs require that you submit an expanded resume, some require a recommendation letter, and all except Engineering Honors requires one or more short answer responses.

Applying to an honors program in no way influences your regular admissions chances. Regular admissions decisions are made by the Office of Admissions while staff in each Honors Program reviews and determines who they accept.

Pick up your copy of the Definitive Guide to UT-Austin Admissions "Your Ticket to the Forty Acres"

Honors Writing Prompts Overview

The Honors Programs decide what prompts students must submit. You can visit this link to receive the most updated information on the writing requirements.

In this section, I cover the prompts most applicants must submit. I cover program-specific prompts and advice under their headings.

For any Honors writing prompts, your submission should add new information to your application.

Since reviewers will have access to your Apply Texas submissions, you don't want to repeat anything you've written in Essay A or the Short Answers.

Many prospective Honors students hire me to help. Interested in building your best application and maximizing your Honors admissions chances? Complete my questionnaire for a free consultation.

Canfield McCombs School of Business Honors Program (BHP)

I cover regular and honors admissions extensively in this post with both statistics and shining light on the process. Last year, BHP received 1,828 applicants and admitted 244 students for an admissions rate of 13%. Approximately 500 applicants received phone interviews.

Applicants interested in applying to Business Honors should prepare their application early because the application requires both the expanded resume and one recommendation letter.

Reviewers are seeking students who demonstrate not only that they will be a leader in their program. They also want to know why you are choosing BHP. What makes it different from other top programs nationwide like Penn Wharton, NYU Stern, Michigan Ross, or Berkeley Haas?

It's especially important in your Honors essay to identify resources, student organizations, career counseling, and professors/courses/study abroad that will help you achieve your long-term academic and professional goals.

Canfield Business Honors Writing Prompt

All prospective BHP applicants must answer in 250 words or less the following:

Discuss a single piece of business news in the last year that has affected your view on the need for a high-quality business education, and tell us why this has affected or reinforced your desire for a business education. You do not need to go into detail about this piece of business news — a quick reference to the event will suffice. It can be something that occurred in your community, in the U.S., or internationally. Spend the majority of your response on how this event affected your views.

This is an interesting prompt and a different direction than any previous BHP cycles. It’s also very specific in what they’re asking of applicants rather than the much more broad regular admissions essays. There will probably be a wide range of responses with many of them missing the mark or generally being uninteresting.

You can presume that your reviewer is relatively up-to-date and informed on global business issues like the US-China trade disputes, reciprocal tariffs and protectionist US trade policies, and the Justice Department and European Union inquiries and civil suits against Facebook and other technology conglomerates.

If you choose to discuss a more obscure national or local topic, it would be a good idea to dedicate a few sentences to providing the context for your reviewer.

The key is to be thoughtful, critical, nuanced, and considering different points of view. The most important phrase is: “Spend the majority of your response on how this event affected your views.”

Discussing how it affects your views requires: 1) Stating explicitly what your view is, 2) How the piece of news affected your belief, and 3) Whether you did or did not change your views on a given theme or topic as a result.

In discussing your beliefs, it’s important to review and consider different perspectives and measure how they influence your views. Few ideas are black and white or objectively good or bad, so if you agree or disagree with a particular policy or business strategy, then spend a sentence or two building up why your opposing belief may be potentially worthwhile.

I think it’s possible to use a narrative or storytelling approach, but I suspect answering the prompt clearly, directly, and succinctly will probably be more effective given the word limit. Save your storytelling skills for the longer regular admissions essays.

Turing Scholars Honors

I discuss Computer Science and Turing Scholars Honors application tips and admissions statistics in this post.

Similar to BHP, competitive applicants for Turing Scholars rank at the very top of their class and score nearly perfect on the SAT/ACT. Turing denies 85% of valedictorian applicants. That means it's especially important that you demonstrate a breadth and depth of commitment in computer-related activities.

Turing requires you to submit a 500 word response on the following.

Describe your significant activities, employment, and achievements, particularly those relevant to the study of computer science. Also describe your educational and career goals.

Since UT regular admissions now requires students to both discuss why they’re applying for their first choice major and to share how their identity and talents will contribute to classroom discussions and campus life, I have a feeling many students will be challenged to find 500 more words to discuss their competencies and experiences in CS.

If you have a lot of experiences you haven’t already had the chance to share in your other essays, great! Elaborate and develop as much as possible to support your arguments that you’re deserving of a space in the highly selective Turing Scholars Program.

If you’ve already thoroughly discussed your academic and extracurricular CS interests in your regular essays, you could consider sharing a story from one of those experiences. It will be important regardless to identify specific and clear reasons why UTCS and Turing is your best fit.

Plan II Honors

There are two honors programs within the College of Liberal Arts: Plan II and Liberal Arts Honors. Each program has similarities but also crucial differences. There is a lot of useful information on each of their websites that will help you determine which program is the right fit for you. I entered into UT-Austin as a Liberal Arts Honors student.

You can apply and gain admission to both programs, but you can only participate in one. Many students in each pursue studies outside of Liberal Arts like Business, Communications, and Engineering. Indeed, these programs attract students from every academic discipline.

Unlike other honors programs, you do not need to select Liberal Arts as your first choice. Plan II even recommends putting Liberal Arts as your second choice, so you can have consideration for your first-choice major if it is something outside of Liberal Arts. Like Business Honors, each program recommends that you apply early since admissions decisions are rendered on a rolling basis.

Plan II Honors Program Five Sentences Prompt

Before, all Honors applicants needed to respond to this prompt, but now, only Plan II requires it.

"Help us get to know you better. Please write five sentences (numbered 1 – 5) that give us some insight into you, your life, your interests and your experiences. There are no right answers—feel free to be creative and think outside the box."

A lot of students overthink this one. Reviewers are giving you the opportunity to have fun and share something unique or interesting that doesn't fit elsewhere in your application. The number one piece of advice here is - don't be boring. 

There are a lot of ways to approach this - five totally unrelated sentences, a poem, a few quotations important to you, "favorites" like food or hobbies, a unique or quirky talent, etc.

Here's an example:
1. Ever since I was a kid, I have loved space and exploring different scientific principles.
2. I love attending football games at Darrell K. Royal Football and people watching on Guadalupe Street.
3. I have a passion for gaming, and my two favorites are Arkham City and Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4.
4. I enjoy playing football as much as watching the Longhorns.
5. I am a big fan of Batman comics, and I especially love Christopher Nolan’s adaptation.

New Plan II Honors Essay

All prospective Plan II students must answer in 250 words or less the following:

What do you see as the largest problem facing society today? What do you see as the negative effects of this problem and how would an interdisciplinary education in Plan II Honors give you tools to begin to solve this challenge to the greater good?

This essay is a departure from their previous prompt. It’s also the first time I can recall that Plan II and LAH feature different essay prompts.

It’s quite similar to the Transfer Essay E Issue of Importance, see examples here.

I have a feeling almost everyone will write about climate change or some aspect of environmental degradation, and rightly so considering it arguably is our gravest danger besides nuclear war and technological disruptions through AI and automation.

If you choose climate change, I suggest picking a very narrow aspect of it that may be unknown to your reviewers. Narrowing down the topic will also help identify tools or possible solutions equipped with a multidisciplinary education.

I also suspect social media will be another prominent topic because of it’s implications for democracy, the media, journalism, human connections, community, self image, and so on. Again, if you choose social media, don’t lament technology generally. Instead, choose a specific and preferably personal reason why you feel it has negative impacts.

It may be strategic to choose an issue that you touch on in another essay or that relates to an extracurricular activity or job/internship.

Regardless of the topics you choose, I suggest examining Plan II’s curriculum closely. Identify a few courses or professors that you feel could help shine light on your issue of concern. Share your reasons for applying to Plan II directly and clearly.

Plan II Admitted Applicant Profile:

According to the 2016 incoming class profile accessed on Plan II’s website, they received 1473 applications with 484 admissions offers yielding a 32.9 percent admissions rate. Two-thirds of applicants are female, and 195 students enrolled.

Fifty-one percent of admits come from the top 5 percent of their class and 11 percent are valedictorian. The average applicant has 1386 on the SAT and the typical admitted student scores 1466. The middle 50 percent SAT score range for admits is 1410–1550. The ACT equivalent is a 32–35 for admitted students.

Plan II takes a radical approach to their admissions process. Successful applicants are superior academically; however, the program also heavily weights a student’s essay submissions.

From the Plan II website:

What is less cut-and-dried and will be evaluated on a more subjective level is the degree of sophistication and maturity we see in the essays of successful applicants. We also see a depth and richness in their non-academic activities and leadership experiences that combine to give an applicant an intangible ‘sparkle.’ Great essays and those intangible qualities are what set the successful applicants apart from the unsuccessful applicants who may have similar, perhaps even higher, grades, ranks and test scores.

Forty percent of Plan II admissions criteria are the essays, 20 percent examines the program fit through “Plan II-ness,” 20 percent is the Academic Index, and 20 percent is Personal Achievement and the resume.

They are looking for mature, quirky students with varied interests and dedication to learning for its own sake. Academically stellar students often do not gain admission while exceptionally talented students outside of the top 10 percent can find success.

Liberal Arts Honors (LAH)

Liberal Arts Honors (LAH) has a similar admissions process to Plan II with an emphasis on writing and leadership. LAH has recently released a helpful PDF sharing their admissions states, viewed here.

Approximately half of their admitted Texans come from the top 6% scoring an average of a 1390 on the SAT and 31 on the ACT.

An email from former LAH Director Dr. Larry Carver in November 2016 to alumni presents their student profile.

The LAH Class of 2020—155 students chosen from 1143 applications (our largest applicant pool ever!)—has just three more weeks in their first semester as Longhorns. Fourteen come from out of state, 111 are female, 44 male, and 8 are Valedictorians, 4 are Salutatorians. We have one set of twins and two siblings of current LAHers. Forty-five hail from non-ranking schools, 14 from private schools, and 95 from schools greater than 200 (Allen High School remains the largest High School with a graduating class of 1533). Fifteen are from schools smaller than 200. The average ACT is 31; the average SAT, 1355. Stacey, Linda, and I are delighted by their enthusiasm, energy, talent, and the many ways they are already participating in the LAH community.

Keep in mind that the 155 chosen students represent the enrolling freshman class. LAH admits about 400 students each year yielding roughly a 33 percent admissions rate. Admission to LAH is slightly less competitive than Plan II, but average LAH admitted student is substantially more credentialed than the typical admitted student to the College of Liberal Arts.

Keep in mind that LAH and Plan II are friendly rivals of sorts. It's possible to craft your Honors essay to fit both programs. Here, it is okay to leave open the question of which program is your best fit.

For me, when I was applying, LAH appealed more because it was less structured and had fewer rigid requirements. Since Plan II is a major, there are required courses each year. I knew I only wanted to pursue studies in the Liberal Arts, so Plan II's multidisciplinary emphasis on both the arts and the sciences wasn't a good fit.

New Liberal Arts Honors Essay Prompt

All prospective LAH applicants must answer in 250 words or less the following:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said "The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education." Explain why both are of equal importance, and in what ways will a Liberal Arts Honors interdisciplinary education help you grow in these areas?

This is a very interesting topic and probably the trickiest and least obvious of the new ones. I like their bold invitation to discuss ethics and education in our contemporary world.

King’s quote is a composite of two lines from the same speech. Firstly, I suggest visiting with Dr. King’s full 1948 speech at Moorehouse College here.

His words are as timely now as they were then. Consider this excerpt:

Education must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda. At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically.

Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.

Liberal Arts Honors prides itself on critical thinking, weighing nuance, and communicating ideas clearly and freely. I’m a huge believer in the power of a Liberal Arts education, a product of LAH and Humanities Honors myself. Learning how to learn and think takes precedence in my life over learning a trade or a specific skill that may not be applicable to other domains or might be redundant in our rapidly evolving global economy.

When I was a student, LAH staff and some of my professors were critical of Business Schools and education that, in King’s warning,

“….Stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”

I grew up with the Enron Scandal and housing crisis, totally human creations stemming from unchecked greed, arrogance, and highly talented people taking big risks with other people’s money and livelihood. Enron’s Kenneth Lay is the prototype for intelligence without character and consequent moral corruption. Skills without virtue or concepts of decency produce, in my view, some of the greatest unchecked social problems of corporate freed most tragically demonstrated in today’s opioid epidemic.

LAH wants you to discuss honor, conscientiousness, media savvy, and finding common ground in our highly polarized society. Who you are matters more than what you do.

I suggest choosing a specific example from your personal life to illustrate a time you’ve solved a conflict, changed a belief, or did the right thing ethically when there were many reasons to be dishonest or dishonorable.

The danger with this prompt is to discuss abstractly, theoretically, or philosophically intelligence and character. Don’t be vague. Speak clearly and simply about a time your character was challenged or a time intellect or logic alone could not help you navigate an issue or crisis.

Cockrell School of Engineering Honors

There is little information available publicly about how Engineering Honors admits their students or their admitted student profile. Competitive applicants to Engineering programs tend to come from the top 5% of their class scoring around 1500 on the SAT.

Some programs are more competitive than others, however, so what you select as your first choice will influence your regular admissions decision. I provide Engineering applicant and admitted student admissions data in this video.

Regardless of which program you wish to enroll, Engineering Honors admits students from all Engineering departments. I've been told, but I don't have any links to support this observation, that their admissions process is largely driven by a student's class rank and test score.

This chart shared recently from an Open Records Request on Reddit’s UT Austin Subreddit provides additional data that their process is driven largely by academics and the Personal Achievement Index score assigned by regular admissions. It is speculated a score of 21 or higher is a minimum requirement for admission.

Engineering Honors Chart.png

They do not require an expanded resume or a recommendation letter. Unlike other honors programs that begin their review process as they receive their applicants, I'm informed that Engineering Honors waits until the Office of Admissions makes their decisions. Then, they select their honors students from the pool of admitted students.

In practice, admitted Engineering Honors students rank at the very top of their class scoring nearly perfect on the SAT/ACT especially on the math section. It also seems that, of the admitted Engineering honors students, the top third or quarter will also receive scholarships.

Unlike Plan II and Business Honors which are majors, Engineering Honors does not have many course requirements. Honors provides resources to supplement the Cockrell School's already extensive support services. 

Moody College of Communication Honors

Communication Honors is the newest program. They admitted their first class of students with Fall 2018. There is little information about how they admit their students. Similar to Plan II/Liberal Arts Honors, they are looking for diverse students who bring more than just strong academic credentials.

A high level of scholastic aptitude is beneficial, but far from the only trait that defines a Moody Honors student. We look for applicants who are capable of critical and independent thinking, with intellectual curiosity, creativity, and a variety of experiences and backgrounds. Preference is given to freshmen applicants who select Moody College as their first choice in their admissions application.

Even though it is a new program and Communications is a little less competitive than other colleges and schools, Moody Honors is highly competitive admitting less than 10% of their applicants. It's a small program so there are few spaces available.

Moody Honors requires students to take 15 hours of honors coursework, so it is more permissive than majors like Plan II or BHP. Honors students are required to have a Communications major like Public Relations or Corporate Communications, so honors supplements your main area of study, There is a capstone project requirement for graduation.

Moody Honors Communication Essay Prompt

Moody Honors requires a short answer submission on the following topic in addition to the Why Honors short answer prompt. This prompt is the same from Fall 2019.

"It’s been said that knowledge is power, but it could also be said that communication is power. Discuss an example from history, current events, a book or film, or from your own life that supports this perspective. Please limit your response to no more than 250 words."

This is undoubtedly a tricky prompt, and it's clear that the admissions committee put a lot of time and thought to crafting their question. It's critical that you submit a thoughtful response. Considering their cohort is so small and space is limited, this essay will play a role in your decision.

One way to approach this essay is to discuss an instance where you were involved in a conflict with a friend or group and how you resolved the issue through open and honest discussion. If there is a film, movie, or novel that you feel could answer the question, consider sharing.

Consider this example as one possible approach:

A plane dips from above the clouds and glides above a sandstone Gothic city where goose-stepping soldiers pack the streets. Adoring women and children greet a smiling Adolf Hitler, who is filmed from below. The chancellor’s descent from the heavens and arrival into Nuremberg reflect the Nazi narrative that through the Third Reich. Hitler was destined to restore Germany as a global power.

Triumph of the Will, while cinematically crude, demonstrates how a film can influence mass opinion and collective behavior. Director Leni Riefenstahl considered herself a documentarian, but her works are now more widely considered propaganda because of the rehearsal and staging of scenes to create a reality that conformed to the Nazi ideology. The filmmaker, along with many others who participated in Joseph Goebbels’s propaganda machine, are complicit in the genocide of six million European Jews.

As an aspiring filmmaker and grandson of Holocaust survivors, I’ve seen the abuse of visual storytelling in Riefenstahl’s work. Goebbels’s propaganda helps form the backdrop for my favorite movie, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, a kind of Jewish revenge fantasy. In a play within a play, a fictional Nazi soldier turned film star recreates a bloodbath from a sniper’s perch. Tarantino’s use of corny close-ups and unnecessary dutch angles to expose the absurdity of the period’s motion picture enterprise by presenting the serial slaughter of 250 Allied soldiers as entertainment.
The abuse of propaganda underscores to me that the most important thing about being a filmmaker today is honesty.

College of Natural Sciences Honors Programs

There is little information about either their admissions process or admitted student data. I recall from my time at UT that some of these programs, especially Health Science and Dean Scholars, have the lowest admissions rates across the university. They are also the smallest honors programs.

Considering that over twelve thousand students applied for the College of Natural Sciences in 2016, you can imagine the selectivity of their process. There are no secrets to success other than being extraordinarily talented and a little bit lucky. 

Like Business Honors, Natural Science Honors programs require an expanded resume and a recommendation letter from a math or science teacher. Consider choosing a reference who you've taken multiple courses with or is also an extracurricular activity sponsor.

Natural Sciences Honors Writing Prompt

Applicants to Dean's Scholars, Health Science Honors, and Polymathic Scholars must submit a 350 word response to the following.

How will you benefit from participation in this community? How will you contribute to this community?

What’s interesting about this essay is their explicit desire for you to discuss community. Other prompts like Turing Scholars want you to discuss your skills, experiences and talents. CNS Honors Programs presume access to your extensive resume and essays discussing why you want to study the sciences.

I appreciate their invitation for students to think critically and forecast what it may be like to be in a community of other scientists and scholars. Science doesn’t happen in isolation. Reviewers will be interested in your character and what role you play in teams or group projects. You could also share student organizations that interest you and how you feel you could contribute. Check all of the out here.

Moreover, UT Honors students often spend their first and second years in the Honors Quad residence halls alongside Honors students from all programs. Plan II provides an honest overview of life in the Quad.

For what it’s worth, I spent my first two years at UT in the Quad. It’s where I made my closest friends. I loved meeting talented and fun people from other majors and programs.

Alternatives to Freshman Honors

UT-Austin Honors programs provide academic, social, and financial benefits to their students. Especially since neither of my parents are college-educated and I came from a high school where few of my classmates enrolled at four-year universities, the intimate Honors community provided the support I needed.

I enjoyed taking small courses starting my first semester in philosophy, politics, and history. My favorite part was living in an Honors Residence Hall, Blanton, with students from all of UT's honors programs.

Honors is just one way among many to succeed. Honors also isn't a guarantee of success. UT-Austin is a world class institution where you can receive a great education that opens doors for your future. The effort you put in, your motivation to push your boundaries, and the network you create matter more for your success and well-being than whether you're in honors or not.

If you are not offered admission to a Freshman Honors program, there are many options after you arrive on campus especially when you finish your first year.

Admitted Natural Science students can submit an application for the Freshman Research Initiative.

Depending on your first choice major and application, if you are admitted, you may be invited to apply for or join other programs that offer similar benefits to Honors. These are not things you can select on Apply Texas.

There are dozens of minors and certificate programs that offer small courses with highly talented professors. You can pursue coursework related to your major or something different. Check out this list.

One of my favorite programs, Bridging Disciplines, was instrumental to my success as a student. It's open to any current student. It allowed me to combine interdisciplinary coursework with fieldwork.

All majors allow for research and the writing of a thesis. You can graduate with honors by completing a capstone project. There are also ways to complete Upper-Division Honors departmental coursework. Consider Sociology Honors, for example, open to all Sociology students with high grades interested in research.

There are a number of Honors societies and organizations open to all students, which you can view here.

Depending on how you progress in your studies, you may be able to take Graduate level coursework as a junior or senior.

All students should also consider studying abroad. Completing Business Law coursework in Scotland and Human Rights fieldwork in Bosnia and Rwanda were instrumental in informing my future goals.

As you can see, there are nearly limitless ways to have a productive and fruitful experience on the Forty Acres.

Many prospective Honors students hire me to help. Interested in building your best application and maximizing your Honors admissions chances? Complete my questionnaire for a free consultation.

Kevin MartinHonors, Essays