In the fall of 2023, a record-breaking 244 students enrolled in the Honors Program, an increase of nearly 8% over the fall 2022 semester. Melissa Berninger, director of Honors, attributes this impressive growth to diligent recruitment efforts and a growing reputation of the program.

“We worked really hard on recruiting this year and made sure that we talked to every student coming in who met our benchmarks or who we thought would be a good fit for the program,” said Berninger. “The staff has a lot to do with the growth, but also, the program has a good reputation. Students who know people who have gone to USD and been in the Honors Program often ask us about it and show interest.”

Eligibility for the Honors Program typically requires a high school GPA around 3.7, with an ACT score of 26 or above granting automatic admission into the program. However, Berninger acknowledges that test scores and grades aren’t necessarily always indicative of a student’s success or how they’ll perform in college, so the program takes a more holistic approach to screening students for acceptance to the program.

“We look at activities they’ve been involved in and service work that they’ve done; we want students who are going to come and be active in the program and on campus,” said Berninger. “I’ll sometimes interview students or look at a writing sample to make sure they’re prepared to succeed in the Honors classes they’ll be taking.”

This comprehensive approach to admissions has allowed the program to welcome a more diverse group of students from across South Dakota and beyond. For example, this year, the Honors Program offered a First Year Experience course dedicated specifically to business students after welcoming a larger-than-normal cohort of business majors.

Students in the Honors Program follow one of two tracks: a university scholar track, which is designed for first-year students and requires 15 credits of Honors courses, and a thesis scholar track, which is designed for transfer students or existing USD students who join the program later on and requires nine credits of Honors courses.

In these Honors-specific courses, students benefit from learning in much more intimate settings, with classes being capped at around 17 students and the course structure being heavily discussion-based.

“It’s much more active learning,” said Berninger. “Honors students do a lot of preparation with written communication, oral communication and critical thinking; they graduate from the program really skilled in those areas.”

Research conducted by Jacob Kerby, Ph.D., chair of the biology department, has found that Honors students tend to score much higher on the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section of the MCAT – the standardized exam for students hoping to get into medical school – than non-honors students.

Before graduating, Honors students are also required to take two seminar courses, which encourage them to explore unique subjects beyond their major. These courses, often passion projects for faculty, cover diverse topics such as game theory, Harry Potter and the law, First Amendment law, math and music, environmental chemistry, travel writing, and a campus-wide favorite, science of good cooking.

In addition, students in the Honors Program complete a thesis, which can take many forms – from a scientific experiment or literary analysis to a business plan or original novel, play or musical composition – and allows them to research a topic they are passionate about.

“Doing a thesis and taking on an independent research project – coming up with an idea and seeing it through to completion – displays their persistence,” said Berninger. “It shows that students are able to work independently and take on a major project, and it helps students develop transferable skills like communication and writing that will help them be successful in graduate school, the workforce or wherever they go after graduation.”

Honors students are often some of the most academically talented and highly motivated students on campus, and through these enriched academic experiences, students excel in the classroom and beyond.

Notably, nearly 75% of USD’s nationally competitive scholarship winners and finalists over the last five years have been students in the Honors Program, and in 2022, nine of 12 of the university’s Undergraduate Research Award winners were in Honors.

"The Honors staff works hard to help students find opportunities and excel at them, so we're really proud to see all that they achieve," said Berninger. "As campus coordinator of nationally competitive scholarships, I get to work with some of USD's top students, both in and out of the Honors Program, and it's amazing to see how successful our students are and how they stand out at the national level."

Outside the classroom, Honors students actively participate on campus and in the community by completing five Enhanced Honors Experiences. These experiences include internships, study abroad excursions, involvement in student organizations, volunteering, community engagement and more. Enhanced Honors Experiences not only bolster students' resumes, but they also expand their education beyond traditional classroom settings.

“Anything that students do after they graduate is going to be interdisciplinary in some way,” said Berninger. “Nobody just focuses on one thing, so being able to pull from learning that they’ve done in different areas, to pull ideas and information from a lot of different places, is really important. Honors teaches students to do that.”

In addition to the enriched educational opportunities and community engagement offered through the program, Berninger said that Honors students also forge meaningful relationships with students across campus.

“One of the great things about the program is the community that we foster here,” said Berninger. “Coming to college can be a scary thing, but coming into the Honors Program and having a community of students who might not share your major but are similarly interested in academic and being involved on campus, that’s a really good thing for students.”

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