Honors Program Guide
Opportunities for Independent Critical and Scholarly Work
Completing the English major with honors allows students to do independent study on a topic they choose, to work closely with a faculty advisor, and to write a researched critical paper of about 50 pages. Students almost always find the Honors Program an incalculably satisfying project and a memorable achievement. Here and elsewhere, many graduate school applicants submit part of their honors thesis as a sample of their critical, scholarly work and their future promise as scholars. Students preparing for other career paths also write theses in their senior year.
When combined with the opportunity to study one-on-one with a scholar in a field of particular interest, to get a real taste of the pleasures of advanced work, to discuss work with other honors students, work on the honors thesis places students in an intellectual community, the memories of which they may well carry into future work and into other intellectual and professional endeavors.
Successfully completing an honors thesis requires sustained interest, ability, diligence, and enthusiasm—all qualities in large supply among Cornell English Majors.
Admission to the Honors Program
How to Apply
- Calculate your GPA for courses that qualify for the English major. A minimum English GPA of 3.7 is required to be eligible for the Honors Program.
- Confer with the Director of Honors and receive preliminary acceptance to the Honors Program. The Director of Honors is listed on the faculty page.
- Complete the online Honors Program Application. The Director of Honors will record their approval of your application with the department.
- Ask an English professor to be your honors thesis advisor and obtain email confirmation that they have agreed. Send your thesis advisor’s confirmation as an attachment (or have them email directly) to the Director of Honors and the Undergraduate Program Coordinator (Aurora Ricardo, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Requirements and Courses
The Honors Program is a three-course commitment in which students must complete:
ENGL 4910 (Fall) or ENGL 4920 (Spring): Honors Seminar
The purpose of the Honors Seminar is to acquaint students with methods of study and research to help them write their senior essay.
- Two sections are offered each semester, each on a different topic.
- The seminar requires a substantial essay that incorporates evidence and critical material effectively, and develops an argument. Students need not take an Honors Seminar that applies directly to the subject of their honors thesis work.
- Plan to take the Honors Seminar either ENGL 4910 (Fall) or ENGL 4920 (Spring) in your junior year. If you plan to study abroad one semester of the junior year, you should take 4910 or 4920 in the semester you are studying at Cornell. If you are spending the academic year abroad, you will need to take the Honors Seminar either in the first semester of your senior year, keeping in mind that you will also be enrolled in ENGL 4930 Honors Essay Tutorial I -OR- as a sophomore, with permission of the instructor.
ENGL 4930 (Fall) and ENGL 4940 (Spring): Honors Essay Tutorial I & II
Students work one-on-one with their thesis advisor, meeting regularly on a mutually agreed upon schedule between the professor and the student. Students will also attend larger meetings of all honors candidates held by the Director of Honors.
- These semesters must be consecutive during the senior year. The Honors Essay Tutorial is a full-year independent study course taken for a letter grade (S/U grades are not an option for Honors Tutorials I and II).
- To enroll in your thesis advisor’s section of ENGL 4930/4940, you must have their approval and the Director of Honors' approval of your application on record with the department.
While applying to the program and writing a thesis is not a guarantee that you will be awarded honors in English, most of our candidates who complete an honors thesis have been successful.
Stages of the Program
The semester-by-semester schedule below should give interested students an idea of the usual way honors candidates move through the program. Other patterns are possible, though. Some students know at the time they declare the English major that they wish to pursue honors, while others may discover later in their English studies a riveting interest they desire to pursue in-depth, and only then consider writing an honors thesis.
Early planning usually makes it easier to fulfill the Honors Program’s three-course commitment (Honors Seminar, Honors Essay Tutorial I, Honors Essay Tutorial II). But any English major with a strong record in literary studies and curiosity about a topic is welcome to talk to the Director of Honors, at any stage, about the possibility of becoming a candidate for English honors.
- If you have a strong record, apply to the Honors Program in your second semester. Occasionally, students with especially strong motivation or a defined thesis plan whose major GPA is somewhat lower than the minimum will apply. The Director of Honors will then review their junior-year English grades to assess their eligibility to continue in the program.
- Complete ENGL 4910/4920, the Honors Seminar.
- Start to identify your thesis topic.
- Confirm your thesis advisor.
- Pre-enroll in your thesis advisor's section of ENGL 4930: Honors Essay Tutorial I.
- Ask for some suggestions for preparatory reading. Spend some time in the summer months reading primary texts and thinking about your topic, approach, and argument. If possible, be in occasional email contact with your advisor.
- As soon as your first semester senior year begins, consult with your thesis advisor about your topic, discuss requirements and procedures, and set up a schedule for regular meetings. If you did not pre-enroll for ENGL 4930 you will need to do so.
- Peruse past submissions in the honors thesis archive.
- Set up and follow a schedule for your honors thesis work. Depending on what you and your advisor agree to, it is reasonable to expect in the first semester (ENGL 4930) to complete:
- a short prospectus or essay proposal
- a bibliography of available and relevant secondary or conceptual work on your topic
- an annotated bibliography of the work you wish to use, critique, and apply to your research
- about 20–30 pages of writing
- While enrolled in ENGL 4940, you will write the final draft of your honors thesis. Your advisor should read a few drafts of the final version, drafts which you should be submitting and revising under your advisor’s engaged supervision.
- Allow yourself the last two weeks to edit and proofread your thesis. Do not complicate your own project by trying to do too much at the last minute and not allowing time for the refinement of ideas and execution.
- Submit your thesis by the deadline in mid-April (or early November for those graduating in January).
- Enjoy the remainder of your final semester and graduate with Distinction in English!
Developing a Thesis Topic
Look over the papers you have written in your English courses. Some of the most successful honors theses have come out of coursework—including work completed for the Honors Seminar—that sparked curiosity and made a student want to go further and revisit and revise previous work.
Identify your interests; think about work you have done well in the past and about what work you would enjoy pursuing.
Brainstorm freely, dream, identify your intellectual interests and passions.
Ask yourself: What project will nurture and sustain my interest for two semesters of independent study? These suggestions should help you identify your topic for the honors thesis and should help you think about the advisor with whom you would enjoy working.
Honors Thesis Advisor
When choosing your honors thesis advisor, speak to faculty members who would be suitable for your project, keeping in mind that your thesis advisor should be in residence both semesters. The thesis advisor does not have to be the major advisor. You can consult the Director of Honors about appropriate advisors.
Most working relationships between honors candidates and their thesis advisors go well, and the learning is genial, exciting, and mutual. Many students recall their tutorial as a highlight of their Cornell experience, and professors, too, typically enjoy working with intellectually engaged students on a developing thesis. But if you realize that the shape your topic is taking calls on a different kind of expertise from the one represented by your thesis advisor, it is possible to change your advisors. Consult the Director of Honors for advice.
Thesis Grade and Honors Designation
Honors Thesis Grade
The thesis writing process is determined in two parts:
- The entire course (Honors Essay Tutorial I in the Fall and Honors Essay Tutorial II in the Spring) will give you 8 credits. Your work for each semester will be graded by your thesis advisor.
- The completed honors thesis is read and assessed by two readers. One reader is the thesis advisor. The other is often a faculty member whose academic interests correspond to your topic. Readers write a report and assign a letter grade to the thesis. You will receive both your advisor's and second reader's reports.
Honors Level Designation
The Honors Committee, selected by the department Chair, assists the Director of Honors in determining the level of honors (Honors, High Honors, Highest Honors). They average the English GPA and the two thesis grades for each honors candidate and rank them. The Honors Committee assesses the theses as a whole. They may also consider the student’s performance in the English major and the student’s overall transcript.
Any level of honors in English will translate to a degree of Bachelor of Arts with Distinction in English. The English honors designation is not equivalent to Latin honors levels.
Honors Thesis Format
- Approximately 50 pages of text (not including endnotes and bibliography), double-spaced, 12-point type.
- Use either the MLA or Chicago manuals of style for footnotes or endnotes, quotations, internal citations, bibliographical entries, etc. Handbooks are accessible online as well as in printed form which can be purchased or used in libraries.
- There are no predetermined formats for the title page, dedication page, or table of contents.
Honors Thesis Archive
Copies of past theses are available to view in the English office (250 GSH, M-F 9AM-4PM). The previous year’s submissions are kept for one year. Winners of the M.H. Abrams Thesis Prize are kept for five years. Theses cannot be removed from the office.
Students explore the archive in order to see how previous theses were formatted and titled, or to see a sampling of past topics.
Humanities Scholars Program
The departmental honors thesis may be used as Conference Presentation for the Humanities Scholars Program (HSP). Students present their projects at the annual Humanities Scholars Conference in May.
HSP is an undergraduate program of the Cornell University College of Arts & Sciences that fosters independent, interdisciplinary undergraduate research in the humanities, and provides a supportive community, through a series of curated courses, structured mentorship, special programming, and research opportunities and funding. The program is housed in the historic Andrew Dickson White House on central campus.