Honors Program

The Honors Program of the Department of Politics is for students with a deep interest in how politics affects our world, and how economics, culture, and other factors affect politics. Admission to the Honors Program is competitive. The best candidates have outstanding academic records, a capacity for critical thought and clear articulation of ideas, and enthusiasm for study and independent research in the field of politics.

The Program enables students to develop their interests working with top faculty in the Department in a series of small seminars, restricted to the 6 or 7 students who make up a typical Honors class. One seminar is held in each of the four sub-fields of politics: Political Theory, International Relations, Comparative Politics, and American Politics. Honors students also explore their special interests by working closely with a faculty member in writing an original Honors thesis on a topic of their choosing. The Honors program encourages creative analytical approaches and a diverse range of opinion, and thesis projects often reflect Honors students’ interests in combining politics with other fields. The Program challenges students to achieve the highest standards of intellectual rigor, and provides them with flexibility to develop innovative approaches to understanding the most important political issues of our time.

Among other exciting and diverse careers, graduates of the program have clerked for Supreme Court Justices, become Rhodes Scholars, edited the Stanford Law Review, advised small businesses in Bolivia, served as a Navy JAG officer, identified social entrepreneurship opportunities in India, taught about gender and reproductive rights at the University of Chicago, and taught about politics at the University of Virginia.

Students in the Politics Honors Program and the Program in Political and Social Thought (PST) share the study lounge located in Gibson S134.

Director of the Honors Program: Gerard Alexander

2017 Application Calendar

February 1, 2017, 7–8 p.m.
Open informational meeting (Location TBA)
February 17, 2017, 12 NOON
Deadline for applying to the Honors class of 2019
February 24, 2017, 8 a.m.–2 p.m.
Honors application interviews (Location TBA)

2017 Calendar for Current Honors Students Assignments and Events

March 31, 2017, 12 NOON
Honors Theses Due (183 Gibson Hall)
May 4-9, 2017, 9 a.m.-12 p.m.
Likely dates of written exams
May 10-12, 2017
Likely date of oral exams
May 19, 2017
Reception for graduating Honors students and families
May 20, 2017, 12:30 p.m.
Final Exercises on the Lawn

Application Process

Applications are due by Friday, February 17, 2017 at 12:00 noon.

Students apply to the program during the second semester of their second year. Interested students do not have to be declared Government or Foreign Affairs majors. Successful applicants typically have at least a 3.7 GPA, although that is not a requirement. Candidates have usually completed at least two courses in the Department of Politics by the time they apply, but the program will consider candidates with less if they can otherwise demonstrate their commitment to the study of politics.

An open meeting for interested students is held in February. At the meeting, the Director of the Program and members of the 3rd and 4th year Honors classes discuss the program and answer questions that prospective applicants might have.


Application materials other than recommendation letters should be combined into a single PDF document and submitted by email to Ms. Sharon Marsh no later than Friday, February 17, 2017 at 12:00 noon. Faculty letters of recommendation should be separately sent to: Politics Honors Program, c/o Ms. Sharon Marsh, Department of Politics, P.O. Box 400787, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904.
After reviewing all applications, a panel of Honors faculty will interview a limited number of applicants. All students will be informed of admission decisions very quickly after the interviews.
Questions about the admission process can be directed to Professor Gerard Alexander

Academic Components of the Honors Program

Honors students take four core seminars and other courses, and at the end of the fourth year take oral exams and turn in an original thesis.

Honors Seminars

Starting in the Fall semester of their third year, Honors students take a series of four intensive Honors seminars, one in each of the four sub-fields of politics: American Politics, Comparative Politics, International Relations, and Political Theory. The four seminars form the core of the Honors program, and each seminar is taught exclusively for the students admitted into the Program each year.
The seminars make possible challenging readings, regular written assignments, intensive interaction with faculty, and focused discussion among faculty and students, which together are designed to develop students’ capacity for critical analysis and verbal and written expression. Faculty provide students with regular constructive evaluations of their work. Faculty also submit to the Program Director a detailed written evaluation of each student’s performance at the end of the seminar. Each seminar counts for nine credit hours, and students take these seminars on a pass/fail basis, not for a grade.
The seminars in Political Theory (PLPT 4990) and International Relations (PLIR 4990) are usually taken in students’ 3rd years, and in Comparative Politics (PLCP 4990) and American Politics (PLAP 4990) in their 4th years.

Honors Thesis Workshop

Additionally, Honors students take a course in their third year to help in planning and designing fourth-year thesis projects. This thesis workshop covers topics such as framing research questions, the strengths and weaknesses of case studies and other research designs in supporting arguments, and assessments of the relative strengths of different approaches to political analysis. The workshop meets approximately eight times during the spring semester. It counts for three credits, and is taken on a pass/fail basis.

Outside Courses

Honors students broaden their backgrounds and consider diverse analytical approaches and issues by taking a minimum of six courses (18 credits) outside of the program. Many take more. Students may choose to take these courses on a pass/fail basis. Some Honors students take individual courses in order to add intellectual breadth to their Honors course work. Others specifically complete a second major or a minor in another discipline. The Program works closely with students to enable them to use these courses to serve their intellectual needs.

Honors Thesis

Honors students research and write an original thesis on the topic of their choice, selected in consultation with the program’s Director. Students have selected a wide range of research topics over the years.

Students select a faculty advisor who advises them on how to best achieve their research goals. Thesis advisors need not be faculty in the Honors program, and while they are usually members of the Department of Politics, students can work with professors outside the department with the approval of the Director.

To accommodate their thesis research, 4th year Honors students can (but do not have to) register each semester for sections of PLAD 4999, a three-credit course titled “Senior Thesis,” which is taken on a pass/fail basis.

Past copies of Honors theses can be found in Gibson S134, the study lounge shared by the Politics Honors Program and the Program in Political and Social Thought (PST).

Final Examinations

Students take written and oral examinations at the end of their fourth year. The written exams are composed and read by professors typically from outside the program, and in some cases from outside the University. These exams cover each of the four sub-fields and are based on the syllabi that 4th year students used in their Honors seminars. Each exam consists of several essay questions addressing key issues covered by an Honors seminar. Students have three hours to complete each written exam, one on each of four consecutive business days. Consultation with notes, books, or other materials is not permitted during the exam period. The University Honor Code applies to these exams as it does to all University assignments.

Following their written exams, each 4th year student also takes an oral exam with the panel of examiners and the Program Director. Examiners are free to pose questions about broader issues in the sub-field as well as material covered by the written exams. These oral exams are approximately 30 minutes long.

Third-year Honors students take the written exams in the two sub-fields in which they have so far taken seminars (typically, Political Theory and International Relations). The 3rd years take these exams only for practice. The exam essays they write in their third year do not affect the level of Honors at which Honors students graduate the following year.

Levels of Honors

The Program Director and the panel of examiners review each student’s overall record in the Program over two years in order to determine the level of Honors that students will receive on their transcripts and diplomas. Students can graduate with Highest Honors, High Honors, Honors, and No Honors. The last is the equivalent of graduating as a regular major, and may be awarded if the student fails to perform basic requirements of the program or fails to apply themselves in fulfillment of those requirements.

Each application must include:

  • A completed application form and checklist.
  • A resume.
  • An official transcript.
  • Two graded term papers from any course in any department, not to exceed 8-10 pages each.
  • Two short essays, each one discussing an idea or issue in politics that you would like to investigate during your time in the Honors program. Explain why you believe these issues are important to the broader study of politics. The two essays combined should be no longer than two single-spaced pages.
  • Letters of recommendation from any two University faculty members. These letters should be sent separately to: Politics Honors Program, c/o Ms. Sharon Marsh, Department of Politics, P.O. Box 400787, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904.

Stevenson Award

Each year the best Honors thesis wins the Stevenson Award. Thesis supervisors nominate qualified theses to a faculty awards committee that selects the best thesis. The Stevenson Award includes a cash prize of $500.

Frequently Asked Questions

In addition to the four core seminars and the thesis writing workshop, how many courses outside the Honors Program can I take in my third and fourth years?

  • In addition to the core seminars spread and PLAD 4990, you must take at least six other courses. They can be in any field you wish. If you choose, you can apply them toward a second major or a minor. Many Honors students take many more than these six courses. Of course, in addition to the courses students take in the Honors Program during their last two years, they must have completed standard College requirements for graduation.

Does my GPA “freeze” when I enter the Politics Honors Program?

  • Honors students have the choice of taking classes on a pass/fail basis or for a grade, so long as the faculty member teaching any given course agrees. If students take all of their classes on a pass/fail basis, their GPA will be frozen at the level it was at the time they entered the Program. Courses that students decide to take on a graded basis will be included in the final calculation of their GPA.

Can I double-major or minor in another Department?

  • Yes. Many students in the program have double-majors or minors in another department, ranging from Economics and Computer Science to Poetry Writing. The Politics Honors Program supports students’ efforts to augment their study of politics in this way.

Can I study abroad or take a semester at another university and still participate in the Program?

  • In order to complete the Honors seminars, students must remain on the grounds for the spring and fall semesters of their third and fourth years. This means Honors students cannot study abroad for a fall or spring semester. As a result, many Honors students study abroad during summers.

Can I write my thesis on a topic that is not covered in the core seminars?

  • Absolutely. You are free to work on whatever topic you wish providing it is approved by the Program Director. Originality and creativity are strongly encouraged.

Where can I find the official academic requirements for the University?

  • The information contained on this website is for informational purposes only. The Undergraduate Record and Graduate Record represent the official repository for academic program requirements. These publications may be found at http://records.ureg.virginia.edu/index.php.

Stevenson Winners


Parisa Sadeghi