Honors Program

The Honors Program of the Department of Politics is for students with a deep and abiding interest in how politics affects our world. The Program enables students to develop their interests through a series of small seminars with top faculty in the Department.

Honors students explore their special interests by working closely with a faculty member in writing their Honors theses. Students in the program broaden their backgrounds by taking a minimum of six courses outside the program (on a pass/fail basis, if they so choose). 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, taught about gender and reproductive rights at the University of Chicago, and taught about politics at the University of Virginia.

Admission to the Honors Program is competitive. The best candidates have outstanding academic records, enthusiasm for deep study and independent research in the field of politics, and a capacity for critical thought and clear articulation of ideas. While a commitment to study politics is essential, the program encourages creative analytical approaches and a diverse range of opinion.

Interested students need NOT be declared Government or Foreign Affairs majors. Students apply to the program during the second semester of their second year. The norm for successful applicants is that they have at least a 3.7 GPA before they enter the program at the beginning of their third year. Candidates usually take at least two courses in the Department of Politics before they apply, but the program will consider candidates with less coursework in the department if they can otherwise demonstrate their commitment to the study of politics.


All applications must be submitted electronically (except Letters of Recommendation) to Ms. Sharon Marsh no later than Friday, February 19, 2016 at 12:00 noon.

A personal statement discussing at least two ideas or issues in the study of politics that you would like to investigate during your time in the honors program. Please make certain to explain why these issues are important to you and why they are significant to the broader study of politics or to the general public. Your personal statement should be no longer than two single-spaced typed pages.

  1. A resume
  2. Official transcript.
  3. Two graded term papers from any course in any department, not to exceed 8-10 pages each.
  4. Letters of recommendation from any two University faculty members. These letters should be sent separately to: The Honors Program c/o Ms. Sharon Marsh, Department of Politics, PO Box 400787, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904.
  5. A completed application form and checklist

Admission Procedure

An open meeting for interested students is held each year in February (see calendar, below). At the meeting, the Director of the program and members of the third- and fourth- year classes discuss the program and answer any questions that prospective applicants might have. After reviewing all applications, the faculty Honors Committee will select a limited number of students for oral interviews, which are generally held in March (see the calendar, below). All students will be informed whether they are accepted into the program within a week after the interviews.

Questions about the admission process can be directed to Professor Gerard Alexander.

Calendar for 2016

February 2, 2016, 7 – 8pm: Open Meeting and Recruitment (211 Gibson Hall)

February 19, 2016, 12 NOON: Deadline for electronic application

February 26,  2016, 8 a.m. – 2 p.m.  Honors Interviews (Nau 342)

March 25, 2016, 12 NOON: Honors Theses Due (183 Gibson Hall)

May 20, 2016, Reception for Honors Graduates (Time and Location TBA)

May 21, 2016, 12:30 Final Exercises, on the Lawn

Honors Seminars

Students begin the program in the Fall semester of their third year. Each semester they participate in an intensive Honors seminar in one of four subfields: American Politics, Comparative Politics, International Relations, and Political Theory. Each seminar is taught exclusively for the five to six students admitted into the Program each year.

The challenging readings, regular written assignments, intensive interaction with the faculty tutor, and focused discussion among faculty and students are designed to develop students’ capacity for verbal and written critical analysis. Instead of giving grades, faculty tutors provide students with regular constructive evaluations of their work. Tutors submit a detailed written evaluation of each student’s performance at the end of the seminar. Each seminar counts for nine credit hours. Students take the seminar on a pass/fail basis.

The sequence of the subfield seminars is usually:

3rd Year, Fall Term: Political Theory

Spring Term: International Relations

4th Year, Fall Term: Comparative Politics

Spring Term: American Politics

Honors Thesis

Honors students have the opportunity to research and write an original thesis on the topic of their choice. Students have selected a wide range of research topics over the years.

Students select a faculty advisor who advises them on ways to best achieve their research goals. Advisors need not be faculty tutors in the program. They are usually members of the Department of Politics. In special cases, students can work with professors outside the department with the approval of the Director. In such cases, students are encouraged to find a “second reader” within the department.

Students complete a thesis prospectus by the spring of their third year. They will be encouraged to make steady progress during fourth year. Honors theses must be completed NO LATER THAN APRIL 1 of the fourth year.

Honors Proseminar

year students to take a proseminarThis course provides students with the opportunity to develop research and analytic skills helpful in beginning and finishing their theses. Topics covered by the proseminar include techniques for framing research questions, the strengths and weaknesses of case studies in supporting theses, and assessments of the relative strengths of different approaches to political analysis. The thesis seminar also provides opportunities for students to present their work in midstream at opportune times for constructive feedback to assist them in developing and refining their theses. As an ungraded course, the proseminar encourages students in the Honors Program to share their thesis writing ideas and experiences with one another. It meets approximately six times during the spring semester. It counts for three credits.

Honors Thesis Colloquium

During their fourth year, Honors students are required to submit thesis work-in-progress to the Director and the other Honors students at two points – usually late November and mid-February.  A week after this submission, all Honors students meet with the Director for a long critical-feedback session.  At this session, each thesis writer has his or her work critiqued by a third-year student (assigned by the Director).

Upon completing their thesis, Honors students present their work in the Honors Thesis Colloquium. The colloquium is designed to be the capstone of the thesis-writing experience. Students will briefly present their thesis. Other students and faculty, including the thesis advisor, will then discuss the contributions of the thesis. The colloquium affords the opportunity for students to share their insights with one another in the spirit of intellectual community that the Honors Program is designed to promote.

Outside Courses

Students broaden their backgrounds and consider diverse analytical approaches and issues by taking a minimum of six courses (18 credits) outside of the program.  Students may choose to take these courses on a pass/fail basis. Students select their courses to aid them in their Honors theses. Others use these courses to take courses in areas that add intellectual breadth to their course work. Still other students have designed a curriculum that enables them to complete a second major or minor in another discipline. The Program works closely with students to enable them to use these courses to serve their intellectual needs.

Honors Examinations

Students take Honors examinations given at the end of the spring semester each year. These exams are composed and read by professors outside of the Program and in some cases outside the University itself. This is done to insure fairness and to make certain that the students have attained a broad understanding in the field of political science.

Fourth-year students take written and oral exams in all four subfields.  Third-year students take written exams in the two subfields in which they have taken seminars (namely, political theory and international relations).

Exams usually consist of several essay questions that raise key issues in a particular subfield covered by an Honors seminar. They are composed by examiners on the basis of a seminar’s syllabus. The examiner is also free to pose questions about broader issues in the subfield.

Students have four hours to complete their written exams. 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 programs.

Third-Year Exams

During May of the third year, students take the same written exams (in political theory and international relations) that the fourth-year students take, but for the third-years the exams are only for practice; they do not affect the level of Honors at which students graduate the following year. The exams will be returned to students with written comments and an approximate grade. The grade does not count towards the student’s final level of Honors but rather is intended as a guide to future work.

Fourth-Year Exams

At the end of spring semester, the fourth-year students take a written exam in each of the four subfields — political theory, international relations, comparative politics, and American politics. Topics covered on these exams will be based on the core seminar syllabi. They may also include issues that the examiners deem important for Politics Honors students to know. The examiners may ask questions based on the students’ answers during the subsequent oral interviews.

All fourth-year exams will be based on the current syllabi for the Honors seminars. In cases where the syllabus has been greatly altered from the previous year, examiners will compose questions that combine materials from the past two years.

Fourth-Year Oral Exams

At the end of the year, fourth year students take oral exams following their written exams. Each student meets individually with the panel of examiners in all four subfields. Students are asked questions in reference to their written answers, their thesis project, or other areas of the study of politics deemed relevant and important by the examining committee members. These interviews are usually one-half hour long.

Levels of Honors

After reviewing their complete records the panel of examiners determines the level of Honors that students will receive on their transcript and diploma. Students can graduate with Highest Honors, High Honors, Honors, and No Honors. The last is the equivalent of graduating as a regular major.

Stevenson Award

Each year the Stevenson Award is given to the best Honors thesis. Thesis supervisors nominate qualified theses to a faculty awards committee that selects the best thesis. The Stevenson Award includes a cash prize of $500.00

Faculty & Students

The current Honors Program faculty tutors are listed here.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. In addition to the four core seminars, how many outside courses do I need to take?

In addition to the core seminars spread over your two years in the program, you must take six other courses. They can be in any field you wish. They may be applied towards a second major or a minor. 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. Most students complete these before they enter the Program.

2. Can I “freeze” my GPA in the Politics Honors Program?

Honors students have the choice of taking classes on a pass/fail basis or for a grade. If they choose to 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.

3. Can I double-major or minor with another Department?

Yes. Many students in the program have double-majors or minors in another department. In fact the flexibility of the Honors Program curriculum facilitates double-majors, and the Politics Honors Program supports students’ efforts to augment their study of politics with second majors and minors in other departments.

4. Can I study abroad or take a semester at another University and 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 final two years. Many Honors students study abroad during the summers. The Honors Program often provides financial support to students who wish to travel abroad to conduct research for their thesis or present their research at conferences.

5. Can I research a thesis topic that is not covered in the core seminars?

Yes. You are free to work on whatever topic you wish providing it is approved by your faculty supervisor and 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.