Lisa Rivero M.A.

Creative Synthesis

College Considerations for High-Ability Teens

Thinking outside the Ivy-walled box

Posted Nov 13, 2011

"When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this—you haven't." (Thomas A. Edison)

Thinking out of the box

College Honors Programs

Honors programs are, in essence, gifted programming at the university level. While admittance criteria vary widely, many programs require minimum SAT scores of 1300 to 1400. Other schools request that students submit a portfolio or write an application essay.

Are honors programs any better than or different from mainstream college classes? One study of 2000 students from 18 four-year colleges found that students enrolled in honors programs experienced more of what are considered good practices for undergraduate education than their classmates who were not honors students. These recommended good practices, developed by Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson, include an encouragement of contact between students and faculty, student reciprocity and cooperation, active learning, prompt feedback, emphasis of time on task, communication of high expectations, and a respect for diverse talents and ways of learning. The study also found that students in the honors program showed greater growth in academic test scores, compared with non-honors students, with particular benefits for men and for students whose family income was less than average.

Some parents may worry that the selective and competitive aspects of an honors program may lead to their teens' not doing as well as they might otherwise, or that their self-concept may be negatively affected. This is sometimes called the Big Fish Little Pond Effect, meaning that students will compare more favorably with less intense competition, but will suffer in a larger, more competitive pool. However, in a study of gifted college students, some of whom were in an honors program and some of whom were not, Educational Psychologist Anne Rinn found that the effect did not apply. The gifted students in the honors program had both higher academic scores and higher self-concepts than gifted students not in the honors program. Rinn concluded, "If the findings from this study offer any indication of how gifted students will perform in an honors program versus a university at large, a gifted student would likely be better off in an honors program than not." A well-run honors program can also provide students with the undergraduate education they need to compete for spots at top graduate schools, in effect offering an Ivy League education at a state school price.

Of course, not all honors programs are the same. When researching honors programs, families can ask about good undergraduate educational practices such as those discussed earlier, as well as the extent to which program directors and advisors work with students to promote campus involvement, which has been found to help honors freshmen to stay motivated. Another consideration is whether the honors program is mainly set up to confer a prestigious degree or, instead, if it is designed holistically to meet the intellectual and social-emotional needs of gifted learners, in the words of one Midwestern university's honors program, students who are "especially well prepared for and impassioned by intense intellectual engagement." Such a program might include pass-fail inquiry-based learning, multidisciplinary classes, or honors residence options where students can befriend like-minded peers.

The Role of Motivation

Even before making college visits, parents can begin to consider early in the high school years what skills and habits will help their children to succeed in higher education. Motivation is mentioned by both faculty who teach college students and by researchers as a key component of college success. Maintaining motivation can be complicated for very bright students because they often do not need to work as hard as their less able peers to receive high grades. High-ability high school students should be encouraged to take challenging courses, especially in writing, mathematics, social science, critical thinking, and English/literature. A good introduction to the science of motivation is Dan Pink's TED Talk on the topic.

Bright students may also struggle with perfectionism, especially "socially prescribed perfectionism," an unhealthy form of perfectionism that leads to goals of avoiding failure rather than seeking mastery, and to procrastination rather than greater effort. These students may do better in colleges that have more options for ungraded class work, independent study, and other opportunities that place less emphasis on assessment and more emphasis on internal motivation.

What if your teen has never been in a gifted or honors program before college, either because the school did not have one, or he or she did not meet the criteria? Are honors programs still a good option? Researchers are finding that being gifted is about more than just IQ scores. A long-term study of high-ability students in Fullerton, California has found that some adolescents are motivationally gifted, for example, showing "motivation to the extreme," which allows them to achieve academically in unpredicted ways. History is full of stories of late-bloomers whose giftedness is evident primarily in adulthood.

Early Entrance and Other Nontraditional Options

Some high school students are ready for college-level work long before they graduate. For these students, families may consider early entrance to college, either full-time or part-time. Several colleges across the nation offer full-time early entrance programs, or young students may wish to attend a college closer to home, so that commuting or more frequent family visits are an option. Part-time early entrance is often in the form of dual-enrollment (simultaneous enrollment in high school and college, often through a state-sponsored program) or as a part-time, non-degree student.

Whether early entrance is a good idea for a particular child depends on many factors other than test scores or precocity, such as the student's motivation and self-concept. However, in a comprehensive review of thirty-eight studies on the effects of academic acceleration, Sidney M. Moon, Professor of Gifted, Creative, and Talented Studies at Purdue University, and Educational Psychologist Saiying Steenbergen-Hufound that early entrance to college is, in general, a particularly effective form of acceleration from the standpoint of both academic achievement and, though less markedly, social-emotional development. Free guides to help both students and their parents assess whether early college entrance is a good option are available from the Davidson Institute for Talent Development.

More Choices Than Ever Before

Moon and Steenbergen-Hu remind us of the many choices open to today's students:

"For example, they can join an early-college high school, take AP classes, choose to enter college early, skip high school completely, or take dual-enrollment classes in their high school. As a result, more and more high-ability learners will be experiencing a nontraditional pathway between high school and college."

Bypassing or, in the words of entrepreneur and philanthropist Peter Thiel, "stopping" out of college, may be yet another option for some entrepreneurially-minded young people, especially when it is done with careful, long-term planning and the kind of community and financial support provided by programs such as Thiel's 20 Under 20 initiative (Mark Suster offers a thoughtful critique of the program).

Just as in primary and secondary education, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the college question, even for the subset of our brightest students. The good news, however, is that adolescents and their families have more educational options than ever before, if they are willing to stretch a bit to see them.


  • Caplan, S., Henderson, C., Henderson, J. & Fleming, D. (2002). Socioemotional factors contributing to adjustment among early-entrance college students. Gifted Child Quarterly, 46, 124-134.
  • Gottfried, A., Eskeles Gottfried, A., & Wright Guerin, D. (2006, July). The Fullerton longitudinal study: A long-term investigation of intellectual and motivational giftedness. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 29(4), 430-450, 485-486.
  • Guerrero, J.K., & Riggs, S.A. (1996).  The preparation and performance of freshmen in university honors programs:  A faculty perspective. Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, 8, 41-48.
  • Hammond, D., McBee, M., & Hébert, T. (2007). Exploring the motivational trajectories of gifted university students. Roeper Review, 29(3), 197-205.
  • Neumeister, K. (2004). Understanding the relationship between perfectionism and achievement motivation in gifted college students. The Gifted Child Quarterly, 48(3), 219-231.
  • Rinn, A.  (2007). Effects of programmatic selectivity on the academic achievement, academic self-concepts, and aspirations of gifted college students. The Gifted Child Quarterly, 51(3), 232-245.
  • Seifert, T., Pascarella, E., Colangelo, N., & Assouline, S. (2007). The effects of honors program participation on experiences of good practices and learning outcomes. Journal of College Student Development, 48, 57-74.
  • Siegle, D., Rubenstein, L., Pollard, E., & Romey, E. (2010). Exploring the relationship of college freshmen honors students' effort and ability attribution, interest, and implicit theory of intelligence with perceived ability. The Gifted Child Quarterly, 54(2), 92-101.
  • Steenbergen-Hu, S., & Moon, S. (2011). The effects of acceleration on high-ability learners: A meta-analysis. The Gifted Child Quarterly, 55(1), 39.

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