Regular Menu or Secret Menu?

If you live in California, you either love In-N-Out or know people who do. In-N-Out's menu is simple -- burgers, fries, milkshakes, fountain drinks, milkshakes. But In-N-Out is about more than just the simple regular menu. It's also about knowing the secret menu.

The secret menu items are just novel combinations of ingredients that make up the menu items. Instead of a chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry shake, order a Neapolitan shake and get all three. Instead of regular fries, get them animal style with cheese and thousand island spread.

Here's the thing. When I talk to most families with academically gifted students, they build their college lists the way someone visiting from the East Coast (no offense; it's not as if I know the secret menu for Shake Shack) would order from In-N-Out: from the regular menu. The regular menu for many California families happens to include several Ivy League schools, several UC schools, and probably USC. The regular menu is fine, but every once in a while, it's nice to mix it up and order from the secret menu.

When it comes to the college list, what is the secret menu, anyway? In reality, the "secret" college menu isn't any more secret than the "secret" menu items In-N-Out publishes on its website. The "secret" college menu for academic all-stars includes the honors colleges at public universities. No, I'm not just talking Michigan, Virginia, and North Carolina because everyone knows those. I'm talking about the universities that you might have dismissed or denigrated, perhaps because you were unaware of the honors college angle.

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying you should only order off the secret menu. Go ahead and tell your child it's fine to order the burger and fries off the regular menu; have your child apply to Ivy League schools and to a few UC campuses (or if you're not in California, to your in-state equivalent). But also encourage your child to order a secret menu item, like that neapolitan shake; have your child apply to one honors college, too.

10 Honors Colleges for Independent-Thinking Families

What is an honors college? It's a combination of perks -- such as smaller classes, honors classes, honors residence halls, special research opportunities, and even merit aid -- that some public universities offer to outstanding students. This section will give you the briefest of introductions to 10 honors colleges I think families with all-star students should consider more carefully. Be forewarned, though -- many of these college's websites are not gorgeous. Please keep an open mind, and get ready to click around to find the info you need!

  1. Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University. Before writing this post, the only time I had spent thinking about ASU was looking at my Sparky the Sun Devil mug when I was a child. And rooting for the Cardinal to crush the Sun Devils, of course. But now, I see there is much more to ASU. Barrett, ASU's honors college, boasts a separate honors campus, a full-time staff member who coordinates internships and research opportunities, and honors study abroad programs. Also, when you estimate your child's merit aid with the ASU Scholarship Estimator, you might find that the cost is comparable to that of UC campuses.
  2. Calhoun Honors College, Clemson University. Aside from featuring a wide range of honors seminars, Calhoun Honors College sponsors a "create-a-course" contest where the winning entry becomes an actual course. Students interested in research can participate in the EUREKA! Program.
  3. Honors College, University of Maryland. The Honors College provides seven "Living and Learning" programs, including Gemstone, a four-year research program in which teams of students work together to conduct original research.
  4. Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon. Just like students in many other honors colleges, Clark Honors College students must write an honors thesis. But Clark Honors College students must also provide an oral defense by fielding questions from a lay audience and from the thesis committee. Intense! Sounds like one of those experiences people hate until it's over and then they can't stop talking about how great it is.
  5. Schreyer Honors College at Penn State. Top departments at Penn State include engineering, business, and computer science. Schreyer students may participate in Signature Travel Programs, including one to India.
  6. South Carolina Honors College. The aspiring doctors might be interested to know that completion of South Carolina's Baccalaureus Artium et Scientiae (BARSC) degree -- a research-intensive, individually designed major -- counts for one year of medical school and guarantees admission to the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. No MCAT or med school applications? OK, if you insist. (Bonus Tip: Texas Tech also has an early acceptance program to its medical school.)
  7. Honors Tutorial College - Ohio University. I confess -- none of my students has ever applied to Ohio University, but I have to include it anyway because of its unique tutorial approach. A tutorial is just a small group or one-on-one class with a real professor. Not great if you want the anonymity of a big lecture hall, but great for learning, which I suppose is the point of college. All this is for about the same price as a UC.
  8. UC Irvine, Campuswide Honors Program. This is the place for students looking for an honors program built on interdisciplinary seminars, including the Honors Humanities Core, Honors Social Science Core, and the Honors Science Core. UCI offers great programs in computer science, biology and business, among others. Plus, their mascot is Peter, the anteater. Take that, Sparky the Sun Devil. Zot! Zot! Zot!
  9. Plan II Honors Program, University of Texas at Austin. What's Plan I? I don't know. So let's talk Plan II. Similar to UC Irvine's Campuswide Honors Program, Plan II is built around a core curriculum, but with a twist: the core curriculum, itself, is the major. This program aims to provide "Education for a life, not for a living." But don't worry, that doesn't mean your kid will be moving back home with you; graduates still go on to great graduate schools, professional schools, and jobs.
  10. University Honors Program, University of Washington. The Washington Honors Program has two parts: interdisciplinary honors relating to general education and departmental honors relating to the student's major. Its emphasis on experiential learning encourages students to get involved in the world beyond the classroom, including through study abroad.

The Honors College Challenge

Here's my honors college challenge:

Encourage your academic all-star to apply to at least one honors college.

What if instead of limiting your child to the Ivy League schools and the UC campuses, you could help her find another choice? That choice might not seem appealing in the fall, when the cool air blows with possibility. But in the spring, when the inevitable rejections trickle in, all acceptances receive a closer look.

Sure, in the end, your family might decide to go with a UC campus after all. But applying to an honors college is a great way to prepare for the chance that your family's preferences might change between fall and spring.

Plus, ordering from the regular menu all the time is boring. So be bold, and order that neapolitan shake from the secret menu. Maybe dip the fries in your shake while you're at it. Who knows? You just might discover a new favorite.


P.S. You might be thinking, "I'm tired of googling the answers to my college questions. Isn't there a better way?" If so, come join the conversation on our private Facebook group for parents: Free College Counseling. Hope to see you there!