Honors Options

About the Honors Program

Our Undergraduate Honors Program supports students who want to do ambitious scholarly, critical or creative work involving literature in English; it accommodates students who plan to write a senior thesis, as well as those who do not. It is designed to give you the resources to work collaboratively and independently on the literary questions of your own choice, while providing more background (and more preparation for further study) than the elective program can.

Foreign Literature Requirement

The foreign literature requirement for honors candidates goes beyond the College’s foreign language requirement. In simple terms, it asks honors candidates to take one half-course in which works of literature are read in the original language, and thus rules out basic grammar and comprehension courses. Foreign literature in English translation does not count, nor does a single half course that deals primarily with language fundamentals.

List of Approved Foreign Literature Courses 

Alternatives within the Foreign Literature Requirement:

A. Two half courses of Anglo-Saxon (Old English). Students can take English 102, and its continuation in English 103.

B. One full or two half courses of continued study in a foreign language at the intermediate or advanced level. Students may use this option to undertake advanced study of the language they used to fulfill the college requirement.

Sophomores and juniors exercising this option should note that the second half of a full course or the second of two half courses will count for one of their related course options.

90-level Seminar Requirement

Enrollment in these courses is limited to 15, but any English concentrator may be admitted with permission from the course head. All honors concentrators are required to take at least one 90-level seminar within the department. While some preference is given to English concentrators, no seats are guaranteed, so we encourage you to begin exploring seminars before senior year.

Sophomore Year

Near the end of sophomore year, students with a concentration GPA of at least 3.40 may apply to the Honors Program in English. To apply, concentrators must first attend an informational meeting discussing the Honors Program and then submit an application for a Junior Tutorial, to be taken during the fall or spring of the junior year. Applicants will be notified of their tutorial status during the summer.

Junior Year

All honors concentrators must take the one-term Junior Tutorial (English 98) in the fall or spring. These small group tutorials concentrate on techniques of critical reading and writing over the course of one semester. The writing requirements of the junior tutorial include the twenty-page Junior Essay, in which students explore a literary topic in depth, demonstrate independent critical judgment and analysis, and engage other critical writing. The essay also prepares students for the year-long research and writing of a senior thesis.

Critical Thesis Option
In April of the junior year, students who intend to write a thesis must submit a senior thesis proposal of 300-500 words, including a tentative bibliography. Students whose proposals are accepted may then enroll in two terms of the senior tutorial (English 99r), in which they receive individual advising from a faculty member, or a combination of both a faculty member a graduate student in the field. Students seeking to write a thesis are responsible for securing a faculty adviser. This is best done by contacting one or more members of the departmental faculty at the time you are formulating your topic. It is especially helpful to have a member of the departmental faculty read and sign you thesis proposal before you submit it. Acceptable senior thesis topics may include any aspect of British, American, or global literature in English.

Creative Thesis Option
With approval from the staff of the creative writing program, students may pursue an original literary work in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, playwriting, or screenwriting. Creative Writing Thesis Proposals by honors juniors (out-of-phase students included) are submitted in February. In addition to fulfilling other concentration requirements for the Honors Program, including the junior tutorial, students applying for a creative writing thesis ordinarily will have completed one course in creative writing at Harvard before they apply.

Non-thesis Option
In the non-thesis Honors Program, students are required to take a total of three English 90 seminars or other small-format courses in the department. A grade point average of 3.40 or higher in the concentration is required. Note that students who elect this option will not be eligible to receive a degree recommendation higher than “with Honors.”

Joint Concentrations
Upon approval from the Director of Undergraduate Studies, honors students may combine a concentration in English with a concentration in another field, supervised by one member of each department. In addition to the senior thesis, joint concentrators are often required to take more courses than other students. Only students with a strong record and a clearly formulated project across two disciplines should consider a joint concentration. Students must maintain a 3.60 concentration GPA.

Joint concentrators may declare English to be either their primary or secondary concentration: the requirements are the same for both. Students are expected to take the junior tutorial in English. While students having English as their second concentration are expected to enroll in the two-term senior tutorial in their primary department, they will nonetheless have a thesis adviser in English. Juniors interested in declaring a joint concentration must complete a change of concentration form, which must be signed by both departments and by the student’s Resident Dean. For further information contact the Undergraduate Program.

Senior Year

The senior critical thesis explores a topic – ordinarily dealing with English and American texts (this may not be the case for joint concentrators) – which may be defined in a variety of ways: by author, work, genre, theme, theoretical issue, or historical period. The project must be of sufficient originality and interest to merit about ten months of research and writing and should demonstrate knowledge of the criticism written on the subject, from periodicals as well as books. Scrupulous citation of sources must be observed. The thesis should normally be divided into two or three essay-length chapters, with an introduction or a conclusion, and must include a bibliography. We expect the senior thesis to consist of original work that has not previously been submitted for grading. A partial exception is made for creative theses that build substantially on earlier work.

Research for the thesis often begins at the end of the second term of junior year or during the summer. A thesis prospectus (for critical thesis writers only) is due to the undergraduate program office the first week in October in the senior year (see below). Critical thesis writers therefore are strongly encouraged, immediately upon returning to campus, to schedule regular meeting times with thesis supervisors. On the first Friday in December students must submit at least twenty pages of the thesis both to their supervisors and to the undergraduate program office. Failure to do so will result in being dropped from the senior tutorial. Thesis writers are strongly advised, however, to complete, by the end of the first term, a draft of the entire thesis, which may then be refined, in consultation with the supervisor, in the five weeks of the spring term leading up to the thesis deadline. Because of the complex procedures necessary for grading theses and determining levels of honors, no exceptions to this deadline will be made.

The Senior Thesis Prospectus
A three-page prospectus describing the thesis project, to which a two-page, annotated bibliography must be added, is due in the undergraduate program office during the first week of October. The prospectus must be signed by the thesis writer and by the supervisor. The prospectus should define the topic of the thesis, specify the works to be studied, discuss the method of analysis to be used, and state why the project is worthwhile. The prospectus will be read and commented on by a member of the faculty.

Read our Senior Thesis Guide for guidelines and tips for thesis writers and advisers.

The Senior Creative Writing Thesis
Senior creative writing theses most often take the form of a novel, a screenplay, a memoir, a collection of poems or short stories, or a play. The creative thesis application process takes place in February. Applicants should have taken at least one creative writing course before the spring term of their junior year.

Joint Concentration Senior Theses
It is crucial that joint concentrators coordinate their work with advisers in both departments as early as possible and as often as necessary. Early discussion before a student submits an application in April of the junior year, and again in the fall as the student prepares the prospectus, is crucial. Students having difficulty managing the diverse expectations of both departments should contact the undergraduate program office for assistance.

Evaluating the Thesis
Theses will be graded cum laude (“with praise”), magna cum laude (“with great praise”), and summa cum laude (“with highest praise”), with pluses and minuses (there is no summa plus). Two faculty members who are not the thesis adviser will read and comment on each thesis and give a grade. In the event that the two readers’ marks differ by more than a whole step (e.g., a cum and a magna plus , or a magna minus and a summa), a third reader will be asked to read and grade the thesis (but is not required to write comments). In either case, the final thesis grade will then consist of the average of all grades, with equal weight given to each.

Latin grades for thesis readings correspond to the following values:

Summa 3.93-4.00
Summa minus 3.80-3.92
Magna plus 3.67-3.79
Magna  3.60-3.66
Magna minus 3.53-3.59
Cum plus 3.46-3.52
Cum 3.40-3.45

Thesis comments and grades will be available in mid April; thesis writers will be notified by e-mail when all readings are in. Copies of magna- through summa- level theses will be deposited in the university archives.

Oral Examinations
In order to qualify for a departmental degree recommendation of highest honors (see section on degree recommendations below), all eligible seniors must take a forty-five minute oral examination by two faculty members at the end of the final term. To be eligible a senior must have 1) a concentration GPA of 3.80 or higher and 2) an average of thesis readings in the magna plus range (in where both readings are either magna pluses or at least one of the readings is in the summa range). Seniors will be notified of eligibility in April of senior year. The examination is optional. Eligible seniors who choose not to take the examination will be recommended by the department for high honors.

The examination is graded with the same Latin designations as the thesis and will be used by the faculty, in conjunction with the concentration GPA and thesis grades, to arrive at a final departmental degree recommendation.

To take the examination the students must submit, two weeks beforehand, a list of readings gleaned from the student’s time as an English concentrator and the titles of all major course essays written in that time. (Sample lists are available in the undergraduate program office.)

Examinees will be expected to demonstrate knowledge of periods, authors, and genres, and to draw connections among them. The examiners will almost certainly not let it get bogged down in discussing all the works in any one area. Mock sessions with tutors, advisers, and classmates may be helpful.

Departmental Honors Recommendations and College Latin Honors
In May of each year the full department faculty meets to determine departmental honors, also referred to as “honors in field.” There are four categories: no honors, honors, high honors, and highest honors. A further purpose of this meeting is to provide recommendations to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which decides the level of Latin honors (cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude) on the basis of the student’s departmental recommendation and overall academic record.

The determination of Latin honors at the College level is limited to a percentage of the graduating class, roughly as follows: 4-5% summa cum laude , 15% magna cum laude , and 30% cum laude, such that the total of all three types of degrees represents slightly less than 50% of the graduating class.

New cumulative GPA cutoffs will be determined for each graduating class. For students receiving a November or a March degree, the college applies the cutoffs established for the previous June degrees. For details on this process, see the FAQ page on the web site of the College Dean. You may also want to review the FAS Handbook for Students. Questions should be directed to the registrar’s office or to a student’s Resident Dean.