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Phi Beta Kappa, the first honor society, was established in 1776. Since then, dozens - if not hundreds - of other college honor societies have been established, covering all academic fields, and also specific fields, such as the natural sciences, English, engineering, business, and political science.
According to the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS), “honor societies exist primarily to recognize the attainment of scholarship of a superior quality.” In addition, the CAS notes “a few societies recognize the development of leadership qualities and commitment to service and excellence in research in addition to a strong scholarship record.”
However, with so many organizations, students might not be able to distinguish between legitimate and fraudulent college honor societies.
Legit or Not?
One way to evaluate the legitimacy of an honor society is to look at its history. “Legitimate honor societies have a long history and legacy that is easily recognizable,” according to Hannah Breaux, who is the communications director for Phi Kappa Phi. The honor society was founded at the University of Maine in 1897. Breaux tells , “Today, we have chapters on more than 300 campuses in the United States and the Philippines, and have initiated over 1.5 million members since our founding.”
According to C. Allen Powell, executive director and co-founder of the National Technical Honor Society (NTHS), “Students should find out if the organization is a registered, non-profit, educational organization or not.” This information should be prominently displayed on the society's website. “For-profit honor societies should usually be avoided and tend to promise more services and benefits than they deliver,” Powell warns.
The organization's structure should also be evaluated. Powell says students should determine, “Is it a school/college chapter-based organization or not? Must a candidate be recommended by the school for membership, or can they join directly without school documentation?”
High academic achievement is usually another requirement. For example, eligibility for Phi Kappa Phi requires juniors to be ranked in the top 7.5% of their class, and seniors and graduate students must be ranked in the top 10% of their class. The members of the National Technical Honor Society may be in high school, tech college, or college; however, all students need to have at least a 3.0 GPA on a 4.0 scale.
Powell also thinks it is a good idea to ask for references. “A list of member schools and colleges should be found on the organization's website - go to those member school web sites and get references.”
Faculty members can also provide guidance. “Students who have concerns about the legitimacy of an honor society should also consider talking to an advisor or faculty member on campus,” Breaux suggests. “Faculty and staff can serve as a great resource in helping a student determine whether or not a particular honor society's invitation is credible or not.”
Certification status is another way to evaluate an honor society. Steve Loflin, past president of the Association of College Honor Societies (ACHS) and CEO & founder of The National Society of Collegiate Scholars, says, “Most institutions value ACHS certification as the best way to know the honor society meets high standards.”
Loflin warns that some organizations aren't true honor societies. “Some of these student organizations are masquerading as honor societies, meaning they use 'honor society' as a hook, but they are for-profit companies and do not have academic criteria or standards that would meet the ACHS guidelines for certified honor societies.”
For students considering an invitation, Loflin says, “Recognize that non-certified groups are potentially not transparent about their business practices and can't deliver the prestige, tradition and value of certified honor society membership.” The ACHS provides a checklist that students can use to evaluate the legitimacy of a non-certified honor society.
To Join or Not to Join?
What are the benefits of joining a college honor society? Why should students consider accepting an invitation? “In addition to the academic recognition, joining an honor society can provide a number of benefits and resources that extend beyond a student's academic career and into their professional lives,” Breaux says.
“At Phi Kappa Phi, we like to say that membership is more than a line on a résumé,” Breaux adds, noting some of the membership benefits as follows: “The ability to apply for a number of awards and grants valued at $1.4 million each biennium; our extensive award programs provide everything from $15,000 Fellowships for graduate school to $500 Love of Learning Awards for continuing education and professional development.” Also, Breaux says the honor society provides networking, career resources, and exclusive discounts from over 25 corporate partners. “We also offer leadership opportunities and much more as part of active membership in the Society,” Breaux says. Increasingly, employers say they want applicants with soft skills, and honor societies provide opportunities to develop these in-demand traits.
We also wanted to get the perspective of someone who is a member of a college honor society. Darius Williams-McKenzie of Penn State-Altoona is a member of Alpha Lambda Delta National Honor Society for First-Year College Students. “Alpha Lambda Delta has impacted my life tremendously,” Williams-McKenzie says. “Ever since my induction into the honor society, I have been more confident in my academics and in my leadership.” According to the National Association of College and Universities, potential employers place a premium on career readiness among job applicants.
While some college honor societies are only open to juniors and seniors, he believes it's important to be in an honor society as a freshman. “Being recognized by your colleagues as a freshman because of your academic achievements instills a confidence in you that you can build upon in your collegiate future.”
When students do their homework, membership in an honor society can be quite beneficial. “Joining an established, respected honor society can be a good investment, since colleges, universities, and company recruiters look for evidence of achievement in the applicant's documentation,” explains Powell. However, he ultimately advises students to ask themselves, “What is the cost of membership; are their services and benefits reasonable; and will they boost my profile and help in my career pursuits?"