The Honors Program in English gives senior English majors the opportunity to refine and extend the skills they have developed throughout their time at Macalester under the close supervision of an English faculty member. Honors students pursue independent work over the course of a year, culminating in a substantial essay in literary criticism or a significant body of creative writing. An honors project is one way to fulfill the major’s capstone requirement.


The honors program is open to senior English majors who have a departmental GPA of at least 3.6.

Process and Deadlines

All students who wish to apply for the English honors program must submit completed honors proposals, with the formal written approval of a faculty advisor, by this Spring 2024 deadline:

  • Students who are on campus must submit completed proposals by April 20, 2024.
  • Students who are studying away during the spring semester of their junior year, must submit completed proposals by June 15, 2024.

We encourage all interested students, especially those who plan to be off-campus junior year, to begin identifying a potential advisor and developing their project as early as possible, so that they may more comfortably meet the proposal deadline.

At least a month before the applicable deadline—preferably, several months before—students interested in applying for the English honors program should discuss their plans with the faculty member who would make a likely advisor. To prepare for this discussion, students should generate a short description of the research or creative project they wish to pursue.

Once a faculty advisor has agreed to supervise their project, students compose a formal honors proposal, consisting of a narrative description of the project and a bibliography of primary and secondary materials. (A full description of the proposal is below.) Students should revise the proposal as frequently and thoroughly as the faculty advisor suggests before submitting the proposal to the department chair. Every honors proposal must be accompanied by a formal agreement from the prospective faculty advisor to supervise the project if it is approved.

The chair will notify all applicants that their proposal

  • has been accepted without revision, or
  • will be reconsidered after revision, or
  • has been rejected.

A proposal that requires revision—a common outcome—should be revised by the student within one week and then resubmitted to the chair, again with the formal support of the faculty advisor. The chair will then promptly render a final decision about the proposal.

Approved English honors projects will then follow the general honors timeline for the college; details here “Honors Calendar”.

Course Credit, Workload, and Project Length

Students generally devote eight credits to their Honors Project, four in the fall and four in the spring. Most often, students register for a four-credit honors independent-study course (ENGL 644) with their project advisor for both semesters of the senior year. However, because honors proposals cannot be approved by the time of spring pre-registration, a prospective honors student should pre-register for another course for the fall semester of the senior year and then, if the proposal is approved, drop that course at the beginning of the semester and add ENGL 644 in its place.

In certain cases, a project might include four independent study credits and a four-credit seminar that relates closely to the honors project. It is also possible to register an honors project for a maximum of ten credits, with the addition of two credits over January term. The precise packaging of credits can be left to the discretion of the student, the advisor, and the department chair. All Honors Projects, however, should be ambitious enough to reflect a full year’s, or two 4-credit courses’, effort—at least twenty-five percent of a senior’s workload.

Most honors projects in literature should be 40-60 pages long, not including bibliography and notes. Shorter and longer theses can also make sense, depending on topic and approach. (Longer does not, in itself, mean better.) Honors projects in creative writing will vary in length, depending on their genre: a full year’s work in fiction should be a novella, or a series of stories, or the start of a novel, totaling 50–75 pages. Creative nonfiction, a screenplay, or a play should be about 50-75 pages long as well. A project in poetry project should be about 20-40 pages.

The Proposal

The proposal is a significant part of the project and needs to be fully developed. All proposals should consist of a narrative description of the proposed project, of 750-1000 words, and an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary works.

For projects in literature, the narrative description should include thesis, discussion of primary works and authors the project will consider, methodology and theoretical framework, significance of the argument, and a clear statement of the rationale and goals of the final project. The bibliography should consist of a substantial list of primary works as well as scholarly and critical works that will inform the project.

For projects in creative writing, the narrative description should include details about the genre(s) in which the student will work; discussion of, and rationale for, the formal elements of the project, such as plot, character, setting, dialogue, and so on; consideration of the project’s relationship to published creative works that the student is engaging or has been influenced by; and discussion of scholarly works that inform the project. The bibliography should include related primary works as well as a number of scholarly sources that pertain to the literary histories, genres, media, and formal elements relevant to the project.

Students drafting honors proposals should study the sample proposals that the Department provides. See honors proposal samples provided here:

Schukar Honors Project Proposal

Bindas Honors Project Proposal

Garity Honors Project Proposal

The Honors Committee and Defense

After an honors proposal has been approved, honors students work with their advisor to identify two additional faculty members who, along with the advisor, will make up the student’s honors committee and conduct the honors defense. The committee should be in place by early in the spring semester of the senior year (ideally, sooner) and should consist of:

  1. the Honors advisor,
  2. one other member of the English department, and
  3. one external examiner: either a faculty member from outside Macalester College who is an expert on the project’s topic, or a faculty member from another department at Macalester.

After the honors thesis has been read by the committee members and the student has made any revisions committee members deem immediately necessary, students will defend the thesis in mid- to late April (see the timeline below). The defense is an oral exam normally conducted by the three members of the student’s honors committee. The defense may, at the student’s request, be open to invited students and faculty or to all interested attendees. It is the student’s responsibility to schedule the defense.

The defense generally lasts 60 to 90 minutes. Usually, the student first delivers a brief description of the project and a narrative about its origins and development, then responds to questions about the project from the committee members. Immediately after the defense, the committee members confer to decide whether to grant the project Honors and then, also immediately, inform the student of the outcome.

Possible outcomes of the defense include:

  • Honors granted with no revisions,
  • Honors granted with revisions to be completed by the deadline for submission of complete honors projects to the office of Academic Programs (see timeline below), and
  • Honors not granted. Note that the awarding or withholding of honors is separate from the evaluation of the project itself, which will be graded by the advisor.

Role of Honors Advisor

Every honors project must be formally advised by a faculty member in the English department. (Under unusual circumstances, and only at the discretion of the department chair, English majors may conduct honors projects supervised by faculty members from other departments.) Students may not conduct an honors project approved by another department and gain credit for it in English.

The faculty advisor will help the student

  • develop and submit the honors proposal,
  • work through the process of writing a large-scale literary investigation or creative project,
  • plan, conduct, and refine methods of research and writing, and
  • facilitate communication with other faculty readers on the honors committee.

Successful honors projects develop from close working relationships between students and individual faculty members. Faculty occasionally agree to supervise honors projects for students they do not already know well, this unusual circumstances is far from ideal. Usually, and preferably, students build such relationships with faculty members by taking one—often several—of their courses. Honors projects often begin when a professor suggests that a student’s work for a class (an essay, a story, a collection of poems) is exceptionally promising and could be developed further. In every case, quality of the mentoring relationship between student and faculty advisor is crucial to the success of an honors project. Faculty members are free to decline requests to supervise honors projects for any reason.

Honors Timeline

Prospective honors students should consult the Honors Schedule  to check on the most current schedule of departmental and College-wide honors deadlines. For planning purposes, a typical schedule follows:

Junior Year

  • April 20 – A junior English majors who is studying on campus submits the honors proposal to the department chair.

Between Junior and Senior Year

  • June 15 – A senior English major who was studying away the previous spring submits the honors proposal to the department chair.

Senior Year

  • Beginning of fall semester – The student and advisor together work out a concrete calendar of work for both semesters. They may, for example, plan to meet every two weeks, with specific tasks to be accomplished by each meeting.
  • Beginning of October – The working title of the project is due to the Department chair, who will forward the names of all honors candidates and their advisors, along with project titles, to the Dean of Academic Programs.
  • Fall semester – The faculty advisor and student work to identify two faculty readers for the project (one of whom will be from outside the department).
  • Third week of March – The student and advisor jointly evaluate the progress made to date and inform the department chair whether or not the project will continue. The chair, in turn, will inform the Dean of Academic Programs.
  • Beginning of April – The completed project is submitted to the advisor and the two readers. The student must submit 100-word abstract and final title of the project to Academic Programs. The student should also inform the department chair of the final project title.
  • Mid-April – The student defends the honors project in an oral exam conducted by the three-person committee of readers.
  • Third week of April – All oral exams must be completed, and honors advisors must inform the department chair of the outcome of all defenses; the department chair will then furnish to the Dean of Academic Programs the names of all majors who have successfully defended and will be graduating with honors.
  • Beginning of May – The final Honors project, including revisions requested at the defense (if any), must be submitted by the student to Academic Programs.

Note: For students graduating in December, the above deadlines move up by a semester. See “Calendar for Students Graduating in December” for further details.

Financial support for expenses related to honors projects is available through the Critchett Fund.

Past honors theses are available through Macalester Digital Commons.