Honors Program Information Packet


The History Department offers an honors program for students who wish to research and write a thesis during the course of their senior year. 

History Honors is not for everyone. Those students who undertake a history honors thesis and persist to the end will often find the work — plowing through archives, taking meticulous notes, multiple rounds of revision and proofreading — grueling. Along the way, honors students can expect to run up against frustrations: finding sources that address their research questions, finding questions suited to the available sources, writer’s block, computer crashes…. However, in proportion to the challenges, students who complete senior honors, regardless of level of honors awarded, usually find the journey itself rewarding. The History faculty have designed the infrastructure described below to support students through the long and difficult process, and to ensure as much equity as possible in the final assignment of honors level.


  • HIST 4000, 4001, and 4002
  • a 3.5 average within the History major

Entry into the Honors Program

During the second term of the sophomore year or early in the junior year, interested students should speak to a faculty member or faculty adviser about the honors program.

By May 15th of their junior year:

  • completion of HIST 4000 “Introduction to Historical Research,” offered in both the fall and spring semesters
  • application and writing sample
  • Students should bring the application form, a transcript, and writing sample to the Undergraduate Coordinator for approval from the Director of Undergraduate Studies and formal admittance into the honors program. The writing sample is ideally a paper submitted for a 2000-level seminar, but may also be a writing sample from a discipline other than History.  
  • Students must secure a faculty member from the department’s formal Field of History (see web site) to serve as Advisor to direct the thesis, and secure the Advisor’s signature on their honors program application. The Advisor’s fields of specialization should be suitable to the guiding the student’s particular research topic. Ideally, students should choose fields that they have worked on before, and Advisors with whom they have already taken courses.
  • Once they have settled on a senior honors thesis topic and advisor, students should begin meeting with that Advisor regularly to discuss research progress. Communications with Advisors may continue by email through the summer prior to senior year, as students submit progress updates on their research.
  • During senior year: enrollment in HIST 4001/4002 “History Honors Research Seminar,” and successful meeting of senior honors thesis deadlines

Senior Year (HIST 4001 and HIST 4002)

After reviewing students’ Honors applications over the summer between students’ junior and senior years, the DUS and the Undergraduate Coordinator enroll students in HIST 4001. HIST 4001 is a 4-credit course, meeting once a week, that provides honors students structure for their research and writing, and helps them develop research and writing skills. Students share and discuss their written work, while continuing to meet on an individual basis with their Advisors. At the end of the first semester of the senior year, as part of the requirements for HIST 4001, the student submits to the 4001 instructor and to their Advisor a 10- to 15-page draft core chapter (not the introduction or conclusion). Some First Readers may also give feedback on draft chapters at this point.

By the end of the first semester of senior year, and preferably earlier, the honors candidate should, in consultation with their Advisor, also find a First Reader. Ideally, the First Reader’s field should complement that of the Advisor. For example, a senior thesis on modern Chinese theatre might have an Advisor who specializes in modern Chinese history, and a First Reader who specializes in performance studies. For First Readers, while History Field membership is generally preferable, it is not necessary. Minimally, First Readers conduct the student’s oral examination in April along with their Advisors. Optimally, First Readers help to guide students with their research and provide feedback on students’ writing.

HIST 4002 is likewise a 4-credit seminar course, meeting weekly from the beginning of the semester until the first week in April, that provides structure to honors candidates as they complete their honors theses. Students continue to share and discuss their written work, while continuing to meet on an individual basis with their Advisors and First Readers.

Grades in HIST 4001 and HIST 4002 are assigned the 4001/4002 instructor in consultation between the student’s thesis Advisor.

Plan Ahead

Junior Year Abroad: Study abroad or at Cornell-in-Washington, while desirable parts of an undergraduate program, can complicate enrollment in HIST 4000. Planning ahead is essential. We encourage history majors who wish both to study abroad and to enter the honors program should to consult their advisors or the DUS as soon as possible after declaring the major.

January graduates: HIST 4001-4002 are offered in a strict fall-spring sequence, and so January graduates must take the courses beginning the last semester of their junior year. 

Alternatively, students desiring to conduct directed research overseen by an advisor and to write a capstone project may do so by enrolling in HIST 3002, simply opt out of the honors program. Many History students have written outstanding research papers in this manner, and have gone on to outstanding academic and non-academic careers.

Submission of the Honors Thesis

The text of the Honors essay may not exceed 60 pages, exclusive of bibliography, any appendices (up to ten pages for images, charts, tables, or original language text), and endnotes (if the student chooses to use endnotes rather than footnotes). Three bound copies and a pdf of the thesis are due, usually Monday of the second week of April or the second week of after spring break, to the Undergraduate Coordinator.

In the two weeks following thesis submission, honors candidates schedule an oral examination with their Advisor and First Reader. Examination focuses on the essay as well as the specific sub-field of history in which the student has conducted research (e.g., Periclean Athens, seventeenth-century science, nineteenth-century American politics). Students usually find their oral defense to be an opportunity to clarify aspects of the thesis, defend arguments, and to elaborate on certain points. After the defense, the Adviser and First Reader consult and award you a level of honors for the defense. This is for the defense only and does not indicate or predict what your final level of honors will be.

The Advisor submits a written evaluation of the oral examination. The First Reader submits a written evaluation of the oral examination and of the thesis itself. In addition, the DUS assigns a Second Reader from among the History Department faculty. The Second Reader, who has the option to remain anonymous like the First Reader, provides a substantive, judicious evaluation in writing of the thesis and recommends a level of honors.

Finally, a History Department Honors Committee, consisting of the DUS and two additional faculty assigned by the Department Chair, when possible in such a way as to have diverse geographic and temporal coverage. The Honors Committee evaluates and assigns final levels of honors to the completed senior honors theses: no honors, honors (cum laude), high honors (magna cum laude), or highest honors (summa cum laude). The Honors Committee gives significant weight to the reports of the First Reader, Second Reader, and Advisor (giving less weight to the oral defense than to the written thesis). The committee does not necessarily read each and every thesis from cover to cover.

  • What constitutes Summa, Magna, Cum?
    • A candidate who completes a creditable project—one that satisfies the first and second readers and shows an ability to do original research in primary sources—normally graduates cum laude. 
    • A candidate whose project shows considerable originality and scope and goes beyond what one would expect of an undergraduate normally graduates magna cum laude.  
    • If the project makes a serious contribution to the field and could be published—akin to what one might see from a first- or second-year graduate student—the candidate normally graduates summa cum laude.
    • Note that the possibility of “no honors” is real and constitutes the default position in rendering levels of honors. Theses that lack original, primary research; that exhibit little originality in their arguments; that do not adequately address the arguments and findings of relevant secondary literature; or that are poorly written will not attain honors.
  • How does the Honors Committee read the readers’ reports?
    • Quality of the evaluation is very important, particularly with respect to arguments for magna or summa, which should involve considerable detailed commentary.
    • Reporter’s geographic, thematic, and/or temporal expertise
    • Rationale for the designation of level of honors or no honors: Recommendations of no honors are taken very seriously, particularly from colleagues who are in the same field as that covered by the thesis.
    • In exceptional circumstances—wide variation in the reports—the Honors Committee will commission a third reader.
    • There is no appeals process. The committee’s decision is final. Your Adviser cannot assure you of any level of honors, including after the defense—they can only tell you what level of honors you received on the defense itself.
  • Recommendations to students:
    • Line up an Adviser and First Reader who make logical sense for your topic.
    • Choose a topic about which you are passionate, preferably one that can be adequately advised by the available faculty in the field of history who are on the campus and not on leave or sabbatic.
    • Be sure you have the linguistic skills needed to do the topic.
    • Identify your topic and your primary sources during your junior year, and begin researching, taking notes, keeping a bibliography, and writing preliminary thoughts.
    • Over the course of the senior year: revise, revise, revise.
    • During your senior year, you should complete a revised draft of one chapter draft at the conclusion of 4001 in December. You will conduct additional research and complete another chapter over the Winter Break, and a third by the first week in March.
  • Department Guidelines for Length, Formatting of Thesis
    • Basics:
      • The text of the Honors essay may not exceed sixty (60) double-spaced pages, exclusive of appendices, endnotes, and bibliography. If you do not want illustrations to count, put them in an appendix. No exceptions!
      • Citation style is footnotes or end-notes following the Chicago Manual of Style.
      • Use a 12-point seriffed font (like the Times family).
      • Indent block quotations on both left and right sides as much as you indent the first line of each paragraph. Block quotations may be single-spaced.
      • In general, use 1-inch margins on all sides. If you use coil or comb binding, 1-inch margins should do; if you use strip binding, a 1.25 –inch left margin may be necessary.
      • In general, write out numbers less than 100. Periods and commas go before quotation marks, and both go before foot/endnote marks; colons and semicolons go after quotation and foot/endnote marks. For series of three or more, commas go after each item in the series. Consult the Chicago Manual of Style for more complicated cases.
    • Time Savers:
      • Back up your work regularly!!
      • Do not type in footnotes manually; use an automatic footnote insertion function so that they positon, number, and re-number automatically.
      • For headers and sub-headers, use automatic keep-with-next functions when available. You can also use pre-set header and sub-header styles, or create your own.
    • Recommendations for finish (with consultation of Advisor and First Reader for their preferences):
      • Create a cover page and include the following: thesis title, your name, date, “Senior Honors Thesis, Department of History, Cornell University”
      • If you have not used automatic formatting to make sure that headers and sub-headers stay with the immediately following paragraph, do so manually before your final printing.
      • Print out the thesis on one side of the paper, not both.
      • Submit three (3) bound copies of the thesis to the History Department Undergraduate Coordinator plus an electronic PDF file version by the due date in April. All theses will be automatically entered into competition for History prizes, given in May.

Final Notes

Honors research and writing is rewarding but also challenging. We recommend that students only undertake Honors work because they want to research and write a history thesis, NOT if their main goal is simply to graduate with Honors on their diploma. If honors is the primary goal, there are other pathways, such as graduating with “With Distinction in All Subjects” and membership in Phi Beta Kappa.

Success in the process described above, for some students, might consist of simply finishing writing their theses. There is no guarantee that all completed theses will be granted honors, or a particular level of honors. The faculty hope that the process of research, analysis, writing, and workshopping itself sustains students through the process.

Honors Application

To apply, please fill out the webform at: https://history.cornell.edu/history-honors-application, or stop by 450 McGraw Hall for a copy of the application.