Honor societies, specifically the National Honor Society, have come up a few times in the past month with students I've been talking to. I know that for some students N.H.S. is a pretty big deal, and I know that some students think quite a bit about getting in. I'm really thinking about N.H.S. as I write this, because it's the largest and most well-known, but it's certainly not the only honor society for high school students. There are subject-specific honor societies for all the common high school areas: English, math, Spanish, French, and more. If you're not already a member of an honor society, let's think through reasons why you may want to join.
Join because you want to. I know that sounds obvious and flippant, but I mean it. If you have a reason for wanting to join, go for it! Unless you're already stretched too thin with commitments, there's really nothing to lose by joining a school group that you're interested in. It helps to make you an active part of a community and not just a passive student who moves through the system. At some schools, the N.H.S. is one of the best extra-curricular groups on campus. If you have friend in the group you'd like to work with, or the group does really good projects or has really good meetings, then by all means join.
Join because it reinforces self-discipline. Ideally, we'd all have the intrinsic drive to make the best grades possible, focus our energy on tasks and projects that are useful to ourselves and our community, explore new interests, and push ourselves to become stronger leaders. But life just doesn't work that way. For most of us, the best way to look like we have that intrinsic motivation is to set ourselves up with some extrinsic forces to push us into more discipline. If you want to be a strong student, want to learn more about leadership, and want to volunteer to help others...but don't always get around to it, then joining a group that enforces scholarship, leadership, and outreach can be a very smart thing to do.
You've probably heard of the famous marshmallow experiment. Kids were sat down in front of a marshmallow (or some other treat) and told they could eat the marshmallow. Or they could have two marshmallows if they would wait 15 minutes. The kids who were able to wait for the larger reward, exhibiting self-control and delaying gratification, went on later in life to have higher average S.A.T. scores, higher educational attainment, and better health. There's a connection between self-control and better life outcomes. But the real interesting thing about the experiments, at least according to the man who devised them, isn't that some people just have more self-control and therefore better lives. The point is that the kids who waited for the bigger prize were just as tempted as the others, but they had ways to distract themselves from the temptation. They sang songs, fidgeted with their seat, sat on their hands, covered up the marshmallow. They had a technique for self-discipline, not just self-control superpowers. If higher grades and more involvement in school are goals of yours (and really, they should be) but you're struggling to stay on track, then joining a group that reinforces the goals can be a really beneficial thing for you.
Join because candles are cool and pretty. National Honor Society induction ceremonies often involve lighting candles. Candles are usually barred from schools, for fire safety reasons. So this may be your only chance to see candlelight in school. If that's cool to you, then maybe think of joining.
Join because it's easier than fighting with your parents about it. If your family really wants you to join and you easily qualify, then it may be easier to just join than keep arguing with your family. I'm a big believer in choosing your battles wisely. Whether this applies to you depends on how passionately your parents want you to join and how stringent the requirements are for your particular school's chapter of N.H.S.
I also want to cover a few common, but not very good, reasons for joining an honor society.
Don't join because it will be impressive. I have never heard people mention, much less discuss, high school honor societies outside of a high school context. I've never heard a conversation among adults thinking back to high school and mentioning N.H.S. I've never seen any evidence of N.H.S. activity in anyone's home. Even people who still display high school trophies after leaving high school don't have N.H.S. certificates up for display. Even among very honorable people--clergy, lawyers, doctors, board members of non-profit groups, teachers, college professors--I've never heard anybody acknowledge the existence of N.H.S. Because, honestly, nobody cares. I can say with confidence that nobody except you and possibly your family cares if you join an honor society. It's not repulsive; people won't think poorly of you. But they're not going to be impressed.
Don't join because it will look good to colleges. Having good grades in strong classes definitely looks good to college admissions offices, but those are already reported on your transcript. Being an active part of your community through volunteer work and leadership certainly look good to colleges, but you'll tell colleges about those anyway. If you don't give specifics about your leadership and volunteering, then being a member of N.H.S. isn't going to make up for that. If you do explain specifics, then being a member isn't going to make it any better. It's just not a factor.
Let's try an analogy. Suppose I have two boxes full of money. I let you go through the boxes and count, so you know that each box has exactly $5,000 in it. The boxes themselves are perfectly identical, except one has a label on it that says "Five Thousand Dollars." Now, which box is worth more? You know perfectly well that one box isn't worth more just because it has the label on it. And you also know that a box that says "Five Thousand Dollars" on the front isn't worth that much if there's only $4,800 in it. Right?
So if you're a good student who does good things, don't fool yourself that having the honor society label on your application is going to make you look better. And if you're not as good student or don't do as much for others in your school, don't fool yourself that having the label will make you look better. Nobody else is going to fall for that.