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I recently received an acceptance letter from a honor society (I am leaving off the name for now but can include a link to the website).

The offer said I qualified because of my grades or a nomination. I read a little into it and it a lot more like a sales pitch. Offering discounts, exclusive scholarships, and career services in exchange for a biannual fee.

The website does look very professional. I am not sure if it is a scam, a profit driven real honor society, or what else. Aside from intuition is there any ways to tell what an invitation entails without all the hype?

Also, even if they are a profit driven business is it likely worth time to invest in a short term membership?

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I am not at all an expert when it comes to honor societies, but an organization that contacts people out of nowhere to offer "discounts, exclusive scholarships, and career services in exchange for a biannual fee" sounds like scam to me. –  xLeitix Aug 4 '14 at 20:19
Sounds like a Who's Who scam. –  Nate Eldredge Aug 4 '14 at 20:30
Is it a big deal to give us the name of the website? There are many professionals on this site who most likely have extensive experience with honor societies, and may easily tell you if it's indeed a scam –  sleek visage Aug 4 '14 at 22:36
Obligatory: –  Nate Eldredge Aug 5 '14 at 8:10
If they want money, just say no. –  Andreas Blass Aug 5 '14 at 19:49

4 Answers 4

up vote 45 down vote accepted

In all of my experience: no one within academia cares about honor societies whatsoever. To expand on that: in academia we routinely (closer to constantly) evaluate people based on their academic qualifications, in a very serious way: i.e., the "winners" get offered substantial scholarships and/or jobs. Not once have I ever heard anyone mention membership in an honor society in any of these decisions. Not for faculty hiring, not for graduate admissions, not for picking TA's...never.

When I was an undergraduate I did join Phi Beta Kappa (junior year: whoop de frickin' doo) and Sigma Xi. The way I recall it, I was moderately encouraged to do so by my undergraduate program. And I must say that the amount of money that I gave to these people -- if any; maybe my school paid it themselves? -- was truly negligible: at most $40, or something like that. Based on this money, for many years afterwards I got:

  • Regular newsletters from the organizations that made what looked like reasonable attempts at giving me some kind of scientific / academic contacts. (Not that I read them...)

  • Semi-regular very strange calls offering to sell me gold-laminated books and other such frippery. Often these were done with enough of a "hard-sell" solicitation to get me a little steamed: one caller spoke breathlessly about the gold-laminated books and at the end asked me how many additional copies I wanted to order at a discounted price. I mentioned that she skipped an important step, and she asked what that was. I revealed that at no point in the conversation had she asked me whether I was even the slightest bit interested in buying anything from her. The rest of the conversation was brief but tense.

Based on these experiences, whenever any student asks me whether they should join an honor society -- the ones which are not supposed to be scams, like Phi Beta Kappa -- I say "I do not advise you to do it if you have to pay more than the most negligible amount of money."

However, I have occasionally talked to other faculty and university personnel about this issue, and their experiences are not always as negative as mine. What I suspect may be true (but I have unfortunately never had the occasion to find out!) is that: academic honors societies may be useful for people who are leaving academia, by providing some kind of modest continuing contact with the academic world. I mean, the idea that I need to open up a bi-annual newsletter and read about what other academics are doing makes no sense for me: I learn about what other academics are doing by going to work. But for people who go off into industry -- or something else -- maybe it is valuable. On the other hand, I have to imagine that, as with so many things, the internet makes this kind of thing largely obsolete: the amount of access that any citizen of the world with an internet connection has to current academic activity is greater now than what any professor had twenty years ago.

One final question: does anyone care if your CV says you are a Phi Beta Kappa (junior year!)? I suspect not -- as someone else mentioned, these awards are given for your GPA, and you put your GPA on your CV anyway. But I would, as ever, be interested to hear other perspectives.

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I have done industry hiring, and it is exactly the same there. I would care where a new graduate went to school and what grades they got. For more experienced applicants, work experience was more important. I don't remember whether I ever saw an honor society mentioned on a resume, but if I did I must have ignored it. –  Patricia Shanahan Apr 1 at 11:23
A few notes: Phi Beta Kappa doesn't have annual dues. You pay once when inducted and that's it. That is considerably different from the ones that keep asking your for more money. I keep giving money to Sigma Xi for two reasons: one is that I happen to enjoy their magazine American Scientist, and two is that I feel good about support their GIAR program. I do keep both on my CV (along with my membership in the AMS and stuff like that) on the principle that while most people won't care, most people won't be offended either. –  Willie Wong Apr 29 at 15:23

There are three metrics I use to see if a 'exclusive' society is a scam or not.

  1. If they are imprecise when it comes to why I was invited. "Because of your grades or a nomination" is pretty weak honestly. Who nominated me? What was the grade cutoff? Are they associated with group in my university such that they could even have access to my grades? If your invitation comes from a nomination, a legitimate honors society should be willing to name the nomination.

  2. Do they want me to pay money? It's true a lot of honor societies may have a entrance or membership fee. This should be minimal and obvious and you should have a direct idea of what this is going towards. A 'honor society' which is vague the criteria upon which you were invited and who wants to charge you money is pretty sketchy.

  3. Have you heard of them before? Has anyone you respect heard of them before? When you google them - do they have conferences? Meetings? Journals? Are they cited anywhere? Or is there nothing but advertisements for them when you google the name?

It's not that any of the above criteria, alone, is enough to make a 'honor society' sketchy. And I'm sure there are, in some fields, societies that hit all three of the above and are totally legit. But, to be honest, a blind email to you that has a "You may have won!" feel to it is probably a scam on some level.

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Ah yes, the always exciting "you are so awesome, here join my honor society!". My method is to simply google "name of honor soceity" scam. You would be amazed at how much info is out there already answering your questions for you.

To be honest, most "honor society's" are mostly just scams. Perhaps not as overtly as, say, a Nigerian prince being captured scam, but honestly, how many people sign up to be a member but never actually use any of their resources, even if they are legit? It's like a gym membership, only effective if you actually use it.

Anyhoo, I only joined ones that were directly related to my school/ had specific branches on my school and only joined two, a very well known one and the society for my direct major. And those were more to do with resume fillers than anything else.

Truth is, as far as I've ever seen, no one cares about the honor societies. If it's for an awesome gpa, well, your gpa on your resume covers that. If you do volunteer work, again, stating what you do is much better than just naming off an honor society.

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Honor societies have more value as resume fillers if you serve as an officer. –  Ben Voigt Aug 6 '14 at 1:10

People do care about honor societies. That includes prospective employers, your peers, your teachers, your family and friends, as well as you. I've seen an endless amount of these types of discussions on the internet as well as within groups of people I know in college. And, there are always very similar responses from two distinct groups: people who are actually in them (both the legitimate ones and the less prestigious ones), and the other large contingent of people who are not invited and who just outright know next to nothing about the honor society being discussed.

There's always going to be noise from people who neither put in the work, nor have the successful mentality to appreciate the role of rewards when persevering through long stretches of almost unthinkable difficulty in school. My advice is to ignore these people. They will exist throughout your entire life and will never cease trying to convince you that your success is unnecessary, and that you should lower your standards to match theirs. I promise you. These people will exist in every nook and cranny of your life from now until you die. It's best to shoo them away and bring in other success-minded people who lift you up.

There are indeed some hokey honor societies out there who don't have the history or structure to hold any weight. Golden Key was the best example of this at my university. I couldn't find a single person who could recommend joining. Although their requirements are so-so (I believe it's upper 10% of your class), no-one thinks highly of this. And, there's very little practical incentive to join like scholarships, discounts, etc. Despite being invited, I did not join this group.

But, there are in fact many honor societies that will incite looks of approval from esteemed professors, directors, chairs of departments, and potential employers. I know this because I have personally experienced it. There are professors teaching your classes who were not invited to join honor societies. Many partners at firms I've interviewed with are not members and were not invited. Acknowledgement of my membership in these honor societies is a frequent point of discussion and I've never had anything but positive feedback about my involvement with them.

Aside from the hokey honor societies like Golden Key I am excluding, there are two major types of honor society you can join: major-specific like Beta Alpha Psi which is specific to accounting majors, and large, interdisciplinary honor societies like Phi Kappa Phi and Omicron Delta Kappa. These two different types are similar, but serve different practical purposes. I'm an accounting major, so I've been involved with Beta Alpha Psi for almost a year now. The requirements aren't that demanding: 3.0, involvement in a BAP committee, and 20 professional/service hours per semester. But, the rewards of involvement are HUGE for a prospective CPA. I've been heavily involved with all large and small firms (both local and big four), and I've been interviewed and offered jobs frequently. (And on a side note, there is nothing more academically rewarding than being able to constantly turn down offers for both internships and FT jobs.) I am good friends with many of the top notch students, and casually acquainted with most accounting firms. This is an immense advantage and it's directly linked with my involvement with Beta Alpha Psi.

The other two I mentioned, Phi Kappa Phi and Omicron Delta Kappa, have a completely different criteria for joining and thus, serve a completely different purpose. These are a traditional "honor society" that most people think of when these talks come up. But, there are very specific reasons why I both wanted to join, and actively pursued fulfilling the requirements to join when I first started college. First, they are exclusive and prestigious. At my university, these two are the only two honor societies formally recognized when you graduate. Second, they have high standards for joining. Phi Kappa Phi is based off how high your GPA is in relation to yours peers and only invites juniors and seniors. Since I was invited as a Junior, I know I have a higher GPA than 92.5% of the people in my class. Despite what people will attempt to convince you in discussion forums, this is something to be very proud of. Omicron Delta Kappa has what I feel are even stricter requirements. At my university, you have to maintain above a 3.3 gpa, but also demonstrate 3/5 leadership skills by active involvement in your university, community, etc. This was the HS I was most proud to be invited to, and I happily joined. Third, both of these HS' are over 100 years old, have many successful, very well recognized names among their ranks like past presidents, politicians, artists, scientists, etc., and are pretty much universally acknowledged as being an honor to join. And finally fourth, you get to wear honor cords and/or stoles when you graduate.

So to sum up, try to avoid getting caught up in the net of bitter people who don't encourage you to enjoy your success and rewards for hard work. Again, they will attempt to buzz around and distract you for the rest of your life. Whatever people try to convince you, no-one is getting rich on some obscure concept of an honor society scam. These organizations run on a shoestring budget consisting mainly of volunteers and charitable donations. If it is a "scam," it's the worst scam in history created by some of the brightest individuals available. It doesn't hurt to have these on your resume, but it's also very rewarding to be a part of something that rewards and encourages excellence. Most of the people who matter will think highly of your membership as many of the people teaching you weren't invited or are not members. Good luck! I hope this sheds some much needed light on your decision.

p.s. As someone above me mentioned, being involved in a leadership role will always be more advantageous than just being a passive participant. But, it just depends on the nature of the HS. I'm running for an officer position at the end of this semester in Beta Alpha Psi, but I have virtually no involvement in the others. I know this is a huge boost to my resume, but it's more of a practical decision that is slightly outside the topic of discussion here.

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You do understand that the USA is not the whole world and nobody for example in Europe cares about honor societies, fraternities and similar staff? –  Alexandros Apr 1 at 9:56
That is not true, atleast here in the Netherlands fulfilling a board level position for a society is considered a major plus for students for your CV in most cases. –  Jakob Buis Apr 1 at 10:42
@Jakob Buls "Fulfilling a board level position" is considered a major plus for students. You mean undergraduate students? Because no one will prefer for a PHD student someone coming from "honor societies" over someone with solid publications or research experience. –  Alexandros Apr 1 at 10:49
Anytime these discussions come up, people start comparing apples to oranges. Honor societies never hurt your resume. And, all other things considered equal (i.e. phd w/ publications, etc.), someone with honor societies listed on their resume versus someone without does possibly give some indication of less tangible personal characteristics that you truly cannot ascertain from a cold, quantitative measurement like GPA. Not to mention just the personal satisfaction of being selected and contributing to development of other students. –  Brad BradBradBrad Apr 1 at 11:00
+1 for a testimonial. You describe how you've found them personally fulfilling, and how they've helped with your employment prospects. That said, I think that most academics, and many non-academics, indeed don't care about honor societies, and not because we're "bitter". Please let me recommend that you change your first sentence to "Many people do care about honor societies", since that is what you have successfully and persuasively argued. –  Anonymous Apr 1 at 12:23

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