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Getting In: Your Junior-Year Plan
If you’re a high school junior, chances are you’ve thought about college. (The fact that you’re reading this is a good sign.) You might not know, however, that the winter of your junior year—i.e. right now—is the time to begin the process that will eventually get you there.
The earliest college applications are due in October. For the procrastinators out there (I know, because I am one of them), this might seem an awfully long way off.
So here's a little motivation: if you do not start now, no amount of scrambling in the fall will make up for it. I crammed my college search process into the fall of my senior year. Because I didn’t do enough research, I was unhappy at the school I chose. I ended up transferring .
After researching and visiting colleges, your biggest job as a junior is to take the right standardized tests. which includes either the ACT or SAT. Beyond that, there are a few small-but-important things you should do in the coming months to boost your admissions prospects and ease the stress of your senior year.
Contrary to popular belief, your senior year is a fairly busy time. In addition to the big school events—e.g. prom, senior day, homecoming—you will be maintaining or improving your grades with the most challenging school work you’ve had so far. (No one reading this is going to “coast” through senior year with easy or few classes, right? You know that looks bad on your college applications. right?) You’ll also be completing your applications, which involves looking up information, writing essays. securing recommendations. and, in general, lots of thought and proofreading.
If you start the college admission process as a junior, you'll also be prepared to submit an early action or early decision application in October or November of your senior year, if appropriate. Many schools now offer an “early admissions” option and it usually gives you better odds of getting in .
Below is a roadmap of the essential college-related activities for your junior year.
Research, research, research.
Steve Cohen at Forbes.com provides solid advice for researching schools during your junior year. I’ve included four of his tips and provided my own take on each one.
Don’t focus only on schools that are nearby, schools where everyone at your high school ends up, or the almae matres of your relatives. Learn about schools that are off the beaten path. You may find a school in another state that would be perfect for you and offers great financial aid. You’ll never know unless you “think outside the box.” To get the process started, you’ll want to.
You may be surprised by what you discover! PrincetonReview.com contains a wealth of information for students who are researching colleges. Its school search feature is a great way to get suggestions for schools that you might not have previously considered. You’ll be able to read what current students have to say about academics, life, and their fellow students at each school. Our unique ranking lists —e.g. best professors, happiest students, most politically active—are another good place to get school ideas. Additionally, you may want to check out our Best Value Colleges ; odds are good that your parents will be impressed with this list.
If you have a good feeling about a school, the next step is to dig deeper. After you check out PrincetonReview.com. Steve Cohen suggests (and I second) a visit to RateMyProfessors.com. Dive in and see what the students at a given school have to say about their professors. Do the professors seem like people whom you’d want to know? Do the students seem like people whom you’d want to know?
Steve also suggests using a school’s website to find the online version of its student newspaper and its course catalogue. The latter is particularly valuable. In addition to reading the course descriptions, be sure to check out prerequisities and the breadth of course offerings.
Write down what you find and where you find it. There’s a lot of information out there, and it is easy to get overwhelmed. It’ll be easier to make decisions later if you have a written record of your findings.
Talk to your parents about the schools in which you are interested. and money.
As you do your research, check in with your parents. If you are thinking about attending an out-of-state school, be nice and let them know.
Additionally, The Admissions Guru at HowToGetIn.com suggests that you talk with your parents about what they can realistically afford. While you shouldn't rule out a school based on cost just yet —a school may supply a generous financial aid package—it is safe to say that your parents will pay for at least part of your college education. Even if you expect to cover the bill with student loans. your parents will first need to provide the schools with information about their finances, which is a potentially uncomfortable experience. It’s best to keep your parents involved throughout and avoid surprising them
If at all possible, visit some of the schools in which you’re interested.
The cost conscious may want to visit several schools when they travel to a given area. Look for the recurring “College-Town Tour Guide ” feature on this blog. Each installment will feature a city or region that that is home to several colleges and universities.
Register for and take at least one standardized test (the ACT or the SAT ) this spring.
The argument can be made to take both and see which yields a better score. but I would recommend doing some research and seeing which one might enable you to perform better. Try questions from both tests and see which ones you prefer. The Princeton
Review offers free practice versions of the ACT and SAT online. We also publish a book called ACT or SAT? that provides additional sample questions and guidance for this decision. Taking one of these tests in the spring (rather than waiting until the fall) has the following benefits:
- It will serve as a guide for your school search.
Along with your high school GPA, your standardized test score will give you a good sense of your admissions chances at a given school. PrincetonReview.com publishes the academic profile of the current freshman class at over 2,000 colleges and universities. This profile includes the average high school GPA and the “middle 50%” (a.k.a. the 25th and 75th percentile ) scores for both ACT and SAT takers. While there are always exceptions, your odds of gaining admission to a school are relatively low if your test scores are below the 25th percentile (the school would be considered a “reach ”); conversely, your odds are relatively high if your scores are above the 75th percentile (the school would be considered a “safety ”). A middle group (“match ” schools) may be composed of schools where your test scores are between the 25th and 75th percentiles and your high school GPA is close to the average. PrincetonReview.com has information on how to manage a school list with match, reach, and safety schools .
- It will let you know if you would like to take a test preparation course.
Unless you get a perfect or near-perfect score on your first ACT or SAT (in which case, congratulations: you don’t have to take it again!), you will re-take it as a senior to see if your score improves. Most test-takers do a little better the second time around, and you have nothing to lose—schools always look at applicants’ best test scores because it makes them look better to admit students with higher scores. However, if you do not like the general neighborhood in which your junior test score resides, you should look into a preparation course before re-taking the test as a senior. The Princeton Review offers test-prep courses for both the ACT and SAT ; we guarantee a 150-point score improvement for the latter.
Note. many schools (and the list is continually growing) do not require ACT or SAT scores for admission. That said, you would be limiting your choices if you start your school search by focusing only on those schools. This is an option to consider later if you believe your ACT or SAT scores do not represent your full academic capabilities.
Register for and take SAT Subject Tests if you are interested in any schools that require them.
Yep, there’s another standardized-test hurdle to clear in your junior year. You should check with the admissions offices of the schools on your initial list to see which—if any—require SAT Subject Test (previously called SAT II) scores as part of an application for admission. An unofficial list of SAT Subject Test requirements can be found here. but it’s always best to check with the schools themselves.
If you are not interested in any specific schools just yet but have good grades and plan to apply to very selective schools, you should take SAT Subject Tests to be safe. Many very selective schools require their applicants to take these tests (usually between one and three of them).
The good news is that schools usually give applicants some flexibility in the SAT Subject Tests that they may take. You should take the SAT Subject Tests that correspond with your junior-year courses. You can take these toward the end of the academic year. It is much better to take them at this time than as a senior after you’ve barely thought about Chemistry or U.S. History for three months.
As we do for the ACT and SAT, The Princeton Review offers test-prep courses for SAT Subject Tests .
Consider registering for Advanced Placement (AP) courses.
AP courses are college-level classes in specific subject areas that you take in high school. But don’t be too worried—the equivalent of one semester of college work is spread out over a full school year. If your high school offers AP courses, there are two reasons why you should consider this option. First, as the name “Advanced Placement” suggests, they can give you a head start on college. If you do well enough on the end-of-year AP test, you will earn college credits and start college with these credits on your transcript. While there is currently an $87 fee associated with each AP test, this fee is much, much cheaper than the cost of a college course. Fee reductions are available for those who qualify.
The second reason to consider an AP course (or multiple AP courses, if you and your teachers think you can handle it) is that taking and getting good grades in such a course will show colleges that you’re serious about school and ready for college-level work. The Princeton Review offers additional information for those considering AP courses .
Plan for your application essays and teacher recommendations.
You’ve probably heard that most colleges and universities require an essay (or even multiple essays) as part of their application for admission. While this no doubt seems like an extra burden, there are two silver linings to this particular cloud. First, a great essay can make a difference if you are close to being admitted to a particular school; it gives a real advantage to those who are willing to invest more time in it. Second, the same essay questions and topics. perhaps with small variations, will appear on most applications. If you start thinking about these topics now, you will be better prepared to write a thoughtful essay when applications become available (usually in early summer).
You also should start the process of obtaining letters of recommendation from teachers. Steve Sterling at MyCollegeCalendar.org offers advice on who to ask. If you don’t feel comfortable asking anyone just yet, The Princeton Review explains how you can build these relationships. It is not uncommon for a college to request three recommendations as part of its application, so you should get to know your teachers!