High School Junior Guide to Prepare for College

Junior in High School

Junior Year is in many ways your most important year for college applications. It’s the last complete year of grades admissions officers will see, it’s the year you’ll complete much of your standardized test-taking, and every day is a chance to impress potential recommenders who will be writing you letters next year. Check out the high school junior guide to prepare for college.

It can be a little stressful, but this list will help you organize which tasks to do when to do them and stay on track to complete your applications next year.

While we’ve created this checklist for you, once you’ve got your own personal deadlines and goals, make one of your own. You need to add important dates to your calendar to help you stay on top of things throughout the busy year.

FALL:

Grades:

  • Your grades should be your priority this year, so start by taking a good hard look at your course schedule.

    Set yourself up to succeed:

    • It is important to demonstrate the pursuit of challenging coursework. This year’s GPA is your last chance to raise your GPA that will be on your college applications.

    • You need to make sure you’re taking classes you can do well in.

  • If you get through a couple of weeks of class and you’re starting to struggle, look into getting an online or local tutor.

    Start by asking your teacher or counselor for a local tutoring recommendation.

    Working with another student or the local program will ensure that your tutor knows your curriculum and your requirements.

    You can also look for a tutor online. Consider what best fits your needs out of websites like Wyzant.

Standardized Testing:

  • You can prepare for the SAT by taking the PSAT: the test is modeled after the format of the real deal, and if you score well, you can qualify for merit scholarships.

  • Study little by little: what that means is a handful of hours a week, not 10 hours straight the night before the test. Here are some good resources for test training and studying:

    • A practice book you can work with at home is good for individuals studying week by week. I highly recommend getting one made by the companies who proctor the tests, like PrepScholar.

    • While using a prep book is a great way to study, it’s important to also get tips from professionals and learn special test skills in a prep class.

      Talk to your guidance counselor about local opportunities, and make sure to do it in the fall, so you have time to use the things you learn for your final test scores.

  • Most schools only require that you report an ACT score or an SAT score, not both. So, you technically only need to take one. However, taking both at least once helps you know which you’re better at, and gives you a better chance at reporting competitive scores.

    Also, if you can demonstrate high scores on both tests, that’s not going to hurt your application. To get higher scores on SAT or ACT many students use test training websites such as PrepScholar.

  • Assess how you’ve done on practice tests and previous test dates from last year and register to take the ACT or SAT again accordingly.

    Some schools will take composite scores (combining your best scores on different sections of the ACT into one top score, for example), and even if you were to do worse you can always choose which score to report, so taking the test as many times as possible will always benefit you.

    Don’t forget that you need to register in advance, so look over the upcoming year and plan ahead.

Extracurricular:

  • Hopefully, you’ve spent the last few years getting involved in extracurriculars: this is the year to move into leadership positions if you haven’t already. As you become an upperclassman, it’s important to demonstrate that you’re driven, well-organized, and responsible enough to lead other students. 

    Seek out leadership roles that relate to your potential major or career: for example, if you want to be in politics, go out for student body president.

  • If you’re an athlete, make sure to make the most of your coaches: talk to them about the best way to prepare information and video highlights for college coaches. 

WINTER

Grades

  • Now’s a good time to assess your grades and make adjustments as necessary. You need to talk to your guidance counselor and discuss how you can improve or maintain your GPA.

  • Most colleges expect applicants to have a GPA of at least 3.0, and around a 3.5 to compete for scholarships. The higher your grades, the more schools you’ll get into, and the more financial aid you’ll receive.

    At my undergrad, merit scholarships were directly correlated to test scores and GPA.  If you’re struggling, consider cutting back on challenging coursework, unnecessary extracurricular commitments, or getting a tutor.
  • If you haven’t already narrowed down some possible career paths, now is the time to at least come up with some options.

    It can help to take a career aptitude test, which you can find both online and with your guidance counselor. These can help you narrow down potentials which will help you select possible future majors.

  • Once you’ve got some ideas about what kind of major and career you want to pursue, that can help drive your college search. If you have a major in mind, do some research on which schools excel in the field.

    Familiarize yourself with those programs and the kind of students they’re looking for, and make sure you’re pursuing extracurriculars that will prepare you to apply.

Here are some beginning questions to ask as you begin that research:

  • Do I want to attend an in-state or out-of-state school?

  • Should I apply for both? Public or private? How will tuition costs affect these decisions for me?

  • What are the admission standards for different schools, and what kind of schools am I likely to be admitted to? (It’s good to include a range of selectivity, with some safety schools, some medium schools, and a few dream schools).

  • What schools have the best programs for my potential major(s)?

  • Determine what makes one program better than another for this field?

  • Figure out the offerings that are important to me?

  • There are a lot of different ways to pursue higher education:

    • You can attend a 4-year college

    • Go to a 2-year college

    • Attend community college

    • Try out online college programs

    • ROTC program

    • All these different paths require different levels of preparation where some require standardized tests, others don’t, etc.

  • You should have at least 6 to 10 schools on your list — you can always narrow it down later after conducting college visits.

  • Now is the time to set up college visits, as they can really impact your decision about where to go and even where to apply.

  • Visits should include:
    • Campus tour

    • Class visit to the department you might study in

    • Grab a meal in a dining hall (See what kind of food you will be eating)

    • Check out a dorm room if possible

When setting up a visit do it at least two weeks in advance, reach out to the admissions team online, through email, or over the phone to set something up.

 SPRING

  • Now that you’ve got an idea of your potential major and schools, it’s a good idea to attend a college fair and talk one-on-one with admissions officers. These conversations can help you get advice and perspective on your applications.

    You can also pick up brochures and information from specific universities, to help narrow your search. Your school may have a college fair, and if not, you can go to college fairs.

    As always, your guidance counselor can also point you in the right direction.

  • As the year ends, check in with your guidance counselor about what classes to take next year. Make sure to take care of all graduation requirements and consider how AP classes may help simplify your freshman year course load in college.
  • Hopefully, you’ve already been volunteering, but if not, make sure to get some hours this year. Many high schools have service clubs that can help you find volunteering opportunities. If not, think about what you’re passionate about (helping the homeless? libraries? mental health?) and seek out volunteering possibilities in those fields.
  • Now that you’ve got a strong list of contending colleges, make sure to visit FAFSA4caster.ed.gov and get an estimate for the financial aid you might receive, and your budget.
  • As you think about your budget for school, you’ll also want to think about the average salary of your potential career, and the job placement rates. Make sure to weigh the tuition at your school of choice with how much you’ll be making when you graduate.
  • In thinking toward your graduation, it’s good to also be aware of the graduation rates of each college. While typically the goal is for students to complete their education in four years, that’s not always the case.

SUMMER

As you transition into being an upperclassman, it’s important to use your summers strategically. This can mean adding professional value to your resume, saving money for tuition, or if you’re lucky, both.

  • Internships are a great way to test out career fields, gain professional skills, make connections, and demonstrate seriousness on a college application. There are tons of programs for high school students, so ask around and look online with organizations or businesses you’d like to work for one day.

    Though many of them are unpaid, they carry a lot of weight on a college application and future job resume.

  • On the other hand, if you’re trying to save up, a summer job can help secure some financial stability when you begin school. Seek out places that may be interested in hiring you for future summers, and which may carry some transferable skills over to your potential major and career.

    For example, when I was in high school I worked at a bookstore and a library, and my eventual career goal was to study English and pursue publishing, so not only did I make some money but I also demonstrated a thorough interest in different facets of my field.

  • While you’re not taking classes, this is also a good time to dive into college planning. Strategize with your parents about your application process and financial plan. Begin researching some of the following different financial aids:

    • Scholarships are typically merit-based and include monetary gifts you do not have to pay back. Scholarships are highly competitive as they are often the most impactful and least inconvenient financial aid form. You can begin searching for scholarships through these search engines.

    • Check out MyScholly.com to find national and local scholarships.

    • Grants are another kind of financial aid that does not have to be paid back but is often given under specific parameters or for specific projects.

    • Loans are sums of money you can borrow to pay for school but have to pay back over time, with interest. There are different kinds of loans, and you can learn more about all the different options at the student aid website.

    • ROTC: ROTC stands for Reserve Officer Training Corps, a program that offers college scholarships in exchange for post-graduation military service. Each branch of the military has its own program, with its own application process and activities, including Army ROTC, Navy and Marine Corps ROTC, and Air Force ROTC. Learn more at our article on ROTC scholarships.