I’m a junior and kind of freaking out about college. Where do I begin?

Let’s be honest. College may be on your brain. Or maybe it’s buzzing around school. Maybe your mom asked if you went to that college presentation during lunch. Or maybe you’re the mom reading this right now wanting some guidance for your daughter. I get it. College can feel like this big thing. This looming process that leaves you mystified, and not always in a good way.

I’m a big fan of taking this big process and breaking it up into smaller manageable pieces. Literally taking the “bigness” away and creating small goals, celebrating mini wins, and owning the college process by always bringing it back to YOU. Your goals, your interests, your academic pursuits, and your list, which is guaranteed to ALWAYS be different than your peers.

So where do you begin?

By giving yourself a mapped out timeline breaking it down to small tasks and crossing it off as you go. By the way, it’s helpful if you give yourself some credit for completing the tasks, no matter how small of a task it is, you’re still building momentum.

Ask yourself, “What can I do today that will help me tomorrow?” That might be setting up a meeting with your school counselor. Literally even if you haven’t had the meeting yet, just the fact that it is scheduled is a win. Alright, I hope my pep talk has helped put you in a more positive frame of mind. And if it hasn’t, and you’re still reading this, well, give yourself some props for that and don’t give up.

The following post will help you prepare for college applications as a junior so you feel pretty darn confident walking into senior year, rather than, “Hi, so I didn’t make an appointment last year and I have no idea where to start.” Nope, not you, you’ve got a plan.

Building the college list

As a junior one of the BEST thing you can do is get to know colleges and different universities to get a sense of which ones will be the right fit for you. A college that checks all your boxes. Think about this. For most likely the first time in your life, you have the ability to choose the type of education you’ll receive, the type of learning environment, the type of social environment, when, where, and how. That’s super powerful.

There are literally thousands of four year colleges and universities, public, private, big, small, in state, out of state, not to mention international universities and technical/trade programs. Your goal is to research colleges now and ultimately narrow down your list (to say 8-10 colleges) by the time you get back senior year. From there you’ll be able to structure how you apply to those colleges, organize dates and deadlines, and what not.

Here’s five ways to research colleges and build your list

  1. Use a reputable college search engine and plug in a few things that are important to you. (major, curriculum style, social scene, location, religious affiliations, school spirit, colleges with support for learning disabilities, etc.) Want help figuring out what your must haves are in a college? Use the Corsava card sort and you’ll have a full PDF of things you want in a university (which is also a helpful way to get to know what colleges offer BTW). Here are a few great search engines:
    • BigFuture CollegeBoard search
    • Collegexpress (search lists and rankings and find colleges clumped together by topics that are important to you. Hint: when you see a college on multiple lists that are important to you…pay attention to it!)
    • College Navigator (also great for finding in-depth information on the actual cost of college! You can see the average tuition for families based on varying income, plus the average percentage of merit vs. need based aid)
  2. Get a college guide book. There’s just something about a physical book you can write on, throw post-its all over, have fun with it!
  3. Visit a college campus
    • In person or online, either way getting a visual and walking through the campus is SUPER helpful. Want benches and pretty streams to study? Want a dorm with built in tutors and advisors based on your academic area of interest? Want an honors college? Kosher dining? Small? Big? Tour! Even if it’s not a school you plan on attending, just seeing what you don’t want will help you find what you do want.
  4. Continue revising and organizing your list. As you continue researching, your list might change. That’s okay! Keep track of your research, take notes, and compile data in a document, excel or Google sheet, or literally written down in a special college folder. Whatever works for you visually, but have it in ONE place, where you can compare colleges, pros and cons, cross of the ones that lose their appeal, etc.
    • Hot tip: Every fall college admission counselors representing universities visit high school campuses, or might host a local event. These visits are informational, you can learn more about academics, social life on campus, tidbits like the best dining halls on campus, and of course, the admission process. The BEST part about these, are that you can gain more information and decide if the university is one that you still interested in, you’re not committing to applying, AND oftentimes the admission counselor visiting is one of the first ones to read your college application.
  5. Estimate chances of admission. Go directly on a college’s website and within their admission page you should find an admitted student profile on the past admission cycle where you’ll see average academic profiles of admitted students and get a better understanding of where you land. You’re looking to have at least 2-3 colleges on your list that you’re likely to gain admission to. These are schools where your academics are higher than the average and it is a college acceptance a higher percentage of its applicants.
    • Check with your high school, you should have a college system like Naviance that compiles data on the applicants within your high school. Colleges will review you not only within the context of the larger applicant pool, but also within your high school. So it’s helpful to understand where your GPA at your specific high school stands amongst former applicants that were admitted/denied to colleges you are interested in.

Want more on this topic? Check out this post.

Grades and senior course selection

Your grades and courses can be one of the biggest factors in an admission review. Your GPA might feel like the most defining piece, but it’s really just a number. Admission counselors will look at your transcript as a whole, grade consistencies, how you’ve progressed, added rigor, and also what was available to you. Junior year is one of the last years where you have full posted grades before applying to colleges. Here’s how to maximize it!

Colleges review your transcript and GPA within the context of what was available to you. So if you didn’t have access to AP coursework, for example, it won’t be held against you. Your job is to solidify grades and do well in your classes. That begins with having an academic schedule that supports you, but also challenges you, and showcases your strengths. So you might have fulfilled your foreign language requirement, but are really good at it, so you continue in junior year and choose to take the advanced level next year. Look at what’s offered to you, talk with your counselor, and create a schedule that will show advanced work in areas of interest as well as electives that help you stand out.

You can also showcase academic talents beyond the classroom by taking a concurrent enrollment college class for free, or by taking an online course, for example. BTW if you’ve had a rocky semester due a circumstance out of your control (whether that be COVID or a family matter, for example) there are spaces on the college application to write and provide that.

So yes, we’ll talk about SAT/ACT exams and yes, extracurriculars are good to have, but if it’s cutting into your school to the point where your academics are floundering, then it’s time to pull back a bit and focus on coursework. Meet with your counselor and choose your senior courses. They’ll provide some insight, also ask your teacher for recommendations on placements in future courses if you’re a bit hesitant about taking that fourth year in a higher math, for example.

Want to know how colleges look at your GPA and what matters? Check out this post.

Letters of recommendations

Colleges that require letters of recommendation typically ask for 1-2 teacher recommendations that usually come from core academic teachers in the junior year as well as your counselor. Now, that’s not the END ALL BE ALL. There are always exceptions and each student is different. But if you’re planning on applying to a private or out of state university, odds are you’ll need a letter.

The teacher letters are to gain a better understanding of the type of student you are in the classroom and how you might interact with faculty once on their campus. Your college application will also include your grades and your transcript, so the purpose of the letter is not necessarily about how well you did in the subject, but more of a window into you as a student. Think of teachers where you engaged in their classroom, if you got stuck and needed help and advocated for yourself, etc.

The counselor letter really provides a better understanding of you within the school environment and also a character piece to your application. They can also advocate and speak to any circumstances that might be important to know (if you had a family responsibility that pulled you away from school, if you’ve participated in the larger school community, etc.)

Action item!! Think about the teachers you might ask, and verbally ask them before you head off to summer. Every high school has a different process of formally requesting recommenders on your application, but it’s good to give the teacher a heads up and get it checked off your list.

College essay preparation

You’ll ultimately be writing college essays. One (or a few) main personal statements and supplemental essays. Essay work over the summer can be SUPER beneficial and a great use of time. There are a ton of free resources to get you started like The College Essay Guy.

Just know that this piece of the application can really help you stand out. You can write about anything (and you don’t have to have an insane insight or challenge). You can write about your academic strengths, periods of growth, etc. Just make a note to review prompts and brainstorm over the summer and finalize drafts early fall of senior year.

What about SAT/ACT?

College admission testing traditionally has always caused some angst. When to test, what score you need, what exam to take, etc. The really nice part about the Class of 2023, is that you now have more options in testing and how it can add to your college application (or not be a part of it at all) than ever before. Feel the empowerment of preparing, taking an exam, taking it again if needed, and then based on your college list, seeing if your score will be an added value to your application.

First, remember, when I said that every student’s college process will be different? Keep that in mind, especially with testing. Every student’s testing journey is different. Remember, grades, GPA, and your academic schedule is important!! Testing is ONE component of your college application. It can be an added value to showcase your academic strengths and potential for success in college. Your day in day out course work and effort in your classes are the biggest component of the academic review in an application. Not JUST your GPA, but how you’ve grown over time, consistency or growth in grades, adding honors/AP/advanced coursework in academic areas of strength, etc. Take the time to do well in classes.  

Colleges may be test optional, meaning students have the option to send their score or not. This is where that added value piece comes in. Colleges that are test blind, do not include testing as a part of their review process at all. You can take an official SAT or ACT and decide to send your score to your applications if it makes sense for the college application. Each college is different so as you narrow your list down, you can make a call whether or not to send your score.

To note: The UC and CSU system DO NOT require testing as a part of their review process for admission. Your score will not be seen or reviewed in admission decisions. 

If a college is test optional, it is up to you as the student (with help from college center/counseling/college admission counselor for guidance) to decide if your score will be an added value to your application and if it is appropriate to send it. Look at testing averages from past admitted applicants on each college your considering and see if your score falls within the ranges and will be helpful to your application. Each college is different so do check! 

 What is a typical testing timeline? Take a practice exam in the SAT and ACT to get a sense of which exam is strongest for the student. Once you decide on an exam, register for an official exam in the spring of junior year. Most test prep companies will provide a free exam.

Students typically take an official exam (either SAT or ACT – colleges will consider BOTH and have NO preference over which exam, really!!) in the spring of junior year and can retake the exam if needed. Retaking the exam (2 to really no more than 3 times) is appropriate. Students will be able to send their highest score to colleges accepting test scores. Some colleges that allow super scoring will take the highest subsection of scores across test dates and will take the highest combined scores. Not all colleges do this, and not all colleges are accepting testing. 

Counselors and the college center are there to help you! Ask! Also don’t hesitate to call a college admission office and gain some insight to their most recent testing policies and what’s best. 

How do I study/prepare for the exam? Remember, every student is different, so just as you prepare and study for a final, you will have different study strategies that work best for YOU. There is no quick fix or one size fits all to guarantee a score! Consistent studying is best (think about 2-3 months of consistent studying leading up to the official exam). Consistent studying can be logging online once a week and adding practice exams along the way, it can be with a tutor one on one, in groups, an online course, etc. There are many options.

Download the Compass Guide to Admission as a comprehensive resource
National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) at www.fairtest.org Free SAT Kahn Academy Test Prep
and Free ACT Kaplan Test Prep

SAT Test Dates 
SAT Registration

ACT: What is the ACT?
ACT Test Dates
ACT Registration

NOTE: The SAT will shift to a new digital platform that will affect the Class of 2025. So if you’re a freshman reading this, check out the new format here.

Extracurricular and summer plans

Any committed amount of time and responsibility in something outside of the classroom can be an extracurricular on your application. A job, community service, a sport, an academic experience, a club, a project, a family responsibility, learning a new skill, you name it.

It can be helpful to visually see your list of activities. Create a word doc, Google doc, or write down on a piece and paper and see which activities and awards are the bigger ones that will shine on your activity. You’ll ultimately complete an activities and awards portion of the college application and list not only the activity, but the role and impact you had within that activity. So not just that you played soccer, but that you were the goalie, you were responsible for leading team stretches, and participated in the car was fundraiser. Make it about YOU!

I’m a big fan of CollegeWise’s blog with posts on summer activities. Super helpful to gain a better understanding of what counts and ideas on how to spend it. And please do not just complete an activity for the sake of college. It almost always will come across disingenuous. Do what you love!! If that includes cooking meals for your family and photographing your food on a blog, well that counts!! Think about which activities are serving you (AKA making you feel good and fulfilled) and which ones are helping showcase your talents.

Estimating college cost

Did you know that there are resources to help you figure out how much a college on average will cost you? That may actually make that out of state university cheaper than the local state school? Or a private university offering you a scholarship reducing the shock of that tuition cost you see on the website? Check out 3 Tools to Easily Tell College Affordability.

Still with me?

I’m proud of you!! Consider this your first mini win!! The last tidbit I have for you is this. Prioritize your time and always ask yourself…

What can I do today that will help me tomorrow?

And if that’s sleep, well, get some sleep!

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