Ask 10 people about when and how to start planning for college, and you’ll likely get 10 different answers. The truth is, everyone starts at different times, and there isn’t a one size fits all solution. But there are a few things to keep in mind as you begin planning for this important phase in your life.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s start with junior year and think about college preparation through 3 channels: academics and testing, activities and extracurriculars, and school research.
Assume 9th and 10th grade have been filled with a rigorous course schedule and some extracurricular activities (sports, clubs, volunteer work) as well as a summer camp or program in between.
It’s often said that junior year grades are one of the most important data points on your college application. It’s not entirely untrue, but the reason is, these grades are the last full set a college will see when evaluating your application and candidacy. While schools examine your entire high school performance, junior year also represents the most recent version of yourself. (Hint: This can be an opportunity to show tremendous growth if you’ve overcome some challenges.)
When putting together a course schedule, make sure you’re balancing rigor with realism. It doesn’t make sense to register for 6 AP courses if you’re unable to earn higher than a B. Making sure you can execute and maintain (or exceed) previous grades will help your transcript stand out (even if that means opting for fewer AP courses). It’s likely that the College Board’s decision to eliminate SAT subjects tests in 2021 will place greater emphasis (and scrutiny) on AP exams as well.
Finally, letters of recommendation often come from junior year teachers so keep that in mind as you select courses and build relationships. Check out our tips on letters of recommendation here.
2020 saw a significant decrease in universities requiring SAT or ACT scores with just 44% of applicants who applied through February 2021 through the Common Application submitting SAT or ACT scores, but the future of testing requirements remains a bit murky.
While it’s likely that many elite schools will return to requiring tests, the test optional trend may become more popular, or even permanent, at many universities. Thus, the decision to test or not is one that will likely be tied to school selection. If you’re trying to decide how to approach testing, consider taking advantage of a free practice SAT or ACT (if your school offers one) to establish a baseline score. If your scores are close to or above the reported median scores, they could help your application. If they’re well below, test optional may be a more attractive option. Ultimately, the decision around testing is a personal one that is going to be tied closely to your school list, so spend some time thinking through your options before deciding to abandon the SAT or ACT altogether.
If you choose to test, aim to test once in the spring of your junior year (March, May or June) and select a time when you have fewer school commitments such as AP exams. By testing before the end of your academic year, you’ll be “test taking” and study mode, but also have the benefit of having the summer to prepare and retest in the fall if necessary. A testing strategy is an important element of the readiness process, so don’t overlook planning out the tests you’d like to take, and giving yourself time and options to retest if you need to! We do not recommend taking the SAT or ACT more than three times, so be sure you have prepared well before taking an official exam!
By 11th grade, you should have a few activities that you’re consistently participating in or leading. While there’s no algorithm for what activities or how many hours you should be spending that determines better admissions results, consistency and growth are key. Activities should reflect your interests and passions, and while there’s no harm in switching things up as your interests evolve, colleges like to see some commitment. Commitment translates to impact. And, when evaluating extracurricular activities, demonstrating measurable impact is key. If you’re struggling to find an activity you love, consider creating one. This can also be a great opportunity to build a relationship with a teacher who could later write a letter of recommendation. And also a great way to show leadership!
A mix of individual (summer courses) and collaborative (participating on a team or volunteer work) show schools that you have interests that aren’t just self-serving and give schools a glimpse into what type of community member you’ll be on campus.
And if you’re a little light on activities, don’t panic. You still have time to get involved. Try to find an activity where you can have an immediate impact. It’s far better to have 1 or 2 activities where you are contributing in a meaningful way than several activities that you join (and do little or nothing) to inflate your activity list.
While many students have their sights set on a specific school early on, you’ll want to spend time building out a diverse school list that aligns with your academic and career interests. Start by spending some time reflecting on things that are important to you (e.g. location, size, religious affiliation) and then leverage school search tools to build out a broad list.
If you’re able to schedule school visits – spring break and summer are great options – that gives you an up close and personal peek into student and campus life. Make sure you’re keeping notes on each school so you can compare when you return.
Essay prompts are typically released in the spring or summer. If you’re signing up for updates from schools, you should receive a notification when they’re available or they can be accessed via the Common App. Finally, if there’s a school that is your top choice, consider putting together an Early Action (EA) or Early Decision (ED) application.
In summary, there’s a lot to think about and this isn’t meant to be a deep dive into everything you should be working on, but rather some guardrails to get you thinking more broadly about how to organize and prioritize. Below is a quick checklist of activities and timing to help get you started.
In summary, for Junior year…
- All year: Focus on grades and activities.
- Winter: School research
- Winter: Make summer plans (camps, classes, school visits)
- Spring: Senior year course selection
- Spring: Think about Letters of Recommendation & who to ask
- Summer: Download essay prompts/supplements.
- Summer: Decide on EA/ED vs RD