Most experts consider junior year to be the most consequential in college admissions, and this may well be true. But senior year is nearly as important since it’s the year that you finalize and submit your applications. In both years, you face many choices that have ramifications beyond college and into your career.
It’s not just your years as an upperclassman that count. All four years of high school contribute to your ultimate success. The more you accomplish in the first two years, the less your burden will be in the last two years. The stress can be intense coming down the stretch, so we advise that you plan for each year of your high school career so that, at its culmination, you’re confident and looking forward to what’s ahead.
1. Steps to Take in Freshman Year
A study by the Brookings Institute found that 9th grade is the most critical year in the formation of a student’s potential. Your academic performance as a freshman sets the tone for the rest of your education.
A. Start Out with a High GPA
Freshman year counts toward your cumulative GPA and has an impact on your final class rank. It’s great for your GPA to be an rising trajectory in junior year, but it’s even better if your record has been so excellent since 9th grade that a rise isn’t even needed.. A high GPA that doesn’t need to be raised in junior year avoids much of the stress that can burden you as a junior.
B. Meet with Your Guidance Counselor
Guidance counselors play an essential role in your college admissions campaign. They’re busy people, so the responsibility is on you to schedule meetings with them. As a freshman, you can start a discussion about your admissions plan. At this point, getting to know the counselor and giving them the opportunity to know you is your main objective. You’ll be in contact with them often in the coming years.
C. Make the Honor Roll
Making the honor roll in 8th grade will give you the opportunity to take honors courses in 9th and 10th grades. Success in honors courses is likely to enable you to take AP courses as a sophomore and upperclassman. The more AP classes that you successfully complete with a grade of 4 or 5 on the exam, the more likely that you’ll be accepted by the colleges that you target. You may also earn college credits at a number of schools.
D. Begin Study in a Foreign Language
Most selective schools require applicants to have two to four years of a single foreign language. Freshman year is the time to commit to the language that you’ll study through high school.
E. Experiment with Extracurricular Activities
Immerse yourself in several activities that appeal to your interests. Join clubs, organizations, and intramural teams as you see fit. You’ll need time to identify those activities that truly interest you and for which you may also have an aptitude.
F. Use Summer to Your Advantage
The summer after your freshman year is a great time to find a job. If you’re still too young, you can volunteer for a non-profit that appeals to you. A productive activity is to prepare for the PSAT exam. You may wish to begin to research into which types of colleges represent “best-fit” schools for you.
2. Steps to Take in Sophomore Year
In your sophomore year, we recommend that you select honors classes in your strongest subjects. You should also assess your extracurricular activities and drop those in which you’re not too interested. Try new ones if necessary. Refine your admissions plan to focus on real choices that you’ll need to make as an upperclassman.
A. Take the PSAT
Taking the PSAT prepares you for the SAT in junior year and helps you identify your weak areas so that you can work to improve in them. If you release your name, address, and email to colleges, you’ll receive marketing communications from them.
B. Practice for the ACT
Pursue the PLAN Assessment Program offered by American College Testing if you plan to take the ACT exam instead of the SAT. This program assesses the efficacy your study habits, your academic progress to date, and the intensity of your interests. It also prepares you for the ACT exam itself.
C. Learn About College Admissions
Become familiar with college entrance requirements, especially at schools you may feel are potential best-fits. The sooner you know this the better prepared you’ll be. Your guidance counselor’s office will have information about admission requirements, as will libraries, college websites, magazine rankings, and articles in the mainstream media.
D. Proceed on Your Academic Path
Work with your guidance counselor to make sure that you’re enrolled in the courses that best suit your educational goals. You’ll also want to be sure that you’ll have all of your graduation requirements, except senior English, completed by the end of junior year.
E. Use Summer to Add to Your Admissions Credentials
The summer after sophomore year is a good time to find a job. Stead employment every summer appeals to colleges. Use your spare time to prepare for the SAT or ACT exam. You may want to take an elective summer course at your high school or at a local college in the field that you’re considering as a major. Admissions officials will look positively on this as an indication of your desire to learn and work hard.
3. Steps to Take in Junior Year
Your junior year is the most important in your admissions campaign because it’s the last full year of high school that colleges will see complete data when you apply. It represents you as a more mature student. Colleges use it as source data in their predictive models to project how well you’ll perform as a college student.
A. Start on Your College List
Establish a set of criteria to guide you in building the list of schools to which you’ll apply. Your criteria can include factors such as the size of the student body, faculty-to-student ratio, total annual expenses, core curriculum, majors, degrees granted, geographic location, the nature of the local community, campus setting, campus amenities, work-study programs, and any other factors that you may consider important. By the end of junior year, you’ll narrow the list down to a predetermined number of schools. You should plan to visit as many of them as possible over the next year.
B. Plan for Exams
You’ll be taking the SAT or the ACT and you’ll probably be taking AP exams. Register and mark the dates. Juniors should take the SAT or ACT the in spring so you can take them again in the fall of their senior year if you need to improve your scores. Don’t take them too early to “get it over with.”
C. Hone Your Abilities in Extracurricular Activities
By now, you should know which activities you’ll list on your applications. Colleges look for commitment and depth, so just one activity is all you need if it fits that description. If you can attain a leadership role or garner an award in your activity, so much the better. Your talent or skill can serve you well, especially if it’s in a niche that colleges seek to fill.
D. Learn Your Options for Financial Aid
Review the financial resources that will be available to you with your family. Learn about financial aid from public sources, individual colleges, and corporations. High-school sponsored financial aid nights, independent financial aid counselors, and the media will be helpful in your research.
E. Register for the Optimal Curriculum for Senior Year
Meet with your guidance counselor to select classes for your senior year. Make sure that you’ll graduate with all the courses that you’ll need for admission to specific schools on your list. Colleges consider the rigor of the curriculum of seniors as well as their grades when they’re available.
F. Reach Out to Letter of Recommendation Writers
Most requests for letters of recommendation are directed to guidance counselors and a small subset of teachers. These individuals receive an enormous number of requests. If you wish to obtain a letter from one of them, ask them as a junior so that they’ll have notice before the fall semester crush. Be sure that they’ll have only positive comments and that you won’t be “Damned by faint praise.” You can also elicit a letter from a coach, the leader of one of your organizations, or an employer, as long as they know you well.
G. Visit Colleges
Campus visits require planning, especially if you wish to arrange for an admissions interview. Contact the admissions office to set up an interview, a guided tour, and a meeting with a faculty member and a student in the department of your planned major. There will be opportunities later to visit campuses, but it’s a good idea to start as a junior, especially with schools where you may want to apply through an Early Admissions program.
H. Make the Best of your Junior Summer
Admissions officials are impressed by applicants who have worked within their planned field of study as interns or employees. If you have an opportunity to secure such a position, then by all means do so. It’s also time to start working on your essays and personal statements.
If possible, take a summer college course in your planned major to demonstrate your commitment to your planned field of study and to prove that you’re capable of college work.
4. Steps to Take in Senior Year
Seniors who plan to attend college are very busy people! What has seemed far in the future is now upon you — crunch time to prepare applications that will secure your admission to your best-fit schools.
A. Finalize Your College List
For most students, the final list should be pared down to a predetermined number of schools. With too few schools on the list, you won’t be spreading your risk sufficiently. With too many schools, you’ll dissipate your focus and effort. A good number to reach for is 8 to 10 colleges that are a good Fit and Match for you.
B. Paying for It
When finalizing your college list, ask a very important question — can you handle it financially? October 1 is the first day that a student applying for financial aid can access, complete, and submit the FAFSA and CSS/PROFILE forms. These forms require a great deal of effort by you and your parents. The deadlines vary by college, but a head start is helpful.
C. Write Your Essays
Allow plenty of time to brainstorm topics, outline, draft, and polish your essays and personal statements. This is crucial, especially if you are applying to schools that require supplemental essays. Essay questions are broad, which can make it difficult to know how to relate the topic to your life. Obtain input from others on your topics and approach. Be wary of having too many adult editors.
D. Complete and Submit your Application
Work hard on your applications. If you’re applying for Early Admission to any schools, the usual deadline is November 1. For Regular Decision, the deadline is usually January 2.
You may be able to choose which application platform to use. If possible, use only one. The Common App is accepted by nearly 900 colleges and many schools that accept other apps also accept the Common App.
E. Submit Senior Fall Semester Grades
As soon they’re available, send your fall semester grades to the schools to which you’ve applied. This will be after you’ve submitted the application, but admissions officers want to be able to incorporate the data into their decision.
F. The Decisions of Your Colleges
Acceptance, rejection and waitlist letters arrive between late February and early April. You usually have until April 30 to accept an offer of admission. Don’t put too much faith in waitlists. Among the colleges that use them, only a small percentage of waitlisted students ever receive an acceptance letter.
G. Make Your Decision
If you’re accepted to more than one school, weigh all options. Talk with parents, other family members, teachers, mentors, and friends. Examine available financial aid and the total expenses at each school. If possible, visit the campuses of your two finalists to compare them closely.
H. Final Steps
Colleges have a deposit deadline of May 1st. Once senior year is over, send your final high school transcript to the college you’ll be attending. These grades may help you secure a scholarship or qualify for a competitive academic program. If you took AP classes during senior year and have passed the national exams with a score of 4 or 5, you may be able to earn college credits and skip a required course.
Seeing the number of steps above, you, as a student or parent, might think that this is more than enough to do to prepare for admission to college. In fact, this is a partial list consisting of major tasks. Lesser tasks requiring little time have been omitted. But, just because they’re minor doesn’t mean these small tasks can be omitted.
The best way to accomplish all tasks that will lead to acceptance at your best-fit colleges is to hire Klaar College Consulting. Dr. Charlotte Klaar takes a no-nonsense, no-excuses approach as she works with students to make the entire college admissions process, including college search, application completion, and essay-writing, a delightful adventure of self-discovery and personal growth. Along the way, she helps students learn to make more informed decisions and to own the results.