Midyear Check-In for High School Juniors

Junior year is halfway over, but there’s still a lot that students need to do as they prep for senior year and the college application process. There are decisions to be made about high school classes and AP (Advanced Placement) courses, as well as the AP exams themselves in May. Students might want to take the SAT and ACT during junior year or some SAT II subject exams, so they can see what areas they need to strengthen. Brainstorming ideas for college essays and asking teachers for recommendation letters are also essential. Finally, there are college visits to do and college lists that students need to make.

There are plenty of questions that high school juniors might have, including:

• What electives and APs should I take junior and senior year? • When do I take the SAT/ACT? • Which SAT IIs should I take? • When do I write college essays? • How do I get recommendation letters? • When should I visit colleges? • How do I make a college list?

We’ve written this article to help high school juniors think about all the important steps they’ll need to take so they will be prepared for the college process.

What Classes Should Students Take?

Once junior year begins, most high school students get more freedom and flexibility in their curricula. Most students will choose electives and Advanced Placement courses during this year (and if not junior year, definitely senior year), which is a big decision. It can be tempting to sign up for easy electives and ditch harder subjects, but this might not be the best plan for all students. Colleges will look most carefully at junior year and first half of senior year grades, so it is important to choose classes that represent a student’s interests and then to perform well in those subjects.

By this point in high school, some students will know what they want to study in college, while others will be unsure. There’s no right or wrong way to feel at this point, but there is a good strategy to use when picking courses. Students who have decided on their areas of study should choose electives and APs that correspond to those fields. For example, a junior who wants to study math should continue with math and possibly take AP Calculus, or perhaps add in statistics or physics to show their interest in quantitative areas. Essentially, what a student shows on a college application should be consistent with his or her coursework: colleges don’t want to see a potential math major who took no math classes at all at the end of high school. Students who aren’t sure about their area of study have a little more flexibility. Maybe someone is interested in writing and chemistry, or some other combination of subjects. Other students may have no idea at all, and that’s all right. The important thing is to take courses that are interesting and challenging, no matter what subjects they cover. A well-rounded student who takes strong courses in different subjects will be just as prepared to do well in college as someone who chooses a major right away.

After choosing these AP courses, another step is to decide whether or not a student wants to take the AP exam for that particular subject. In nearly all cases it’s a wise choice to take the exam in May—high performance means either getting college credit or skipping intro-level classes once college starts. Even though these exams can be expensive, College Board offers fee waivers for some of the APs, and many high schools can also help cover the exam costs. Students shouldn’t worry about financial difficulties when choosing to take AP exams.

This information about tough classes isn’t meant to discourage students from taking fun courses and electives. If there’s an incredible art class, go for it! If it’s the last chance to try a new language, give it a shot. The important idea is that a student’s high school transcript should reflect that student’s goals, and not show that a student started slacking off.

When Do Students Take the SAT/ACT?

The best plan for students during junior year is to start thinking about the SAT and ACT, as well as deciding which of the two exams seems like the best fit. For a quick overview, check out our post on deciding between the SAT and ACT. There are plenty of resources out there to help give students an idea of what the tests are like. After thinking about both exams, it’s a good idea for juniors to take one or both of the exams to see if it feels like a good fit.

Most high school students will also take the SAT and/or ACT during senior year, just to get their scores in tip-top shape before college applications go out. However, it will make senior year much less stressful if students can get these exams out of the way earlier. Scores from both exams stay valid for five years, so even students considering a gap year before college can take the exams during junior year and keep the scores during the college application process.

By taking the SAT and/or ACT during junior year, students can find areas of weakness and choose the test that best represents their strengths. After making this decision, taking the exam a second time will be less stressful, because students will know just what to expect. With some extra study during the summer or early during senior year, students can target areas that they know must be improved.

Which SAT IIs Should Students Take?

Nearly all colleges that are not test-optional require two or three SAT II scores. A partial list of these schools can be found on our blog, but it’s smart to check the application pages of specific colleges for the most up-to-date information. The same logic holds for the SAT IIs as it does for the SAT/ACT exams: getting the exams done earlier is usually better. Since there are so many different SAT II subjects to choose from, it can be pretty easy for students to get their two or three scores. Just think about the SAT and ACT: both exams quiz students on math and critical reading, so taking the SAT IIs for math and English will cover nearly the same material. Without doing much extra studying, students can get two subjects done. Another option is taking the SAT II for a foreign language, since students will usually have to take foreign language courses in high school. Physics, chemistry, biology, and history are all options for SAT II subjects, so students who take electives in these areas may want to take that subject’s SAT II.

Since the subject exams are only an hour, they can be easier to fit into junior year than full-length SATs and ACTs. If time allows, getting at least one subject test completed during junior year will make senior year much easier.

When Do Students Write College Essays?

Each summer, the Common Application launches for the next school year. This means that current high school juniors can start filling out their applications in August 2015. Most schools with supplements or individual applications will also start accepting material at around this time. The Common App will include a short essay (under 650 words) that requires students to respond to one of several prompts. Since this essay will go out to all the schools a student applies to, it’s important to get the essay in great shape before sending out applications.

Many high schools will encourage students to write a potential college essay during English class, or at least work on a personal essay that could turn into a strong college essay. This is an easy way to get a head start on the application process, because some revision over the summer can turn that draft into a finished essay for the Common App. Students who have this opportunity should make the most of it, because it will make senior year easier if students can knock out that college essay before the school year even starts.

The individual supplements and short answer questions for specific colleges can be a little more tricky. Schools do have different deadlines, so students may need to complete some essays by November 1st, others by December 1st or 15th, others by January 1st, etc. The best idea is to make a list of all the supplemental essays and short answers required, along with their corresponding due dates. The summer after junior year can give students lots of time to research individual schools, so if possible students should try to complete some of these supplements before senior year starts. Look at our college essay tips for more suggestions.

How Do Students Get Recommendation Letters?

Letters of recommendation are another key part of college applications, and most students will need two or three to send out with their other material. Junior year is a reasonable time for students to decide which teachers, coaches, counselors, or other reputable adults they should approach for these letters. Just like our advice for choosing APs and electives, there are two different ways to decide which adults to ask for a recommendation.

Students who have an idea of what they want to study should get a letter of recommendation from a teacher in that department, or at least a related subject. Another teacher who can discuss that student’s academic growth through high school is a great choice for a second letter. For students who have not yet chosen what to study, the more important goal is for these recommendation letters to discuss the student’s academic abilities and strengths, as well as improvements that the student has made during high school. Indications of growth and strong performance are always helpful to have in a recommendation letter, and any teacher who knows a student well enough to discuss this kind of progress will write a powerful recommendation letter.

When Should Students Visit Colleges?

Many students take time during the summer after junior year to start doing college visits. However, it can be much more fun to visit colleges when classes are in session and interested applicants can get a feel for campus life. Because a college can seem less lively in the summer, students who have the option to travel during their high school breaks might want to consider visiting schools during that time. Spring break or long weekends during the spring semester are smart times to visit colleges, because high school calendars tend to have holidays at different times than college schedules.

The best part of visiting while classes are in session is that interested applicants may sit in on classes and observe actual college students. This can give people a much better sense of what a college is like than flipping through brochures or going to info sessions. It’s also nice to get a sense of the social scene: do students spend lots of time in the library, or in their dorm rooms? How happy do people look when they walk around campus? What are the dining options? Answering these questions is a lot easier when people can speak with real students at a particular school.

How Do Students Make College Lists?

The final stage before starting college applications is choosing which colleges to apply to. Most students apply to somewhere from ten to twenty schools, though some high schools may have specific recommendations for the number of applications each student may complete. Ten to twenty colleges is still a large list to fill, but there are some suggestions to make building these lists a little easier.

Every student should apply to a mix of “safety” schools, where their test scores/grades give them a strong chance of being admitted; a few “reach” schools, where they don’t feel so confident in being accepted; and many mid-range schools, which seem like reasonable matches. A good rule of thumb is to apply to mostly mid-range schools, with just a handful of safeties and reaches—there’s nothing worse than applying to only top-tier schools and getting rejection letter after rejection letter. Staying realistic is important during this process, but it’s still all right to aim for a few impressive colleges.

Looking Ahead

After junior year, the next step is senior year, the college application process, and graduation! Once junior year finishes, students should keep in mind their responsibilities during senior year:

• Retake standardized tests if necessary • Finish college list • Receive recommendation letters • Fill out Common Application (required by nearly every school) • Fill out individual school applications or supplements • Complete financial aid documentation

The more students can get done during junior year, the more they will be able to enjoy their final year of high school. Once the college applications are done during the winter of senior year, it’ll finally be time to relax and have fun during the last months of high school.