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This week's question from Andrew S. from Renton, WA asks:

As a junior looking to stay on top of my college admissions timeline, what are the most important things for me to be doing before senior year starts?

“Baking Your Academic Cake”: Choosing Courses for Senior Year

Nina Marks | Founder
Contrary to popular belief, junior year of high school is not the be all and end all in college admissions: Senior year matters, too. Continuing to study the five core academic subjects—English, math, science, social science, and foreign language—is critical. One noteworthy exception: It’s fine to drop foreign language if you have already taken it through level four. Your high school assesses the rigor of your academic program for colleges. Challenge yourself, especially in the subjects that engage you, but avoid dropping math to take two English courses. It’s important to “bake” the academic cake before icing it.

18 Month Calendar + Your College Search = Success

Dave Hamilton | Director of College Advising
Right now, every high school junior should print out a blank monthly calendar starting with March 2011 and ending with August 2012. What to do with these 18 sheets of paper? Arrange them in chronological order – of course – and tape them to a wall in a high traffic area where everybody in the family has access. Write down important dates (spring break, application deadlines, etc) to serve as a guide on what needs to be done and when. By making the search process visible and breaking it down into smaller components, it becomes more manageable for students and parents alike.

A campus without students is like a rock concert without music

Larry Dannenberg | Founder
First, decide what you want from college, academically and socially, then check graduation rates of schools that meet your criteria. You want to graduate in four years because an extra year costs time and money. Then visit your target colleges while classes are in session. Seeing a campus during the summer is like going to a rock concert while they are setting up the chairs. Ask current students what they do on weekends, how many hours they study, how many papers they write and how big classes are. Large classes mean little discussion; small classes mean no place to hide.

As the old saying goes “Poor preparation will lead to poor performance”

Doris Sarr | Director of Adventures in Math and Science
Putting together a college budget with your parents during the senior year can help alleviate some of the stress of college preparation. Budgeting early could reveal the possibility of not being able to go to college due to lack of funds. It is important to start putting together a budget of projected college expenses in your junior year based on your top college choices. This will allow you to research affordable colleges and sources of revenue for your education (such as scholarships, financial aid, work-study, or other sources). Your parents should be able to sit down with you and outline how much (if any) they can contribute and offer helpful suggestions on how to make your budget.

Ask for recommendations early from your eleventh grade teachers!

Carol Morris | Regional Director of Admissions
If you will require teacher recommendations for admission or scholarship applications, ask (2-3) teachers from junior year classes if they would be willing to write one for you. Make this request in April or May (before school ends) which gives them time over the summer to work on it, while their memories of specific positive actions of yours are fresher. By fall they will have a whole new set of students to deal with as well as being inundated by requests from other seniors. Look for teachers who are proud of you and who seem to understand what makes you tick!

Be Proactive About Preventing Standardized Exam Burnout!

Sarah Hernandez | Director of the Office of Diversity Programs in Engineering
To prevent standardized exam burnout during your senior year, implement a plan that allows you to strategically space out the dates when you are registered to take SAT, ACT, SAT II, AP, and/or IB exams. With all that you will have going on during your senior year, the last thing you want creeping up on you are standardized exams! Therefore, take the SAT and/or ACT at least once during the spring of your junior year. Also, register to take any relevant SAT II exams corresponding with your junior courses in late spring/early summer to leverage your retention of critical content.

Colleges Need to Know of Your Interest in Them

Jane Hoffman | Founder
Don’t be a stealth applicant, meaning someone who researches online without making yourself known to colleges. Liberal arts colleges in particular need to know that applicants are interested in learning about them. If the first time they hear about you is with your application they may conclude that you weren’t very thoughtful about the process or them. You should go to the colleges’ web sites (admissions or visitor pages), find the prompt and sign in. That will put you on their radar. It will demonstrate preliminary interest in learning more and will ensure that you are not a stealth applicant.

Congratulations on realizing the importance of an early start!

Joan Bress | Director & Certified Educational Planner
Begin by looking at several applications and fill in gaps you see in your own life. Study hard. Pursue activities that develop your interests and skills. Decide which teachers will write strong recommendations, and make your requests early. Become familiar with application essay topics and practice writing about your life. Prepare for the SAT or ACT. Plan spring campus visits. Create a separate e-mail account for college communications. Note deadlines, either official or self-imposed, on your calendar and keep it handy. Designate a ‘college corner’ stocked with a file box, folders and other things that keep you organized.

Design an “extreme” Campus Visit Strategy in your junior year

Mabel Freeman | Asst. VP for Undergraduate Admissions
Use your spring break or a long weekend in your junior year to strategically check out two or three campuses that represent the greatest extremes among the colleges you are considering. Visit one of the largest and one of the smallest, or a research university and liberal arts college, or a rural-located and urban-located campus. Prepare questions that address the realities of size, location, or type of institution. What do these factors mean for your academic interests or your comfort level? What did you like? Use knowledge gained from these strategic junior year visits to plan successful senior year visits.

Don’t let compression get you down!

Candy Cushing | Associate Director of College Counseling
Juniors, you’ve quite the race to run between now and next fall – especially if you’d like to begin senior year in strategic decision making mode. Use time wisely: thoroughly research colleges, demonstrate interest with a visit, email, or college fair – interest is important. Refine your list of options: be realistic yet have a dream college or two. Use the summer to write your essay and any requested supplements. No supplement is optional – write it. The Common App goes live August 1st. Complete it. Start your senior year with everything in order for submission.

Don’t Over-do: Choose courses that provide challenge but inspire success

Susan Chiarolanzio | Director of College Counseling
One question I hear often is “how many AP classes do I need to be admitted to college?” While I know it’s frustrating, my answer is always the same: “There isn’t an exact number.” AP courses are great. They provide challenge and rigor and stretch students, offering strong preparation for the demands of college. The fact is, though, that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing when it comes to APs. Seek advice from teachers and advisors when planning your schedule and choose one that allows you to showcase yourability not overwhelm you.

Engage in two substantive activities this summer to enhance your college search

Peggy Hock | Educational Consultant
High school counselors across the country are meeting with juniors this spring and encouraging them to read guide books, visit college campuses and develop a list of “good fit” colleges. To look beyond the “bumper sticker” schools and find a college that really fits, take time to explore who you are and who you hope to become. Get out of your routine and engage in two substantive activities this summer. These experiences will bring more depth to your college search and applications. Get a job, read a Russian novel a week, learn how to repair a car, or take a class at a nearby college. What excites you?

Find the Right Fit Through Campus Visits

Mitch Clark | Executive Director
One of the most important aspects of selecting your college is visiting campuses. If you’re not sure what type of school is a good fit for you, schedule visits at large and small public universities and smaller liberal arts colleges. Make college visits part of your travel plans for Spring Break or summer vacation. If possible, schedule time with an admissions counselor, and a professor or advisor in the major you want to study. If school is in session, ask to sit in on a class, stay overnight in a dorm or shadow a student for a day.

Find time to reflect on what’s meaningful, authentic to you

Rod Skinner | Director of College Counseling
Confronting the current selectivity in college admissions, you might be tempted to load up on courses and activities that “look good” to colleges and fill your days so completely that you barely have time to breathe. Too often students do what they think the colleges want them to do. While a life constructed that way can be impressive, it will lack the authenticity, joy, and distinctive energy that come when a student explores what really excites her/him. Students who pursue genuine interests have particular power in the college process; their applications ring true. Ask yourself what’s truly meaningful to you.

Follow a clear game plan and meet your objectives efficiently

Gail Lewis | Educational Consultant
Paradoxically, much depends on Junior year accomplishments, yet application time seems remote in 11th Grade. Sharpen focus by targeting your college goals early; then design and carry out an efficient game plan. Top students aim for highest grades in challenging classes, ace standardized tests through solid preparation and establish strong relationships with teachers/coaches. They invest personal time in meaningful extracurricular activities, assuming leadership roles when offered. Consider how you can excel in unique ways to differentiate yourself from other good students - through competitions, independent study, talents, community service. Above all, maintain your zeal for knowledge and joy in learning.

Get Organized

Bob Bardwell | Director of Guidance & Student Suport Services
The college search process can be complicated and overwhelming. If you approach it in an unorganized and haphazard way, then you are likely to encounter problems. It is essential to find a way to organize your thoughts and the information you obtain (whether it be via mail or the internet). You also have to develop a system to keep track of deadlines and expectations (this could be a spreadsheet or a paper form.) Whatever method you choose makes no difference as long as you are doing something to stay on top of this process and it works for you.

Get to know the Admission Office at your schools

Patricia Tamborello | College Counselor
Did you know that some college admission offices actually keep track of the number of times you are in contact with the school? It is called “expressed interest” and it can be a factor in an admission decision. So, attend college fairs and local college programs and meet the representatives. If your high school has representatives visiting, always stop in to see the college representative and fill out an inquiry card. If you have questions, call the admissions office and of course, visit. Once you apply, keep the dialogue going to make sure that your application is complete.

Getting ready for your college search, think "marathon," not "sprint"

Susan Sykes | President
By planning ahead, you can be ready to hit the ground running in senior year. Do what you can this year, beginning with SAT and ACT testing. Try to take each twice in second semester. Learn about the options: large v small; urban v. rural or suburban; liberal arts college v. university. Don't "think" you know the differences--take time to see samples of each. Do this at schools near you--you'll learn how to "do" a college visit and be ready for serious campus visits in the summer and fall.

Important College Planning Activities Your Junior Year

Farron Peatross | Educational Consultant
Discuss with your parents their college ideas for you and finances. If you will need financial aid, remember that the best place for accurate aid information is a college financial aid office, so add that stop to your web browsing and college tour list. Plan your senior year course work with your school or independent counselor to enhance your junior year courses. For example, if you are in the second or third year of a foreign language, plan to take an additional year of the subject. Most important aspect for college acceptance is the quality of your transcript!

Junior Year – Begin Exploring What You Want in a College

Samia Ferraro | Independent College Counselor
Students are unique individuals each with their own set of talents, interests and accomplishments. Colleges are also unique, each with their own personalities, strengths and focus. A beautiful thing happens when a student finds his match in a school; a place where he feels most at home, and where he can become his own person. Finding the right college is not an exact science, but discovering yourself and what you are looking for in a school can most often take you to the right place. As you search, consider geography, size, setting, the type of students you enjoy being with, academic programs, etc.

Juniors should commit to working hard in their academics

Elinor Adler | Founder
As the junior year progresses and the college admissions process begins, it is important to remember that a student’s first commitment should continue to be working hard in all their courses. Throughout the college process it is the student’s academic performance which is the most important element in being admitted to college. Also, talk with your guidance counselor, develop a testing schedule and discuss what things you (the student ) have done in and outside of school since starting grade 9. Remember, the guidance counselor is going to be writing your recommendation and knowing you well is the key to being able to highlight your accomplishments.

Juniors, don't wait till senior year for the college onslaught

James Maroney | Director
First, prepare for standardized tests (SAT, ACT, and SAT II if required by target colleges). Ideally you would have all standardized tests completed by the end of junior year, so you can devote the summer to drafting your essays and completing applications. Second, continue to compile a transcript with rigorous courses and participate in meaningful activities. Third, visit target colleges to create “demonstrated interest” and learn about schools. Finally, approach teachers who know you best to request letters of recommendation. If they seem excited, get contact information so you can send the recommendation forms when they become available in July.

Juniors, you’re about to become the captain of your team!

Shelley Krause | Co-Director of College Counseling
The college application process works best if the work is shared. (And I don’t mean having your mom write your essays!) Think about the roles you would like the adults in your life to play. Maybe your mom can be the driver for your college visits. Your aunt might learn the “ins and outs” of financial aid. Who among your current teachers knows you well enough to speak about you as both a person and a learner? And have you made friends with your college counselor yet? Junior year is the time to pull your team together.

Learn the process so you can plan for Success

Kekoa Morton | Student Services Manager
By your junior year you should have a list of colleges that you are interested in attending. Contact an admissions counselor at each of these colleges to learn about the admissions process and requirements. This information will be useful in determining if you meet the admissions requirements and also in planning your campus visits during your senior year. Also get the contact information of the admissions counselor you speak to and ask if you can contact him/her in the future. Lastly, find out if a college accepts the Common Application. The Common Application can save you valuable time and energy.

Lessons from Football – Make a Plan, Execute, Cross the Goal

Rachel Winston | President
In 2010, the Dallas Cowboys had numerous games in which they outgained their opponents in passing and rushing yards, but fell short on the scoreboard and lost. Aaron Rogers earned MVP in the Super Bowl because he was prepared, focused, and disciplined. Similarly, juniors must pay attention to details; create a what-by-when timeline; prepare a resume; and put together a chart of target college requirements. Grades and test scores remain paramount. Additionally, impassioned teamwork, servant leadership, and global vision are essential in today’s society. Follow through with your plan – It’s not only how you start; it’s how you finish.

Make your transcript your primary focus

Sue Enis | Director of College Counseling
The official record should be an accurate reflection of the student’s abilities. The senior year is not the time to “coast”. Rather, the senior year is the time to further challenge oneself in the most demanding courses one can handle. The continuation of the foreign language and a fourth year of math and science is no longer always optional. In terms of summer prior to senior year, one should not look for activities that might be “impressive”. College officials are attuned to this, and are looking for consistency and breadth and depth of commitment to an activity.

Narrow your academic, social and financial focus before you apply

Kimberly Arias | Director of Programs
Ask yourself two important questions: 1) why do you want to go to college and 2) what type of college will best prepare you? Be honest with yourself and you will apply to schools that are the right ones for you. Once you answer the questions, get applications and start to compile the necessary documents. Schedule campus visits and meet with admissions, financial aid officers and current students. Also, request recommendation letters. Lastly, spend your summer wisely. Internships, volunteering and attending academic summer programs are all good ways to stay sharp while impressing college and scholarship committees. Good luck!

Nothing is as important as understanding who you are

Linda Turner | President
There are a number of practical things that should be on a junior’s timeline, including testing early, securing recommendations, visiting colleges. But before doing anything else, define who you are in relation to choosing colleges: what are the characteristics, both academic and lifestyle, that combine to produce the colleges that are the best fit for you? Picture yourself at college. Where is it geographically, what is its size? Does it allow you to learn in the way that is best for you? Are the students those from whom you will learn and with whom you will form lifetime friendships?

Organizing for senior year

Sandy Furth | College Advisor
As a parent, a helpful role is that of chief organizer, as an extraordinary amount of information needs to be gathered. While much information is now electronic, sometimes it is helpful to have an old fashioned portfolio. A three-ring binder with pocket files or clear sleeves with sections for: Semester Grades, Activities, Awards, Special Certificates, Outstanding assignments, SAT/ACT dates and scores, Monthly Calendar with college visits and fairs, Essay drafts, and so on. Leave the binder in an obvious place, place the deadline dates on the family calendar as well, making sure your student has the dates. Hopefully, that is all the encouragement needed.

Personal assessment of needs are important

James Goecker | Vice President for Enrollment Management
Take time to really reflect on the type of environment in which you are most productive. Do you see yourself in a large or small college or university setting? How important are extracurricular opportunities to me? What are the top requirements I am looking for in a college or university on which I will not compromise? Understanding your needs and expectations will make the process of selecting a college home easier and more successful.

Reevaluate and Refocus your Extracurricular Involvements

Mark Montgomery | Founder
Panicky juniors may assume that more is better when it comes to college applications. They join a few more clubs, spend more hours at the homeless shelter, take kazoo lessons, and tutor first graders. But colleges seek students with both commitment and a willingness to pursue excellence. So step back to ask which activities really mean something to you, which are most enjoyable, and which provide the greatest opportunity to demonstrate not only talent, but dedication and leadership. It's better to do one thing well and with depth of purpose than to flit from one activity to another without making much of a lasting contribution.

REFLECTION: The most important yet often overlooked part of the process

Robert Mansueto | Director of University Counselling
With roughly 4000 institutions in the US, knowing what you want in a college (academically and socially) is the first step in finding it. Reflect on such things as possible major, how you learn best, extracurricular interests and the type of people you enjoy being around. Establish your criteria then consider each school you examine against those criteria. Beyond that, be sure to select appropriately challenging courses for your senior year, identify two teachers and request that they write your recommendations, continue to develop your skills in areas of non-academic interests, visit colleges if possible, and communicate with your parents throughout the process. And never forget, the search is about finding a place that will provide the educational and social experience that you desire, so begin by figuring out what that is.

Remain happy, successful, and involved

Dale Ford | Counseling Department Chair
You can help yourself most by having a successful junior year. Stay happy, keep your grades up, and follow your passions. Do not become so obsessed about the college selection and application process that you forget to live your life as a high school student. While there are some tasks you need to complete - admission tests and requesting recommendations – if you focus on having a great junior year, in addition to being a happier person, you will improve your chances of admission.

Self Discovery: A First Step

Carol Jacobs | Director of College Guidance
Before searching for the colleges that fit you the best, take some time to examine your priorities. What is important to you in a college? Do you want large or small, near or far, sports or fraternities, lecture-style or seminar classes? Have you thought of a possible major? What type of school fits you best academically or socially? As you start to prioritize, you will realize what is important to you for researching and visiting schools. Armed with this self awareness, you’ll be all set to go find those perfect colleges!

Self-assess, challenge yourself, and focus on best fit

Jennifer DesMaisons | Director of College Counseling
Maintain momentum with academic and extracurricular commitments, choose senior courses with intention, and look for meaningful leadership opportunities. Continue developing the portrait of who you are. Think carefully about how your upcoming summer experience might reflect on your willingness to challenge yourself. Understand what your overall record says about you. Seek advice on how to highlight your strengths. Save graded writing samples. Visit colleges and notice what things are truly important. Think expansively about what type of environment would best support your preferences and goals. Formulate a strong list of questions to ask colleges to determine best fit for you.

Sign up to take challenging courses in your senior year

Julie Manhan | Founder
Contrary to popular belief, senior year is definitely not the time to slack off and take it easy. That is because colleges tend to look for and choose students who they believe are likely to be academically successful at their school. The best things you can do to show them that are to maintain strong grades and sign up to take challenging courses next year. By choosing to take more rigorous classes, and succeeding in them, you demonstrate to colleges that you have both the motivation to take on new challenges and the preparation needed to do college level work.

Stay Focused and Remember This Is All About You

Nancy Benedict | Vice President for Enrollment
There is plenty on your to-do list as a college-bound junior but don’t lose sight of how important your 11th grade academic work will be when your application is reviewed. Stay focused on success in the classroom—that’s really important! Then, as you make your list of colleges, consider carefully whether they reflect the academic environment in which you will be challenged and offer the opportunities you are keen to pursue. The best college for you may not be the name most familiar to you or the college that’s best for your friend. Take time to carefully consider what’s important to you and let that drive your college search.

The key to college selection is the campus visit

Maura Kastberg | Vice President of Client Services
Start in the fall of your junior year by making informal visits to colleges less than 100 miles from your home. Note your impressions of the buildings, students, campus settings, class sizes, and more. Revisit those where you feel most comfortable. Take your small list and expand it by adding colleges similar in cost, locale, educational focus, and the like. Schedule formal tours and interviews at those campuses, then divide your list into the traditional Reach, Match, and Safety School categories. Come senior year, you’ll be ready to apply to at least six colleges that are right for you.

The single most important thing to do is to keep your grades up

Jon Reider | Director of College Counseling
Everything else is secondary, especially summer plans. You can take the summer off and read poetry if you want. Getting into college should not be a year-long campaign. If there is something good to do, do it because it will add to your personal growth, not to impress a college. You should observe yourself in your junior year classes and try to imagine what a recommendation from a teacher would sound like. Does the teacher see enough of my enthusiasm, hard work, and learning to write a good letter? If not, what can I do to demonstrate that? (This is NOT the same as showing off!)

This is your chance to stand out from the crowd!

Laurie Favaro | Independent College Counselor
Junior year is essential to college admissions. Let colleges know you can maintain good grades. If you haven’t worked your hardest, challenge yourself to improve your performance this semester and next. Be well-prepared for SATs/ACTs, studying and practicing on your own or with a tutor. Give extracurricular activities an extra boost. Colleges are looking for students who show initiative, leadership, passion, and significant service. Volunteer in your school or community and explore summer academic and internship opportunities. If you’ve been active, look for ways to enhance those activities – e.g. become an officer, run a community drive, increase your service hours.

You have to know what you want to go for it!

Enid Arbelo | Editor in Chief
It’s easy to get excited about summer break and zone out during the last weeks of school, but these are the days that count! So wake up and start planning! Your first step is to research colleges and programs that fit your needs and interests. That’s where a counselor comes into play. Set up a meeting with one and get some guidance picking colleges and majors that seem interesting to you. Once you’ve narrowed down your options you can start applying. Sure the application process can get overwhelming, but if you’ve picked some top schools and majors you’ve already tackled some of the hardest work!


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