Overview: Junior Year

College Junior

By Jessica Gross

Junior year is the 1969 of college: It’s The Year. You’re above the kids (also called “freshmen and sophomores”) and you’re looking ahead to two years of being an upperclassman.  You have a major and maybe even a career plan. You’re apt to head some clubs, go abroad, and—even though you have a solid group of friends—meet classmates in your major, clubs and travels. You’re royalty.

Academically, you probably declared your major at the end of sophomore year and are moving into upper-level coursework. This is your chance to discover which specifics in your field you find most exciting. Figuring out your interests will help you plan for senior year, when you’ll be able to do a thesis or capstone project—at many schools, a prerequisite for earning honors.

If you want to pursue a thesis or capstone, start planning junior year. It’s best to seek an advisor as early as possible, since top-choice professors often max out the number of students they can supervise early on. Working with a professor who’s knowledgeable about your topic and with whom you have good chemistry will make it much easier to do successful work. The summer before senior year is ideal for thesis prep work, like research in a lab or abroad. Many schools offer funding for thesis research—if you apply junior year, you could get a free summer trip.

If you didn’t join any clubs freshman or sophomore year and you regret it, it’s not too late. Is there something you’ve always wanted to try, like Capoeira or a cappella? Go for it. If you have an idea of what you’d like to do professionally, join relevant groups. This will help you decide if you’re really interested in a particular field and, if you are, will make you a more desirable candidate for graduate schools or jobs. (Law, business, and medical schools, for example, emphasize applicants’ extracurricular experience as an admissions criterion.)

And if you’ve dedicated time to extracurricular groups during the first half of college and want to advance to a leadership position, increase your efforts junior year. Distinguish yourself from other club members by putting in extra time and energy. If you write for your school newspaper, offer to stay in the office to help copy-edit, take on more articles, or propose innovative article topics. If you’re on the golf team, ask the coach if you can help her schedule tournaments or do team publicity.

If you go abroad, take advantage. Practice speaking the language. Don’t just socialize with your American classmates—talk to people who live there. Taking easy classes and partying constantly is tempting, but you can do that at home. Living in a foreign country is rare: Don’t waste it! If you chose not to go abroad and you’re having second thoughts, apply for a junior year spring semester or a senior year program. As with clubs, it’s not too late.

You probably have made solid friendships by now, but you’re also entering new groups, like your major and clubs. These are good venues to meet classmates who share your interests, rather than who happened to live in your freshman year dorm.

Start thinking about what you want to do after college. Planning ahead will help you prepare not only for senior year academics, but also for your career. For certain grad schools, you’ll need to fulfill course requirements and take tests, like the LSAT for law school, the MCAT for medical school, or the GMAT for business school. If you’re missing any courses, schedule them in. And for certain careers, you’ll need internship experience. Medical school applicants improve their chances of acceptance with research or clinical work; creative industries, like film and music production companies, favor applicants who have worked in those fields.

And recognize what a good spot you’re in. You’re looking behind to two years of experience and ahead to two years in which to use it. Just don’t get too heady: This is your time to plunge in.