Junior year is an incredibly busy time for high schoolers: in addition to academics and extracurriculars, standardized testing and the college application process enter the mix. It’s normal for it to be stressful. But if your stress level is skyrocketing and you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s time to take a step back and evaluate how to cool things down.
Think of this as the view from 30,000 feet up: a big-picture perspective rather than a granular one. The big picture with help you work strategically and with a clear direction. Otherwise, the whirlpool of comparing yourself to other students (and other parents’ anxieties!) can easily drag you off course.
We've organized this post by 1) the major principles that should guide your junior year, 2) your semesterly big-picture items, and finally 3) a month-by-month checklist.
Part I: Key Principles:
Academics: Do your best to maintain a strong academic performance in junior year. This is the last full year of grades that college admissions officers will be able to look at. If you’re struggling, get help early in order to stay on track.
Testing: In and among all your other activities, you will need to plan and study for standardized testing. For many students this includes the SAT/ACT, SAT Subject Tests, and AP testing. Check out other blog posts from Signet to see our advice on how to make this process as effective and efficient as possible.
Extracurricular Involvement: Spend this year deepening your involvement in activities that really resonate with you, and looking for opportunities to make a meaningful impact (not just searching for resume boosters, which admissions officers can spot from a mile away).
Relationships: It’s important to build quality relationships with teachers during your last two years of school. You have much to gain from mentors and non-parent adults whom you trust, and these relationships will also help you present strong recommendation letters for college applications.
College Process: We probably don’t have to tell you that this is a big year for college admissions! The key to nailing the application process is to start early and easy, and tackle manageable pieces over a long period of time.
Mental Well-Being: Parents: Burnout is real. Be on the lookout for mental health concerns, and check in with your student regularly to make sure their levels of stress and overwhelm are not spiraling out of control.
Print this guide out and post it somewhere visible, where it will encourage you not to fall behind or get too far ahead, but to stay right on track.
Part II: Semester Overview.
Now that you understand the fundamentals of this guide, here is what needs to be done each semester:
- Focus on getting a handle on junior year academics, which likely include the toughest courses of your high school career.
- Emphasize extracurricular activities that really resonate and feel exciting. On the flip side, stop doing extracurriculars that feel like a grind. DO NOT treat extracurriculars as a resume pad.
- Nail down and pursue an SAT/ACT testing plan.
- Begin thinking about and discussing college (keep these conversations low-key and exploratory). Consider casual college visits to look at different types of schools.
- Stay aware of mental health and stress levels.
- Begin the college application process by building a college list.
- Consider hiring an academic coach or admissions consultant.
- Finish executing the SAT/ACT testing plan.
- Study for any AP and SAT ST exams.
- Plan a meaningful junior summer.
- Check in with your school counselor about your school’s deadlines and expectations for the college admissions process .
- Visit colleges you know you’re interested in, as well as at least one school that hasn’t been on your radar.
- Talk to at least two teachers in person about writing a letter of recommendation on your behalf.
- Plan official college visits.
Part III: Monthly Guide.
- Ensure classes and teachers are the right fit.
- Set goals and intentions for the semester.
- Draft an SAT or ACT plan, if you don’t already have one:
- Choose between SAT and ACT.
- Set a target score.
- Plan for two test sittings before mid-spring.
- Schedule study time in the calendar.
- Focus on classes, extracurriculars, and SAT/ACT test preparation.
- Begin the college process:
- Students and parents discuss college together.
- Start taking casual visits to nearby schools to look at different types of schools (university, liberal arts college, technical school, rural, urban, etc…).
- Begin brainstorming ideas for a preliminary college list -- remember, start “early and easy.”
- Study hard for finals and finish strong academically.
- Possible first test date for the SAT (Dec 2) or ACT (Dec 9).
- Reflect on the semester; make time for a mental health check-in.
- Check in on SAT/ACT prep progress; recalibrate and ask for help if necessary in order to complete testing by mid-spring.
- Begin the college process in earnest:
- Continue discussions about college.
- Build the college list.
- Consider working with a consultant, who can a) create a well-structured plan; b) provide accountability; and c) provide a buffer for intrafamily stress.
- Put together a college plan and deepen research into individual schools.
- Continue SAT or ACT Prep.
- Continue college research; identify schools for more serious visits.
- Begin early preparation for SAT STs and AP exams by taking diagnostic tests and making a study plan.
- Address any downturns in grades or performance immediately; you may be feeling overwhelmed by this time of year.
- Begin firming up summer plans; pay attention to programs with application deadlines.
- Continue SAT or ACT prep.
- Continue to refine the college list, and demonstrate interest in your chosen schools—follow them on Twitter, sign up for their email list, chat with current students or previous alumni.
- Continue to schedule and make college visits (spring break is a great time, although not all students will need or be in a position to take these visits).
- Continue SAT ST and AP test prep.
- Finish up SAT or ACT testing.
- Check in on stress levels and mental health.
- Focus on preparing for AP exams.
- Continue college visits.
- Identify whom to ask to write letters of recommendation for college applications.
- Take AP exams.
- Start studying for finals.
- Schedule additional testing dates for SAT or ACT if necessary.
- Start asking teachers/counselors to write recommendation letters.
- Finalize summer plans.
- Make a plan for completing college applications over the summer.
We’ve used our experience with over a thousand high school juniors to create the principles and timeline above. We’ve seen firsthand that working at the right pace, not behind and not ahead, is incredibly effective. So take things step by step, trust in the method we’ve laid out, and we promise that at least some of that junior year stress will melt away.
Students and parents alike should keep in mind that although college may seem like the end point now, it’s truly just another beginning. College is only a stop on a much longer journey toward building a meaningful and purposeful life. Where you go to college will impact, but not define, who you are, and the student who is truly successful in high school is the one who learns and grows.
Here’s to a productive and engaging junior year!