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College Planning for Juniors in High School (with Checklist)

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The college planning and search process can be overwhelming, especially considering the many tasks involved. You need to research colleges, get your letters of recommendation, create your high school resume, find financial aid, and do well on the tests- all while keeping your grades up in high school. 

That's a lot. But getting started as a Junior and breaking the college planning process down into smaller steps can make it more manageable. To help with this, we created a college planning checklist outlining your journey's essential steps. Follow this timeline, and you'll be on track to get your applications in and balance your other commitments successfully.

But first, let's talk about the general process for planning and applying for college. 

Steps for College Planning Junior Year

You may have heard that your Junior year is one of the most critical years for college admissions. This is because colleges consider the full range of your high school achievements when reviewing your application, and your junior year is the last full year they'll see.

For that reason, it's essential to make the most of this year, taking steps to set yourself up for success in the college admissions process. You'll want to maintain good grades, participate in extracurricular activities, and begin thinking about your college goals and preferences. And while you're doing all of this, you need to stay organized.

We talked to Garrick Gibson, the co-founder of HBCU Lifestyle, the go-to website for the Black college experience featuring the most trusted HBCU rankings, alumni career resources, and so much more. Garrick explained that when you're in your junior year, it's critical to stay organized with your college search. "Use cloud-based apps to create and store important documents," he said. "Make one folder for information colleges send you and another for things you need to send them, like essays and test scores."

Keep this advice in mind as you read through the overview of steps below, and you'll be in great shape to transition into your senior year and application season. But it's important to note that not all of the steps below need to be done during your Junior year. You'll also have the following summer and some time in the fall of your senior year too. 

  • Research colleges

Your Junior year is the perfect time to begin researching colleges and universities to identify schools and programs that align with your interests and goals. Start your college search by considering what you want in a school. The most common decision points include the school's location, size, academic programs, cost, reputation, and sports or extracurricular activities. It helps to list your priorities and rank them to guide your search.

There are many ways to research colleges, but Cappex's college database is a great place to start. You'll be able to see tuition costs, real student reviews, the programs the schools offer, your chances of being accepted, and more. 

Once you have a list of colleges you're interested in, you can follow them on social media and even take a few virtual college tours to get a feel for their campus and vibe.

  • Think about a possible college major

You'll also want to start thinking about possible college majors. Take some time to reflect on what you enjoy doing in your free time and what subjects you have always been interested in. Look for connections in what you find engaging and meaningful, and try to identify the patterns or themes that emerge. Then take that insight and see where it overlaps with possible careers, checking into data points regarding career outlook, salary, and education required. 

You can always take a couple of college classes to ensure an area is a good fit. This will give you a taste of what it's like to study and immerse yourself in that subject and help you decide if it's something you want to pursue as a major.

Colleges differ on when they require students to declare majors and minors. In most cases, majors must be declared by the end of a student's sophomore year, though exceptions exist. So you have plenty of time to figure it out.

  • Take the PSAT

Even though some schools no longer require the SAT or ACT, you should still consider taking the PSAT for practice. This is especially important if you're going to be applying to selective schools. 

Your PSAT score tells you how you might do on the ACT or SAT. It also tells you where you stack up against your peers, giving you an idea of your competitiveness. And it can give you insight that you can use to fill gaps in knowledge during your Senior year. 

However, taking the PSAT is also a must because it gives you a chance to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program, where you can earn unpublished company-sponsored scholarships. Each year 7,500 of these merit scholarships are given to the highest students. So you don't want to miss out on this chance to earn money for school. 

As our friend and Independent Education Consultant Janice Walker explains, "Student scores are ranked by state and not nationally, which gives you a better likelihood of qualifying for this program and scholarships. You only need to score 1400/1520 (92%) to be eligible for the National Merit Scholarship Program. And If you're designated as a National Merit Finalist or Semifinalist, you'll also receive merit scholarships from the colleges you get accepted to. Several colleges and universities ask if a student is a National Merit Finalist or Semifinalist on their Common Application." 

  •  Build a relationship with your high school counselor

Meet with your guidance counselor to discuss your college aspirations and the classes you'll need to take. Take the time to build a relationship with your counselor now. You'll need to ask for a letter of recommendation later, so the better your counselor gets to know you, the better your letter will be. 

Your counselor can also help you connect with resources, such as fly-in programs, fee waivers, and specialized scholarship opportunities. 

  • Keep your grades up and get involved

As you look towards your exciting future, it's essential that you still do your best today. Look for opportunities to stand out and excel as both a student and a leader because that's what admissions officers are looking for.

Moses Murphy, the Director of Admissions at the University of Vermont, recommends that students "select the most rigorous courses they can be successful in and take on leadership roles in extracurricular activities." AP or Dual Enrollment classes are options that provide rigor and are worth checking out when it comes time to select your classes.

But if you're not sure where to start with extracurriculars or feel unfocused with too much going on, take the advice of Jay Jacobs, Vice Provost for Enrollment Management at the University of Vermont, who explained, "Focus on two or three things you're passionate about and interested in because you're going to do them really well. Then, do those two or three things and only those things, and you'll progress into leadership opportunities or larger projects, which will be most attractive to the schools you apply to."

  • Get familiar with the college application timeline

Layout the timeline for your college applications by building a checklist or chart. Consider when you'll need to apply to schools with various application deadlines, like rolling admission, early decision, early action, and regular decision. It's wise to stagger your applications so you're not overwhelmed at any one time. So start planning now to give yourself a break in your Senior year. 

  • Review the Common App

Review the Common App and brainstorm essay topics. You can also slowly begin to gather your college application materials, including transcripts, test scores, essays, high school resume, and letters of recommendation. Again, this is something you'll work heavily on during your Senior year, but you can start to plan for it now. 

  • Start looking for financial aid

Cost can often be a deciding factor when choosing a college, so it's essential to consider your financial situation and look for financial aid as soon as possible. As a Senior, you'll want to complete the FAFSA. But as a Junior, you can use the FAFSA aid estimator tool to estimate the amount of aid you will be eligible for. You can also start looking for and saving scholarships and grants you want to apply for. 

Finally, talk to your family about college costs and financial aid. They'll need to provide access to their tax documents so you can complete your FAFSA. They might also be able to tap into tuition assistance from their employer or transfer their GI Bill over to you. 


College Planning Checklist for Juniors

Now that we've covered the basic steps for college planning as a Junior, we'll share a quarter-by-quarter checklist with you. Simply click each tab for the task you'll want to accomplish. 

___  Start your junior year off by taking the PSAT/NMSQT test.

___  Meet with your counselor to discuss your schedule and college plan. 

___  Explore colleges. Take a deeper look at schools by region, size, and academic specialties.

___  Research college costs and tuition at different types of schools. 

___  Narrow your college list to 10 to 20 schools that most interest you.

___  Create and use an organization system for managing all your college documents.

___  It’s not too late to get involved. Pick a new extracurricular activity (or two) and jump right in!

___  Junior year grades will say a lot about your academic performance. Study hard!

___  Scared you’ll bomb the SAT or ACT? Make a test prep plan to avoid disaster.

___  Millions of dollars in scholarships go unclaimed every year. Get scholarships for college by starting your search now.

___  Refine your college list by comparing and contrasting schools and their essential attributes.

___  Talk to your counselor to see if you're eligible to receive fee waivers for applications and tests.

___  Take the SAT or ACT.  Be sure to have your score reports sent to colleges.

___  Apply for any scholarships that your parents’ employers may provide or are available specifically for juniors.

___  Get educated about admissions requirements and deadlines.

___  Contact prospective colleges to schedule interviews and visits.

___  It will be a big summer for college prep. Get involved and prepare for your college essay.

___  Get that pesky AP summer reading out of the way and sign up for summer classes.

___  Grab a summer job (or internship) to expand your experiences and earn money for college.

___  Practice makes perfect: Begin working on your college application essay.

___  Standardized testing season is coming again. Are you fully prepared?

___  Develop a financial aid plan before the deadline stress rears its ugly head.

___  Be your own campus explorer. Schedule your first round of college visits.

Final Thoughts for Juniors 

As you've read through this article and checklist, feeling a little overwhelmed is normal. But you don't need to be. The steps we've outlined can be done throughout your Junior and Senior year. Our hope is that you'll plan ahead and pace yourself since doing both will make the processes easier and much more enjoyable. 

As we mentioned earlier, Appily is here to support you in your journey. With Appily, you can save schools, get curated recommendations based on your preferences, compare costs, and see your chances of being accepted. Click the button below to create your free Appily account to get started. 


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