Juniors, you probably don’t want to read this right now. It’s summer and you just want to relax and be left alone.  We know.

But you already know that 11th grade can be the toughest year of high school. Your grades and test scores count more than ever towards college admission. This is also the time when passions and activities become fully developed.  Colleges will be paying attention to what you do during the summer, too.

So – while summer should be a time to relax (get ready) and get away from the pressures of school (here it comes), it should also be a time to research, plan, and either work or volunteer, even if it’s only part-time.  

What we’re doing here is not nagging – really! We’re showing you how to make junior year easier by just doing a little bit of planning this summer.

Here’s how you can use the upcoming weeks to help you have an easier junior year:

  1. Research colleges and universities. Go on visits, check out web pages, look at college review sites such as unigo.com or www.noodle.com/colleges, purchase a college guidebook. We love the Fiske Guide.  In the Chicago area, you can find every type of institution of higher learning: public universities, private colleges, community colleges, big campuses, small campuses. Just a few that spring to mind include Northwestern, University of Illinois, University of Chicago, Lake Forest, Loyola, DePaul, UIC, Concordia, Dominican, Wheaton, North Central, Roosevelt, Columbia and Shimer. Further afield in Illinois, there’s Knox College, Rockford, Illinois-Wesleyan, and of course, all the University of Illinois campuses. Expand to Wisconsin and Indiana and your choices increase exponentially: U of Wisconsin (Milwaukee, Madison and other campuses), Marquette, Beloit, Ripon, Lawrence and others to the north; Purdue, Notre Dame, St. Mary’s, Butler, Depauw, Valparaiso, Rose-Hulman, Indiana University, Earlham and others to the southeast.

  2. Now, put together a very tentative college list, checking requirements for admission.  Does the college require SAT and/or ACT test scores? (Most colleges do and all colleges will accept either the SAT or the ACT.) Does the college ask for SAT Subject Test results as well? (Some do.)

  3. I bet you just guessed what’s next: Plan the year’s SAT, ACT and SAT Subject Test dates. Since registration deadlines are weeks ahead of time, be sure to mark your calendar so you don’t miss signing up. Most 11th graders take either the ACT or the SAT at least once during the year, allowing time to retake it if they’re not happy with their scores. Some kids find they do much better on the ACT than the SAT or vice versa, so consider taking both a mock ACT and a mock SAT prior to studying in order to determine which test you will do better on. Many tutoring companies will offer proctored tests, emulating a real testing environment, either for free or for a small fee. These companies will then prepare a detailed report for you, outlining which test they feel you would be more successful at. (Note: Illinois high school juniors, it is looking like the State of Illinois will require you to take a state-mandated SAT in the spring, so please keep this in mind when deciding which test to take. We are keeping a close eye on the standardized testing developments in Illinois, so make sure to follow our Facebook page for the most recent updates.) Finally, those taking AP or advanced classes should schedule SAT Subject Tests (if required or even recommended by any of the colleges on your list) when that specific knowledge is still fresh.  For instance, if you’ve just finished Pre-Calc Honors, you might want to take the Math 2 test now.  If you will be taking AP U.S. History this year, schedule the U.S. History Subject Test at the end of 11th grade.  Are you involved in fall, winter a/o spring sports? Will you be busy rehearsing for the big spring play?  Do take sports and other extracurricular activity schedules into consideration when planning not only test dates but how and when you will prep for tests. 

    Note: if you want to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship, the only way to do so is to take the PSAT in October.

  4. Do you need support in prepping for the ACT, SAT and SAT Subject Tests? Try some free practice tests offered at www.collegeboard.com – they’ll give you an idea of how well you will do on the SAT or SAT Subject Tests.  ACT offers online prep for around $40 as well as free online ACT questions.  You may also want to work with a test prep tutor. And, don’t forget that there is free ACT and SAT test prep at reputable websites such as, Khan AcademySpark Notes, or Number 2.

  5. Keep researching your colleges, one by one. Not sure how to do this? We’ve got some great advice for you here.

  6. A note about grades. Junior year grades are the most important grades of high school. Colleges will be looking for your strongest grades this year, and these may well be the last grades they see in making an admissions decision about you.

  7. Colleges also like to see summer activity. It doesn’t have to be an expensive volunteer trip to Honduras or taking advanced calculus courses at an Ivy League college. A part-time summer job scooping ice cream or being a camp counselor shows resourcefulness and a willingness to work: in other words, maturity.

Yes, planning test dates and making college lists take some juggling. And that’s why thinking about 11th grade now, during the more relaxed summer months, is such a great idea. Devote 15 minutes a day to planning the coming year and researching colleges, and you’ll be flying out of the gate when junior year starts up.