By Amy Herzog and Debbie Kanter
North Shore College Consulting  

Second semester junior year is here, so guess what juniors?  It’s finally your turn.  By this time next year, most of you will be done with the college application process, you may have some acceptances already under your belt, and some of you might already know where you are going to attend college.  There is a lot to do between now and then.  If you have not already done so, it is essential to get started on the college planning process immediately.   Following are some of the things juniors need to start thinking about right now:

Research Colleges and Your College Options

What is the difference between a large public university and a small to medium liberal arts college?  How does it feel to attend college on an urban campus versus a suburban campus versus a rural campus?   You must first understand the difference between institutional types before you can determine what type of college or university will fit you best.  One of the best ways to learn about the different types of colleges is to visit various college campuses.  You do not even have to travel far.  For instance, if you live in the Chicagoland area, there are countless institutions you can visit all within a three-hour car ride.  Take a ride to Champaign-Urbana, and visit the University of Illinois to get a sense of what a large, public university feels like.  DePaul University in Chicago can give you the sense of what an urban campus is all about, while a visit to Lake Forest College will offer you a glimpse into life at a small liberal arts college located in a suburban setting.   A visit to Northwestern University will offer you insight into a highly selective, private university. 

Once you have made the distinction between the different types of institutions and the various characteristics that make-up the different colleges, you can select the criteria that matter the most to you (e.g., size, location, academic major, athletics, etc.) and begin to create your college list.  Your college list should include schools that meet your most important criteria and should contain a combination of match, reach and safety schools when taking your academic credentials (i.e., GPA and test scores) into account.  It is important to research and gather as much information as you can about a wide variety of colleges.  Attend college fairs, speak with college representatives who visit your high school, talk to your older friends already in college, read books, do online searches and take virtual tours.  Extensive research will help you add colleges to your list, as well as narrow your choices.  Once you have all the information you need about the colleges on your list, begin comparing those schools by the criteria that is important to you and rank your choices.  Ultimately you should arrive at a list containing approximately 2-3 match schools, 2-3 reach schools, and 2-3 safety schools.    

Create a Testing Plan

If you have not already done so, you need to figure out what standardized tests you need to take and create a testing timeline.  All colleges today accept either the ACT or the SAT equally, so which test will you take?  While the ACT is clearly the more popular choice in the Midwest,that does not necessarily mean it is the better test for you.  It is important to research the difference between the two tests and determine which one you might do better on. Once you have decided which test you will take, you will want to have plenty of time to prepare.  

Do any of the colleges on your list require SAT Subject Tests?  If so, you better prepare to take some no later than the fall of your senior year.  Are you taking any AP classes?  Don’t forget to sign up and prepare for those as well.     

Get Organized

The college application process involves numerous requirements and inflexible deadlines that cannot be missed.   There are countless pieces to the application puzzle, and unless you implement a system to get yourself completely organized, it is very easy to misplace one of those pieces.  Essays need to be organized, transcripts need to be sent, letters of recommendation need to be procured, testing requirements need to be met and application deadlines need to be met, just to name a few of the pieces of that puzzle.  Create a system to keep track of all of these pieces from now through the end of your senior year.  

Keep Studying and Maintain Your Grades

The most important factor that colleges consider in the admissions process is your transcript.  In other words, both the rigor of your curriculum and your grades matter – a lot.  It is important to maintain both strong grades and rigor all the way throughout high school.  Junior year is not the time to let your grades fall.  If you have not done as well as you would have liked up to this point, work hard.  Colleges like to see an upward trend in grades.  Additionally, when you plan your senior year schedule, do not plan to slack off.  Colleges will consider the strength of your senior year curriculum, so it is important to continue to challenge yourself.  

Begin to Think About Procuring Your Letters of Recommendation

Teachers and guidance counselors are often asked to write numerous letters of recommendation.  While your guidance counselor should have a process in place for ensuring she will have time to write a letter for each of her students, teachers often set a limit for the number of letters they will write.  Start considering which teachers know you the best as a learner.  This is not necessarily the teacher who gave you the easy A, but it could be the teacher for the class where you earned a hard fought B.  Many colleges require one to two letters of recommendation, so plan to procure two letters.  The spring of your junior year is a great time to approach your teachers in person and politely ask them if they would be willing to write you a letter of recommendation in the fall.  Waiting for the fall of your senior year could be too late.  At that point, your favorite teacher might already be fully committed, forcing you to ask your second or third choices.