The spring semester of junior year is when the college admissions game begins to heat up. If you plan on applying to college this fall, here are five things you can do now that will drastically improve the odds of acceptance to your dream college.
1. Keep Up Those Grades!
When all is said and done, the most important component of your applications will be the high school transcript. College admissions officers will look closely at your grades in high school, with a particular interest in how you’ve performed in more difficult courses (honors, AP, IB, etc.).
Spring semester junior year grades are critically important because in most cases, these will be the final set of grades colleges review when you apply in the fall (they will want to see your first and possibly second-semester senior year grades as well, but those will likely be sent after you’ve sent in your application). The best way to show a college that you are ready and able to take on advanced coursework is by having strong grades during this spring semester.
2. Sign up for the SAT or ACT
Throughout our history, we have seen students wait until the fall of their senior year to take the SAT and/or the ACT for the first time. This is a significant strategic mistake. We strongly recommend that students take the SAT or ACT at least once before the end of Junior year. If there is an ability to take one of the tests twice during junior year, that is even better (but this assumes you take the time to review the results of your first test and incorporate lessons learned into prep for the second test). Whenever you decide to sign up for the tests, make sure to consider any other activities that might be taking place on your calendar. For example, there is always an SAT offered in May, but consider when your final exams, AP tests, prom, etc. will be occurring to ensure you don’t overload.
Studies show that most students do achieve their best score in the early fall of senior year, but having some experience under your belt from taking it the junior year will be a significant benefit. Additionally, with all the other tasks related to college applications becoming a huge priority senior year (essays, teacher recommendations, final campus visits, etc.), you don’t want to have to spend a ton of time preparing for the tests.
3. Develop a College Interest List and Visit Campuses
If you haven't done a list of colleges that you might like to visit and/or apply, then we recommend you this is a good time to make one. When creating the list, we typically recommend that the 75% of the colleges you choose they need to be within your target range (meaning your GPA and test scores are within the colleges 25 to 75% range for admitted applicants) and the other 25% should be in your reach range (meaning your GPA and test scores are at the low end or slightly below the 25 to 75% range for admitted applicants). We don’t use the term “safety school” because it implies a guarantee, nothing in the college admissions game is guaranteed.
How big should the list be?
We recommend the list be down to no more than 15 schools by the end of Junior year and further reduced the list to no more than 10 schools by the end of the summer heading into Senior year.
If you keep open the options between too many schools, you run the risk of being overwhelmed, and too few schools might be the result of putting too many eggs in too few baskets.
4. Participate in extracurricular activities
We always receive a lot of questions about what colleges are looking for in extracurricular activities. The answer is quality over quantity. Colleges prefer to see students participate in a few extracurriculars (sports or clubs) demonstrating impactful contributions over an extended period (think multiple school years) rather than lots of activities with little evidence of impact or sustained commitment (think new clubs every semester with no demonstrated leadership performance).
5. Start Planning for an Enriching
What are you planning to do during the summer after junior year? Colleges will be very interested to see how you fill your free time over summer breaks.
While there is no specific thing colleges want to see, any activity that allows you to learn more about other people, places, gain work experience, and/or exercise leadership characteristics would be more outstanding for them.
Keep in mind that sustained impact over a longer time (similar to the above point on extracurriculars) will be considered much more valuable by colleges. For example, working throughout the summer at the fast-food restaurant down the street will almost always be viewed more favorably than the one week trip to South America to build a home in a village (both activities are awesome, but colleges will view the first more favorably!).