College Planning Tips for High School Juniors

October 7, 2021

The crescendo of voices imploring that “junior year is the most important ten months of your young life” has likely reached deafening levels by the first time you actually set foot in an 11th grade classroom (or Zoom window, as the case has too often been of late). If past is prologue, junior year is indeed the time when many of your k-10 efforts rapidly bloom like a flower growing in a time-lapse video. Your extracurricular planning back in 9th grade now blossoms into an upperclassmen leadership role, your commitment to math culminates in a opportunity to prove yourself on the SAT, and the study habits you have cultivated through your early teenage years will serve you well as AP-level rigor shifts into high gear. If, on the other hand, your past is not indicative of where you wish to go forward into the future, junior year can a watershed moment in one’s academic career—a chance to show newfound maturity and begin to put together a strong case for admission at a competitive university.

No matter your circumstances, we will advise you in the most critical areas impacting your college admissions chances including:

  • How many AP/honors classes to take in 11th grade
  • What grades do I need to get into an elite college?
  • What standardized tests should I take as a junior/when should I take them?
  • How many extracurricular activities do I need to get into college?
  • How do I start my college search?
  • 12th grade course planning/procuring recommendations

First, let’s delve into 11th grade course selection—the way in which you set the table for a scrumptious junior year meal.

11th grade course selection

Of all the recommendations we offer in this blog, this is the only one that involves action prior to the first balmy, perspiration-inducing late summer days of 11th grade. Many teens that will be seeking entry to highly-competitive colleges have mostly taken honors-level courses as freshmen and sophomores, with perhaps a lone AP course squeezed in to the 10th grade course load. Junior year is where the leap into Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate coursework begins in earnest.

Most high schools offer only a fraction of the 36 total AP courses overseen by the College Board. Colleges, even Ivy or Ivy-equivalent ones, will not expect you to have taken an absurd number of APs but will likely expect to see you engage in the most rigorous schedule available at your school. At highly-selective Kenyon College, the average admitted applicant took 5 AP courses in high school. The University of Georgia’s admits averaged nine AP courses while in high school. More high school grads have taken at least one AP course than ever before. Among the Class of 2007, just 24% took an Advanced Placement course; by 2020-21, that figure had risen to 38%.

Prioritize taking advanced courses in areas that will be relevant to your potential future area of postsecondary study and align with your strengths and interests. If you are a future English major who will struggle to pull a “C” in AP Statistics, opt for a less rigorous math class. Likewise, if you are a future CS major with an aversion to poetry, you may want to reconsider taking AP English Literature and Composition. However, for those aiming to attend elite universities, a general rule would be to select the toughest course in which you believe you can earn at least a “B.”

Earning good grades

On the subject of grades, junior year is absolutely the time to commit more of your evening and weekend hours to your studies than ever before. An increase in course rigor means more pages to read, tougher math equations to work through, and more advanced concepts to master.

Many elite schools like Duke University, Northwestern University, UCLA, and Pomona College see 90%+ of their entering freshman hail from the top decile of their high school graduating classes. This translates to earning mostly A’s in honors/advanced courses. There are other uber-competitive schools that are a tad more forgiving, but if you got off to a slow start in high school, now is the time to start acing classes and proving that you are on a sharply upward trajectory. There is no shortage of excellent institutions who will accept late bloomers whose cumulative GPA may not be commensurate with their ability.

Standardized testing

While some students first take the PSAT in October of their sophomore year, it is important to know that only the junior year administration of the exam counts for National Merit Scholarship consideration. More importantly, taking the PSAT will allow you to see where you stand and which areas you will need to address through extra study prior to taking the real deal.

Speaking of the genuine test, you’ll want to register for the March, May, or June administration of the SAT or the April or June testing dates for the ACT (Hopefully this spring’s test dates will be less impacted by COVID-19 than in 2020 or 2021). Taking the exam as a junior will allow you to engage in targeted study over the summer prior to retaking the test in the fall of your senior year. Students who take the SAT in spring of their junior year and elect to retake the test the following fall improve their overall score by an average of 40 points on the SAT; those who put in 20 hours studying on Kahn Academy increase their scores by an average of 115 points. This can be immensely beneficial, especially in light of what is known as Superscoring — where colleges take the best combined subject scores across multiple test administrations.

Extracurricular activities

For many serious high school students, 9th and 10th grade are the time for extracurricular exploration before pledging a more serious level of commitment as an upperclassman. However, this doesn’t mean filling every waking area with a broad array of clubs, athletics, and other volunteer work in which you have only tepid interest. Rather, students should engage in two to three activities that represent their true passions and align with the future plans. For more tips on intelligent extracurricular planning visit our previous blog on the subject.

For pandemic-specific content check out our blogs entitled Extracurricular Activities You Can Do From Home and Virtual Volunteer Opportunities for High School Students 

College search

As time allows, continue with your college research. Attend local college fairs and information sessions, contact admissions offices to obtain information or simply to demonstrate interest. Spring break is a popular time during which to visit colleges if your family has the resources (time, money) to do so. Pick up one or two of the best college guidebooks on the market to ensure that the schools you are considering are an ideal academic and financial fit.

Meet with your guidance counselor/teachers

The average student-to-guidance counselor ratio in the United States in 430:1, well above the level recommended by professional counseling organizations. These unfortunate numbers mean that many high school guidance counselors are not able to develop a close relationship with all of their students starting in 9th grade. More often, in an effort at triage, counselors don’t develop an intimate understanding of their clientele until the commencement of senior year when it’s time to start on college applications.

As a rule, proactive students will get far more guidance counselor attention than passive ones who wait to be called down. We recommend booking multiple appointments with your counselor as junior year progresses in order to plan your senior year academic schedule and to begin the college conversation.

You’ll also want to request letters of recommendation from at least two teachers, preferably in core subjects that align with your college-related interests. Do this in May/June of your junior year to give your recommenders ample time to generate the most thoughtful and detailed letter possible.

The big-picture of 11th grade strategy  

Those who hyper-focus on the college search and admissions process in 11th grade can sometimes do so to the point of imperiling their academic performance—after all, there are only so many hours in the day. Keep the horse well in front of the cart by earning the best grades and test scores that you possibly can—imbibing college guides, obsessively poring over message board threads about individuals’ acceptance or rejection anecdotes from your target colleges, and daydreaming about donning the colors of your dream school only when the immediate tasks at hand are under control.

For driven teens, junior year can be a whirlwind experience but those with a solid game plan which includes all of the aforementioned areas simply need to conquer the day in front of them, and then the next, and then the next…it will all lead to a successful college admissions cycle when the moment arrives next fall.