Dates and deadlines: This is the year you probably take the PSAT. The real PSAT. You may be like many 11th graders who have already taken some form of the SAT a number of times, but this year is the when the PSAT counts. If you haven’t taken one before, then spend several hours—over a week, not at once—getting yourself familiar with the test. Get a study guide or spend some time on the PSAT website. But it’s not the kind of test for which last-minute cramming works really well. When you get your scores back, you’ll need to talk to your family, school counselor, and teachers to figure out what to do. If the scores are high, don’t get overconfident. If they’re low, don’t get discouraged. You may or may not decide that a test preparation course is a good idea for the SAT; talk to your family and counselor.
The primary PSAT is Wednesday, October 16. There’s a Saturday one on October 19. The alternate is Wednesday, October 30. If your school doesn’t offer any of these—which is unlikely—talk to your counselor and family to figure out how you can take it.
The next ACT test is October 26. There’s not a super-strong argument for taking the ACT now, especially if you’re taking the PSAT. If you’ve already taken an early SAT and one of the new 9th or 10th grade Pre-ACT tests and you see a pattern of performing better on the ACT, then go ahead and move in this direction. Otherwise, you’ve probable already got enough going on without another big standardized test to worry about.
Work at being good at high school. You probably already know this—you’re living it—but 11th grade is generally acknowledged to be the toughest year of high school. There’s a major jump in the rigor of your classes. You’re moving into leadership positions in your extra-curricular activities. You have some major high-stakes tests. People are beginning to ask you more and more about your plans after high school. You’re more likely to be working an after-school job, you’re more likely to be driving, you’re more likely to be dealing with the ups and downs of dating and relationships. You likely have growing responsibilities at home. You’re more likely to be dealing with emotional or social issues. The pressure can be overwhelming. But as much as I can empathize, there’s not a lot to say except…keep being the best high school student you can. If you need to reevaluate your commitments and reduce them, that’s ok. But be mindful about it, and talk about it with adults you trust. When you’re tempted to just say “screw it” and give up, that’s not ok—it’s not ok for your mental health, your future, or your relationships with your family and school. Ask for help when you need it.
When my daughters were in the midst of their Terrible Twos, my wife and I had a line we kept repeating to ourselves: "she’s only two once, and it only lasts a year." It gave us a reminder to keep things in perspective and not get completely despondent. When you’re having your really difficult days, it may be helpful to you, too. Say it: "I’m only a high school junior once, and it only lasts a year." You’re going to be fine.
And here’s something you may not know. Among teachers, a whole lot of them think that juniors are best to teach. 11th graders have developed a lot of maturity—both intellectual and emotional—that makes them seem a lot more like approachable young adults. And they don’t yet have the “Senioritis” that so many seniors get infected with by the beginning of September. So remember that a lot of your teachers are cheering for you, even if they’re also assigning you too much homework. Seek out the good ones who are on your side and cultivate those relationships, both for your personal development and next year’s recommendation letters.
Research college. Now is the time to start researching colleges. You’ve got enough of an idea of what’s really important to you and what you have to offer. Spend some time wandering around college information and taking some notes.
Pick one activity where you often feel like it’s wasted time: maybe it’s web surfing, maybe it’s watching a guilty pleasure television show, maybe it’s chatting with friends in the school library when you should be working. Whatever it is, that’s your college research time. Dedicate one day a week using that time for researching colleges instead of the time-wasting activity.
Where do you start? Anywhere, really. Go ahead and look of some of those “top colleges” lists. They’re not a good way to pick a school, but they’re a fine way to begin looking. Or do a basic Google search. Challenge yourself to look up a school that you know nothing about but see on posters near the counseling office. Ask your family and friends. Start looking more closely at the materials that have been sent to you over the past year. Go down the rabbit hole of web surfing, just make sure the web sites are college ones. If you're paying attention you’ll start to notice patterns in what appeals to you and why. Don’t feel like you need to have a list of schools you’re going to apply to. But do realize that you’ll need that list soon—a year from now at the latest—and do what it takes to get as much information as you can before you make that list.
Pursue your interests. 11th grade is not a good time to dabble. If you’re spread too thin over a number of interests—in and/or out of school—and not really doing much with any of them, then you’ve got to weed out some activities. You’ve got too much going on. Choose one or two to actively pursue and push yourself. Don’t fret, there’s still a whole lifetime ahead of you to try new things and explore hobbies. But seriously, this isn’t the year. If you’re not actively pursuing it—drop it. Your sleep schedule and your sanity will thank you. If people are pressuring you to keep spreading yourself thin in order to look "well-rounded" on your college applications, remind yourself and those people that anyone can see through a fake. Don’t waste your time doing that.