Dates & Deadlines
SAT: January 21, March 11, May 6, June 3.
ACT: February 11, April 8, June 10.
AP Exams: May 1-12.
Work at being good at high school
The best way to prepare for college is to be a good high school student, and there may be no more important semester of high school--as far as college planning is concerned--than this semester. When admissions counselors look at you transcript next fall, this semester is the most recent and full picture they have. While they'll look at all your grades and activities, the junior year is more important. It lets them see how you perform in more rigorous classes and more leadership roles than you're likely to have in the 9th and 10th grade.
You don't need to get stressed or anxious about this. It doesn't require anything extra from you. But it does require that you give this spring all that you have, that you be fully engaged and active. If you have any circumstances that require you to scale back your efforts this semester or are getting in the way of your success, begin thinking about how you will talk about those circumstances with colleges. If you find yourself falling behind, take the time to talk with your teachers and family about how to catch up. If you need emotional help, go get it. Don't wait.
A lot of the pressure that smart and ambitious high school students have to deal with is the idea that one wrong move or bad grade will ruin your chances of getting into a "good" school. This isn't true. But it will require some additional effort over the next year. If the first half of the year was disappointing--11th grade is often the toughest year for high school students--you still have time to get things back on track. Talk it over with adults you trust and look for concrete changes that you can make.
Reach out to colleges
By now you've probably got a good idea of what type of college you think will be good for you, and you've likely got some schools in mind. If you haven't done so yet, reach out to them now. As a starter, check out their admissions web pages and read what's there. If there's an easy way to ask for more information or get on a mailing list, do it. If there's an easy way to ask a question, ask it. Some schools will even make it clear on their web site the name of the admissions counselor for your area. Remember their name and reach out to them. If you find yourself feeling anxious, remember that this process isn't about proving that you're worthy. This is just an introduction, a saying "hello." It's not going to hurt you or count against you.
If you don't have a good idea yet where you might like to look, do some exploring. Try this: think of three states you might like to live in. For each of those states, spend some time looking online at their big state university, a liberal arts college in that state, and at least one other school in that state. In this case, it's ok to search for "best colleges in...." Don't take the list's word that those schools are indeed the best for you, but it's a staring point to look around. I was talking with some friends recently, and we agreed that applying to college before the internet mostly meant that everyone applied to four out of the six colleges that they'd heard of. Now that you have a chance to hear about virtually all the schools, take advantage of that.
Once you find something that looks interesting to you, reach out to that school. This reaching-out process is really important, but not necessarily for obvious reasons. Even though some schools take "demonstrated interest" into account, it's not real likely that filling out an on-line form in your junior year is going to be the one thing that gets you accepted to a school that would otherwise reject you. It's also unlikely that an admissions counselor will, a year from now, remember your name and feel more inclined to be generous. The reason reaching out is really important is because it helps to shift your own mindset. Proactively reaching out to schools and taking that initiative reminds you that you're not just a passive product to be offered to colleges. The power in the relationship isn't only with the schools--you also have a voice in asking questions, making decisions, and finding what's right for you. When you treat the process like finding a good person for a relationship, then you understand that you have to be an active participant.
Talk to 12th graders about college
If you're in the 11th grade, then you know 12th graders. Talk to them about college. Ask them where they applied and why. Ask them how they went about their search. Ask them where they thought about applying but didn't. Ask them for advice. Be a good listener when they talk about their own experiences.
Lots of schools have some sort of get-together where graduates get to come back and give advice about college. If your school has this option then go, and listen carefully to what they say. Ask them not only about their college experiences, but about their application experiences. Remember not to take any of their advice--or anybody's for that matter--as the only or best advice. What worked for them may not be appropriate for you.
Make summer plans
Here's where I'm supposed to give very pointed mandates about thinking strategically and making plans for this summer that best align with your college goals and help "round out your resume," whatever that means. But really I can't make myself do that. Because it really doesn't matter so long as you do something and you're thoughtful about it.
If you need to work or want a job, that's great. As far as college is concerned it really doesn't matter what that job is so long as you work hard at it and are reflective about what you learn from the job. As you go to work, remind yourself to work as hard as you can. And when you're done, ask yourself what you learned from that day's work. Those two things matter so much more to everyone than the job title or name of the company.
If you don't need to work, then make other plans. And here's the trick: treat it like a job, in the sense that you decide to do your best and be reflective. Even if you have the cushiest summer imaginable--maybe you're going to spend two months as a VIP on a cruise ship sailing around the Caribbean--you can still get a lot out of this. Just begin each day reminding yourself to make the most of the day, and end each day reflecting about what you learned. Whatever is you do, it can be useful for your college applications and useful for your productive and interesting life.
Another way you can make sure you make the most of your summer is to give yourself a goal of 20. Make 20 visits to local museums or parks. Have 20 intentional interactions with older members of your family asking them about their experiences. Read 20 books. Watch 20 of the best movies of all time. Find 20 items to donate to charity. Run 20 miles, spread out over as many days as you need. The number 20 is arbitrary, but an arbitrary number helps make a vague idea an achievable goal. Every time you knock out one of your 20, remind yourself to be deliberate and reflective.
Sitting around "doing nothing" is the enemy of any smart and ambitious student.
Make fall plans
In his 5th century B.C.E. classic The Art of War, Sun Tzu says that the battle is won or lost before it even begins, because it is the preparation that wins the battle. Sports coaches love to repeat this wisdom about games being won during practice. The same principle applies to you and college admissions: the more you prepare now, the better it's going to be when the deadlines come.