What should seniors and juniors be doing right now?

12th grade

Dates and deadlines

SAT: Register by September 7 for the October 6 test. Register by October 5 for the November 3 test. Register by November 2 for the December 1 test.

ACT: Register by September 28 for the October 27 test. Register by November 2 for the December 8 test.

Continue being a good high school student. This is a tough line to walk, senior year. On one hand, you really ought to be shifting your focus to next year. You have a lot of big decisions to make, and you need to allocate time and resources to working on strong applications and making informed decisions. Your daily high school homework isn’t quite as compelling as it was a year ago. On the other hand, you also need to be preparing yourself to be a good college student, and the best way to prepare for college is to be a good high school student. As tempting as it is, you can’t just coast through senior year; that never works as well as it seems like it should. So it’s perfectly normal and appropriate for you to be less diligent your senior year than your junior year. The important thing is to ask yourself why. If you’re spending less time and attention on high school because you’re spending more time on college and leadership opportunities, that’s fine. If you’re spending less time and attention on high school because you can see the finish line and you just want to have an easy year, you’re selling yourself short, missing opportunities to prepare for the near future, and annoying pretty much every adult around you. Doing well in your classes is actually easier than dealing with those annoyed adults.

Update your college mission statement. If you haven't yet made your own college mission statement, do so immediately. If you have, but haven't updated it in a while, go back and update it. I highly recommend giving point values to all the parts of the statement, and then coming up with a score--based on your personal criteria, not that of a magazine or website--to rank the schools you're looking at. Click here to see how to write a mission statement, and click here for an example of how to use it to help your search and applications.

Make an organized list of colleges for applications. Don't just keep it in your head, and don't just kinda write it down somewhere. Make an organized list--some people like spreadsheets, some people like lists with bullets. For easy comparison, have all the same information for each school. At the very least, include the score each school gets on your mission statement scoring, the application deadlines, and notes to yourself about why you're applying there.

Understand that most schools have multiple deadlines. Early Decision. Early Action. Preferred Application. VIP application. Regular decision. Deadline to be considered for scholarships. Each school has its own vocabulary, and each school has its own deadlines. Understand each one for each school you're considering, and understand which ones are and aren't relevant to you.

Send the best possible application. As you’re working on your applications, remember this one idea: play offense, not defense. Don’t just try to answer questions as they come to you and hope for the best. Mount a campaign. What are the main qualities you’re looking for in a school? What are your main qualities that will be attractive to schools? How can you best present those qualities across several media—application, essay, interview? If you begin with the mindset that you’re going to present your best traits to the people who are best matched with them, you’re going to get through the tedious parts just fine.

As you apply to colleges, you’ll spend a lot of time explaining your interests. In the essays, interviews, and less formal interactions, you’ll be telling strangers about your interests and why they matter. Remember that for this purpose, accomplishment isn’t enough. Maybe you’re the valedictorian. That’s great, but there are literally thousands of valedictorians every year—just saying “I’m the valedictorian” isn’t enough. Nor is saying “I did lots of volunteer work,” “I was captain of the volleyball team,” or “I won the science fair.” What you’ve got to do this fall is explain why those accomplishments matter. What qualities do those accomplishments exemplify? How do those accomplishments make you a good match for whoever it is you’re talking to? Why does your community care about those accomplishments? You’ve spent years working hard at exploring, expanding, and pursuing your interests. Work just as hard this fall at explaining them.

Don't wait. The Common Application is open. The Coalition Application is open. There's no reason to wait or procrastinate.

11th grade

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 10. There’s a Saturday one on October 13. The alternate is Wednesday, October 24. 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 27. 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.

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