Four things juniors should do before the end of the school year

It’s been a week since most college-bound seniors made their final decision and commitment about where they will be next year. (Most. Because some are still hoping for a waitlist opening. Some are still navigating financial aid and aren’t sure they’ll end up where they plan to go. Some are deciding late that they want to go to college and are grabbing rolling admissions spots or checking out community college offerings.) That means the clock is really ticking for current juniors, who have another 51 weeks to complete their own admissions process. An entire year from now may seem like a long time to get it all done. It may seem like a really short time. Both are true: it’s still plenty of time, but it will go by really quick.

Some juniors are already far along the path, having already done some campus visits and worked on a list of schools to follow up with. Others are just beginning. Wherever you are in the process, there are four things you should do before the end of this school year.

Do your best at school and finish with the best grades possible. Some people will tell you that your junior-year grades are the last ones that count. They’re not right: colleges will ask for grade updates, and it will be conspicuous if you suddenly have less rigorous classes or are getting worse grades. Colleges can and sometimes do take back your acceptance if they think you’ve let yourself become too much of a slacker. But they’re not completely wrong, either: senior-year grades will get checked on, but they won’t be scrutinized like your transcript for 9th-11th grade. Your GPA and rank at the end of this year are much more likely to be your “official” ones for college admissions purposes, so finish this year as strongly as possible.

Register to take the SAT and/or ACT. If you haven’t taken either of these yet, it’s time to sign up. If you have and would like to take it again, then go ahead and sign up soon. There’s an SAT on June 1st, but the regular registration deadline has already passed. You can still register late by May 22, but there will be additional fees. There’s another SAT August 24, and the regular registration is still open.

The next ACT is June 8, but registration also closed May 3. You can register late—which costs more—up to May 20. There’s also an ACT July 13.

Set up test prep if you think you need it or want it. Don’t sign up for test prep if you’re not really sure you need it. Test prep can help, but not if you’re passive about it. If you’re not going to really work at test prep, then it can be a waste. There are all kinds of ways to get help preparing for the entrance tests. There are classes through the big companies like Princeton Review, Kaplan, and Test Masters. Lots of school districts and local colleges offer test prep. There are private tutors and smaller companies that offer personalized programs. Khan Academy offers free prep, and you can also work independently with a test prep book.

Line up rec letters. Teachers who may write you a letter of recommendation have a long time before they’re due. But don’t wait until the last minute. Don’t even wait until the last month! Find time to have a quick conversation with the teachers who know you best. Let them know that you’ll be requesting an official recommendation from them, and ask them if they have any questions or suggestions. It’s a much easier conversation to have when there’s a lot more time for it. This year is the right time, even if they tell you they won’t have it written until the beginning of next year.

Dome some large-sweep online college searches. Even if you think you have a preliminary list ready, spend time reading through lists and descriptions in case you’ve missed something. Just looking at a list of “Best Colleges” is worthless. Don’t waste your time with that. But doing some searches for more narrow topics can be useful. Look for rankings of top colleges for several majors you’re interested in. Search for best colleges in the geographic areas you’re interested in. Look for colleges that have other qualities you’re interested in. Be sure, though, to look at multiple sources and cross-reference the lists. Never trust a single source. Also, don’t put too much weight on the actual rankings: the difference between number 12 and number 28 may be minimal. And never stop at just the top five or 10.

So, for example, imagine you think you’d like to major in biology or environmental science. You like the mid-west. You want a school with a strong sense of school spirit. I’d recommend you search: best colleges for biology, best colleges for environmental science, best colleges in mid-west, best colleges for school spirit, most underrated colleges in mid-west, best colleges for your money in mid-west, best colleges for your money biology, and best colleges for your money environmental science. For each, try to find several different lists or rankings, and look at the top 100 if they go that deep. Look for patterns and what campuses show up on multiple lists. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of them, and don’t take time to stop and do research on individual schools as you go. Just look at lots of lists and look for patterns and repeating names. This takes time, but it’s also pretty low-key. Do this before you start asking counselors and teachers for more specific help or doing deeper research.

I know you’re busy. AP exams are going on this week and next. You’ve got final exams. You have projects and competitions. But you’ve also got 51 weeks left. The heavy lifting is going to happen this summer and fall, but you can set yourself up to have a much easier time if you’ll take care of these things in the next four to five weeks.

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