If you are a high school junior (or the parent of one), it’s time to get serious about college applications. Here are the most important areas to address:

  • Standardized Testing

Juniors recently received their PSAT results. These scores can help you decide whether to focus on the revised SAT or the ACT. Another good way to figure out which test to concentrate on is to take full-length practice versions of both tests, and see which one feels more intuitive. Once you decide, schedule an exam for May or June, with the expectation that you will likely take it at least twice. You should also choose and schedule SAT subject tests, if your target schools require them. Consider how and when you are going to study – by yourself with supplemental materials, in a class or with a tutor. Although there are a growing number of test optional schools, most college applicants will still need to take either the SAT or the ACT.

  • School List

Speaking of target schools, it’s time to draft a preliminary list. It’s also time to plan some school visits. Keep an open mind at this point in the process, and visit a range of schools, from reaches to more accessible options. For more advice about how to compile your school list, please read this blog.

  • Financial aid

It’s really important to have a family discussion about how to pay for college. You should also talk about your budget for test and application preparation, college visits and the applications themselves. These costs can really add up.

  • Courses for next year

Choose challenging courses senior year. Keep in mind that many colleges like to see four years of math and foreign language, and also that there is scrutiny on your first semester grades. In addition, colleges frown upon second semester schedules that are too light – and they do ask what you are planning to take for the whole year.

  • Naviance and your guidance counselor

Meet with your guidance counselor and discuss logistics, as well as target schools. How do students request transcripts and recommendations? When do they need to do so? What type of support does the school offer with applications, essays, and school selection? Also, if your high school uses naviance or another online system you should familiarize yourself with the site. Naviance can be a very useful tool, but please take the scattergrams predicting your chances of admission with a grain of salt. The program doesn’t filter for curricular rigor, legacy status, extracurricular involvement or other crucial attributes. 

  • Summer activities

Chances are you will be asked what you did this summer, in an interview or an essay. Working is a very reasonable activity. There is no need to go to an expensive academic, volunteer or sports program, unless you want to and it fits in with your family’s plans, but you should do something. Playing video games is not the most competitive answer!

  • Plan for applications and essays

Decide when you are going to complete the common application itself, and the essays. I strongly suggest writing your core essay and executing the application before school starts in the fall. Pick a firm target date and allocate the necessary time. Getting a head start on your college applications alleviates stress and leads to great results.

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Karen Marks

Karen has more than 12 years of experience evaluating candidates for admission to Dartmouth College and to the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Since founding North Star Admissions Consulting in 2012, she has helped applicants gain admission to the nation’s top schools, including Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Wharton, MIT, Tuck, Columbia, Kellogg, Booth, Haas, Duke, Johnson, Ross, NYU, UNC, UCLA, Georgetown and more. Clients have been awarded more than 20 million dollars in scholarships, and more than 97% have gotten into one of their top choice schools.