By this time next year, you will be putting the finishing touches on a year of hard work, exploration, and self-discovery unlike anything you may do again in your lifetime. Daunting, yes, but remember: it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You have been preparing for this coming year for more than a decade, and if you stay on track and follow some simple guidelines along the way, you will conquer the college admissions process in one piece and position yourself for future academic success at any number of schools.
At the highest level, your plan should include some key components for academics, testing and prep, and school research and selection. Each will be a facet of the college applications you will submit next year.
Here is our roadmap for how to break the process up into manageable chunks and which components to tackle as the year progresses.
Start researching schools by asking yourself some basic questions:
You want a big list here to start – do not exclude based on costs or academics at this point. Also try to avoid biases. Yes, Harvard is a great school, but it’s not for most people. Maybe that small school two hours away has everything you need to succeed. Take the time to explore what is out there and what checks the boxes on your personal requirements. The goal is to find a large number of possible targets.
The fall is also a good time to attend college fairs and tap into local resources such as your school’s workshops on financial aid and career planning.
Prioritize your studies over non-essential activities for the next two semesters. An extra 30 minutes a day can go a long way towards good grades all year and raising your GPA overall.
Your courses should be individually but not collectively challenging. You can take all Advance Placement classes, but you would be better off doing well in a few classes versus middling in all of them because you took on too much. Most importantly, do well in the classes that will be a focus of your college studies.
We recommend Juniors take diagnostic tests in the fall and then try to get at least one test (either SAT or ACT depending on their diagnostic testing) in before winter break. If you are not ready to test in the fall, be sure to plan you spring test schedule carefully and allow time to prep before your first test.
SAT: December 7
ACT: December 14
Start to whittle your list down by eliminating schools that have major negatives compared to the others. Maybe it’s too far away or you know you would never enjoy being on such a small campus.
Once your list is down to 10-15, start to plan how you can visit as many of them as reasonably possible. We would prioritize your target schools, then safe schools, then stretch schools. The process of visiting schools can be time consuming and expensive, so look for ways to explore schools through online resources like videos, chats, and reviews before deciding to visit in real life.
A plethora of digital tools exist to help you with the research. One we really like is www.petersons.com, which has a variety of search options and will suggest similar schools to ones you identify from your initial searches.
The process right now should be about easily disqualifying as many as possible and solidifying your top choices through positive reinforcements you discover (a specialized program, a unique scholarship, affordable and close to home).
Be sure to finish the semester strong, enjoy your winter break (really take a rest if you can), and hit the ground running after break – your grades the second semester will be a critical factor in admissions decisions 12 months later.
Second, and just as important, be extremely careful with your senior-year course selection, which many schools do at the start of second semester. If your school list research is well advanced, you should know the requirements of your top schools. Don’t accidentally disqualify yourself from consideration by not taking that fourth year of science your top school requires.
With the break in testing till February, we recommend that juniors who have not already tested should prep during the months after break ends so they are prepared for the early spring tests and have the chance to retest in late spring, summer or fall if necessary.
PSAT scores come back on December 11 for Maryland students, so many use that as an inflection point to decide what test they will take and what prep plan they will employ. Get ahead of that wave if possible.
ACT: February 8
No matter what else you do, prioritize your studies this semester. Back off on non-essential activities and dedicate an additional hour or two a week to getting good grades. Everything else you are doing to bolster your application will be for naught if your grades falter during this period.
At this point, you should have a strong list of schools and a plan for visits or outreach.
We like visiting during the spring because campuses are full of students and you are more likely to get actionable intelligence about the school from interacting with the full student body and staff. It’s also easier to get in to see a specialized program or lab or meet with key figures who might support your application later, such as a coach or department head, to discuss your interest in the school and a particular program or sport. Plan ahead and be smart about your travel. You don’t want to sour on a school just because it’s the last one you’re seeing on a 10-day trip.
By the end of the semester, you should have a list of 3 target schools, 3 stretch schools, and 3 safe schools solidified.
Spring semester is also the time to think through who should and would write letters of recommendation for you. Plan on making these requests by the end of the semester if possible. This gives your writers plenty of time to get you something before the fall.
If you have not tested already, it is absolutely imperative that you have now identified which test track you will pursue and register early to take at least one test during the spring.
You should also be aware of any SAT Subject Tests you might need for your target schools and be planning your test strategy for them. You can take multiple SAT subject tests in one day, but we recommend breaking them up if possible. What you cannot do is take the regular SAT and a subject test in one day, so you do need to map out any required subject tests carefully so they do not interfere with your SAT or ACT plans.
Also keep in mind for your planning that any AP class you are taking will have national exams in mid-May. This is right at the home stretch for the semester, so plan ahead (and don’t forget to register).
SAT: March 14, May 2
ACT: April 4
AP Exams: May 4-15 (Full AP Schedule)
Plan to spend part of your summer working a job or in an internship in your planned field of study. We also encourage taking classes or attending camps that support your interests and which offer leadership or personal growth opportunities. Other options might be volunteering in your community, church, or school. Offer your talents in computers, writing, or math to help tutor. Be the coach on a swim team. The possibilities are endless, but the opportunity to demonstrate yourself is not, so make the most of the time this season affords you to expand your learning beyond the classroom into the real world.
If possible, you should visit any remaining schools you are strongly considering.
We also recommend that students start their applications now. With so many schools accepting the Common App or Coalition App, we recommend starting with those and then working on individual school applications later in the summer and early fall. The multi-school applications should be available for 2021 applications starting August 1, 2020.
Everest offers several week-long college application bootcamps in August for students who want affordable, experienced assistance with preparing their applications and essays. Recent attendees have raved about the experience and the leg up it gave them going into senior year. Check back in early summer for 2020 dates.
Start researching scholarships offered by your targets as well as by outside organizations and local companies. If you are focused on a specific career path already, look into scholarships offered by professional organizations in that area of study. Don’t know where to begin? Start by asking the financial aid offices at your high school and at your target schools or search on sites like Scholarship.com.
Parents and students should also take this time to register with the Federal Student Aid agency and become familiar with the paperwork and data they will need for the FAFSA, which will become available on October 1.
We recommend that rising seniors who want to improve their spring scores consider using the summer to prep for the summer test dates. With school out, prep can be condensed into a few weeks and done right before the exam date, allowing the student to be well prepared and singularly focused for a short period of their break.
SAT: June 6, August 29 (anticipated)
ACT: June 13, July 18
And there you have it – a roadmap for the rest of Junior year that will have you ready for applications when school starts back in September.
No matter where you are on the path, we hope you take away:
1) this is all doable so long as you break it up into parts over time, and
2) there is no better time like the present to begin.
Have questions or need assistance with your academics, test prep, or college selection process? We have an experienced team ready to assist you with any portion of the journey.