College Planning Tips for High School Juniors

By the time you step into your junior year classroom or log into yet another Zoom session, you’ve likely been bombarded with the resounding message that “junior year is the most crucial time of your academic journey.” Whether in person or online, the significance of this pivotal year cannot be overstated. It’s during junior year that the seeds you’ve planted throughout your earlier academic years begin to sprout and flourish, much like a flower blooming in a time-lapse video.

All those extracurricular activities you joined back in 9th grade? They now bear fruit as you assume leadership roles and make meaningful contributions as an upperclassman. Your dedication to mastering math concepts culminates in the opportunity to showcase your skills on standardized tests like the SAT. And those study habits you diligently honed during your early teenage years? They become your lifeline as the demands of AP-level coursework intensify.

Yet, for some, junior year may also serve as a turning point—a chance to break away from past habits and chart a new academic trajectory. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate newfound maturity and resilience, laying the groundwork for a compelling college application that reflects your growth and potential.

Whether junior year is a culmination of years of hard work or a fresh start, it holds immense significance in shaping your academic future. Embrace the challenges and opportunities it presents, knowing that each experience will contribute to your personal and academic growth as you navigate the path toward higher education.

Choosing Your Courses Wisely in 11th Grade

Out of all the advice we offer in this blog, this is perhaps the most proactive, requiring action before the first sweltering days of late summer in 11th grade. For many students eyeing admission to highly competitive colleges, their freshman and sophomore years have been filled with honors-level courses, with perhaps a single AP class thrown into the mix during sophomore year. But junior year marks the beginning of a more substantial dive into Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate coursework.

While most high schools offer only a fraction of the 36 total AP courses overseen by the College Board, colleges—whether Ivy League or their equivalents—expect to see students challenging themselves with the most rigorous schedule available. At Kenyon College, for example, the average admitted applicant completed 5 AP courses in high school, while at the University of Georgia, admits averaged nine AP courses. The prevalence of students taking at least one AP course has risen significantly over the years, from 24% in the Class of 2007 to 38% by 2020-21.

When selecting courses, prioritize those that align with your potential future area of study and play to your strengths and interests. If you see yourself pursuing English in college but struggle with AP Statistics, consider opting for a less challenging math class. Conversely, if you plan to major in computer science but dread the thought of AP English Literature and Composition, it might be worth reconsidering. However, for those aiming for top-tier universities, the general rule is to choose the most rigorous courses in which you believe you can earn at least a “B.”

Also read Top Colleges for Neuroscience: Your Guide to the Best Programs

Focusing on Grades

Junior year is the time to dedicate more of your evenings and weekends to studying than ever before. With increased course rigor comes more challenging material to master. Many elite schools, such as Duke University, Northwestern University, UCLA, and Pomona College, admit over 90% of their freshmen from the top decile of their high school graduating classes, typically earning mostly A’s in honors or advanced courses. While some competitive schools may be more forgiving, now is the time for students who may have had a slow start in high school to demonstrate an upward trajectory in their academic performance. Many excellent institutions welcome late bloomers who show potential, regardless of their cumulative GPA.

Standardized Testing Insights

While some students take the PSAT as early as October of their sophomore year, it’s crucial to note that only the junior year administration of the exam counts for National Merit Scholarship consideration. Nonetheless, taking the PSAT earlier provides valuable insight into your strengths and areas needing improvement, allowing you to tailor your study plan accordingly.

When it comes to the actual SAT or ACT, aim to register for the March, May, or June SAT exams, or the April or June ACT tests during your junior year. Sitting for the exam as a junior affords you the opportunity to engage in focused study during the summer months before potentially retaking the test in the fall of senior year. Studies show that students who retake the SAT in the fall after a spring junior year attempt see an average score increase of 40 points. Furthermore, those who dedicate just 20 hours to studying on platforms like Khan Academy witness an average score boost of 115 points. This improvement is particularly advantageous considering the practice of Superscoring, wherein colleges consider the highest combined subject scores across multiple test sittings.

Extracurricular Endeavors

For many high school students, freshman and sophomore years serve as a period of exploration in extracurricular activities before committing to more substantial involvement as upperclassmen. However, quality prevails over quantity. Rather than spreading yourself thin across numerous clubs, sports, and volunteer opportunities, focus on two to three activities that genuinely resonate with your interests and future aspirations. Quality involvement in a few key areas demonstrates dedication and passion, qualities that college admissions officers value highly.

Also see 7 Ways to Address a Bad Grade on Your College Application

Navigating Your College Search

As you find pockets of time amidst your busy schedule, keep delving into your college search. Attend local college fairs and information sessions, and don’t hesitate to reach out to admissions offices for more information or to express your interest. If feasible, consider visiting colleges during spring break to get a firsthand feel for campus life and culture. Additionally, investing in one or two top-notch college guidebooks can help ensure that the institutions you’re considering align with your academic and financial preferences.

Engage with Your Guidance Counselor and Teachers

The student-to-guidance counselor ratio in the U.S. often exceeds recommended levels, making it challenging for counselors to provide personalized attention to each student, particularly in the earlier high school years. As a result, many counselors become more intimately acquainted with students’ needs and aspirations as they approach senior year and embark on the college application process.

To ensure you receive the guidance you need, take a proactive approach by scheduling multiple appointments with your counselor throughout junior year. These meetings can be invaluable for planning your senior year academic schedule, initiating discussions about college options, and seeking advice on extracurricular activities or standardized testing strategies. By taking the initiative, you’ll be better positioned to navigate the college application process with confidence and clarity.

Navigating 11th Grade: A Balanced Approach

While the college search and admissions process undoubtedly loom large in junior year, it’s essential to maintain a balanced perspective. Hyper-focusing on college-related tasks at the expense of academic performance can undermine your long-term goals. Instead, prioritize excelling in your coursework and standardized tests, reserving time for college research and planning.

Avoid getting ahead of yourself by fixating on college guides or online forums detailing acceptance anecdotes. Instead, focus on mastering each day’s tasks and responsibilities. By staying grounded and focused on immediate objectives, you’ll set yourself up for success in the college admissions cycle come fall. Remember, maintaining a solid game plan and tackling each day with determination will ultimately lead to your desired outcomes.


Navigating junior year and the college admissions process requires a balanced approach. While it’s important to stay informed and engaged in the college search, academic performance should remain the top priority. By focusing on excelling in coursework, standardized tests, and engaging with guidance counselors, students can lay a strong foundation for success in the college application journey. By staying present and committed to each day’s tasks, students can confidently navigate the challenges of junior year and set themselves up for a successful college admissions cycle.