1. Write some essay first drafts
Don’t freak out – this doesn’t mean that you should already have all of your essays written. But you also can’t afford to ignore them until your summer after junior year. Many students have their first encounter writing in the personal narrative genre only when they’re asked to write one for their college applications. Even if you’re an amazing writer, it’s good to have a sense of how these essays should be structured and what aspects of your story you should be emphasizing before you have to write one that you’ll be sending off to your colleges of choice.
That’s why you should take the time now to look over college application essays and take a stab at writing a couple. You can choose essays either from the Common Application or Coalition for College application portals, or school-specific essays from universities that you’re interested in. And if, like me, you find it difficult to absorb this kind of material outside of a class structure, feel free to check out one of our three college essay boot camps this summer. What’s important is that you spend some time now getting used to thinking about yourself and your own story. You should also be used to writing about your personal experiences in a way that shows your ability to grow, your self-understanding, and your willingness to reveal vulnerability to others. Doing all of that in as little as 300 words can be very challenging, which is why it’s important to start practicing now.
2. Get ready for your junior packet and talking about yourself!
The term “junior packet” is a little deceiving. Although many high schools hand out these packets during junior year, some will do so later. Similarly, the content can vary from school to school. Generally, junior packets are a collection of information, schedules, forms, and writing prompts designed to help students get ready for their college applications. They include questions to be completed both by the student as well as the parents that are designed to prepare you for your college applications. That includes questions like “In what ways have you grown both personally and academically during high school?” and “If you have decided your major for college, what steps have you taken to prepare?”
Although the timing on when students should complete these vary, you should ask your guidance counselor whether your school supplies a packet like this for students and make sure you get a copy as soon as you can. The information you fill out for this packet will help you organize the information you have about your high school experiences and more easily transfer them to an application. The packet will also often include things like reference requests, which you should be sure to submit as soon as they are requested by the school, so that teachers have enough time to talk with you about your references before submitting them. But who should you choose for your references?
3. Start making the relationships you will use for references
Your high school references are a very important part of your college application. Students can spend a lot of time obsessing over who would make the best reference for them and how they should tailor each reference to each application. The truth is, the title of your recommender or the subject they teach has a lot less of an impact on the strength of their recommendation than something more essential – how well do they know you?
When choosing references, you want to choose someone from your school who can speak about you as a student and as a person. Colleges have seen their share of boiler-plate letters of recommendation and can tell when a recommender doesn’t have a real and deep knowledge of the student, their strengths, and their accomplishments. So the best piece of advice I can give is to choose school employees who know you the best. Oftentimes, that will be your counselor and teachers, but it could also be your security guard, your principal, or your janitor. What’s most important is that they can tell the admissions committee something about you that isn’t in your application. So, right now, think about who those people are and make sure that you take the time to grow those relationships this year as they will likely be the ones writing your recommendation letters.
4. Decide on an SAT test date this year
At this point in your high school career, you should already have a date to take the SAT lined up, ideally by the end of the year. There are two reasons for this – first, taking the SAT test early is a good way to understand what you need to work on in the future. Even the most authentic test practice isn’t going to be quite the same, or have quite the same level of pressure, as an actual SAT test sitting. SAT reading sections are intentionally designed to take students out of their comfort zone by presenting content they may not be familiar with in a very formal, academic English. The math section attempts to cover those sections of math that are most relevant to the majority of college majors, including basic algebra, data analysis, and the manipulation of complex equations. Taking the time now to find out what you still need to work on will pay off in the long run.
Even more important, taking the SAT now gives you a degree of insurance for the future. As a lot of unprepared rising seniors have found this year, sometimes the unexpected can get in the way of your testing plans, which is why it’s good to have a backup. Although College Board has opened up additional testing slots later in the year to make up for the ones that have been canceled this summer, students applying for Early Decision may find it difficult to get scores from this year ready in time to submit their applications. Taking the test beforehand ensures that you have a score to submit, no matter what.
5. Make your SAT II test choices
The SAT II (SAT subject tests) are a little more of a mixed bag than the main SAT test. Not very many schools require them and this year, and due to issues with COVID-19, some schools are not accepting them. However, having taken two SAT II tests is something that can set you apart when applying to good schools and is essentially a requirement when applying to great schools.
Already having a test date isn’t as important for the SAT II test as it is for the main SAT test at this point. What is important is knowing which of the subject tests you plan to take. If you haven’t done so already, go on to the College Board’s website [link], read over the requirements for each test, and choose two that you can study for in the course of the next year. Trust me, you’ll thank yourself later.
6. Have a leadership position planned
Everyone knows that extracurriculars are what can put an academically successful but otherwise unnoteworthy application over the top. However, if you’re looking to get into top-tier schools (I’m talking top 25, nationally), you need to show that you can not only do well academically and contribute towards a group effort, but also understand how to organize and lead others. In the real world, almost every important endeavor is done in a group, and having a leadership position during high school shows colleges that you understand how to navigate a group dynamic in a functional, healthy way.
Obviously, a leadership position at a school club is great. If you’re active in a sport or hobby that has an official club at your school and can get a leadership position there, that’s fantastic. However, there are other ways to accumulate leadership experience outside of school. Volunteer organizations are always looking for young people willing to spend some of their time helping others in their communities. As many of you know, we even run our own volunteer STEM mentoring program, BranchOut! If you don’t have a leadership position, now may be the time to find a group that you’re interested in, put in the time to become a valued member with the aim of putting a leadership position on your resume this coming school year or the next. Which brings us to…
7. Write a resume
I know what you’re thinking. “A resume? I’m 16! And I need a resume?” Well, yes, you do. Some schools’ junior packets will require them, and some college applications will require them. But even if they don’t, drafting a resume now is both a great way to organize the information that will be going on your college application, as well as highlight the places where you’re missing things that could make your application stronger.
Writing a resume for the first time can be intimidating. I recommend going online and finding a student resume template or, even better, ask for a copy of the resume of someone you know who was accepted into the level of university you’re looking to apply for. Look through those examples and try and fill out as much of the information as you can. In any of the places where you don’t have the information, ask yourself if you need to change your plans to make sure that gap is filled. You may not have an SAT score to put down yet, but you have a plan to take it, right? If you feel like you can’t fill out your extracurricular activities enough, consider getting involved in more this coming year. During our 1-on-1 advising sessions, our advisors keep these resume gaps in mind and encourage students to work proactively to fill them. If you’d like to learn more about working with a college advisor, you can find more information on our website. As a rising junior, you still have time to get these things done before the college admissions committees consider your application, so make the best of that opportunity and get yourself fully ready to excel when you apply a little over a year from now!