How To Conquer Your Junior Year

Every summer, I sit down with my soon-to-be juniors and give them a pep talk.  It is no secret that the junior year of high school is notorious for being difficult, busy, and downright stressful.  However, it doesn’t have to be that way.  No really.

I find that if students know the purpose behind the importance of the junior year, they head into it with more motivation.  It’s like climbing a mountain without knowing if you will have a brick wall blocking the view on the other side.

Yes, the junior year is important. Yes, you will work hard.  But it is all building towards your goals.  It is not only helping you get closer to the top of the mountain but guaranteeing a pretty amazing view on the other side.

Here are the main areas I tell my students to focus on during their junior year of high school and why they are important.

Grades:  Junior year grades get a lot of attention, but few students understand why. Your academic transcript is the most important part of your college application.  Usually, your junior year grades are the last set of official grades colleges will see when they review your applications.  Most colleges will look at your senior year courses, and some will ask for your first quarter or mid-year grades.  However, by the time they see your senior year grades, they may have already made a decision on your application and use updated grades to reinforce that decision.

Strong grades are not only essential to the college application process but they are also considered in the merit aid process.  Think of every A as “money in the bank.”  The higher your grades, the more options you will have.  Also, do not fall into the trap of thinking that a “C” in an AP course is really a “B.”  A “C” is a “C”.  You need to show colleges that you took challenging courses because you can do well in them, not just to boost your GPA.  

Relationships With Teachers and School Counselor:  There are so many students who do not consider the value of having a good relationship with teachers.  It is not just about completing your work on time (though that is important); it is also about participating in class, helping other students succeed, and showing intellectual curiosity.  Colleges want to know how you are going to add to their academic environment, not just that you can do the work.

Colleges will look to your school counselor’s letter of recommendation to learn more about how you contributed to your school community.  Make sure to talk to your counselor about what you are involved in.  Ask for suggestions for internship or scholarship opportunities.  Have a conversation with your school counselor about something other than issues with your class schedule.

Shaping Your Personal Qualities:  Not only do colleges want to know how you will add to their academic environment, but they also want to know how you are going to add to their greater community.  They assess this portion of your application through your recommendations (see above) and your involvement.  It is important that you show depth in your interests.  The number of extracurricular activities is not as important as quality.

So your junior year is the perfect time to dive into your activities.  Are you interest in politics? Help with a political campaign or see if you can intern for a local representative.  Are you an amazing swimmer?  Look for a job as a swim instructor or coach your local Special Olympics team.  Take a look at the activities you are already doing and expand on them.  You don’t have to be good at everything, but showing focus in one or two particular areas will show colleges the depth of commitment.

College Research:  Now is the time to do thorough research on colleges. Collecting information, asking questions, planning well-thought-out college visits, etc. will not only help you learn about a specific college but will also help you narrow down what you are looking for in your college experience.  There is more information about colleges online now than ever.  Schedule a few online information sessions or virtual tours to start getting an idea of what you are looking for in your college experience. 

Standardized Testing Plan: After researching the standardized testing requirements for the schools you are interested in, you need to determine which standardized test you need to take (SAT or ACT). You also need to develop a plan for how you will prepare for each test.  Finally, you should determine your official test dates. It is recommended that you try to complete your official testing by the end of your junior year.  This will help you narrow down your college list and make sure you are on track.  Also, be aware that many schools are now test-optional, meaning that if your SAT or ACT scores are not an accurate reflection of your academic ability, you do not have to submit them.  Several schools have also adopted test-blind or score-free testing policies, meaning they do not use test scores in their application review process.  If you submit test scores, they will be ignored. 

Balance and Quality of Life:  Junior year is a good time to begin practicing stress management techniques (i.e. maintain an exercise routine, taking time for yourself, etc.) to maintain balance and healthy quality of life.  Also, make sure to ask for help when you need it.  There are plenty of people around willing to help you problem solve and brainstorm different approaches to the situations that may arise throughout the year!  

So there you have it- all of the goals you need to focus on for the junior year of high school. Remember to break each goal down into manageable pieces.  By tackling each task in smaller parts, you will feel better about conquering the notorious junior year!

Class of 2021: What’s Next

The college admissions process is not a straight line, and that statement had never been more true than it was for the Class of 2021. As my students head off to college, I am struck by how many twists and turns they have faced. This class learned to live with uncertainty in every sense of the word. As their college counselor, it is my job not to provide the answers but to teach them how to ask good questions. With each change that came with the college process, I watched them take some deep breaths and say, “OK. What’s next?”  

Deciding Where to Apply- Without Visiting

Typically, students can visit a few colleges, decide what they like and don’t like, and move forward with creating their college list.  Like many things in their lives, college visits moved online, changing how students and parents interact with colleges and universities. Students became more detailed and conscious of their questions, realizing that this was the only way for them to receive clarity on what they are looking for in their college experience. 

When the Rules Change

As colleges and universities went test-optional, my students wondered what this really meant. While the lack of test requirements was a good thing, especially for those students who could not take the ACT or SAT, many students were unprepared for the additional focus it would bring to their transcripts. The question, “What’s next?” became “What else do I need to highlight in my applications?” Guiding them through the process of showing colleges how amazing they are showed students that they are much more than a test score or a GPA.  

Early Rejections

When decisions came out for early applications, and acceptance rates drop at a record pace, I saw students become more determined than ever. “What’s next?” became “Where else should I apply?” Making sure they had a backup plan to their backup plan gave them the courage to move forward and push through the uncertainty. 

A Change in the Timeline

After delays in decision releases due to increased volume, final decisions came out, and the dust began to settle on waitlists. I saw students move forward with options, examining where they needed to be to become their best selves. With travel restrictions lifting, students and their families rushed out to visit colleges, many for the first time. They had less than a month to make their final college decisions. 

A New Game

No one could have predicted the increase in applications institutions saw for the Class of 2021 (college class of 2025). As difficult as it was to advise students through this new admissions landscape, I am sure it was just as difficult for admissions officers to say no to so many qualified applicants. As a college counselor, I can’t help but wonder where do we go from here?  Many highly selective universities are not “highly rejective” (credit to Akil Bello for that term).  Harvard now admits 3% of applicants.  Brown, Columbia, Princeton, and Yale are all in the club with acceptance rates of 5% or less.

What is more disturbing is the competitiveness of the “backup” options. Colleges and universities that used to admit over 20% served as solid options for students who entered the competitive landscape.  Now those options are dwindling. Below are some notable changes in acceptance rates for the Class of 2021.


College/University  Class of 2025 Accept Rate Class of 2024 Accept Rate
Boston College 19% 24%
Dartmouth 6% 9%
Duke 6% 9%
Georgetown 16% 12%
Harvard 3% 5%
Middlebury 16% 24%
Tufts 11% 15%
Villanova University 25% 29%

What’s Next

I will never forget the Class of 2021, not only because they did great things but also because they overcame great things. I know they will use the experience of applying to college during a pandemic to become great leaders and change-makers. I look forward to hearing about the adventures of my two future foreign diplomats and reading the words of my two lovely female writers who will use their voices to create social change. Someday, I will see the work of a very talented artist who will combine his creativity with his passion for advocacy (and many other things). I know there will be at least one doctor from this class, and she will make a difference in the lives of many children. There will be a lawyer who is branching out to explore his southern roots. I guarantee there will be one large animal veterinarian who will make a difference for horses, especially those who participate in dressage. A future environmental engineer in this group will do the essential work of addressing climate change. A promising prospective FBI agent will do everything she can to solve crimes. Most of my students had too many interests for me to predict who they will become. They will use college to explore their curiosities, and I know they will continue to ask the question, “What’s next?”.

The College Mindset Class of 2021 submitted 219 applications and received 155 acceptances. Collectively, they received close to $5 million in merit scholarships, including one student who received the Daniels Scholarship. 

These colleges and universities are so lucky to have them:

Arizona State University 

Colorado State University 

George Washington University 

Marist College

Parsons, The New School

Chapman University 

High Point University 

Northwestern University (transfer student)

Indiana University 

Syracuse University 

Stern College for Women

Tufts University 

University of Arizona

University of Southern California

University of Colorado, Boulder

University of Northern Colorado

University of Oregon

University of Maryland

University of Massachusetts, Amherst

University of South Carolina

University of Tampa

I think we have all learned in the past year that life is not a straight line. I know I will recall the wisdom, grit, and tenacity of the Class of 2021 as I look forward and guide a new class through the ever-changing college admissions landscape.  I know it is my turn to say, “What’s next?”