I have been fielding several questions from high school juniors, wondering when they should start thinking about college. My answer is NOW!
Many of you have taken or plan on taking the PSAT soon. If you have recently taken the PSAT, your scores are slowly trickling in. This score is a baseline number; if you were to take the official SAT without any prep, you may assume your score would be similar. Same goes for the ACT. Having this baseline score, you can decide how much prep you will need to improve. Test prep centers, like AJ Tutoring or MR Test Prep, are very popular options for students who want to work with test prep instructors. For students who prefer self-studying, I can tell you that many of my students have found great success using Khan Academy’s online tools. Regardless of whom or what you choose, take time to study before walking into your ACT or SAT exam.
Juniors can also start to explore colleges. Many high schools offer college fairs. Attend! Be sure to speak with the college representatives at these fairs. Ask them specific questions about their campus so that you can learn first-hand what to expect. I also would suggest visiting local college campuses. Spend a day visiting San Francisco or the North Bay or Santa Clara and the South Bay, checking out local campuses. You may not necessarily want to apply to those colleges, but you can get a sense of what a college campus looks and feels like. For example, San Jose State University is a large campus (about 30K students) and in the heart of the city. Sonoma State is about one-third the student population (about 9K) of SJSU and is tucked away in some of the most amazing wine regions in the world. Both campuses offer an array of majors and activities to keep students engaged and excited to be on campus. But if you are not a city kid, then SJSU might cramp your style.
Should you decide to visit colleges during your breaks (winter, spring, or summer breaks, for example), keep in mind that the college students are most likely on their break too, so what is usually a bustling campus will not feel like it. Use your imagination to see yourself dodging bicycles, skateboards, and other pedestrians all rushing off to class. As silly as this might seem, I also always suggest eating on campus. If you’re going to commit at least four years to a college, make sure you have plenty of dining options. I recently met up with a sophomore at Cal Poly who said the food is terrible, but thankfully, the thriving downtown area keeps her palate pampered.
Another piece of the application process that juniors can start working on is summer planning. There are many wonderful summer pre-college programs, community college classes, volunteering opportunities, camp counselor jobs, etc. that make for a perfect summer experience. Do something that you are interested in and don’t necessarily have time to commit to during the busy school year. Summer should be a time to explore those curiosities outside of the school schedule. Whatever you do, even if it is babysitting your sibling or a neighborhood child, enjoy your summer and unwind.
One last piece of advice is to start thinking about teachers you think would be a well-suited match for writing your letters of recommendation. Choose a teacher(s) who knows you well; one who has seen you grow into your own person or catch fire in their class. It’s not necessarily the grade you have earned in the class that counts. It’s the way you’ve grown from that teacher that matters.
I am certainly not a proponent for rushing the application process, but if students in their junior year can begin to start working on one or some of these items, their senior year will feel more manageable (read: less stress!) and that is the ultimate goal.