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As a junior or sophomore, you may be looking to the seniors of your high school as they apply for college, anxiously wondering how you can get a headstart. Many students believe that the only way to truly be active about applying to college is to work through applications and wait for a decision, both of which traditionally occur during senior year.  

 

However, there are different ways to prepare for college applications during junior or even sophomore year. So, what can you do?  Here’s where to start.

 

 

Begin the College Search Early

Creating a List

A common mistake among students is to wait until senior year to begin hunting for schools. To avoid scrambling last minute for your favorite picks, start your search early by first deciding upon the criteria that you and your family will consider as you look for colleges. Would you be happier at a small liberal arts college or a large public university? How much does financial aid figure into your college choices? Would you prefer a school that is close to your parents or anywhere in the nation–or maybe the rest of the world?  

 

All of these are examples of criteria that will be important in figuring out how to narrow down a cohesive school list. Once you have a more comprehensive list of criteria, consider visiting your school’s guidance counseling center for any college brochures or information on university visits to your high school.  

 

You may also begin your college search online, and as you search, be sure to jot down any schools that sound like a good fit for you. Try to begin categorizing these schools based on how high or low their acceptance rates are–this will ensure that you have a realistic list of schools to apply to.

 

College Visits

College visits are important to the process of discovering which colleges would be “good fits”–or feel right–to you. When you visit a college, you will be able to find out whether the environment feels inviting for you, or whether the atmosphere gives you the sense that you could belong or be happy there.  

 

To avoid cramming in your college visits during your busy senior year, consider visiting colleges early, namely the ones you’ve already done research on and jotted down. Besides meeting your criteria, these schools must also feel like places you would like to call home for four years. You might also be able to discover more specific information about the schools while there, and you can get an additional sense of what the surrounding area is like.

 

Talk to Your Parents

It is important that you communicate with your parents during this time. By discussing colleges and your future with them, you can gain more insight into what type of college might be right for you, or what kinds of qualities and constraints you must consider during your college search.  

 

 

Develop a Relationship with Your Guidance Counselor

When applying to colleges, you will need to submit a recommendation letter from your guidance counselor and seek advice from him/her. It is important to get to know your counselor to ensure that your college application process runs smoothly and so that your recommendation letter is not just a bland page; after all, how will your counselor write you a strong, personalized letter if you spend four years at school without meeting him/her?  

 

Start by visiting your guidance counselor to ask advice whenever you might need; for example, maybe you’re considering two different academic schedules and want to hear a second (and more professional) opinion about which path might be better for you. Maybe you want to talk to him/her to know what kinds of extracurriculars the school has to offer, or for tips on how to start getting ready for the college applications process.

 

Aside from these more academic topics, you might find that you begin to develop a close bond with your counselor. If you and counselor click, you might stop by just to share your latest academic successes or even interesting stories about your life. Don’t be afraid to let your counselor become your friend.

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Know What Paperwork and Records You Will Need

As you apply to college, there will be plenty of documents and paperwork to keep track of and eventually submit. Don’t wait until the last minute to discover what these documents are, or, worst case, to find out that you do not have them on hand. The following are basic documents that most colleges will require you to submit:

 

 

Your Official Transcript

Many high schools use some kind of online system, like parchment.com, to keep track of your official grades, so be sure you know how to navigate this system and request an official transcript (bonus points if you check in with your guidance counselor on this). Be sure to keep up your grades as you enter your junior and senior years, as these notoriously tend be times when students begin to let their grades slip.

 

 

Legal Documentation (i.e. Photo ID, Social Security Card, Birth Certificate)

Talk to your parents about any legal documentation that you’re not sure about, and be sure to find out where you can locate them if need be. For your Photo ID, you may need something like a passport picture or a driver’s license to officially identify yourself.

 

 

Official Standardized Test Scores

Note that these documents typically have to be submitted directly from the testing center in order to be official. Most testing agencies will allow you to submit a limited number of score reports for free directly after you have taken a test; for example, the College Board gives you the opportunity to send four free SAT score reports to four colleges of your choice. Of course, this option may not be your best choice if you do not feel confident in your test scores, but it is available for you.

 

 

Medical Records

Remember the last time you got a shot? Your medical records are important to submit to so that colleges can ensure you are up to date with any required shots, vaccinations, and other required procedures before you attend their institution.

 

 

Develop a Relationship with Your Teachers and Find Strong Recommenders

During class, make sure that you maintain all the qualities of a hardworking, inquisitive student–raise your hand when you know the answer to a problem, don’t hold back in asking any curious questions you might have, and keep engaged in the class. Make sure to further maintain a good relationship with your teacher and a status as a responsible and kind student by turning your assignments in on time, cooperating and contributing in a group, and working to help other students when possible.

 

Also, keep a mental note of your actions in class, especially anything remarkable or difficult that you do; when teachers write recommendation letters, they could use specific ideas you provide them as springboards for a personalized, strong letter. It would be in your best interest to begin asking for college recommendation letters as early as the end of junior year, though keep in mind that you will have more teachers who you might love in your senior year.

 

 

Boost Your Grades and Extracurricular Activities

Leadership in your Extracurricular Activities

By around your junior year, you should aim to have your core extracurricular activities established, only keeping your favorite ones and ridding yourself of any that you didn’t enjoy as much. At this point, it is important to maintain robust involvement in your favorite clubs and to begin pursuing leadership positions that will allow you to improve the club for the future and take an active role that will catch admissions officers’ eyes.  

 

Also make sure to establish a rapport with the club’s leaders, actively communicating with them and attending the club’s activities. Be sure to interact with the club’s members as well and allow friendships to develop naturally.

 

 

Classes and Grades

Your junior year classes should be some of the most challenging courses you take during your time in high school. Junior year is when many students have finished their school’s core class requirements and can begin pursuing a specific subject more deeply or simply take more advanced courses in a variety of areas. Make sure you choose challenging courses that will allow college admissions officers to see you are willing to work hard and are taking initiative in furthering your education.

 

Of course, it is not enough to choose challenging courses and fail them, so be sure to maintain solid grades in your classes. Know yourself–do not overload yourself with difficult courses that you think will impress colleges if you know that the workload will be overwhelmingly difficult for you to manage. You do not want to find yourself losing sleep and hardly passing your classes! Be sure to be reasonable, both for your own sake and for the sake of your college applications. Colleges like to see an upward trend in your grades or, at the very least, some kind of stability in your grades.

 

 

Begin to Think about College Application Essays

As a junior or a sophomore, you won’t know for sure what essay prompts you will have to answer when you complete your college applications. Even the Common Application essays change every four years, so you may not have an idea of what questions will come out during your specific year. Nonetheless, even without specific prompts to look at, you can be sure of one thing in these essays: that schools will want to know all about you. What qualities and experiences make up your identity?  What major(s) do you want to pursue and why? How have you exhibited growth over time, from childhood to adulthood?

 

Start thinking about these questions and jotting down notable ideas that pop in your head. As you go through your underclassman years, make a mental note of your biggest passions and why you love them. If you love swimming, for example, perhaps you participated in an exchange of sportsmanship during a particular meet that resulted in a continuing friendship.

 

Of course, colleges will also want to know why you’ve chosen their particular institution and how you would contribute or fit in there, so do some research on the schools you’re interested in. Find out about school traditions and compare them to your own, or maybe think about the opportunities available to you and how they tie in with your own interests. These are just some ideas to get you started, but the possibilities are endless.

 

 

Summing It All Up

The above tips are just ways to get started in thinking about the college applications process.  So, as a sophomore or junior, there is no need to feel helpless or sit idly by as the seniors around you scramble to finish what you’ll be working on in but a year or two.  By the time your own senior year rolls around, you’ll be ready to tackle whatever comes your way–and with sleep to spare.

 

Looking for help with your college applications? Check out our College Application Guidance Program. When you sign up for our program, we carefully  pair you with the perfect admissions specialist based on your current academic and extracurricular profile and the schools in which you’re interested. Your personal specialist will help you with branding, essays, and interviews, and provide you with support and guidance in all other aspects of the application process.

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Ruth Xing

Ruth Xing

Applications Manager at CollegeVine
Ruth is a student at Cornell University studying Math, English, and Music. At CollegeVine, she works primarily as Applications Manager and enjoys helping students achieve their unique ideas of success.
Ruth Xing