AP, IB, PSAT, SAT, ACT… Junior year is full of acronyms, all of which stand for yet another potentially stressful step in the lengthy college application process. Before you and your child get overwhelmed by sheer volume, however, take a deep breath and approach it like any other daunting task: start early, plan ahead, and ease in slowly.
Sound impossible? When well-planned, even standardized tests can be eased into. “After taking the PSAT in the fall, take the spring SAT or ACT, just to get a feel for what it feels like to take a test that long,” says educational consultant Karen Plescia of Leslie Goldberg and Associates in Braintree, Massachusetts. “The other benefit to taking [the test] ‘early’ is that you can use the summer for test prep, if you choose.”
Plescia also recommends her students ease into the college visitation process—check out just a few campuses in the fall of junior year, rather than cramming them into summer and spring break. That way you and your child can see school in session, and maybe even sit in on a few classes. “It’s best to visit at a time when students are on campus, as it gives you a true feel for the people there,” Plescia adds. Regardless of timing, however, Plescia suggests easing in to any college visit by doing plenty of research online first.
Even if you cannot make it on to a college campus, junior year is the ideal time to begin composing a realistic list of schools. Not sure where to begin? Educational consultant David Altshuler of Miami, Florida says it's important to find the connection between a student and a school by determining priorities and values, and finding schools that fit that criteria. After they create their list of criteria, with items ranging from geographic location to athletics to extracurriculars, Altshuler has his clients research each school on each data point, and then compare the findings. “Just a few moments ago, I ran a March Madness tournament with one of my students. We’d created a bracket of schools together, he’d done the research on various points, and then we pitted them against one another in order to narrow the list by criteria. BU edged out Georgetown, Tufts lost to Wake Forest, and so on.”
Being prepared and staying ahead of the curve also means familiarizing yourself with the particulars of your high school’s approach to college applications, well before you need to avail yourself of its services. “Know what your high school’s process is, even if you are working with an outside educational consultant,” Plescia says. Some schools charge for certain items, like transcripts; most, if not all, have deadlines. “Make yourself aware of what you need to do,” Plescia says, and then do it well in advance.
Finally, ease in to the recommendation requests by approaching teachers in the spring of junior year, rather than waiting until the last minute the following fall. “Many teachers are inundated with requests and cannot write for everyone,” Plescia cautions. Remember that the student is asking for the letter, not demanding it. And, as with the rest of the process, be sure that it’s the student, not the parent, who makes the request. The same hold true for applications. “Put it on the table at the beginning and then let [your child] own it. If they’re not doing the work, maybe they’re not ready to go,” Plescia says.
Last, but certainly not least, while approaching each of these steps with sincerity and seriousness, do not forget to take time for academics and down time. “Colleges look seriously at junior year academics, so it’s important to continue doing the best you can with the most rigorous coursework you can handle,” says Pearl Glassman, an education consultant based in New York. Be equally sure to make time for healthy fun and relaxation, lest your child look elsewhere for stress relief. “Juniors have to be wary of parties and underage drinking,” warns educational consultant Peggy Baker of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “It is problematic when you have to explain to a college why you got suspended.” Take it easy from the get-go, however, and there should be nothing to explain – other than why you’re all still relaxed.