The Ultimate Get-into-College Guide for high school juniors

September 9, 2019

Junior year of high school. 

The year of the SAT and tough classes. The year college visits begin. The year you’ll be asked to consider careers and potential majors. The year you (and your parents) become overwhelmed by the college admissions process.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

If you approach the college search with the right mindset and the right information, junior year can be a time when you discover who you are and where you’ll thrive during your college years. 

Let’s start with mindset. 

I love meeting students who approach the college search with an open mind. They’re inquisitive and curious about what a school offers. They don’t restrict themselves to only looking at schools with a major in [insert super-specific field of study]. They don’t assume they’d only like a place that is a particular size or distance from home, and they’re not influenced by where friends have attended or by where a college ranks on a list. 

I encourage you to fight the tendency to make your search super-specific as a junior. When you start looking at colleges early, you’re giving yourself time to explore. So do it. 

Take the time to visit, research, and seek advice from your high school counselor or your parents. Accept that this process is a marathon and not a sprint, and that it may take time to find your dream school. But the work you put into finding the right place for you will be well worth it!

Consider a range of schools, especially during junior year. The college search is entirely your own, so get excited to find a place that suits your own learning style, interests, personality and budget. Along the way, you’ll probably find a school or two that really surprise you—schools that wouldn’t have otherwise made it to your short list.

Once you get into the right mindset, it’s important to get the right information. You may not know where to start. Or, you may be relying on the experiences of others (which may or may not be the best advice for you).

Here are some important things for juniors to know and do:

Take standardized tests … or apply test-optional. 
Take the ACT and SAT practice tests to see which one feels better and allows you to perform the best. Then, plan to take the real thing for the first time by spring of junior year. 

But, if testing isn’t your forte, know that at many schools (including Augustana), you don’t have to be defined by a test score. Look into colleges that offer test-optional admission.

Select good courses and watch your GPA. 
For many colleges (including Augustana), the courses you take are just as important as the GPA you earn. Choose a few colleges that interest you and check their recommendations for how many years to take certain high school subjects. 

Take honors, AP or IB classes in any subject you’re able. This shows colleges that you’re challenging yourself and helps set you up for success once you get to college.

Start your résumé. 
If you’re like many high school students, there are a lot of things that make you who you are: sports, music, volunteering, clubs or church, a part-time job… just to name a few. 

Get your activities and accomplishments onto a résumé! This will help when your start your college (and scholarship) applications. You’ll have a document to refer back to if you draw a blank while writing your essays, and it can also be helpful to share during college visits or interviews. 

If you’ve asked a teacher, coach or boss to write you a letter of recommendation, they will appreciate the reference material, too. 

Make a good impression. 
Your high school counselor and at least one of your teachers will be important to your college search, so junior year is a great time to build those relationships. Your counselor has helped hundreds (or maybe thousands) of students looking for colleges, so don’t underestimate his/her expertise. 

Show your counselor you’re serious about college by asking good questions, meeting deadlines, and attending college prep workshops or parent nights. 

You’ll also likely need a teacher (or two) to write a letter of recommendation on your behalf for both school and scholarship applications. If you want your letter to shine, it’s important that your teacher knows you well. So participate in discussions and ask for help when you need it.

Create a college email address. 
You’re going to get a lot of college information in the next few months, so it’s best to stay as organized as possible. Create a new email account that’s just for college correspondence. Use it when you request information from a school and when you’re taking standardized tests. 

Not only will this help you keep college correspondence separate from your other messages, it will help your professional image. Something like is a great place to start – keep it appropriate and avoid nicknames, inside jokes, etc.

You may also consider sharing the account with your parents so they can see what information you’re receiving and help you along the way. 

Choose a major… or not. 
You may think that a major is the first thing you need to know to begin your college search. And while that may be true for some larger universities or very specific direct-admit programs, it’s not usually the case. 

If you’re unsure about what you want to study, you’re not alone!, Don’t let that squelch your confidence or excitement for the college search. Look for colleges that suit your learning style, offer support and advising to help students choose majors, and where you feel a connection to the overall learning and teaching philosophies. 

A lot of incoming students think they’ll never graduate in four years if they don’t know their major on day one. At Augustana, the earliest students can declare a major is the end of their first year, and most choose a major during the sophomore year. And many students change their majors. Still, 93% of graduating students finish in four years (and more than 40% complete double majors!). 

That’s the power of great advising and a curriculum that allows students to explore and find their path.

Find your “fit” … and also get ready to be inspired.
If there’s one phrase that’s overused in college admission, it might just be “find your fit.” To a student, “fit” may feel obscure or intimidating, so at Augustana, we like to break down it into three categories: academic, co-curricular and social. 

Keep in mind that fit goes both ways: you can use the three categories to find a college that suits you, and a college can use the categories to determine whether you can succeed there. 

At the end of the day, you may think a school looks great on paper, but if you don’t fit well into their academic profile, you can’t continue with the activity you love the most, or you just don’t feel comfortable, then it may not be the school for you. Even if it’s highly ranked. Even if it’s where your best friend goes. And even if it has the program you think you’ll major in. 

When you stay true to the concept of fit, it’s much more likely you’ll find a campus where you’ll thrive. 

Also keep in mind that this is not a totally strict formula. For example, Augustana seniors often say they discovered way more than they had imagined when they first started college. 

So choose the college that feels right but also inspires you—maybe in new ways. The diverse people and places you’ll encounter, the things you’ll learn and the experiences you’ll have, will open up so many more opportunities than you can know right now. 

Meet your admissions reps. 
Take time to connect with admissions representatives from the colleges you’re considering. Reps are usually assigned by high school, so you can find your contact person by searching online or calling the Office of Admissions. 

Many colleges (including Augustana) value interactions you’ve had with the school – if you’ve demonstrated that you’re interested, that means something to us. Attending meetings at your school with your admissions rep, attending a college fair, or emailing the school are great ways to show your interest and get more personalized information about the college. 

Visit campus! 
No list of what to do during junior year would be complete without a plug to visit colleges. But truly, a visit is the best way to see if a campus is somewhere you could call home. 

Senior year (and application time) will be here before you know it, so use junior year to see as many campuses as possible, since you’ll likely return to your favorites next year for a more in-depth experience. 

The first visit is really about seeing if you even like a place, so I typically recommend a tour and information session or a larger visit day to start. Both of those experiences are low stakes (for you), and will give you a great overview of the school. 

If they leave you wanting more, that’s probably a good sign that it’s a place to keep on your list. Colleges love to connect you with current students, professors, coaches, etc. So if you don’t meet someone during a visit, ask for personal follow-up.

Work hard in your classes and make decisions that are best for you. Enjoy time with your friends, and build relationships with your teachers. Don’t be paralyzed by what you think colleges would or wouldn’t want. 

Above all, have fun. 
There is a college out there for you. A place that will suit you well and allow you to thrive. You just have to find it, or be open to it finding you.

College is serious business, but also seriously fun. So have fun—not only as a junior, but as a senior. Make time to do the things most important to you, and then take that energy and momentum with you to college.