Junior year is when college planning and preparation kicks into high gear. Keep your student on track with these four tips.
1. Keep the focus on academics
Encourage your child to enroll in at least one Advanced Placement (AP) class. Students who participate in an AP course can take the corresponding AP exam in May and, depending on their score, may earn college credit. Most American colleges and universities will give students credit for AP scores of 3 or above. Students who do well on AP exams are also able to take more advanced coursework when they arrive at college.
Also consider dual enrollment courses, which allow students to earn credits for college courses taken while still in high school. These are offered through cooperation with sponsoring colleges and may lead to significant savings on college education because most high schools cover the bulk of the costs for dual enrollment courses.
Review your child’s high school transcript and course schedule against high school graduation requirements and college admission criteria. What classes does your student still need to take? If you’re not sure, a meeting with their guidance counselor can help them clarify expectations and plot a reasonable course through the remainder of high school.
2. Support your child in standardized testing
Nearly all colleges consider ACT or SAT scores in the admission process—and many use these scores as eligibility criteria for merit-based scholarships. Taking one (or both) of these tests during junior year gives your student the best possibility to maximize their score because they still have plenty of time to retake the test if necessary. Students can take the ACT up to 12 times; there’s no limit for the SAT.
Make sure you and your student know which test is preferred by the colleges your child is interested in attending. Some schools will accept either the ACT or SAT, but some require one or the other.
It’s a good idea for you and your student to familiarize yourselves with the test format well in advance of the test date. You can easily find practice tests online, and many libraries carry SAT and ACT test prep books that include practice exams.
Pricey test prep services aren’t necessary. According to Leah Ingram, author of The Complete Guide to Paying for College: Save Money, Cut Costs, and Get More for Your Education Dollar, test prep is “only a good investment after your child has taken the test at least once. See what their scores come back as, then look at your student’s target schools and figure out if a class or tutor makes sense.”
If the average ACT score for admitted students at your child’s dream school is 29 and your child scored a 26, additional tutoring or test prep might help them earn a few extra points on a retake of the exam. That was the case for Ingram’s daughter: “She had great overall SAT scores but wanted to pursue engineering, so we needed to get her math scores higher into the 700s,” she says. “We invested in a tutor who worked with her for a few months, she took the test again, and the outcome was what we hoped.”
3. Schedule college visits
Most students submit college applications in the fall of their senior year, so high school juniors should work on narrowing down their choices. Encourage your child to attend college fairs. These events give students the opportunity to meet with representatives of many different schools to ask questions and gather information.
Ask your students which colleges they’re considering and why. These discussions will help you better understand your child’s goals and desires so you can offer useful guidance. A student who wants a Greek experience on campus, for instance, should be shown how to comb college websites for information about fraternities and sororities.
Then help them schedule college visits. “Your student needs to know what he or she wants or doesn’t want in a college, and sometimes being in the space is the only way to determine that,” Ingram says. In-person campus visits allow students to go beyond the glossy veneer presented in college marketing materials and see what it’s really like to live and study on a particular campus.
Encourage your student to sit in on a class, tour the dorms, check out recreational opportunities, and talk to as many people as possible when on campus, including current students and professors.
You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on college visits. You can begin your search by “visiting nearby schools with different architecture (gothic, colonial, traditional, modern) and different campus structures (traditional quad, spread out, multiple campuses, urban, rural) to figure out what feels right to your student,” Ingram says. If a dream school is too far away, select colleges may offer fly-in programs that are worth investigating.
Another option is to utilize what Bobbi Dempsey, author of Degrees of Desperation: The Working-Class Struggle to Pay for College, calls “next best thing” alternatives, including virtual reality tours now offered by some colleges. She also advises joining Facebook groups and message boards for particular schools so you can get insider information about what life is really like on campus.
4. Consider costs
If you haven’t already discovered your expected family contribution (EFC), the amount of money colleges will expect you to contribute toward your child’s education, you need to figure it now. A variety of online calculators, including the College Board’s EFC calculator, can help you determine your likely EFC, which is used to determine eligibility for financial aid.
Once you have your EFC, you and your student can use the net price calculators available on every college website to estimate what it might cost for your child to attend specific schools. (Pro tip: The easiest way to find a college’s net price calculator is to type it into the website’s search bar.)
“It won’t be easy to determine probable merit aid before a student has much of an academic profile, but you can play with grades and test scores to see what kind of merit [aid] pops ups,” says Joanna Nesbit, a writer who covers college for U.S. News & World Report.
It’s also time to begin exploring scholarships, if your students haven’t already. Begin by looking into scholarship opportunities offered by your state. “Washington, for instance, offers a robust STEM scholarship for qualifying students attending college in state,” Nesbit says. “California has a good need grant [CalGrant], and Florida has the Bright Futures scholarship. New York has the Excelsior scholarship for families earning less than about $110,000.”
You can use sites like Fastweb to browse lots of scholarship opportunities, but it’s a mistake to rely on one website. “The competition for large, big-name scholarships can be really tough, so it’s wise to check into local and regional scholarships,” says Dempsey. “They may be for smaller amounts, but you likely have much better odds of winning.”
Related: Scholarship Search Best Practices
For more advice on how to help your high school student succeed, check out our Parents section.