Young man with school book
You probably aren’t surprised to hear that planning for college shifts into high gear in your junior year of high school. Your objectives: to prepare yourself for the standardized tests, to understand the admissions process, and to end the year with a well-researched list of schools that you will apply to during your senior year. We’ve included a junior year planner to help keep you focused as you take those first steps toward college. Remember, your guidance counselor is an important resource – keep in touch from the moment you start thinking seriously about college:

Sign up for the PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test). This test gives you an indication of how well you will score on the SAT and is necessary for you to be eligible for a National Merit Scholarship. You should also start to consider if you should take the ACT test in addition to the SAT. You don’t have to decide that right now but it is worth learning more about. Remember, your guidance counselor is here to help with your questions.

September/ October
Communicate with your guidance counselor and family as you start to research schools. Discuss your interests, academic standing, budget, geographic areas you’re considering, and other relevant concerns. Research schools you are interested in online. Remember not to rely exclusively on official websites and materials; get real students’ points of view by examining online student newspapers and social media. Find students who went to your high school who are currently enrolled in the college(s) you want to attend, and talk to them about their experiences. The more you learn at this stage, the easier the rest of the process will be.

Take the PSAT/NMSQT. Continue your research. Don’t get overwhelmed!

Some colleges and universities offer early admission or an early decision program. If this option is one you are considering, you need to register to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) by the fall of your senior year. Discuss the value of early admission with your guidance counselor; it may be the way to go if you have one “favorite” college, but you will usually have to commit to attending the school before you know what their financial aid offer is. If you do decide on early admission, start reviewing for the SATs. There are a variety of SAT preparation plans ranging from online practice tests to school-sponsored programs to private, paid prep classes. Keep in mind these also vary greatly in cost so make sure you determine what the right choice is for you and your family.

College is expensive, and financial aid is a major concern for most college students. Start to investigate financial aid options and scholarship opportunities with your guidance counselor. Sit down with your parents and discuss what you and your family can afford to spend on college. There is lots of aid available, but there are also many students seeking it.

Keep in mind that there are good schools in every price range, from community colleges and trade schools to state colleges up to the Ivy League. Remember, other college financing strategies, including student loans and home equity loans, are available through your credit union.

Include them as part of your financial research – they are there to help!

Check with your guidance counselor for dates to register for the SATs or the ACT if you plan to take them late in your junior year or early in your senior year. Spring break is a great time for you and your parents to start visiting the schools on your list; make sure that each school is in session then, so you can see things in action and talk to the students. Continue your visits through the end of the school year.

Continue to visit colleges, and start to narrow down your choices. Some colleges have summer weekend programs for prospective students; take advantage of these to get additional insight and on-campus experience. Continue to narrow your perspective choices based on how well each school fits your long-term goals, financial situation and other factors you’ve deemed important. Ideally, you should be happy to attend any school on your shortlist because you’ve done the research, visited, checked them out thoroughly and know that each will meet your needs. Good job!