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How to Plan for College in 11th Grade: 8 Expert Tips


For many high school students, junior year causes tremendous anxiety because of its importance in the college planning process. Students are generally aware that what they do in the 11th grade matters to colleges, but they don't know exactly how to plan for college.

In this article, I'll thoroughly explain everything you should be doing in the 11th grade to plan for college. If you're organized and equipped with this knowledge, you'll be able to successfully complete your junior year and increase the likelihood that you'll reach your college goals. Furthermore, I'll discuss aspects of college planning that you don't have to worry about in your junior year.


This Is the Most Important Year for College Planning

Because your junior year is your last full year of school before you apply to college, it’s the most pivotal year in the college planning process. Your junior year grades are the last full year of grades colleges will see before they make admissions decisions. It’s the last complete academic year you have to learn about colleges and the financial aid process before deciding where you’ll attend.


How to Make Your Junior Year Less Stressful

Many students become incredibly anxious and stressed out during their junior year because they realize the stakes and feel overwhelmed by all their responsibilities.You can minimize your stress in 11th grade and reach your college goals by following our complete college application timeline.

If you start working on your college planning in 9th grade, you’ll have much less to worry about and do when your junior year rolls around. Also, if you’ve excelled academically in your freshman and sophomore years, you can be confident in your abilities to do well in your junior year.



What Do You Need to Do?

All college-bound juniors have a number of responsibilities during their junior years. Here are eight tips on how to plan for college and maximize your options.


#1: Take the Right Classes

The classes you take will greatly influence your college options. You should have been taking a college prep curriculum during your first two years of high school. If you didn’t, talk to your counselor about what you should do to become eligible for admission to college. You may have to take additional courses at your high school, online, or at a local community college. You can look at college websites to view their requirements for admission.

Colleges will evaluate you based on the classes you’ve taken. Colleges, especially selective colleges, want to see that you’re challenging yourself and taking some of the hardest classes that are offered at your school.

You don’t have to take every single honors or AP class, but to get into elite schools, you should demonstrate that you can do well in the most difficult classes. I recommend taking honors or AP classes in the subjects you're best at and the subjects you're considering studying in college.

Here's an example of a good junior year schedule for a student who wants to be competitive for selective colleges. Note that this is just a rough guide, and you can take a more or less challenging schedule depending on your skill level and the courses offered at your high school:

  • AP Biology
  • Precalculus
  • Honors American Literature
  • AP US History
  • Honors French III
  • PE
  • Elective

Ultimate Goal: Have a schedule of challenging classes you can do well in.





#2: Get Good Grades

Not to put too much pressure on you, but your junior year grades are the most important for college admissions. They’re the last full academic year grades colleges will see before they make admissions decisions; colleges may not even get to see your first semester senior year grades, especially if you choose to apply early.

If you didn’t do as well as you wanted in your freshman or sophomore year, you can use your junior year to demonstrate your improvement and show that you’re capable of succeeding in college. Learn how to get a 4.0 and better grades.

If you don't do as well as you'd like in your junior year, it doesn't necessarily mean that your college dreams are shattered, though. You can make up for lower grades with higher test scores and exceptional achievements in your extracurricular activities. Additionally, if there's some extenuating circumstance that causes a dip in your junior year grades, you can explain the situation on your college application.

Ultimate Goal: Get the best grades you can.



#3: Get/Stay Involved in Extracurriculars

Other than your grades and test scores, your extracurricular activities probably have the biggest influence on the quality of your college applications. Colleges want their students to have exceptional achievements outside of the classroom, and they’re looking for individuals who use their leisure time to pursue their passions.

Some students believe they need to be well-rounded and do a ton of extracurriculars; however, to get into elite colleges, it may be more advantageous for you to develop a “spike” and exhibit excellence in a particular activity or field.

If you play a sport, you can focus your energies on reaching the highest level in your sport and becoming a recruited athlete. If you excel in science, you can use your time outside of school to prepare for and compete in science fairs and competitions. Additionally, you can take extra science classes at a community college or volunteer to help a professor with research.

Colleges prefer to see a sustained commitment to your activities, so if you participated in extracurriculars in your first two years of high school, you should try to stick with those activities, if possible. If you were part of a club, try to get a leadership position in that club. If you wrote for the newspaper, maybe you can become an editor.

It's more impressive to show growth and accomplishments in the same activities than it is to start doing a bunch of activities in your junior year. Colleges want to see commitment and demonstrable achievement. Learn about the best extracurriculars for your college applications.

Ultimate Goal: Demonstrate excellence in your extracurricular activities.



Iqbal Osman/Flickr


#4: Prepare For and Take Standardized Tests

Ideally, you’ll be able to finish your standardized tests for college by the end of your junior year. That will free up time in your senior year to focus on your college applications, schoolwork, and extracurriculars. If you’ve been on top of the college planning process, you should have done some studying for the SAT/ACT in 9th and 10th grade. 

The SAT/ACT is an important component of your college applications. Figure out your target score, and if you’re trying to get into elite colleges, learn how to get a perfect score on the SAT or ACT.

We recommend taking the SAT/ACT for the first time in the fall of your junior year, and, if you don't do as well as you'd like, you can retake the test in the spring or in the fall of your senior year. If you haven’t done any preparation for the SAT/ACT before your junior year, you can spend the fall studying and then take the test in the winter or spring. However, if you wait to take the SAT/ACT, then you'll have less time to retake it if you don't get your target score on your first attempt.

Also, if you're interested in qualifying for a National Merit Scholarship, you should take the PSAT NMSQT in your junior year.

Finally, especially if you're hoping to get into selective colleges, you should take Advanced Placement tests in the spring. Often, if you’re taking an AP class, you’ll be required or strongly encouraged to take the AP test for that class. If you elected not to take an AP class or are at a school that doesn’t offer AP classes, you can still self-study for AP tests and take AP exams. Doing well on AP tests demonstrates your readiness to do college-level work, and you can receive college credit by passing AP tests.

Ultimate Goal: Achieve your target scores on the SAT/ACT and AP tests.


#5: Do Extensive College Research

You should have a good idea of which colleges you want to apply to by the beginning of your senior year. Therefore, you should do extensive college research in your junior year. You need to ensure you’re aware of all your college options and figure out exactly what you’re looking for in a college.

Do you want to go to a big or small college? Do you want to go to an urban, rural, or suburban school? Are you interested in a party school? An Ivy League school? A Big Ten school? A conservative school? A liberal school?

You can use college finders, college search websites, guidebooks, ranking lists, and college fairs to get a better idea of your college options and narrow your college search. Also, you may want to take college tours to check out different college campuses, learn more about the schools, and get a feel for colleges in person.

Additionally, if college representatives visit your school, you can speak with them and learn more about the schools they represent. Consult with other people who are knowledgeable about the college application and selection process. You can talk with your counselor, teachers, parents, college alumni, or current college students. Ask about specific colleges or the application process; if you're talking to somebody who knows you well, you can seek advice about which schools may be a good fit for you.

Ultimate Goal: Figure out what you're looking for in a college and create a preliminary list of schools to apply to.




#6: Learn More About Financial Aid

Definitely, if you need financial aid to afford college, you should become knowledgeable about the financial aid process in your junior year.

Furthermore, as you’re researching colleges, you should inform yourself about each school’s financial aid. Learn which forms are required and use websites like College Scorecard and FAFSA4Caster to get a rough idea about how much you’ll have to pay to attend each school.

At this point, I recommend not disqualifying a school from consideration based on its cost or the financial aid you think you'll receive. You may end up getting scholarship money or receiving a more generous financial aid package than you're expecting.

Educate yourself about how to save and pay for college. Involve your parents and learn about financial aid with them. 

Ultimate Goal: Know how to apply for financial aid and get a rough idea of how much the schools you're considering will cost you.


#7: Apply for Scholarships

If the cost of college is a concern for you or you just want to alleviate the impending financial burden of paying for college, you can apply for scholarships in your junior year. Check out our expert advice on how to find scholarships.

Also, learn about the best scholarships for juniors. Most scholarships require an application and an essay, but you may be able to use the same essay for multiple scholarships. If you apply for more scholarships, you’ll have a better chance of winning some scholarship money.

You can qualify for specific scholarships based on your background, extracurricular activities, or academic achievement.

Ultimate Goal: Apply for four to five scholarships by the end of your junior year.



DigitalRalph, used under CC BY 2.0


#8: Ask Teachers for College Recommendations

It’s a good idea to ask your teachers if they’ll write your college recommendations in the spring of your junior year. By asking them early, they’ll be more likely to agree before they start getting tons of requests in your senior year. Furthermore, you’ll give them more time to consider what they’re going to write. Before asking, make sure you know which teachers to ask. Also, learn how to ask for recommendations.

Generally, it’s best to ask teachers from your junior year, and ideally, at least one of your recommenders should teach a subject related to what you want to study in college. Most colleges that require recommendations want at least two from core academic subject (math, science, English, history, or foreign language) teachers.

Ultimate Goal: Get your teachers to agree to write your college recommendations by the end of your junior year.


What Not to Worry About

While you should be doing thorough college planning in the 11th grade, you don’t need to have everything figured out by the end of your junior year. Here are some specific aspects of planning for college that you don’t need to stress about in your junior year.


Picking a College

Even though you should be narrowing your college search in your junior year and start thinking about how many colleges you’re going to apply to, you don’t need to have a dream school or top choice by the end of your junior year. At this point, it’s best to think about the qualities that your dream school would possess and keep a list of schools that could potentially be good for you.

Also, for the schools you’re interested in, you can use the PrepScholar admissions calculator to get a rough idea of your chances of getting accepted to each school. Just google “prepscholar (name of school) admissions” to find the profile for each school and use the admissions calculator. With the calculator, you can plug in your GPA and standardized test scores to get an estimate the percentage chance you have of getting into that school.

Based on your odds of getting accepted, you can start dividing your list into reach, target, and safety schools.


Completing Your College Applications

You don’t have to start working on your college applications and college essays in your junior year. If you want to be ahead of the game and make your senior year easier, it’s not a bad idea to start working on your college application essays in the summer before your senior year.

However, even early application deadlines usually aren’t until the beginning of November of your senior year. If you start working on your applications at the start of your senior year, you should have ample time to write and revise your essays, complete your applications, and send your transcript and test scores to colleges.


What's Next?

Are you planning on going on a college tour? Know great questions to ask.

Are you interested in selective colleges? Find out about the most selective colleges and how to get in.

Are you relying on ranking lists to make your college decision? Learn why using ranking lists may not be the best way to determine the best college for you.



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Justin Berkman
About the Author

Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.

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