How to be Successful in the Game of College Planning: Why You Should Begin No Later Than Your Junior Year

February 27, 2020

By: Kelly Alblinger

Staff Writer

college planning tips, successful college planning tips, college planning Why You Should Begin No Later Than Your Junior Year

College planning can sometimes feel like a high-stakes game – a couple of wrong moves, and you get benched without warning. When it comes to choosing a college, there’s a lot riding on your decisions, but there’s no need to panic. The secret to scoring a win is TIME. Being proactive with your college planning during junior year is a smart move; read on to find out WHY and HOW.

WHY Should I Start Planning So Early?

First, it forces you to get your head in the game. Higher education is no longer a “someday” thing – it’s around the corner, and the time has come to start laying the foundation for your future. Selecting a college is a very personal process, and often provokes uncomfortable emotions. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed – there is so much new information coming at you; it can feel like you need a playbook to understand it all. You are being asked to make decisions about your future, and unless you have an overriding passion for a particular field of study, the decision-making process can be confusing. Fortunately, starting early with your planning allows you to work through those emotions, reach out for assistance, and reduce the panic and pressure that causes poor decisions.

Second, you have the luxury of time to do the following: 

  • Have regular meetings with your guidance counselor to make sure you are completing the correct classes and extracurricular activities for the type of college you want to attend.

Ask questions: does my GPA qualify me for the level of colleges I am looking into? Do I need another language class for an international program? Can I take summer school to increase a poor grade?

  • At this stage of the game, you are not in panic mode – you still have plenty of time to bring up sagging grades, start an extracurricular activity, and find a Spanish tutor, especially if you are a sophomore or early junior.
  • If you are an athlete planning to play Division I or II in college, you can begin the certification process and ensure that your core curriculum meets NCAA requirements.
  • Take the PSAT and a practice ACT. Not only is it good practice for the SAT, but it will pinpoint your weak areas so you can focus on improvement.

You’ve already taken the PSAT and/or Practice ACT? Great! Now it’s time to focus on a study plan.

  • Start checking off one to-do item at a time, which will leave you feeling accomplished and ahead of the game in your senior year.

HOW Do I Get It All Done?

Third, you can develop a smart schedule. Star athletes don’t wait until the championship game is upon them before honing their skills. They schedule regular practice sessions during the pre-season, knowing that every effort moves them in a positive direction. By choosing to be proactive, you avoid a considerable amount of anxiety. Depending upon the number of schools selected, you could potentially find yourself putting in 15-20 hours of extra work weekly if you wait until the application season arrives. Not only is that idea panic-inducing, but you also risk missing out on the fun aspects of senior year if you are buried under a mountain of applications. Do yourself a favor by scheduling and completing at least one college planning task each month.

You’ll be relieved to know that it’s not as difficult as you think.

This is your pre-season period. Use the time wisely to explore your options and figure out what you really want from college. The following are some suggestions about how to prepare for the application season.

Research Schools:

Start by creating a list of school priorities:

  • Location
  • Size
  • Academic majors
  • Special programs/advanced degree programs
  • Cost

Next, meet with a counselor or research colleges online and develop a preliminary list of schools that meet most of your criteria. Remember, this isn’t about where your friends plan to go – this is about  you  and your specific interests. When you find a school that fits your needs, your new tribe will be waiting for you.

Keep in mind that this is a complex process, and the goal is more about eliminating the schools that are not a match for you, rather than scoring a win immediately. Dedicating an hour a week to exploring the options will benefit you in the long run by helping you choose a school where you feel comfortable academically, socially, and financially.

Why You Should Begin No Later Than Your Junior Year, college planning tips, successful college planning tips

Ask for Assistance

It’s a good idea to do preliminary research on your own, checking out college websites and getting a feel for different institutions. But with so many schools vying for students, how do you know that you’re making a good choice? Rely on the experts. Work with your guidance counselor, or an independent educational counselor, or find an online platform that will help narrow the selections according to your specific criteria. Once you have done that, you are ready to schedule college tours. Visiting various campuses will allow you to envision yourself in the space and help you decide if you feel comfortable with the campus environment.

Approach your college planning like an athlete approaches their sport: there is a short season that REALLY counts, but you’ve got to invest the effort in advance to be ready. Take advantage of the time you have, consult with experts, and develop a comprehensive game plan. Once you have given yourself every advantage and you understand the game, you are sure to end up a winner.

Write & Revise

College essays and personal statements are important, and you want to make sure they accurately reflect who you are and the goals you’ve set for yourself. While you won’t begin writing these statements until the summer between junior and senior year, this is the time to begin brainstorming ideas. The topics will typically reflect your own life experiences; this is how the admissions people get to know you and decide if you are a viable candidate for their school.

However, junior year is a great time to begin assembling your student resume and brag sheet. Colleges want to know about your achievements, interests, and hobbies. Brag sheets are also an excellent resource for the teachers, coaches, and mentors from whom you will be requesting letters of recommendation.

Use this time to take stock of your life as a whole. Look beyond your school experiences. Take into account the obstacles you’ve encountered or hardships you have overcome. What have you learned from these events? For example, have you (or a close friend/family member) overcome or learned to live with a disability? What role did you play in that? What lessons do you take away from the experience? Do you have other significant accomplishments? Have you climbed a mountain or tutored children or raised an animal? What inspired you to stick with it? That’s the inside information colleges are seeking. What makes you who you are?

It takes time to write an articulate statement, so give yourself that gift. You may discover during this introspective process that your goals differ from what you initially believed, and that revelation will give you greater clarity about the types of programs you should investigate.


  • www.petersons.com/blog/11th-grade-college-planning-timeline/
  • www.myfuture.com/college/planning/college-planning-timeline
  • www.khanacademy.org/college-careers-more/college-admissions/get-started/introduction-ca/a/master-timeline-college-admissions

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