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Juniors: Preparation is Primary

When high school juniors ask me about the best way to gain admission to competitive colleges, I am reminded of the story told about the elderly lady visiting New York city for the first time. The tourist approaches a New York street person and asks, "Young man, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?" The rather inebriated young man thinks for a moment and then answers, "Practice lady, practice." That is how I would answer the college admission question with the substitution of one word "Preparation, high school junior, preparation."

In fact, there are three "P" words that apply to the college-bound high school junior: preparation, persistence, and planning. Let's consider how each will help the college-bound student.


Preparation is the fundamental requirement for success in the college admission process and the transition to college life. Success in college is not about admission to college. Rather, it is about preparation to succeed in college. The most important element of that preparation is academics.

"The junior year is the most important year of all from the admission evaluation point of view." High school juniors will hear that admonition so often that they will grow weary of nodding in agreement. The fact remains that the junior year IS that important. The reasons are simple:

  • Colleges consider the most recent work the most important.

  • Most high school students will take an extremely challenging academic load in their junior year.

  • The junior year is the last complete year we will have to evaluate the student. This is particularly important if you are considering early decision or early action.
The junior year is also very important for students who are late in developing an academic orientation. If your junior year is strong, it will offset a less than stellar performance in the ninth and tenth grades. Admission officers look for positive trends. Improving grades will be evaluated far more positively than declining grades even though the GPA may be the same.


If you are applying to a competitive college or university, your extracurricular activities will be a factor in your evaluation. Many students make the mistake of thinking that they should provide a laundry list of activities demonstrating their remarkable powers of time management. Long lists of many interests may demonstrate little more than a dilettante's lack of commitment. What we really want to see in activities is commitment and dedication to a sport, a job, a student government position, an artistic endeavor, or other activities that you may choose. Persistence is highly prized by admission officers. Not only does it say something about your extracurricular strengths, it also speaks to your ability to focus on your studies.

Students often ask what is the best combination of extracurricular activities from an admission evaluation point of view. There really isn't any one set of activities that is best. My recommendation is to choose your activities early in your high school career and stay with them until you are able to make a significant contribution. That doesn't mean that you must be the captain, president, chairperson or other leadership personage. It does mean that you give enough of yourself to make a difference to the organization or activity in which you are involved. Your list may be short but if your involvement has deepened over time it will reflect your real growth as a person.

Your junior year is also a time to focus on your activities and step up to leadership positions or a higher level of achievement. It may be that you must eliminate some of your activities to allow time to do well in those tough junior year courses. Your parents are your counselor can help with those often-difficult decisions.


From the standpoint of the process of applying for college, nothing is more important that planning. You will need a strategy for several aspects of the process:

Getting more information: Direct mail will fill your mailbox for months with brochures, viewbooks, catalogs, and other recruitment literature. You need to set yourself a timetable to deal with all this information and distill it into useable information about the colleges that really interest you. The best way to do that is to critically look at your achievements in school and what features would constitute your ideal college. Make a list of the things you would like in the ideal college such as location, size, academic program, extracurricular offering, and any other important elements. Then you can evaluate the colleges that send you literature on your scale of desirable qualities. You can find colleges that fulfill your requirements in database searches such as EXPAN of the College Board and DISCOVER of the ACT, then contact them for more information. They will be glad to hear from you.

Test-taking: Deciding when to take the SATI, SATII and the ACT are important parts of your admission strategy. I recommend that students take the SATI in the spring of the junior year. SATIIs may be taken early in the high school career after you have taken biology or chemistry for example. The writing and mathematics tests should be taken late in the junior year and again in the fall of the senior year. SATII should also be repeated in the fall of the senior year and the ACT should be taken then as well.

The three-tier approach to choosing where to apply: College bound students should consider applying to colleges that have the qualities they want in three bands of selectivity: Most selective, selective and virtually sure picks. If your college choices fall into these three categories, you will have good options from which to choose--even if not all of your long-shots admit you.

Applying for admission and financial aid: Admission and financial aid deadlines vary from one institution to another. Although you cannot submit the Free Application for Federal Student Assistance (FAFSA) until after January 1 of the year in which you will enter college, there are other forms that you may submit before then including applications for many merit scholarships. Admission applications all differ in the items required such as processing fees, recommendation, essays, and preliminary applications. There is one unalterable rule of applying for admission and that is read the instructions.

There is a "P" to avoid in this process and that is procrastination. Putting off these important preparatory activities simply means that you will have to crunch everything into an ever-tightening time slot. One of my applicants once wrote of having discovered a new hormone, procrasterone that caused all those missed deadlines and late college applications. Until we find an antidote for procrasterone, you need to prepare, persist, and plan to overcome that most human of tendencies.

The junior year is a time when much of what you have been preparing for begins to crystallize. If you are mindful of preparation, persistence, and planning through the junior year and into your senior year, you will avoid petulance, paranoia, and panic. Good luck.

Contributed By:

R. Fred Zuker, Ph.D.
University of Dallas
Dean of Undergraduate Admission,
Financial Aid and Student Life

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