For those of us who live in New England, and especially for those of us who are Red Sox fans, February means the return of spring. As pitchers, catchers, and position players slowly make their way to sunny Florida for the start of the marathon that is the Major League Baseball season, baseball fans throughout the region know that in a few short months, the same warmth that our favorite players are enjoying in the south will soon settle in here.
Along with thoughts of sunshine, green grass, and warm days, my colleagues and I also look forward to the spring when it comes to our college planning work with our 11th graders. For the first half of the school year, juniors have been hyper focused on performing well in their daily coursework and exams, working hard on standardized test preparations, and pursuing their extracurricular passions. While not completely uneventful, the first half of junior year can be somewhat of a grind for many, with few short-term milestones in sight.
With the onset of spring, much will change – both in nature and in the college planning process. And while performance in the classroom remains a top priority, there are several new tasks at hand for our juniors to pay close attention to as they make their way towards the end of the school year.
For many juniors, they will sit for their first ACT or SAT this spring. The pressure surrounding these tests has continued to grow over the last decade, but fortunately, more and more schools, including some of the nation’s top colleges, are moving towards a test optional or test flexible model, providing students the opportunity to decide if their standardized test scores accurately reflect their abilities or not. And while this trend is growing, there are still many colleges and universities that rely heavily on test scores. To help our students best navigate this process, we encourage all of them to prepare and sit for the ACT or SAT in order to keep every option open for themselves. Along with these two tests, we also encourage many of our students to consider taking one of the 20 SAT Subject Tests which are offered by The College Board. Finally, for many of our international students, particularly those whose first language is not English, the spring is a great time to sit for either the TOEFL or the IELTS – two English proficiency tests that are required for non-native speakers. Just as the development of the college list is unique to each one of our students, so too is the testing plan that we create with our students. Standardized testing is not “one size fits all” and we enjoy assisting our students with finding the plan that suits them best.
While standardized testing rarely falls into the “most favorite part of my college planning process” category, visiting colleges often does. The spring is an ideal time to get on college campuses to see life in action, to participate in information sessions, and to take tours. As we continue to work through the development of college lists with our students, it is essential for students to begin to make visits in order to identify those qualities and characteristics that will be most important to them when finding the right fit college or university. Academic offerings, signature programs, extracurricular offerings, research and internship opportunities, size and location are all important elements to consider, as is campus culture. There is no better way to determine fit than to get on campus while these institutions are in session.
Two important school-related tasks that our juniors tackle in the spring are course planning for senior year and choosing who will write their teacher recommendations. Selecting the right courses for senior year – courses which are both challenging but also allow students to earn as high a grade point average (GPA) as possible – is critical in the college planning process. Understanding the nuances of certain Advanced Placement offerings, which math and science classes are necessary for certain majors, and whether to continue with a foreign language or take two history classes are all common discussion points and important ones to have with your McMillan counselor. Along with these discussions, selecting who will write teacher recommendations is also key. While colleges are data junkies and look carefully at grades, scores, and extracurricular involvement, teacher recommendations provide them with a lense into the daily lives and contributions of their applicants, so choosing the right teachers to handle this important task is critical. Some students arrive to this process knowing exactly who they will ask, having forged strong relationships with their teachers during the course of their junior year. Others face a less certain path and will wrestle with who to select. In either instance, finding teachers who can positively speak to one’s work ethic, character, willingness to take intellectual risks, and overall contributions to their class is key, so we advise our students to think carefully and to engage in conversations with their McMillan counselor in February and March in order to be prepared to ask the right teachers in April and May.
Finally, along with continuing on with previously established extracurricular involvement – and perhaps exploring new opportunities that may present themselves – junior spring is the time to plan for the summer. Many of our students will find jobs, others will invest themselves in volunteerism, and others will participate in academic programs at colleges and universities. Each of these options provide opportunities for growth and development and are not only personally enriching, but helpful in the college planning and application process. Make no mistake, the summer between junior and senior year is BUSY with application essay writing, college visits, and for some students, continued test prep, but creating a plan now will allow for a more productive – and less stressful – summer. After all, isn’t that the way summer should be?