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The Checklist for College-bound Juniors

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

With another year mostly behind us, it’s time to take what we learned after a ride on this year’s college-go-round and pass it on to juniors.

Do let your interests, abilities, and needs guide your search for the colleges that are right for you.

Do notice that last sentence said “colleges”, not “college”.

Don’t think the rules for applying to college are the same as when your older sibling applied. Testing policies, admission rates, and application deadlines have changed in the last few years. Use the college websites to get the latest information.

Do take the SAT or ACT. Even if your list is all test-optional/no-test colleges, you may fall in love this fall with a college that requires them. Plus, a strong test score can improve your application status at a test-optional school. Just don’t send them until you see them.

Don’t forget online college tours are still around, and better than ever. The pandemic made just about every college invest more time and thought to their online tours, leading them to realize what they should have figured out a long time ago; students who can’t get to campus still deserve a great look at their school.

Do put together a list of colleges you’re interested in, if there are any right now. Throw them in a spreadsheet, along with a few notes on why the school interests you, and the application deadline. Don’t forget the why; that comes in handy later on. 6-8 colleges max is plenty; 10-12 if some of those are cocktail party colleges.

Don’t let cost hold you back from applying to a college. Put your list together based on the qualities of the college. The ones you think you can’t afford may offer great aid that makes it possible. Make sure your list is balanced with colleges where cost doesn’t matter as much, and you’ll be fine.

Do take a minute to review your activities list. In theory, you were supposed to start this list in ninth grade—but in theory, Rich Strike wasn’t supposed to win the Kentucky Derby (if you missed it, he was twelfth going into the last eighth of a mile).

You can recover. Get a notebook or spreadsheet, write down the activities you remember, then—and I’m serious here—ask your parents to look it over. They’ll remember many things you forgot, and they’ll be thrilled you asked them to do something for college besides pay for it.

Don’t leave school before asking two teachers if they can write you a good letter of recommendation. Generally, these are teachers of academic subjects from junior year, and you don’t need more than two. They can’t teach the same subject— I’d even be careful about getting letters from the Chemistry and Biology teachers—and asking them now gives them the summer to think about your letter, and even write it.

Don’t do anything related to college during the entire month of July, with the possible exception of visiting campuses. Many students want to dig in and start essays right after school’s out—and without exception, those essays sound dull and tired by September. Great essays come from a rested soul that knows itself. Take July to refresh and rediscover, and dig in come August.

Do ask for help. Teachers help with essays, counselors help with college searches and applications, and online sources from folks like Collegewise and Common Application offer free, solid advice, available anytime. You bring a unique self to the process; they bring the expertise needed to make the logistics look easy. Use them.

Enjoy the ride.

Juniors – Now is the time to ask for letters of recommendation


Letters of recommendation carry varying weight, depending on the perspective of the college or university and who writes them. The more selective colleges may ask for two or three recommendation letters. Questions abound: Who should you ask? What are they used for? Where do they go? When should you ask them? Why are they important? And, how do you prepare them to write the best letter possible?


Letters of recommendation are the most powerful when they are written by teachers, coaches, club or internship advisor, youth group advisors or employers who know you well. The people you ask should be able to describe your skills and your accomplishments as well as your personality. Colleges prefer letters from junior year teachers since they are the most familiar with your most recent work. Read instructions carefully since some colleges may specifically request a science or math teacher, especially if you’re applying to an engineering program.


Since most letters of recommendation are glowing and full of praise for the applicant, colleges who take them seriously are trying to get beneath the surface of who you are. The letters that share personal anecdotes about you reveal the less tangible qualities that a college can’t deduce from grades and test scores. A well-written letter of recommendation will showcase your abilities and make you a compelling candidate.


Many colleges will now accept letters of recommendation electronically either on their own applications or through the Common Application. Follow directions carefully and don’t send more than a college requests. Colleges who participate in the Common Application detail how many letters of recommendation they require and how many they allow.


It is best to ask teachers in the spring of junior year if they are willing and able to write a letter on your behalf. If they say “yes”, then ask them about their preferred timelines. Some teachers like to take care of the letters over the summer and others want a true summer vacation. If you have colleges with early deadlines (October 15 and November 1), make sure you provide your recommenders with at least a month’s time to write the letters.


Letters of recommendation can often be the critical tipping factor when two candidates present similarly and colleges can pick just one.


There’s a good chance that the more information you provide your recommender, the better the letter will be. I suggest that all students prepare an Activity Resume or a Brag Sheet that details the following items: extracurricular activities; community service involvement; leadership positions; honors, scholarship/awards; employment; internships and job shadowing experiences, and what you’ve done during your last three summers.

Must do’s:

  • Be certain to waive your right to view recommendation letters on your application forms. Admission officers will trust them more if you haven’t seen them.
  • Send a confirmation email to your recommenders thanking them and being specific about next steps.
  • Send thank you notes once you know the colleges have received the letters of recommendation.

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to: [email protected];

2022-23 Juniors

Do you want to start preparing for the SAT?   Register for one of the SAT/Khan Academy Schoology Courses with Peer-to-Peer Tutoring this summer!

This course allows students to work at their own pace within the session dates, making it ideal for the summer. Sessions are identical, so please choose one that best fits your schedule.

Follow the link for more information:

SAT_Khan_Academy_Schoology_Course_Flyer_Summer_2022_Accessible (003) (1).pdf

• Practice for the SAT - Juniors need to complete a Timed Mini-Section or Diagnostic Quiz at Official SAT Practice on Khan Academy. Open through October 2022.

BigFuture Scholarships (formerly known as College Board Opportunity Scholarships) for the class of 2023 to reward efforts to plan for college on BigFuture. Here’s what to expect for this year’s juniors:

Two $40,000 winners each month: BigFuture will reward progress wherever students are on their college journey. Each month, between January 2022 and February 2023, BigFuture will award two $40,000 scholarships and hundreds of $500 scholarships to students in the class of 2023 who complete steps on BigFuture.

Simple participation: Juniors with a College Board account will be automatically entered into monthly drawings for $40,000 and $500 scholarships when they complete steps. They can opt out of drawings at There are no minimum GPA, essay, citizenship, or application requirements to earn an entry into monthly scholarship drawings.

More ways to earn $40,000: By completing ANY of the six scholarship steps on BigFuture, juniors will have a chance to win a $40,000 scholarship, in addition to $500. The more steps students complete and the earlier they start, the more chances they have to win.

Students whose families earn less than $60,000 a year will have extra chances to win scholarships. Encourage your students to earn their first entry for $40,000 and $500 scholarship drawings, beginning in January, by building a college list of six or more schools on BigFuture.

Visit this page to see the college planning steps that qualify students for entries in the monthly drawings. Feel free to use this videoeducator flyer (.pdf/1.80 MB), and student flyer (.pdf/2.83 MB) to spread the word about BigFuture Scholarships. Visit this resource page for more.