Trials, Tribulations, and Revelations of a New Senior
Ryan Turner ’17
This article is full of “need to know” information on:
-A year in the life of a junior
-Talking college with parents
-A glimpse of senior year
-A little reflection and humble advice for freshmen, sophomores, and counselors
Navigating your junior year at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory is like running up the side of a fifty foot sand dune in a collared shirt, khaki pants and dress shoes…along with socks and a belt (per community life, section IV, subsection 32, pages 35-36). It is a sweaty, exhausting, grit-filled marathon. You’ll eventually reach the top, but you will put in a lot of work to get there.
It is the last full year of grades that your college picks will see as you compete with thousands of your “closest friends” for entrance. You will have the toughest course load in your high school career and your grades matter….and by matter, I mean they need to be spotless. At the same time, you will be studying to take either the SAT or the ACT. These tests typically take about 5 hours (including an essay) and you should plan to take them 2 or 3 times for your best score. You may be encouraged to take a few SAT subject tests on specific areas like Math, English Literature, Chemistry or Biology. The scores you receive on these tests along with your cumulative grades determine which colleges you have a shot at getting into. If you happen to be EXTREMELY GOOD at a sport or another extracurricular activity, congratulations!!! This will help you stand out from the crowd. It doesn’t mean you can coast on your grades or test scores. You just have an advantage that the guy to your left doesn’t.
Next on your “to do” list is to decide on a career path and start looking at colleges. This is a mind-numbing slog through a mountain of data. And it is exactly the type of relaxing, low key activity you want to dive into after studying for AP tests, writing essays, doing labs, taking mid-terms and prepping for the ACT and SAT. It is seriously hard-core, life-changing stuff and if you’re like me, your first impulse is to run screaming the other way. There will be meetings with your advisor, college fairs, college reps visiting your area, and trips to visit colleges, plus all those emails and letters. I am pretty sure I could wallpaper my entire room with the mass amounts of college brochures I have collected.
In addition to this, you should be populating Naviance with all of your high school achievements and activities. If you were looking for a job, this would be your resume. If you have written a new coding language, published your first novel, had a summer internship with Google, received some awards or are the president of the Foreign Film Club, that’s the kind of gritty stuff that gets shelf space here. This walk down the memory lane of your high school accomplishments can be extremely rewarding, pretty depressing, or somewhere in the middle. It is easy to neglect or go light in this area of your high school profile in the blur of academics, but it is important and colleges do look at it to assure you are well rounded. What they are looking for is something that you are passionate about, good at or have a keen interest in. At his point you are probably pretty passionate about having some time to watch Netflix, hang out with your friends, do nothing and stare off into space, or just sleep. You can do that the summer AFTER graduation. Before you know it, it is time to crawl on your hands and knees to the finish line for AP tests and final exams. It isn’t an easy year, but it is doable and you won’t be doing it alone.
Your parents also feel your stress and have a good dose of their own. Their “little snowflake” is growing up and will soon be moving away from home. Helping you choose a college is one of the last big decisions they will help you make, and they take that job very seriously. In response they spring into action researching prospective colleges and mapping out trips for visits. There will probably be some reminiscing about their glory days and a seemingly endless barrage of questions designed to help you narrow down your choices. This can be a little overwhelming in an already jam-packed year, so my advice for parents is to take it slow. It is easy to get caught up in the excitement, and before you know it you have morphed from a helpful parent with the best of intensions into a pamphlet-waving fanatic. That said, your parents are a tremendous resource, they work for free, and all they want in return is your happiness and success. So take the help and say, “Thank you”. I found having a designated once-a-week discussion about college decreased tension and kept me from feeling ambushed and my parents from feeling brushed off. In the end, the decision about where you go to college needs to be yours and you need to own it.
Over the summer, the work continues. Completing your senior service project should be a priority. Plan on taking the essay writing workshop offered at school because it is a great way to get all or part of your college essays completed before the school year begins. This is an optimal time for college visits and college applications are released in August. There are standard applications, but many colleges have an “optional” essay. The word “optional” is college speak meaning, you better write one if you want to be considered for admission. The theme of these typically focus on why you think the particular college is a good fit. Be prepared to get specific because they can smell a skimmer a mile away. And don’t forget this is the last summer to beef up the activities section of your application with a class, workshop or internship in your area of interest.
During senior year, the applications are sent in, and the big waiting game begins. Like a bug under a microscope, your high school data will be sliced, diced, analyzed, compared, and ranked. Will you be accepted, rejected or waitlisted? Being waitlisted sounds a lot like purgatory but with a slightly more positive spin. Keep in mind that most colleges will want to see your 7th semester grades so maintaining your GPA is very important. This all sounds pretty nerve racking (because it is….), but once you make your decision, you are, I am told, enveloped by an eerie sense of calm and peace. I can’t validate this for you until later this year, but most of the graduating seniors I have observed look pretty happy and none appear to suffer any long term effects of post- traumatic stress. If that was a thing, I am sure that Oprah or Dateline would have had an expose’ on it by now.
So now that you know what to expect, here is my take on a few things. You are going to hear that colleges like a well-rounded person. That doesn’t mean your goal should be to join every club, try every sport, play an instrument, and be in the theatre. If you want to try some things to figure out what you like, do it. They will also tell you that they are looking for someone who has an interest in something and has taken it to the next level. Once you find an area that you are interested in, look for ways get more exposure. Take a summer class or workshop, look for an internship or if you have a challenging summer already jam-packed with sports practices and other competing priorities, look for a volunteer opportunity which can be a little more flexible.
If this hasn’t already been drilled into your head, GRADES MATTER. From the moment you enter high school your entire academic performance is being permanently recorded to your transcript. There aren’t any do overs here outside of summer school and as logic will tell you, the courses and subject matter get more difficult with each year. So don’t coast your first year thinking you can make up for it later. Make a few crappy grades, and you will have to work extremely hard to overcome the dent in your cumulative GPA. I’m not saying it can’t be done; it just won’t be very pleasant. If you have a few schools you think you might be interested in, go to their website and look at their admission statistics. They will show what the target range for GPA and ACT/SAT scores. This is the range you need to be in if you want to be considered as a future student.
If I had one piece of humble advice for the counseling department, I would say that is important to start hitting freshman right between the eyes with this stuff the minute they walk in the door. Trust me when I say that our attention spans are short, and while we are working hard to digest and process all of the new and competing information coming our way, it is kind of like taking a drink from a fire hose; only so much is actually going to make it in, and the rest is going to spew out of the sides of our mouth. It may only be a twice a year check-in, but just starting the conversation like, pick two colleges that you might like to attend one day……….and then go out and look at the GPA and ACT/SAT requirements…..Do they like their students to take AP courses?…….What kind of student are they looking for? How do you formulate a plan now to work toward that goal? Have them discuss their goals with their parents and enlist their support and input. Have check-ins like this in sophomore year, and adjust and update the plan. I like to think of this process like a funnel or like breaking down a big project into manageable chunks. You start out pretty general and with every year you sharpen your focus and fine tune your plan. I would bet that most students think of college primarily in theoretical terms in the first two years of high school, but are not really forced to confront it in concrete terms until junior year. The goal is to get us in the habit of thinking long term while we are busy living in the moment.