Tips for Second Semester of Junior Year

Second semester of junior year is a stressful time for most students. In fact, it might be the most stressful semester of high school. I don’t want to add too many things to your likely-unending to-do list, but here are a few important things to consider including in the whirlwind that is this semester, and (bonus!) a couple of things that can wait until after finals.

This semester, you may want to:

Consider an internship. Not while school is in session. On top of everything else you’re attempting to juggle – test prep, school work, extra-curricular activities, actually sleeping at some point – one more commitment in your schedule is probably not advisable. Now is the time, however, to spend some time researching summer opportunities. Consider your interests, investigate your connections, and make a plan for summer now.

Keep working on that college list. All of the planning and scheming that lurks between now and your admissions deadlines next year will hinge upon your college list. If I had a catchphrase, it would probably be “it depends on the school.” Is your ACT score high enough? Do you have to schedule interviews? Can you take a gap year? The answers to all of these questions depend, at least in part, on specific schools you’re considering. If your list has 30 colleges on it, narrow. If you’ve only got one, more research is in order. Research, go to events, and plan more visits!

Prepare for AP or SAT Subject tests. Depending on your college list, you may be required to take SAT Subject tests. Even if the tests aren’t mandatory for you, some schools recommend that you submit them, and others will consider them if you choose to submit them. If you’re in AP courses now, and plan to take AP exams, consider whether taking the SAT Subject test will benefit you as well. The best way to figure it out is (you guessed it!) to look at the colleges on your list.

Connect with teachers and advisors. Second semester is the time to begin asking for recommendation letters. The best teacher to ask is one who knows you well and who can write about your specific strengths, and the best time to ask them is this semester. The sooner you ask, the more likely it is that you’ll get good letters.  You can generally expect that you’ll need two letters, but depending on your college list, you may need more, or there may be additional requirements placed on which teachers can write them.

Overwhelmed yet? Here’s the good news. You can wait until this summer to:

Write your college essays. College essays can be overwhelming. Working on them too soon, before you even have access to the applications, can be downright maddening. The Common App goes live on August 1st each year. There is not much to be gained by obsessing over drafts before you have a solid college list and the essay prompts for those colleges. Focus on your grades, your test prep, and your college list, and save the essays for this summer.

Plan the entire rest of your life. Actually, this one can probably wait even longer. However, if you’ve got seemingly pressing, urgent questions about your future (my junior year, it was do I want to be an architect?), you don’t have to answer them right now. The key is to avoid limiting yourself too much if you’re unsure. If you think you might want to go into an engineering program, the answer to do I want to take that extra science class? is probably “yes.” Prepare for multiple possibilities. Embrace the creative uncertainty. Explore your options, but don’t feel like you have to be certain right this moment.

For what it’s worth, I had registered for classes in ASU’s architecture program before I changed my mind and enrolled in a tiny liberal arts school on the other side of the country. I don’t really recommend that course of action, but you have time. It’s OK if your college list still looks like a 16- or 17-year-old student who isn’t exactly sure what they want to do for the next fifty years wrote it. I promise.

Gap Year – Thoughts on Taking a Year Off

If I’d told my parents that I wanted to spend a year doing some other stuff before starting college, they would have freaked out. American culture is go, go, go, succeed, succeed, succeed – taking a break is seen as a sign of weakness. Americans have less vacation time than almost any other first world country, not to mention longer work weeks. The trajectory is supposed to go high school -> college -> job or graduate school -> job -> job, with no variations. Saying “I’d like to spend the 18th year of my life backpacking around and maybe working in a cafe” in America is tantamount to saying “I’d like to drop out of society, not be productive, and waste my life.” – Lillet Marcus

There’s been a lot of buzz about gap years recently. Since the beginning of the gap year phenomenon in the 1960s, the practice has increased in popularity, especially in Europe. More recently, more American students have begun to take a structured break between high school and college, as well, but the expectation for most American students is still that they will progress directly from high school to college without a break in between.

While it might be tempting to write off a year-long “break” as indulgent, silly, or even reckless, many colleges actually encourage students to take a gap year. Princeton has gone so far as to institute its own Bridge Year program. Contrary to some popular perceptions, 90% of students who take a gap year do enroll in college as planned, and students who take gap years perform better once they enroll in college than students who start college right after high school. They also report that their gap years helped them choose their majors more wisely, and ultimately claim higher job satisfaction.

What is it about the gap year that contributes to these outcomes? The benefits are different, certainly, for each student, but here are a few:

  1. A gap year allows time for recovery from high-school related burnout. Many high school students are sleep-deprived and overwhelmed, running with all their might towards the light at the end of the tunnel – college ­– as if the next phase might bring them a respite from the hectic pace, frantic studying, and late nights. While college can’t provide that relief, a gap year might.
  2. Students can experience something more of the world – and of their own interests and abilities – than they might otherwise. Wherever a student spends their gap year, working or volunteering in a new environment provides an opportunity for a completely different type of experience than those typical of high school or college environments. Broader experience leads to more knowledge about the world and what you’d like your place in it to be.
  3. Taking a gap year can provide an opportunity to develop life skills and independence that will lead to greater success in college. Stepping outside of your comfort zone builds confidence and independence, ensuring that when you do arrive in college, you’re ready to get the most out of the experience, not stressed out by learning how to do laundry or trying to get to know whole groups of strange people for the first time.


The most important thing about taking a gap year is making sure you have a plan to spend the time wisely. There are a lot of organizations that provide structured programs and help make that planning process a little easier. Check out groups like Thinking Beyond Borders, American Gap Association, and Cross Cultural Solutions. Of course, you can always plan your own unique experience, but having a plan is critical. Consider your interests, goals, and budget when devising your strategy.

And no matter where you decide to spend your gap year, plan to complete your college applications in your senior year, just like everyone else. It’s much, much easier to get all of the necessary information compiled when you’re in school, with face-to-face access to the people writing your recommendations, than it is if you’re on another continent doing service work.

Do some research into the gap year policies at the schools you’re considering: some schools are flexible, and even encourage students to take a gap year, while others require that you re-apply if you’re not enrolling in the semester for which you initially applied. Check to see which colleges are likely to offer deferments, and whether or not the deferment will affect any financial aid you’re offered. If you plan carefully and do your research, taking a year “off” can be an adventurous addition to your educational plans, and may even give your grades a boost in the future.

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.