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What Colleges Look For

Questions to Consider for Junior Year

Picture of Casey Near
By Casey Near on September, 1 2021 | 7 minute read

When I worked in admission, it was common to hear colleagues talk about the importance of junior year, a story we told over and over to eager high school students visiting our campuses. But in my years working on the college counseling side, I see how much of a gap there is for high school juniors receiving that message between what’s said and what’s heard.

It’s a gap that can cause both consternation and unnecessary stress. Because it’s easy to hear “important” and assume perfect grades. If it’s an important year, colleges must mean get good grades. And sure, colleges want to see you performing well this year. But trying to define what colleges singularly want is pretty impossible when there's over 2,000 four year universities in the US alone. Because most colleges admit most of their applicants. And most colleges also admit students with Bs or Cs on their transcripts. “Performing well” doesn’t mean perfection; it means taking challenging classes for you and doing well relative to what you’re capable of.

But if we're talking about selective colleges who employ holistic admission (which, as a reminder, is a narrow band of the broader pool of American institutions), then "the importance of junior year" doesn't hinge simply on your grades. Because your eventual application tells a much bigger story of who you are -- beyond the letter assigned to you on a transcript at the end of a year.

If you’re at the start of your junior year, you have control over that story you eventually tell. And especially for those students eyeing more selective colleges, it starts with being able to answer these three questions.


  1. Why do I do what I do?

A lot of our best counseling work here at Collegewise happens at the crossroads -- do I take AP Spanish or double up on science my senior year? Should I go back to camp to work as a counselor or get a part-time job instead? And, to get that answer, our counselors will typically ask a series of questions that boil down to this: what fuels you?


Because the answer will always lie in doing what fills you up, and don't just take our word for it: whether it’s Georgia Tech, Harvard, Tulane, or MIT, the evidence abounds that the “why” will always be more important than the “what.” The students who can earnestly and excitedly answer, "why do I do this?" thrive in the admission process and their eventual college homes. Whether it's a supplemental essay asking yet again "why you do X activity?" or "what do I want to learn more about?" colleges want members of their community who have a strong sense of self and what intrinsically motivates them.


  1. How have I impacted others in my community?

The first step here is defining and understanding what and who your community is. For some students, it's their family. For others, it's a team or club. And for still others, it's their faith community or neighborhood. You can't begin to impact the people around you without first understanding them. And that awareness of the world around you is crucial to the college process and, frankly, life itself.


It's why colleges -- especially larger, more diverse campuses -- increasingly ask this in their applications: how would you define the world you come from, and how it has impacted you (or have you impacted it)?


This runs counter to our oft well-intended notions about community service. You'll never find our counselors asking for a community service log-sheet. Because rather than sum up those hours, colleges want to understand how you have impacted those around you. Consider how MIT’s Dean of Admission frames this, in response to MIT signing onto Turning the Tide:


“We will also consider what kind of a citizen a student is: if they know the material well in a class, will they help others who are struggling? Do they take care of other family members? Do they have a genuine commitment to helping others, or are they doing things simply to look good on the application? The essay question on our application where we ask about this never mentions the phrase “community service,” but asks students to tell us about how they have improved the lives of others in their community. And it’s not the magnitude that counts as much as the intention and character of the student.” 


  1. What kind of person do I want to become?

All of these questions build to this: who are you, and who do you want to grow to become? Colleges are aware (and hopeful) that you aren't fully formed when you come to their campuses. Their purpose is to encourage your growth in unexpected ways -- be it through their core curriculum, their events on campus, or residential life. And the best eventual applicants can articulate that perfect synthesis of a willingness to evolve and grow, coupled with a sense of who you are at your best.


You may wonder why all this is important. Well, aside from the more obvious “because it’s the nice thing to do,” it’s because colleges value this, too. Whether it’s Tulane, MIT, or U Georgia (all vastly different places), colleges care deeply about how you engage with others. You might be a member of their community soon too, and they want to know how you interact with those around you. Are you the student who only pays attention when the teacher says that material is on an upcoming test? Or the student who picks up trash after class or asks how someone’s day is going who isn’t in your social circle? I assure you: teachers notice these things. And colleges learn about it through your letters of recommendation.


For juniors, one or two of your teachers this year will be writing about the story of who you were this academic year. Beyond the letter on your transcript this year, you also have control over the story they write. Yes, class will be different this year, again. Yes, it may bring its share of ups and downs. But I challenge you to consider what you can do to make this year better for your peers, teachers, and yourself.



About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self - whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include counselingtest prepacademic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates. 


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