Junior year is the epicenter of college application stress; make it easier for yourself by preparing as much as you can. As part of the high school edition of my College Prep series, I’m walking students and parents through what they need to know to get a head start on college planning. Read this checklist for how to prepare for college as a junior in high school!

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To Do’s for High School Juniors Preparing for College

Keep your grades and activities up. Junior year of high school is the last full year that college admissions boards can see when you apply, so it often gets the most focus of all your time in high school. Make sure that your choices and priorities reflect well on you as a future college applicant: that is, don’t let your grades slip, and do your best to continue building your extracurricular accomplishments.

Take challenging classes. Accelerated courses and AP classes are a great way to show college admissions teams that you’re already working at the college level. If your high school doesn’t offer APs, you can even choose to self-study for them and take them independently. These exams will get you college credit at many colleges.

Explore colleges that may be a good fit for you. Consider factors like school size, location, and the majors or clubs they offer. You can look online using a search tool like Big Future’s College Search, or attend a college fair at your high school. It’s smart to keep a file or Google Drive document for each of these, so you can add information as you learn about the colleges that interest you.

Decide which college entrance exam(s) you want to take. The SAT and ACT are two popular college entrance exams; which one you take will depend on where you live (the SAT is more popular along the East and West coast, and in Texas; the ACT is more popular in the middle of the country), where your strengths lie (the ACT is more knowledge-based, whereas the SAT relies more on test-taking skills), and the colleges you want to apply to.

Study for and take your college entrance exam(s). Whichever exam you choose to take, I’d recommend taking your exam for the first time toward the end of your junior year. You can take it again over the summer or in your senior fall if you’re not happy with your results. There are many great resources for improving your test scores; I really like Magoosh for exam prep, and when I took the SAT I studied using books like the SAT prep books by Kaplan.*

Start keeping an eye out for college scholarships. It’s best to get a head-start on this. Because scholarship deadlines differ by organization, there may be some scholarships for which you would need to apply in summer. This info sheet by Student Aid is a great way to get up to speed in the scholarship search if it is new to you.

Meet with your guidance counselor about planning for your senior year. Aim for a challenging course load to show that you’re a hard-working and advanced student. At the same time, make sure that your classes are manageable; never compromise your health or well-being for the sake of a grade or a college admissions letter.

Start visiting colleges. Summer is a great time to do this, but a lot of schools also allow a limited number of days off for college visits. If the school you’re interested in is in the area, drive out — a lot of families even do a long road trip just for this purpose. But if there’s a school you’re interested in that’s across the country and you can’t afford to see them in person, don’t hesitate to reach out to their admissions office to ask for more information. Some colleges even fly out prospective students to see their school.

Over summer, start brainstorming for your college applications. Take a look at the essay questions posed by the Common App or by your specific school’s application. Because you’ll be less busy in the summer than in the school year, you may even want to take the time to write your application essay now, rather than in the fall.

To Do’s for Parents of High School Juniors

Support your child as they go through the steps above. Junior year and the pre-college anxiety it brings can be stressful; make sure that your child is getting any academic or other help that they may need during that process.

Support your child in achieving their academic goals.  Help your student set goals for the school year and then support them in following up on those goals. You may want to do the same for extracurricular activities by setting small achievement goals that will help them shine throughout the year.

Take your child on college visits. The summer after junior year is a great time to do this. Many families spend quite some time and even money on traveling to the colleges that most excite their child (or may be the best fit). This is also your first chance to see your student’s future home. Don’t miss out!

Begin working out the documents and information you need for financial aid and scholarship applications. This process can be stressful, and the best way to curb that stress is to begin early. Take a look at the colleges your student hopes to apply to, and browse their financial aid website. Support your student as they seek out and apply to scholarships. You don’t need to do the work now, but familiarizing yourself with the process may help ease concerns you have about affording college.

Did I leave anything out? What advice would you give to college juniors for preparing for college?

This post was originally published SaraLaughed.com. It has been modified and improved for use at College Compass with permission of the author.