Many high school juniors, as they starting off second semester, realize that it's time to start thinking about college application season in the fall.

However, the timing often feels a bit awkward: junior year, for most students, tends to be the most challenging time to this point in their high school career. There are the SATs and ACTs to juggle along with challenging courses like AP exams and extracurriculars.

I had a student a couple of years ago -- we'll call her Shayna -- who had a tough start to junior year. The difficulty of balancing study time for three AP courses alongside her responsibilities as co-captain of her soccer team was a lot to handle. When her first semester grade report came in with two C's, there was a lot of angst in the household.

I got to join her team that January of junior year, and my mantra for her was simple:

A strong finish is everything.

We talked through where she'd fallen short in classes like AP Euro and Calculus, and set in place some strategies for how she could better manage her time and improve the quality of her studying while still keeping on top of her game on the soccer field. She finished the year with just one B, and her team team made it to the semi-finals that March.

However, it didn't stop there. Shayna had a research position lined for the summer, but was very careful to arrange her schedule to have a couple of weeks after the school year ended to catch her breath. After an intense but rewarding several weeks in the lab, she had just enough time in August to dive into writing her personal essay for colleges, and set up a weekly college app task list for the fall. 

Fall semester of senior year was her best yet. Shayna finished with straight A's, submitted a handful of early applications for peace of mind, but waited until the regular decision deadlines for her top choices so that she could bring the full weight of her academic performance into play. (She also wanted to retake the ACT, which paid off with a 33!)

The result was that she got into three of her top four colleges, and ultimately went with the option that provided the most generous financial aid package. She's thriving in college, taking courses she loves, and, of course, still killing it on the club soccer field.

The point of the story: a strong finish is what really counts. And because this is the time that the challenge really presents itself on many fronts, it's also the time that yields the most opportunity for juniors.

What really makes you stand out to colleges? That you're ready and eager to rise the the challenge.

Just make sure that you stay on an upward trend from now through the fall.

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