Here's a good college prep exercise for juniors. Pick five colleges you're interested in. If you haven't done your college search yet and don't know where you want to apply, pick five colleges you've heard good things about from other people.
Then visit their websites and find the answers to these questions:
1. What academic preparation is recommended? Most colleges will give at least general guidelines about what kinds of courses successful applicants take. This can help you make good decisions for your senior year schedule like whether or not to take another year of language, calculus, physics, etc.
2. What standardized tests are required for admission? Just the SAT or ACT, or are Subject Tests required, too?
3. What are the requirements for a complete application for admission? Do you need letters of recommendation? Are interviews recommended? And what essay questions did this year's applicants have to complete? The prompts might change when you apply, but it's good to get a sense of what the college requires from applicants.
4. Does the school have a clear mission? What is their purpose? What kind of graduates are they looking to send out in the world, and how do they promise to transform college freshmen into those kinds of graduates? This isn't an insignificant question. Colleges take very different approaches to how they educate students and what they hope you'll be able to do when you leave. You should know what you're getting into before you apply.
5. What is the next step for an interested applicant? How can you learn more? Is the college participating in any college fairs near you? Is there an inquiry form you can fill out? How can you take a campus tour, or maybe visit during a special weekend for prospective students?
Don't wait until the fall of your senior year to ask these questions. Start now and you'll make better college planning choices.