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When College Is a Four-Year Journey: Junior Year

Vicki Nelson

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This is the third in a four-part series about the college journey for students in a traditional bachelor's degree program. Although your student’s experiences and timetable will be unique, the evolution from new freshman to graduating senior often follows a common path. Read also: Freshman Year, Sophomore Year

Your junior is at the halfway point. The finish line may be in sight, but there is still a long road ahead.

By now, most students are comfortable with the rhythm and culture of college. Junior year is marked by confidence — but also potentially some nervousness about the future. Your student begins to cast their gaze beyond graduation with a growing sense of purpose.

For many students, this year is also marked by a significant milestone as they turn 21. For some, this is a turning point in their sense of maturity.

A Place on Campus

By junior year, most students have found their place on campus. They've found people who share their values and interests and made lifelong friendships.

Juniors may no longer be involved in as many campus activities and clubs. They've selected a few organizations or initiatives and may be moving into leadership roles.

Juniors often serve as Residence Assistants (RAs), Orientation Leaders, Peer Tutors and Teaching or Research Assistants. They feel a stronger connection to their school and an increasing sense of stability and pride in being part of the community.

Major Work

When it comes to progress in their major, the work of junior year can feel daunting.

This is a year of serious academic work. Most students have finished the bulk of their General Education courses and are focusing primarily on courses within their major. Much like the junior year of high school, the work this year may be the most difficult as students participate in more courses with higher level expectations.

Juniors who still need to complete Gen Ed or Core courses have an extra challenge. Often these requirements remain because they are the least interesting or most difficult for the student. This means your student may be stuck with a class or two they're not excited about, but they need to bite the bullet — it's definitely not advised to enter senior year with Gen Ed/Core requirements still hanging over your head.

Some students add a minor junior year. A minor may be related to or complement their major field of study or may simply be a subject area they're interested in. Your student may add a minor just for fun, and there's nothing wrong with that!

Career Exploration

Just as they settle into a solid sense of their identity as a college student, juniors need to turn their focus toward career and the future.

It's time to begin preparing to become a professional. Students who haven't already connected with the school’s career center should explore its services and attend career workshops and fairs on campus. This is a good year to find out more about available careers, conduct informational interviews, update their resume, draft a cover letter, and participate in an internship.

Your student might also consider joining a professional association as a student member. They'll get a view into the professional world of their field, and have a chance to start networking and making important connections. Student memberships are often reasonably priced and well worth the cost.

Expanding World

Although some juniors may feel as though they’ve hardly had time to settle in, others are ready to explore the world beyond their campus. Junior year is the most common time for students to participate in study abroad or study away programs.

Study abroad programs allow students to live and take classes in another country for a semester or a full year.

Study away programs are off-campus opportunities in another city or at another school. Film students may head to Los Angeles, business or theater students to New York City, law or government students to Washington, D.C. Some students choose to participate in an exchange program with another institution simply in order to experience the culture on another campus in a different part of the country.

What’s Next?

Students who are planning to apply to graduate school will need to prepare for and take their GRE, LSAT, MCAT or other qualifying exams. By next summer, they'll need to decide on potential schools and begin the application process.

During junior year, they should check about pre-requisite courses for some graduate programs. They may need to plan part of their senior year schedule around these required courses.

Your junior should meet with their academic advisor and conduct a degree audit to see what they still need to complete prior to graduation. This may be a wake-up call if there are several requirements remaining. Students who have been tracking their progress and meeting regularly with an advisor throughout college should find no surprises, but it can get complicated, especially if a student has changed majors, added a double major or minor, transferred from another institution, taken time off, etc.

Junior year may be marked by impatience to be done. As students begin to expand their horizons and explore potential careers, they may be increasingly anxious to finish and “get out into the world.” Internships can provide an ideal bridge as students move from the world of school to that of a professional.

What Can You Do This Year?

  • Encourage your student to take on leadership roles on campus.
  • Suggest they use informational interviews as a career exploration tool.
  • Nudge them to complete any remaining General Education courses as soon as possible!
  • Encourage them to examine their degree audit and refine their map to graduation.
  • Consider gifting your student a membership to a professional organization.
  • Talk to them about any plans for graduate school. Explore options, deadlines and qualifying exams.

Only one more year remaining. The finish line is ever closer!

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Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.
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