5 things high school juniors should be doing

(MoneyWatch) This is the third part of a series on what high school students should be doing each year to prepare for college. Here are the first two posts:

High school freshman: getting ready for college
7 things high school sophomores should be doing now

By the time high school students are juniors, college is becoming a lot more real. Many experts believe that a student's junior year is the most important one during the countdown to college.

Beginning this summer, here are five things rising high school juniors should be doing to get ready for that milestone:

1. Research and visit schools.
If they haven't already begun visiting schools, juniors should get started. This summer is a convenient time to explore colleges and universities.

To research schools use the college search engines on the College Board website, as well as the federal College Navigator.

Students should also visit school web sites, attend college fairs in their area and talk to their guidance counselors about potential schools.

2. Continue taking challenging classes.
The most important factors that colleges weigh most heavily when evaluating an applicant is typically a child's grade point average and the caliber of the courses that he or she takes. A teenager's GPA is a greater predictor of college success than standardized test scores.

The grades that a teenager receives in junior year will often carry more weight than earlier ones. Students, however, should not take classes just to get a weighted grade or that would be too difficult. A teenager isn't going to impress anybody by getting a "C" in AP Calculus.

3. Estimate financial aid need.
Parents of juniors should use an online Expected Family Contribution calculator to find out what they will have to pay, at a minimum, for one year of schools. Your EFC often doesn't represent what you believe you can afford to pay for college, but colleges use these figures to help formulate financial aid packages.

4. Start using net price calculators.
When researching schools, use a school's net price calculator, which is located on the institution's website, to get a personalized estimate of what that school will cost your family. Here is a previous CBS MoneyWatch postthat I wrote about net price calculators

5. Take the SAT and/or ACT.
If your child's scores for the ACT or SAT are disappointing, consider looking at schools that are test optional. About a third of the nation's 100 top liberal arts colleges are SAT and ACT optional. You can learn more about these schools at FairTest.org.

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