In the hierarchy of high school, it is not a grade that draws much attention. But as turning points go for students, the junior year is hardly second tier.
During the next nine months, local 11th-graders will balance college entrance exams, state assessments, course tests, after-school jobs, college brochures, a 1,500-word research paper and extra-curricular activities.
"When my parents started bringing up college earlier this year, I thought 'it's OK, I've still got two years to decide,'" said 16-year-old Ram Rohatgi, a junior at Central High School. "Now I'm definitely feeling the pressure. I've realized what I do right now will affect my future."
In many ways, the stresses facing this year's rising juniors are not new, just overlooked, educators and counselors say. As they deal with converging academic and social challenges, juniors must also start looking ahead a few years to compete well with peers.
Almost 95 percent of high school students want to go to college, and most of them aspire to attend a four-year school, a new survey of teenagers finds.
Jackson High School junior Ginny Nagel, 17, already has a college and career choice in mind -- the University of Missouri-Columbia and counseling/psychology.
Although just a few weeks into the first semester of school, Nagel has already recognized the significance of her junior year.
"It's so much harder than my sophomore year. We even had homework on the first day of school. That's never happened before," Nagel said.
"With all that's happening during my junior year, I think the move from high school to college won't be so bad," she said.
It is the junior year when students earn the last complete set of grades considered by officers at selective colleges. It's also the time when many increase their load of rigorous courses, some college-level.
"A lot of students have ups and downs, particularly in the transition to high school. But competitive colleges, in general, are looking for students who really have their act together by their junior year," said Judy Hingle, professional development director for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "It's much easier to forgive a down period if you see a recovery. If they don't see it by the junior year, how are they going to see it?"
The College Board, which runs the SAT college-entrance exam, offers an ambitious action plan for juniors.
Among the suggested steps for the fall: Discuss college plans with a counselor, go to college fairs, take the practice SAT, gear up for midyear finals. In the spring: Take the SAT, visit colleges, compile a resume, line up career-related summer plans.
The junior year is particularly pressure-packed in states that require high school graduation exams, because many of those tests take place in 11th grade, said Bob Schaeffer of The National Center for Fair & Open Testing. That's just when students are taking the SAT, the rival ACT college entrance exam, or both -- plus practice college tests and course finals.
"It's a cumulative overload, and overkill, from our perspective," Schaeffer said.
Missouri does not require students to take a graduation exam, but taking the SAT and ACT multiple times more than makes up for that.
Juniors across the U.S. are beginning to feel the pressure, but many are taking it in stride.
"By taking on all these different challenges at the same time, it will prepare us well for college, when you have lots of free time but have to put it to good use," said Bryce Lowery, 16, a junior at North High School in Evansville, Ind. His current to-do list: keep up good grades, mentor freshmen, play football and basketball, serve on the student council.
Courtney Hermann, another junior at North High, said there is no reason to stress out. She, too, is busy with student activities, challenging courses and college considerations.
"When we start high school, they give you an agenda. They want you to prioritize what's important," said Courtney, 16. "So it's basically about the things I want to do and want to accomplish. Nobody is going to get anything out of those things other than me. I know that."
Juniors who don't plan to go to college must get serious, too, said John Porter, the principal of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. His school brings in military and business recruiters, and some juniors start working for companies they want a career with.
"Some of the other years are transition years socially," Porter said. "I think the junior year is more of transition year relative to, 'What am I going to be doing with my life?'"
Personal changes, however, can be remarkable for juniors, experts say. Raging hormones, growth spurts, that first broken heart -- the 11th grade often has its moments.
Courtney Hermann, the Evansville student, has kept what's ahead in perspective. The next-to-last year of high school is a time to get serious, she said, but also a time to be 16.
"We're going to go to the prom, hang out with the friends we've had for 11 years and basically just try to add more good memories," she said.
"We know it won't be long before we're all going in different directions."
Staff writer Callie Clark contributed to this report.