What is the hardest year of high school?

Marc Feder
November 9, 2020

You might be wondering what the most difficult year of high school is and how you should handle it (spoiler alert: it's usually junior year).

If you’re curious about why high school is hard, and interested in getting some tips, we've got you covered! To help you be successful in high school without making it too difficult or overwhelming, we talked to Michelle McAnaney of The College Spy. Here’s what you’ll learn in the article below:


  1. What is the most difficult year of high school?
  2. Why is junior year the most difficult year of high school? 
  3. How can you have a successful junior year? 
  4. How do you ace junior year / high school without the stress?
  5. How can you alleviate stress and advocate for yourself in high school? 
  6. How to maximize a campus visit 
  7. How to set yourself for success as a junior in high school 
  8. Tips for rising 9th graders 
  9. About The College Spy 


Don't feel like reading? Watch the full interview here:   

Today’s Expert: 

Our college admissions expert today is Michelle McAnaney from The College Spy. Michelle has 20 years of experience working with students to help them reach their full potential. She has a lot of knowledge on colleges and what the admissions process is like, so she works toward getting students into their best fit schools. 

Her extensive admissions knowledge is coupled with firsthand experience with the colleges and universities students will be considering for their applications. Michelle tells students and families that the best way to get to know a college is to visit, and she holds herself to the same standard. She visits approximately 40 colleges each year (not during the pandemic, of course), attending information sessions and open houses, taking tours and meeting with admissions officers.

Michelle McAnaney, The College Spy


What is the most difficult year of high school?

Although some people might find that freshman year of high school is challenging, junior year would typically be the most difficult, busy, and important year because of everything you have to juggle from academics, extracurricular activities, and college preparation to still keeping a social life. 


Why is junior year the most difficult year of high school? 

You may already be used to what high school is like, but junior year is the year that you really start to think about the college process. For the most part, you’ll be taking your most difficult classes and preparing for standardized tests, so it can be stressful because colleges will be looking at these grades and scores. 


How can you have a successful junior year? 

Starting junior year might be intimidating, but you should still consider taking some advanced classes like APs or IB classes. This can be a good challenge for you, and it can show what you’re capable of as a student. 

Regarding academics and activities, Michelle told us: 

“Adding academic rigor can be helpful in terms of getting into college. So for some students, that's taking their first honors course or AP course, for other students it's taking a full load of AP courses. And my other advice is around extracurricular activities which is to be involved in things that you're interested in. And if you're not sure what you're interested in, try new things to figure that out.”

Michelle went on to succinctly summarize just why junior year is the most important year of high school, even if it might not be the most difficult for you:

“Junior year is the most indicative year of how you will do in college." 




How do you ace junior year of high school without the stress?

No matter how important this time may be, it’s equally as important to destress and not get so caught up in all the work. It’s a good thing to know that anything can change down the road, so don’t pressure yourself and feel like you need to have everything figured out, especially at such a young age. 


As Michelle says:

I help students understand that nothing in life is set in stone 100%, you can start one place and end up somewhere else. And you can start thinking you wanted one thing and change your mind. That's okay!”


How can you alleviate stress and advocate for yourself in high school? 

Your school guidance counselor can be very helpful to you, so you should reach out to them if you ever feel like you need help. Michelle encourages you to do some networking with different people, like teachers, counselors, friends, acquaintances, etc.

Don’t be afraid to take the initiative and ask teachers questions or go to extra help. It’s important to be active and engaged, so reach out to others and express your interests, especially if you need to ask your teachers for recommendation letters. 


How to maximize a college campus visit 

When we're not living in a pandemic, it’s helpful to visit one school in a day That way you can truly absorb everything about the school. Going on college tours and paying attention to information sessions are obviously very valuable.

But to see if you would actually enjoy living on a particular college campus, try the following:

  • Spend some time in libraries 
  • Go to the dining halls 
  • Look at dorm rooms 
  • Visit classrooms 

As Michelle suggests, here are some specific questions to ponder when you're on a college campus visit:

I advise students to spend time in the dining hall and eat there and sit down and say “Would I fit in with these other students here?” “Would I feel comfortable sitting at a table with some of the people who I see here?” “Are people happy?” “Are they talking to each other?” “Are they looking at their phones?” things like that and I encourage students to go to the library and sit down “Would I feel comfortable here ?” “Is this where I want to be studying?”


Additionally, you can visit Michelle’s resources section of her website for a list of questions you should be able to answer after a college visit. It’s also good to identify a few of the things that you are really looking for in a school and some of the things you wouldn’t want in a school. 


How to set yourself for success as a junior in high school 

Since junior year is a busy time, you should try to stay organized and work on managing your time more efficiently. You’ll probably have more assignments and deadlines, so keeping track of everything and making sure you finish your work on time is important. 

Some of the tips Michelle has are: 

  • Spend time making a commitment to do what is actually meaningful to you (i.e. get rid of the distractions!)
  • Start your college research at the beginning of junior year or even sooner 
  • Create and write down academic and extracurricular goals

Setting goals for yourself can be extremely helpful, especially if you write them down to actually make a commitment to them. Michelle says,

“It could be simple things like make sure to get extra help twice for math or always review my notes before tests.” But it all depends on you and what you want your school year to look like."


Tips for rising 9th graders 

While junior year is often the hardest year of high school, the transition from middle school to 9th grade can also be tough. To make it easier, don't feel afraid to reach out to your teachers and counselors, and take advantage of the support resources that are available. And an easy way to meet new people and make new friends is to get involved in clubs or extracurricular activities that you are genuinely interested in. 

As Michelle puts it: 

“I'm always encouraging students to get involved from their point of view. It will help you get into college but It'll also just make your high school experience better, more dynamic, and more interesting.”


About The College Spy 

The College Spy helps students explore and get accepted into the colleges that are the best fit for them. Michelle visits many different colleges, so she is able to use this knowledge to help students figure out what they’re looking for in a school.

“I can match students with colleges that are good fit for them and their goals, their academic needs, their personal needs, the financial, considering all of these things. I do know a lot about colleges in particular and then I have a lot of expertise behind admissions and how things work in the admissions office and how students can tailor their applications to help maximize their chance of acceptance.”


So if you’re struggling with high school work and college, remember that there are different ways to get some help. Talk to your teachers and counselors, and if you have access to other resources, make sure to use them!

Junior year is a very important year for college admissions. But overall, you should work hard with academics and extracurriculars (don’t put too much pressure on yourself though!)

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