What Is the Hardest Year of High School?

By Kayla McCormack · August 29, 2022 · 6 minute read

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What Is the Hardest Year of High School?

Ask four recent graduates which year of high school was hardest for them, and chances are you’ll get four different answers. Each year of high school brings its own set of unique challenges that students have to prepare for.

On top of those challenges comes external stressors and expectations. Students are facing pressure from parents to get good grades, the stress of college applications, and heaps of extracurriculars. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of high school students have experienced stress, anxiety or depression during the recent Covid-19 pandemic.

While each year of high school will have its own stressors, many will say junior year is the most challenging. Junior year can be the hardest for several reasons, but with the right prep and expectations, high school students can make the hardest year just a little easier.

Why Every Year Matters

People might say junior year is the hardest year of high school, but that’s not an excuse to cruise though the other three years.

Freshman and sophomore year are building opportunities. In these two years, many students will take prerequisite courses and join extracurriculars they’ll carry out the rest of their high school career.

During freshman year especially, students will have to adjust to high school and its academic rigor. Getting good grades and getting involved in activities during the first two years of high school can help set the pattern for the next two years.

Lots of students may claim that senior year is the time to sit back and take it easy. So common is this assumption that lots of seniors claim their final year of high school is the “senior slump.”

But, letting grades slide in senior year can spell trouble for plans post graduation. Admission to college, even if already granted, could be rescinded if a senior underperforms in their senior year. Grades senior year still matter.

Recommended: 11 Ways to Prepare for High School Graduation

Why Junior Year Can Be the Most Challenging

Every year of high school is important, but a student’s junior year has its own set of unique challenges and hardships. Here’s what can make junior year tougher than the rest:

Course Load

Junior year is the time to shine before students apply to college. It’s the last full academic year of grades a university will receive before deciding to accept or reject a student. Students may elect to take their most challenging course load during their junior year to show colleges that they’re capable of academic rigor.

Some students may be enrolled in advanced placement (AP) courses. AP classes give high school students the chance to prepare for college by tackling college-level material, while still in high school. At the end of an AP course, students can choose to take the AP exams. Scores from those tests may grant students college credits, so they can skip out of basic courses in their first years on campus.

Junior year can be an academic step-up for high school students if they decide to take advanced classes. In addition to harder classes, there’s a pressure to get good grades in them, because it can be an indicator of performance for colleges.


On top of AP tests, juniors have more key tests to prepare for. Each test comes with its own strategies and approaches, meaning specialized study and prep. A junior might prepare for and take these tests during the year:

AP Tests. As mentioned above, if a student decides to take an AP course, they can choose to take the corresponding AP tests as well.

PSAT/NMSQT. Students can take the Preliminary SAT or National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test as early as their sophomore year of school, but many take it their junior year. The PSAT/NMSQT has two sections; math, and reading/writing. Scores for each section fall between 160 and 760.

Offered in October each year, the PSAT doesn’t impact college admissions like the SAT, but it can help students qualify for National Merit Scholarships if they receive a certain score. Students are not required to take the PSAT test, but it can be one way to prepare for the SATs and potentially qualify for scholarship.

SAT/ACT. Scores from either the SAT or ACT test are required by many colleges for admission. But, even if they’re not required by a college, a strong SAT or ACT score can help give a student a leg up in the application process.

Most high school students choose to take the SAT or ACT tests in the spring of their junior year or the fall of senior year. Both tests have certain quirks and strategies associated with them, so the key to getting a great score may mean lots of preparation.

Some juniors choose to take rigors in person prep courses or take several practice tests before sitting for the exam.

College prep

Juniors not only have more academic pressure on them and tests to prepare for, but many will add college prep to their extracurriculars. Whether that means spending weekends touring campuses or researching schools at night, finding a school that’s the right fit can take up a considerable amount of time.

There’s no one way to ensure the right fit for all students. Some may choose a campus-based on their desired degree, others for proximity to home or budget. No matter the motivator, finding the right school can take time.

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There’s no doubt junior year has a lot going on. The challenge comes not only from the rigor but also the pressure associated with making some big life choices. Freshman and sophomore year have their fair share of challenges, but junior year will test the habits of students — pushing them to work harder academically and personally.

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The Takeaway

Junior year challenges students to juggle their extracurricular activities, rigorous academic classes, and standardized testing, on top of applying for college. Figuring out a way to pay for college shouldn’t be another challenge. As early as junior year, students can start considering the cost of college, and the ways to pay for it.

Taking time to learn about student loans during college prep can help give juniors a better sense of what lies ahead of them. After applying for federal loans and aid, they might need to evaluate additional options to pay for their tuition. That could mean saving for college by picking up a part-time or summer job, or researching scholarships or grants that can help pay tuition. It’s important a student knows their full menu of options to pay for school before committing to any single strategy.

Another option available are private student loans. SoFi’s private student loans come with no fees and a simple online platform that allows students to repay their loans their way. It’s worth noting that students generally exhaust all other options before borrowing a private student loan.

Junior year may be the hardest year of high school, but student loans don’t have to be another hurdle.

Learn more about private student loan options offered by SoFi.

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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.


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