If you’ve spent much time thinking about high school transcripts, you’ve probably wondered if one particular year of high school is more important than the others. Conventional wisdom used to say the junior year was key to college admissions—and that students could coast across the finish line their senior year with the satisfaction of knowing the hard work had already been done.

And while this may still be true in less-competitive admissions environments, nowadays colleges want to see one of two things from your student’s academic career—either a strong performance that’s maintained throughout all four years, or an upward trend showing improvement each year, culminating in a very strong kick to the finish for seniors.

So whether it’s more like a well-paced marathon or a hard-fought, four-lap 1,600-meter run with a sprint to the tape, we’ve taken a look at all four years of high school to help you focus on what your student needs to know for running the race well and getting into a top-choice college.

Growing pains: Freshman year

Many education experts now consider ninth grade as a “make or break” year for students on many levels. It’s a time when the cognitive, emotional, physical, and spiritual are all coming together. Throw in a double dose of raging hormones, adolescent angst, and poor-decision making skills, and students can sometimes lose their focus—if not their way.

And while homeschoolers at this age are less likely to experience the school-environment pressures that factor heavily into public and private school dropout rates, the freshman year is crucial for building a strong academic foundation for the future. Here, the choices your student makes early-on lay the groundwork for more advanced courses that could make him or her a stronger candidate for college admission.

And for the most competitive colleges, it takes four years of cumulative excellence in the core subjects of English, Mathematics, Foreign Language, and the Sciences to make the cut.

Often ignored: Sophomore slump

There’s a reason parents and educators alike have coined the phrase “the sophomore slump.” Your student has settled into the rhythm of high school courses, homework levels, and expectations. And the pressures associated with taking college entrance exams and applying for college haven’t hit home yet. Given this, it may be tempting for your student to let his or her guard down, lose focus, and perhaps even fall into a slump.

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While it may not be quite that dramatic for all students, there’s a very real tendency for tenth grade to become a plateau in which your student simply wants to set the cruise control and maintain speed. In reality, though, sophomores should be focused on continuing to build upon the solid foundation of courses laid during their freshman year.

What does that look like? They should maintain—and even improve—their grades and prepare for a rigorous junior year of standardized tests and college entrance exams. And it’s also a great time to flesh out their extracurricular activities list, volunteer in the community or at church, spread their wings in leadership roles among their peers, and push harder in sports, music, and other areas of interest.

Hitting the stride: Junior year

A good rule of thumb for understanding which year of high school is most important is asking yourself which year will college admissions officers see fully completed? In most cases, this will be the eleventh grade—when students really hit their stride and show what they are capable of. And it’s the last full year that most colleges will be able to look at their performance and extrapolate how they will do in college and beyond.

Given this, your student’s junior year should be the most challenging in terms of courses on their transcript. It should most closely approximate a college course loadso that admissions officers can get a good feel for how well your student handles that level of work.

With the finish line in sight, now is the time for your student to really push hardparticularly in classes that are strengths, passions, and/or apply directly to his or her college studies. Remember, eleventh grade is the last chance for your student to redeem a lackluster freshman or sophomore year.

Beyond this, for most students the junior year is when the most important college entrance exams are taken. And it’s the time to start visiting colleges, lining up recommendation letters, churning out college applications, and maintaining the highest grades possible to make the strongest case as you prepare your student’s transcript.

Mitigating circumstances: Senior year

If your student is planning to take a gap year between high school and college (more on that here), the senior year could take the top slot as most important since it will be the last full year an admissions officer sees.

In addition, it’s a mistake to assume that your student’s senior-year grades don’t count. Particularly at more competitive colleges, admissions departments are increasingly looking at first-semester grades from the twelfth grade. If there seems to be a “slack off” in the senior year, some colleges may even rescind an acceptance letter—or put an application on hold until performance improves.

Here, course selection during a senior year remains an important factor for colleges. Just because your student’s GPA primarily results from cumulative effort spanning freshman through junior years, the senior year should nevertheless be loaded up with impressive classes.

Sure, it’s fine to take a few interesting electives, but don’t go too far. Keep on track with serious coursework, because how your student handles it now as he or she approaches the high school finish line is the best predictor of college success.

The verdict: Junior year is key, but seniors can’t let up

When it comes to college admission, a consistent (or improving) track record of performance is key. Overall, your student should either maintain consistently high grades throughout all four years, or demonstrate a growing record of achievement from ninth through twelfth grade.

The bottom line is that every year is a building block for the next. Classes taken during your student’s junior and senior years are based on what they did as freshmen and sophomores. When they do well with the small things, they will handle the bigger things well, too. And this applies to college admissions just like it does to everything in life.