Text by Missy Yavasile, Independent College Consultant, Soar College Planning and Consulting

The answer to this question can be confusing because there are so many moving parts to the college planning process. Let me just say this: It is terribly stressful to start at the beginning of the senior year. With all of the activities going on, students who have not started preparing will find themselves with too little time to show off “their best self,” not to mention the stress level. It is not too early to start having discussions about college in middle school. So let’s make a timeline of things to do at different grade levels.

Hopefully, before you get to middle school, you have started some kind of college savings program. But then comes middle school and you are thinking: “No way! This can’t be happening. College planning already?” Yep!

Now, one of the most important things you can do as a parent is to encourage reading, reading and more reading. Make sure that your student is getting a firm foundation in the academics. In high school, the academics and test scores will be the primary determining factors about where your student will attend college, as well as how much merit money he/she will receive. The colleges also like to see a great résumé with a variety of activities and community service. Helping middle school students find a “passion” can help them develop a sustainable activity to pursue throughout high school. Middle school students need to know what lies ahead.

So you are thinking, “Okay. When do we get serious about the actual college stuff?” I think the best time to start thinking specifically about college is the sophomore year. Financial decisions will be based on family financials on the tax return two years prior to graduation, so these decisions should be made during the sophomore year. However, it is never too late to make financial decisions that pertain to cash flow and tax advantage scholarships – even once the student is in college. If you will not qualify for need-based financial aid, don’t be discouraged. There is plenty that can be done to get more money to pay for college. You just have to know how to do it. Want to know more? Check out the book “Never Pay Retail for College,” written by my friend Beth Walker.

During the sophomore year, the student should start thinking about what kind of college he/she might like to attend and what field of study he/she might be most interested in studying. They should also be taking a rigorous course of study and getting good grades. By the junior year, students should have their testing schedule in place and know if they will focus on SAT or ACT (colleges will accept either). They should begin narrowing down their college list and potential majors. By the summer before the senior year, the student should be writing college applications and essays, putting together an activity list and preparing to fill out applications early in the senior year. By this time, the portfolio/résumé should be robust and consistent.

If you start early enough, then the fall of the senior year should simply require fine-tuning.