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Parents and high school students frequently ask, “When should we start planning for the college admission process?”  Not surprisingly, our answer is the sooner, the better.
Let’s take a look at what students and parents should be doing, in an optimal case, each year of high school to prepare for college admission.
As a freshman
In 9th grade, the focus should be on academics and building a solid GPA. Begin charting a 4-year plan for future courses, including Honors and AP courses. Your high school counselor can help make sure that the courses you take will get you on the right road to a solid college and major.
Freshman year is a great time to start considering extracurricular activities. If you are unsure, talk to a counselor about which ones fit your interests and stand out on a college application.
As a sophomore
10th grade is all about continuing academic success, including preparing for the PSAT.
As you are talking to friends and family, begin making mental or written notes about colleges or universities you hear about, or visit with them when they come to your high school.
If you can, start discussing possible majors with your counselor. Discuss which courses for the next two years will be optimal, and begin to build a list of which schools might be appropriate.
As a junior
11th grade is the last full year of grades that colleges see. Take the most challenging courses you can this year. Honors and AP level courses are preferred in multiple academic classes if possible.
Develop a testing plan with your counselor:

Start visiting potential schools over Spring Break and continue through summer. Work with your counselor to make sure you aren’t missing any local college fairs, and confirm that schools you may visit are appropriate given your grades and interests.
It is also not too early to start looking into college financial aid and FAFSA. Most counselors will have a wealth of knowledge about options.
As a senior
It is important in 12th grade to finish strong academically. Most colleges will see and rely on 1st Marking Period grades, but offers can be rescinded if grades slip, even in the final marking period.
Work with your counselor to ensure that you secure strong teacher recommendations, on time. Continue to look at scholarship and financial aid options.
And finally, your most important job in senior year other that getting good grades is completing the college application process – thoroughly and on time. Your counselor can help with the nuts and bolts of completing the applications, meeting relevant deadlines, how to showcase extracurricular activities and writing compelling essays.  It is important to keep in mind that the college preparation to application process takes four years, not a couple of weeks.
The roadmap above has you relying heavily on the support and resources of your high school guidance counselor.  The timeline that your counselor uses may be different that that above, or more critically, she may not have enough time to work one on one with you at each step.  If the latter is the case, we encourage parents and students to seek out a qualified independent counselor to assist with the process, in addition to the support you get from your school.  A partnership with a counselor can be invaluable every step of the way.
Jonathan J. DeSimone, an experienced Guidance and College Counselor with JD College Consulting, has been navigating the complexities of the college admission process for 16 years. Over the years, Jon has established relationships with many members of the college and university admission community and continues communication throughout each academic year. You can follow Jon on Twitter or Google+, or visit his website at