The process itself is fairly straight forward despite the hysteria surrounding college admissions and the beastly amount of paperwork. So here’s a broad overview of how the process works, what you should be doing and when before you get swept up in that panic, or fall prey to the marketing campaigns that fuel the multi-billion dollar college prep industry. Do not fret when people say the college application process starts freshman or sophomore year of high school – or worse, with pre-PSATs in seventh grade or pre-pre-PSATs in kindergarten - don’t fret. What they mean is, high school grades and coursework count. And some requirements – math and English, for example – only be fulfilled by starting freshman or sophomore year. He will be fine as long as your child takes four or, preferably, five serious academic courses each year. He needs to end up with four years of English, three or four of math, two science, three history, two years of a foreign language and, depending on the college, a year of visual or performing arts. The rest of his schedule can be filled with things he enjoys, whether it’s wood shop, music or more of any of the above courses.

How the college admissions process works

Your child will need a list of 8 to 10 universities that are good fits for him: places he really likes, and where he stands a good chance of getting in in order to apply to college. Some families hire college consultants to help them compile the list, but with a laptop and a few hours of free time, your child can do the same think for himself for free. So junior year is an excellent time to start researching possibilities, hit a college bar and make a few college visits, all while keeping a tight rein on reality. Most still require the ACT or SAT exam for entry although hundreds of college have gotten off the SAT train. Your child should take one of these exams junior year, so there's still time to retake it in the fall, if necessary. Take it in the weeks immediately prior to the exam date, not the summer before in case he opts to take a test prep course. The summer between junior and senior year is a good time for your child to start mulling college essay topics, and writing drafts. Take a sneak peek at the Common Application - a basic application used by hundreds of colleges, and which includes some of the most common essay topics. Fall of senior year is college application season – and yes, it quickly degenerates into a stressful haze of paperwork, spreadsheets and parental nagging. He will need to keep close tabs on which schools require what – essays, supplemental materials, test scores, transcripts and recommendations - and when. It helps to remember that this is your child’s process and his decision. He needs to own the process. Your role as a parent is equal parts cheerleader, cookie-supplier and sounding board.