I gave a financial aid talk to college and career center volunteers at our high school recently. One question stood out: “This is a lot of information to absorb at once. Can you break it down into some specific suggestions by grade?” Two ideas are important here: College planning is a process that should start well before senior year, and there are things that can be done at any point to make things go more smoothly when the time comes to start applying. So here goes.

Freshman Year:

  • Discuss with your student your expectations about college: Do you want them to go? Is it imperative to you that they go? What level of financial commitment do you expect from them and what can you commit to them? For example, what is the maximum amount you are willing to contribute to their degree? Do you require that they pursue a “practical” major? Do you expect them to pay a portion of the college expenses?
  • Research your state’s financial aid and scholarships and high school course requirements. For example, what is the GPA/test score threshold for merit awards at your in-state schools? Are you on track for that? Does your state offer free or discounted community college tuition? What about dual enrollment (community college and four-year public)? How many years of math are needed for a four-year school?
  • Open a 529 account, if you don’t already have one, and set up an automatic contribution. Most plans will accept as little as $25 per month or per quarter. Research shows that students who have college savings of any amount are more likely to enroll in college after high school.

Sophomore Year:

  • Visit some colleges, even just your local ones. This will help students to visualize the differences between large vs small, liberal arts vs research, and different approaches to student life.
  • Take the PSAT. Sophomore year PSAT is a “freebie” so you can get a feel for the test and determine whether you should be doing some test preparation.
  • In the fall, review the FAFSA formula and look at any opportunities you might have to make changes in your situation that will benefit you in applying for aid. Do the FAFSA4caster and net price calculators for schools that you’re interested in, including your in-state public schools, to get a sense of what’s realistic for your family, financially.

Junior Year:

  • Take the PSAT and determine the best schedule and options for taking the SAT/ACT. For example, students in advanced math classes might be better off taking the SAT or ACT as juniors since they’re more likely to forget the math that’s being tested than to learn something that’s being tested. Based on how you’ve done on the PSAT or pre-ACT, decide if you should be taking a test prep class.
  • Visit some colleges you’re interested in and start narrowing down your list. Do their net price calculators to determine if they’re likely affordable. Research their aid policies—need-based or merit?—and what you need to do to be eligible for scholarships.
  • Start developing a college budget. How would your savings divide out each year? How much can you pay from cash flow? Will you have years with multiple children in college? If so, would your financial aid be different?
  • Review the Common App and Coalition App essay prompts and previous essay prompts from schools you’re interested in so that you can work on essays over the summer before senior year.

Senior Year:

  • Set a budget for college applications and decide who pays. Application fees typically range between $50-$90, plus the cost of sending test scores and the Profile, so a student applying to 10 schools should budget somewhere around $1,000 just for applications.
  • Narrow down your list of colleges to a manageable number of applications. Remember that many schools have additional essays besides the Common/Coalition App prompts. Confirm application dates including scholarship application deadlines.
  • Have a clear family conversation about what is affordable for college and make sure that your schools are likely to fall in that range. Be clear about what the financial aid package needs to look like from a reach school in order to accept admission there.
  • Fill out the FAFSA and CSS Profile if applicable.
  • Take the SAT/ACT if you haven’t already.
  • Develop a budget template for your family so that as acceptances and aid offers come in, you can make reasonable decisions.

There are many, many other tasks involved in getting a student to college and each family of course has its own priorities. The ones I’ve outlined above are focused on the financial side: getting your student onto a college path that’s a good investment for your family.