In addition to being a former Dartmouth admissions officer and the founder of North Star admissions consulting, I am also the parent of three kids. My oldest is a senior in high school, and this year I helped her get in early decision to her first choice Ivy League college. I now have insight from all three vantage points, and am excited to share some of what I have learned.

  • You need to start your college application process NOW.

I am not saying this to add stress – just the opposite. The main source of stress in the college application process (in addition to listening to bad advice) is failing to start early. We started in 8th grade.

I totally understand that there is more to life than college admissions, and that you don’t want your household consumed by college talk for four years. However, failing to think strategically about courses, activities, testing and school visits until junior year or even later is a bad idea. It limits opportunities and creates an inherently stressful bottleneck. Plus, let’s face it, most kids are surrounded by college pressure – so why not address it head on and take proactive steps to optimize your results?

  • The right school list is critical.

You already know that you need a list that has the right balance of aspirational and fit schools, and that works within your family’s logistical and financial parameters. But how do you do this? I know that it can be overwhelming to start the school search, but once again, it is crucial to start early. By the way, relying on Naviance and the guidance counselor to generate the list is a terrible idea for most people – as I discuss in more detail in next week’s post.

My daughter is an athletic recruit, so we had the great privilege of visiting schools early and getting an inside glimpse. This experience reinforced how important it is to check out programs incrementally, and that it can take time and multiple points of comparison to find the right fit.

  • Get expert help.

There is a truly breathtaking amount of misinformation out there. How do you know what’s right? Or right for you or your child? There is simply no substitute for working with someone who has been on the other side of the table, deciding who gets into college, and who can provide customized advice. If you do decide to navigate the process on your own please try to stay off of forums like college confidential – they are often completely inaccurate, and can do more harm than good. Finally, please try to avoid comparing notes with your peers, since what worked for someone else is unlikely to work for you.