You survived your child’s early years: the first day of kindergarten, the teacher who wasn’t the best, the favorite teacher you wish your child could have stayed with forever. Then there was the transition to middle school, when she was suddenly mortified when you showed up at school to volunteer.

Now it’s time to start thinking about college admissions and, as was the case with middle school, you’ve likely heard conflicting reports from the trenches.

Is it really possible to get into a big state school without a 4.0 GPA and high test scores? Do you have to start planning for college when your child is in middle school? And what if your child wants to go to some faraway school you’ve never heard of?

Our SchoolFamily.com College Prep Guide will help you work with your child to find the best fit for his interests, motivation, and career goals. While you can’t be the one applying to colleges, you can sit in the passenger seat and help him navigate the choices.

For this guide, we interviewed the experts—counselors active in the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the author of a popular book on college admission, and a longtime counselor at a top private high school.

Much of your child’s college application journey will depend on how well she knows herself. If she already has career interests and passions, she’ll start the process closer to the finish line. In reality, many young people have no idea what career path they want to follow or what passions they want to cultivate. For these students, the college application process will involve more soul-searching and exploration, and that’s something parents can play a huge role in.

Once it’s time for your child to download applications and fill them out, the hard work has hopefully already been done and your child is just performing the mundane, administrative task of submitting forms.

This is why our guide starts with middle school. It’s not because we want you to start having regular panic attacks about college seven years before your child moves to a dorm room. It’s because we believe, and our experts confirm, that planning ahead gives your child more time to figure out what he wants to get out of his college experience. And it’s that information that will help him make the best choice, which might not be the big state school everyone says has become impossible to get into.

Instead, your child might identify a school you never would have considered, one that is just the right fit for him and for you.

Browse the guide:
College Prep: Middle School
College Prep: 9th Grade
College Prep: 10th Grade
College Prep: 11th Grade
College Prep: 12th Grade

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.