It’s a huge transition when your child starts high school, so it might seem a bit early to start thinking about the next transition: college. In reality, 9th grade is an important year for your college-bound child. His grades will matter more than ever because they will be calculated as part of his grade-point average. And the courses he takes will matter more. If he is aiming for a selective college, he’ll need to convince admissions officers that he challenged himself during his high school years.

As a parent, you can help your child make sense of the options and guide her in making the decisions that will “set the stage for success and choices,” says Jim L. Miller, coordinator of enrollment research at the University of Wisconsin-Superior and past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Here are some of Miller’s tips for preparing for college—before it’s time to start making a list of schools and filling out applications:

Don’t emphasize specific colleges. At this early stage, it’s more important to talk about college in general terms, Miller says. Overemphasizing specific schools, especially your alma mater, could set up your child for disappointment even if she ends up getting accepted to schools that are a good fit for her. Miller suggests delaying talk of specific schools until junior year. “Try to get away from the concept that there is a best college,” Miller says.

Map out a long-term plan. The course decisions you and your child make in 9th grade will drive the courses your child takes throughout high school. Work closely with his teachers and counselor to make sure he is on the right path to fulfill his potential without getting burned out or overwhelmed with homework.

Help your child find her passion. Your child’s interests should drive her college choice. “Early in high school, finding success is about looking inward instead of looking out,” Miller says. But some kids need help figuring out what they love to do. Help your child find school and community resources for exploring what she enjoys. For example, if her high school doesn’t offer creative writing and she wants to be a writer, find a class at a local bookstore or library. If your child loves her French class, you could take a French cooking class together. If your child loves to build things, he may be able to take a carpentry class through your school’s vocational program.

Encourage your child to focus on a few activities. In 9th grade, motivated students might be tempted to join every club in an effort to impress college admissions officers. A long list of activities will tell an admissions official that the child is unfocused, Miller says. “It’s better to be really good at one or two things than to scratch the surface of 10 or 12 things,” he says.

Help your child with study skills. This is an area where parents can have a huge effect on a child’s success in school and in life. Teach your child techniques for getting organized, setting priorities, avoiding procrastination, and meeting deadlines. Show your child how you manage your busy schedule. Help her find the tools that will help her get her assignments in on time. Such good habits will be invaluable when it’s time to apply to colleges.

Get over college choices as a matter of prestige. In many social circles, big-name or Ivy League colleges are what parents of high schoolers talk about. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype, especially if your child is planning to apply to top schools. Reset your mindset to the idea that your child needs to go to the school that is the best fit for what he wants to do what his life. “It’s about what’s a good match for the kid,” Miller says. “It doesn’t have to be the college that sounds best at a cocktail party.”

Visit a campus or two. If your child seems uninterested in the concept of college or stressed out at the thought of going away to school, visit some campuses. Keep each visit casual. Focus on what daily life is like for students, where your child would live, where she would eat, and how she would get to class. “You want your child to feel comfortable with that type of a setting,” Miller says.

Starting high school is stressful enough without the added pressure of having to prepare for college. The best strategy is to play it cool, talking about college in a positive way, and getting your child comfortable with the concept. By resisting the temptation to start making lists of schools, you can focus on what’s really important: helping your child discover who she is and what makes her happy.

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.