For many students and parents, junior year is when the panic starts and everyone realizes it’s time to get serious about college admission. For students, that means signing up to take a slew of standardized tests, which include the PSAT in October, the SAT in January, and the ACT in February.

It’s time for students to get the best grades they can. “Absolutely no C’s!” says Pam Proctor, author of The College Hook: Packaging Yourself To Win the College Admissions Game. “In your junior year, everything counts toward college.”

For parents, their role is to keep everyone on track and help the student discover and develop the interests that will help her make the best college decision. “Parents can guide students,” Proctor says. “Their role is helping their child follow their passions, but not pushing passions on them.”

Based in Florida, Proctor counsels families nationally and internationally on college admissions, emphasizing the importance of cultivating a special interest beyond academics.

Proctor calls the special interest that gives your child a leg up in the application process the “hook,” and she considers the hook the third leg on a stool that also includes grades and test scores. Here are some of Proctor’s tips for navigating college admission with a junior:

Point out the many options available for your child. High school students often have a narrow vision of their future college. Maybe it’s the local state school, a parent’s alma mater, or the home of her favorite basketball team. In reality, there are many options. The goal is to help your child find the best fit for her goals and interests.

Assure your child that he has something to offer. Some kids overestimate their college prospects, while others think they won’t stand out in a sea of applicants. If your child lacks confidence, help him realize he has something special, whether it’s his love of the outdoors, his ability to repair a car transmission, or his passion for science fiction. “Every student has a hook,” Proctor says, “even the student who seems to be holed quietly in his room playing video games or watching TV.”

Recruit someone outside the family to get the conversation going. If your child isn’t interested in talking about college, try recruiting a family member, family friend, teacher, coach, or guidance counselor to help get her excited.

Encourage test preparation. You want your child to have test scores that maximize his potential for admission and scholarships. Your child can work with a tutor, take a prep class in a classroom setting, or take an online course. Some kids need to take just one test, the SAT or the ACT. Students looking to competitive colleges should consider taking both as some kids perform better on one than the other. “Encourage your child to take the tests more than once,” Proctor says. “Three times is not too many.”

Research the costs. It’s understandable for parents to be terrified about checking tuition costs, but it’s time to get realistic. If your child is interested in specific colleges, contact those financial aid offices to find out what options might be available. Research financial aid information at www.college.gov and www.fafsa.ed.gov. Determine what’s reasonable for your family and share that information with your child, assuring her that she will get a quality education even if she can’t afford the most expensive school.

Encourage foreign language study. If your child is searching for a special interest, consider a foreign language, Proctor advises. She likes Mandarin and Arabic for their current relevance. Foreign languages can inspire your child to think globally. If your child’s school doesn’t offer the language your child is interested in, try community classes or online options. It’s fun to study a language as a family.

Help your child cultivate writing skills. Proctor often advises students to write reviews of their favorite video games or cover high school sports for the local paper. Solid writing skills will help your child with application essays. Being a published writer gives the student credibility.

Start working on a list. Yes, it’s finally time! Work with your child on a list of several colleges, including at least two schools she has an excellent chance of being admitted to. The list should be your child’s list, not yours. “Manage your expectations and be realistic about what your child can do,” Proctor says.

Some kids want to go to college locally and others are striving for the Ivy League. Some want a small school and others crave a large campus. During junior year, students decide which schools they can see themselves attending. Big decisions can lead to self-doubt.

Parents often need to help their children overcome fears and see themselves as college students. “It’s about building confidence,” Proctor says. “Confidence is at the root of everything.”

If your child thinks it’s too late by junior year to build a strong application for a dream school, don’t let him off the hook. Proctor doesn’t. “It’s never too late,” she says. “Even seniors can turn things around.”

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.