That’s really a great question. The best answer is as early as possible. The college planning process is multi faceted and requires a great deal of planning, research and consideration to make the best decisions. It’s never too early to begin the process but at some point it is too late.
If there are more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States and each provides something slightly different from the next, how can anyone, even those who have done planning for years, be expected to make recommendations that are appropriate in a short period of time with limited information, yet that’s what many people do.
Students and families who work with a professional counselor have numerous resources and opportunities not afforded to those who go it on their own. Cut to its essence, college planning is a three part process with a few overlays. First and foremost is the fit or match to the student. The college or university (and yes there is a big difference) needs to be the right academic match. Students come in all academic ranges. There are schools for students with 2.8 GPA’s and there are schools for students with 4.4 GPA’s but those schools are rarely the same. I frequently have parents enamored with school names (it is usually the same set of elite schools which include the two premier UC’s, a few Ivy’s, Stanford, Michigan, BU and Georgetown as well as a few others) but those schools they covet are not an academic match for their students. One also needs to consider how a student learns best and it what classroom environment the student will thrive.
Beyond the academic match is the social fit. A college with 1,700 students will feel vastly different socially from say an Ohio State with more than 50,000 students. Does the student want an active Greek system, are they wanting a major Division 1 sports program, more of the rah rah school spirit type schools. What type of faculty student engagement is the student seeking?
Lastly, consider the environmental factors. If you’re an avid skier/snowboarder and love outdoor mountain activities then being in the plains states might not fit the bill. If you are not prepared to live for four years in a cold weather city than the Northeast or anything near a great lake is probably not your cup of tea.
There is nothing better than the right fit. Working with a counselor that can help you identify career goals and the majors that get you there, that has spent the time getting to know the student academically and beyond and someone that understands the financial implications of college selection and the scholarship process should yield phenomenal result. The student should have numerous (between 8-12) schools that they are applying to, all of which are a good fit and within the families financial means so they have several choices once they have been admitted and received their financial aid offers.
How soon is too soon. More than eighty percent of students start with us prior to the start of their senior year. Of those sixty percent are just entering their junior year, 30% are in their sophomore year and the remaining 10% are high school freshman. Getting started early affords the student ample opportunity to ask questions, tour schools, select the probable major and most importantly get a jump of the application and essay process thereby allowing the students to manage their senior year comfortable and with far less stress than those we have seen that work alone or start the process very late in the game.