Whether you are a high school student thinking about college or a parent hoping your child will pursue a degree, it’s important to start the college planning process early, college and high school counselors say.

Waiting until you are a senior in high school is a non-starter, says Susan Daugherty, senior counselor at St. Henry’s High School in Erlanger.

“You have to start your freshman year,” she says. “You can’t wait until you are a senior and start getting serious about this. Start early, prepare yourself and know what the challenges are.”

Ninety-nine percent of the 131 students in St. Henry’s Class of 2013 went to either a four- or two-year college. Daugherty says, “The saddest thing is a senior saying, ‘I wish I had realized this earlier. Now it’s too late.’ ”

It’s important to focus on academics to prepare for college, even as high school freshmen.

“Sometimes parents think you just put your child into a class that will get them a high Grade Point Average,” says Daugherty. “I stress to parents they need to find what [academic] level their child is on and then encourage them to work harder so they have the ability to perform when they get to college. You should pick subjects that will benefit you at the next level and challenge you to be ready for the demands of college.”

Tom Canepa, associate vice president for admissions at the University of Cincinnati, agrees. “High school freshmen need to hit the ground solid as far as their academics are concerned. If a students starts to dig an academic hole as a freshman, it’s going to be difficult to get out of that by the time they’re a junior,” he says. “Generally we’re going to make admission decisions based on their first three years, so that freshman year is important. They need to establish some rigor in the classroom, start to develop study skills and build on that in their sophomore and junior year.”

He and Daugherty say students who can handle the work should take advanced placement or honors courses in high school to get a head start on college.

St. Henry’s advises its students to get involved in extracurricular activities as well.

“[Colleges] want to see a well-rounded student,” says Daugherty. “They don’t want a one-dimensional student who focuses on grades. They want to see somebody who can get the job done on all aspects. That also helps for scholarships, which help to pay for school.”

Justin Vogul, an enrollment counselor at Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, says students need to be aware of admission requirements for the colleges they want to attend.

Many students get accepted to their dream school, he says, but don’t realize they may not meet all the benchmarks and end up taking remedial courses for English and Math. That can mean completing college in four-and-a-half or five years instead of four years, and that means additional costs.

UC’s Canepa says students and their parents need to begin investigating college options as early as junior high.

“It’s never too early for them to begin the looking process,” he says.

“The campus visit in my mind is one of the more critical pieces of that whole college researching process,” he says. It’s a quick way for students and their parents to get a feel for what the institution is like.

“Students need to use that as opportunity to see how that campus feels,” he says. “It is a cliché, but the fit is one of the more important determinants of whether a student will be successful on a particular college. It will be their home for the next four or five years.”

With summer approaching, he says it’s a good time for parents and their students to make a campus visit or two as part of their summer travels.

And don’t be content with just the guided campus tour, he says.

He encourages parents and their students to walk around the campus after their formal tour.

“Get a bite to eat and engage some of the students in the dining facilities.” He continues. “Ask questions like, ‘What is it like to be a student here? Do you like it? What don’t you like?’ They’ll be very honest with you.”

High schools frequently invite college representatives in to talk to students. For example, St. Henry’s had representatives from University of Alabama, Hanover College and Indiana University among others visit this year. Daugherty advises students to take advantage of these visits even if it’s an institution they don’t think they’re interested in.

“It will open their eyes and they’ll see there’s more out there than just their own backyards,” she says.

Another easy way to do college research is to attend the regular college fairs that host numerous institutions. The big national college fair in Cincinnati is usually held at the Duke Energy Convention Center in October.

Also go online, Canepa advises.

“I think students and parents can find answers to just about every question they have by going to a school’s website. That can be a good screening mechanism if they’re interested in a particular academic area.”

The rising cost of higher education is a growing hurdle for most students and their parents.

“The biggest thing that catches my families off guard is tuition,” says Vogul at Thomas More.

“Many families don’t do their homework when it comes to tuition. They assume that many colleges or universities are similarly priced. They also get caught off guard by the total price. They look at a college’s website and do not realize that the tuition number they see is only for one semester and may not include all the additional costs associated with attending the school, such as books, meals, room, technology fees, etc.”

Canepa says it is important for parents and their students to have an honest conversation early on about how they’re going to finance college.

“I think increasingly too many families are being overly optimistic that they’ll get sufficient levels of financial aid where it won’t cost anything out of their pocket. That’s unrealistic in today’s college environment,” he says.

An early conversation on what the parents and the student will contribute to pay for college “will help minimize any hard feelings,” he says.

Patty Mills, director of first year experience at Mount St. Joseph’s in Delhi Township, says many students don’t take advantage of work-study opportunities when they fill out their college application.

“A lot of students don’t know what work-study is, so they often won’t check that box when it asks, ‘Are you interested in work-study?’ ” she says. Besides earning money to help pay for college, work-study programs have other benefits.

“If you are working in an office, you get to know those people really well. That’s a potentially important resource for that student. They can answer questions about career and job choices.”

Daugherty urges students to apply for every scholarship opportunity they can find.

“I tell kids you never know if you’ll qualify unless you send that application in—don’t discount yourself.”

There are scholarships based on a lot of different criteria. “There are a lot of things out there,” she says.

When it comes to taking college placement tests, either the SAT or ACT, Canepa advises that students take each test once and then repeat the test they did better on to minimize the cost.

“The reason is, particularly in the case of the ACT and increasingly in the case of the SAT, those tests are curricular-based so the more course work a student has completed, the greater the likelihood their score will go up,” he says. Most of the time, colleges will give students the benefit of the higher test score.

Another thing he advises is sending all of the student’s test scores to the colleges they’re interested in.

“We want to see all those scores, particularly if the first was in the junior year because we want to see progression in the scores,” he says.

Some students wait until they get their test scores back before sending them to a particular college, but that costs extra. Canepa says the testing agency will send the scores to four colleges of the student’s choice for free.

He also advises students to create a spreadsheet on a computer or by hand to keep track of things by school, such as addresses and phone numbers, pros and cons for each school, and their admission and scholarship deadlines.

“That way it’s right in front of you and you aren’t missing any deadlines,” he says.