I went on numerous campus tours while I was visibly pregnant with my daughter, and always got the same comment from other parents: “Wow, you’re starting early!” They said it only half jokingly, as if they wouldn’t be entirely surprised to find that I really was beginning the college search for an unborn child.

So when should college planning begin? Does a student really gain any advantage by starting to think about college in middle school, or even earlier?

In my experience, the main benefit of early college planning falls into 3 areas: high school course selection, extracurricular activities and financial planning. Most colleges have specific course requirements, so students should work with their counselor from freshmen year to make sure their classes are lining them up to be a strong applicant. Furthermore, colleges love to see applicants who have pursued their passions outside the classroom, so it’s great if students have plenty of time to delve deeply into extracurricular pursuits. Early planning also means less stress during senior year and allows a student more time to really explore their college preferences deeply. And finally, it’s important that families start talking about financing college as early as possible, making a specific plan for how to foot to bill.

In spite of these advantages, too much early college planning can also have downsides. With their eyes to the future, it’s easy for students to miss out on enjoying their high school years. Many students are still in the process of discovering themselves in the first half of high school, and may not be ready to start thinking too much about their next step. Worrying about college for too many years can lead to unnecessary anxiety in a young person.

So while I believe it’s important to have preliminary conversations about college from an early age, for most students the REAL business of college planning – researching colleges, test prep, visiting campuses and drafting essays – is best begun in earnest during junior year. This is why my program for freshmen and sophomores is called the “Exploratory Program.” I believe in the value of thinking about college during these years, but recognize that many students aren’t yet ready to delve into the hardcore planning. As long as a student has been taking college prep courses, earning the best grades they can, and pursuing passions outside the classroom, they’ll be well positioned to get down to business junior year.

That being said, junior year IS the time to start! The first semester of junior year is best used to learn about options and explore college preferences, while researching and building a college list should be well under way by spring of junior year. And really savvy students get their essays drafted over the summer, allowing ample time in fall of senior year to get all the applications submitted well before the deadline.

So while there’s no need for freshmen to panic about college applications, be ready to really get going junior year in order to have the smoothest sailing possible when it’s time to apply.