I went on campus tours while I was visibly pregnant with my daughter, and always got the same comment from 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 need to make sure their classes are lining them up to be a strong applicant for their intended major. Furthermore, colleges love to see applicants who have pursued their passions outside the classroom, so it’s great if students are intentional with their extracurricular pursuits. 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 have downsides. With their eyes to the future, it’s easy for students to miss out on enjoying their high school years. Many teens are still in the process of discovering themselves in the first half of high school, and may not be ready to start thinking 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, 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 we only work with Freshmen and Sophomores on an hourly basis: We believe in the value of thinking about college during these years, but recognize that many students aren’t 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 11th grade 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 essays drafted over the summer, allowing ample time in fall of senior year to get applications submitted well before the deadlines.

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.