B.L. of Oceanside, NY writes:

When is the best time to begin planning for college?

The College Whisperer responds:

Right out of the womb, or as soon thereafter one can secure a Social Security number for the newborn. At least in terms of saving for college, the sooner the better.

With college costs rising into the hundreds of thousands of dollars -- and that's just for meal plans ;-) -- parents are well advised to save early and save often.

With New York's 529 College Savings Plan -- www.nysaves.org -- saving is easy and virtually painless. An account can be opened with as little as $25, the money invested grows (and my be withdrawn for college-related purposes) tax free, and there's a great NYS tax deduction of up to $10,000 per year for married couples filing jointly.

More on saving for college in future posts.

As for college planning, I assume you mean strategies putting your child's best foot forward in the application and admission process, and getting the competitive edge in this most selective college market.

While the second mouse often ends up with the cheese, the old adage of the early bird catching the worm certainly holds true when getting into college counts.

There are college planning calendars aplenty online, and, most assuredly, in the guidance office at the high school. These planning timetables give an overview -- and, in some instances, month-to-month details -- beginning in the freshman year. [Check out the College Connection College Planning Calendar.]

While the freshman year of high school may seem eerily early to start thinking about college, actually, given the tabla rasa (clean slate) and the long window of opportunity before those college apps are due, it's actually the best time to create a college plan.

Aside from grades and standardized test scores, the outcome of which are not entirely within the hands or minds of the student (encouragement to try one's best notwithstanding), other variables vital to the college admission critique are completely within the student's control.

Course selection, particularly electives, honors, and AP (Advanced Placement). Which ones to take. When to take them. What will put the student at an academic advantage.

Extracurricular and out-of-school activities. Not just, "Gee, this will look good on my high school resume," but a four-year commitment, and a dedicated involvement, be it in athletics, music, community service, or some combination thereof.

Believe me, once you're in your senior year, it's way too late to do the "shoulda, coulda, woulda" dance, your track record -- or lack thereof -- having already been firmly established, if not set in stone.

College planning may also involve career counseling. Some of us are pretty much set on what we want to do with our lives in our mid-teens. Others are still searching well into their 50s, 60s and 70s. [Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with that!]

And then there's working on those all-important critical writing skills. A jump start here will not only help you make the grade in high school, but will better prepare you for the SATs, ACTs, and yes, for those crucial personal essays that will accompany your Common Application.

The early high school years give students the chance to prepare themselves for the college application process at their own pace, without the stress or anxiety often suffered by the upperclassmen (and women) who, having put off the planning of their futures to late junior or early senior year, now face the daunting and unsettling task of catching up instead of getting ahead.

College may seem light years away to high school freshman and their parents. Trust me. College applications and admission decisions are much closer than they appear in the rear view mirror.

Consult with a college planning counselor early in the game, and you're sure to be a winner!

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of The College Whisperer.
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