College planning tips from Rob Franek, senior vice president and publisher of The Princeton Review.

By Suzanne Rust

College: the seven-letter word that can send parents into a tailspin. If you have children in high school, you may need some handholding to guide you through the college planning process—some of our staffers with college-bound teens certainly do! So when Rob Franek, senior vice president and publisher of The Princeton Review, offered to come by the Family Circle office to help calm our nerves and provide tips, we said, yes, please.

"What do I suggest parents do in the early years of high school?" says Rob. "Think ahead!"

Here are his top five college planning tips to make what can be an overwhelming process easier on your child—and you.

Plan for academic success in high school.

Your child has the best shot at getting into the school of her dreams if she shines in high school. Plan her course load early; try to spread out the harder courses so she's not drowning in her senior year. If she's having difficulties, consider a tutor before her grades go south!

Have a conversation with your student about his extracurricular plans. If he wants to play a sport, sing in the choir, run for Student Council and still get top grades, something may have to give. Tip: College admissions officers look for depth, not breadth. They would rather see a student who's committed to a passion than a student who does everything but whose involvement in each activity is shallow.

Get your student ready to rock the SAT/ACT Tests.

Your child should think about taking the SAT or ACT in the summer after sophomore year or early in junior year. If she gets the score she wants, it's out of the way. If she wants to improve, there's time to practice on her own, take a test prep class or work with a tutor. For the SAT Subject Tests, have your child sit for the exam right after finishing the related class, while it's fresh in her mind.

Don't put your head in the sand about the cost of college.

We know it's intimidating, but planning in advance can help lower the cost of college for your child. And the good news is that two out of three students receive some sort of financial aid. It's important to be realistic about your family's finances, but you don't need to cross a school off your child's list because of a scary sticker price. Many colleges and universities offer incredible financial aid packages. Just remember that the more rigorous your student's courses and the better his GPA and ACT or SAT score, the more likely he is to receive a bigger financial aid offer.

Think ahead about the kind of school that will make your child happy.

Anything that takes stress off junior and senior year for your student—and you—is a good thing! Start talking to your child about what appeals to her most about college. Does she see herself at a big school attending football games every weekend, or at a small, artsy school in a rural setting? If you can visit some schools informally on a long weekend or a family trip, use the opportunity to get the conversation going. It may help you narrow down the list and make senior year less hectic.

Educate yourself about the college admissions process.

While your high school student will most likely be assigned a college advisor, that counselor may have 100+ students to supervise and might not meet with your child until junior year. At that point, it could be hard to fit in an extra course or acquire an additional skill that the advisor feels your child needs on his transcript. Instead of playing catch-up, take advantage of college planning books, apps and websites. You might also want to consider a private counselor. These resources can help you come up with a game plan to make your child's high school experience the best launching pad for a successful college career.