From resume building and campus tours to test prep and essay writing, there's a lot for kids to contend with, and a lot for parents who may not have gone through the process themselves.
College admissions officials and paid helpers urge families to stretch the application process over all four years of high school to make it less of a mad dash and more of a marathon. Try this timeline to break down the to-do list:
Enroll in rigorous classes, said Jim Montoya, a former admissions dean at Stanford and Vassar and a vice president of the College Board. The board, CollegeBoard.org, administers SAT, Advanced Placement testing and SAT Subject Tests.
"Often I hear parents say, 'If only I would have known, I would have had my son or daughter take a science course in the ninth grade,'" Montoya said.
If you have a specific college in mind this early, check its academic requirements online and find the school on Facebook for up-to-date chatter and official announcements.
Generally, colleges prefer four years of English, as well as history, math, science and a foreign language, Montoya said. Explore SAT Subject Tests in your strongest classes and expect to take them while the material is fresh. Some colleges require subject tests. Either way, it wouldn't hurt to throw them into the mix.
Visit a college informally when school is in session, especially if you've never stepped foot on a campus. Formal touring can wait. The idea is to provide a glimpse into college life.
Make a long-term commitment to an extracurricular activity and community service. Don't pile on the extras. Choose things you truly love and work toward making a significant contribution over four years.
If financial aid is in your future, get literate on how to find it and how to apply for it. Have a heart-to-heart with your parents on money matters. Begin looking into how scholarships work and what the FAFSA is (it's the Free Application for Federal Student Aid).
"It's never too early to begin to understand financial aid," said Rick Dalton, who heads College for Every Student, a nonprofit that helps low-income public school students move toward higher education. "It's important to understand the concept, that there's money out there. Not understanding that is a huge impediment in getting interested in college to begin with."
Read More -- College application timeline for high schoolers - CNBC