College and career preparation is the name of the game for many high schools – which is a good thing, considering over 90 percent of millennials who graduate will go on to college within eight years of graduation. Your favorite high school student is likely already thinking about their next step in life. If that next step includes college, you may be asking: when is the ideal time to start looking into colleges?

Where do you start?

Believe it or not, the first step of your college journey starts at home. Talk with your student about their post-graduation goals. Simple questions can help you determine where they envision themselves, and what career path they are planning to take. Discuss career preparation classes offered by their high school. Ask them about their favorite classes, and hands-on activities that they have experienced. If they express an interest in a particular field, consider lining up job shadows with area professionals so they can see what a day in that particular field involves. Begin having these conversations when they are a freshman or sophomore, but understand that students often change their minds throughout the course of high school and even college (and that’s OK!).

Research, research, research!

When you have a general idea of what your student wants to do, research colleges that offer that specialty. Research online with your student both large and small schools. Consider questions like, what is the career placement rate within six months of graduation? What are potential earnings for students with their major? Does the college emphasize hands-on learning or theoretical knowledge? Do professors teach, or do they rely on teaching assistants? Be sure to research average class sizes. Get an idea on what would be the best learning environment is for your student, and tailor your college visit list.

College isn’t only about what you can learn in the classroom. Be sure to look into clubs and extracurricular activities, study abroad opportunities, service learning opportunities and more. College websites should also have information about the regular schedule: Does the school offer a J-term or a May term that might offer unique scheduling opportunities? Make a note to ask admissions counselors questions about these schedules.

The college visit

Many colleges will send admissions counselors to high schools. Encourage your student to take advantage of these visits – this is a great opportunity to have a conversation about the college or university before an on-campus visit. Students should start speaking with admissions counselors as early as their sophomore year in high school.

Many admissions counselors recommend that students start visiting colleges late in their sophomore year or early junior year of high school. The college visit allows students to see the campus first-hand and envision themselves there, but also to ask about admission requirements so they are prepared when it’s time to apply during their senior year.

A few other ideas to maximize a college visit:

  • Hit a café on campus and talk with current students. Ask them what they like, or what drew them to this particular school. Current student insight can be really helpful for a prospective student.
  • See if you can attend a class or speak with a professor. If attending a class isn’t an option, see if you can check out the biology lab or rec center (or whatever interests your son or daughter).
  • Eat at the on-campus cafeteria or check out a sporting event. These are great spots to get a feel for the culture on campus and give you an unfiltered look at life as a student.
  • Ask your tour guide about interesting campus traditions – every school has at least one that makes them unique. After all, college life is about way more than the classes!
  • Consider an overnight visit or a weekend away. Prospective students are able to experience campus life.

Other considerations

Don’t be afraid to check out the local interests when you are in a college town. Getting off campus is half the fun! Parents, let your student take the lead during the college visit; this is planning for their future. You will definitely plan an important part, but let them take initiative and find answers to the questions they have.

After a visit, most colleges will follow up with advice on admissions requirements and application dates. If the college is still in the running, be sure to mark those dates down. If your son or daughter is serious about applying to a school, share your FAFSA information with them. Be sure to talk to your Farm Bureau agent about college savings options and planning for education expenses. Your agent can help with smart budgeting options and share advice on how to make college more affordable.