It’s never too early to start thinking about college – or so it seems these days. This ideology can become a recipe for over-packed days, sleepless nights, and free-floating anxiety for both you and your ninth grader, but there are ways to gently push the ball in the right direction without overwhelming the already-stressful first year of high school.

If you have older children, or if your child is friendly with a number of upperclassmen, it’s easy to get swept up in talk of standardized tests, essay questions, and specific schools. However, rather than sweating these external details, the focus of the first year should be on building a strong academic foundation. “Freshmen have to learn time management skills and decide to challenge themselves for the duration of high school,” counsels Peggy Baker, an educational consultant based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania who independantly advises students in the college search . Similarly, educational consultant Pearl Glassman of New York recommends “taking the strongest courses you can handle and doing as well as you can” while not stressing too much about the future.

When it comes to course selection or extracurricular opportunity, “You can’t plan life based on where you’re going to go to college” says educational consultant David Altshuler of Miami, Florida. “When I meet with a high school freshman, I try to focus the conversation on what he or she wants to take or do, rather than what he or she should take or do. Do you like art history? Are you interested in writing for the paper? It doesn’t matter where you go to college if you aren’t happy; the better you know yourself, your strengths, your needs, the better the match will be.”

The freshman-year foundation extends beyond academic habits and extracurricular self-discovery, however. Fair Haven, New Jersey educational consultant Erin Avery suggests “nurturing relationships with teachers of academic subjects. The better they know a student, the more efficacious the recommendation they will write.” Moreover, she adds, “don’t forget that the guidance counselor writes a final rec for each student, so please do darken their door before fall of senior year. Get them involved with the process, include them and they will feel more eager to be a student's advocate.”

In a few rare cases, the freshman year foundation does include a more concrete application-related detail. “Most guidance counselors do not encourage students to take SATII Subject test in a timely fashion (ie, immediately after they complete the subject, preferably May or June),” Avery notes. “So say a freshman takes Biology in the ninth grade and is a high achieving student who aspires to apply to highly selective colleges (many of which require a minimum of two SATIIs). Register to take the test at the end of the ninth grade year whilst the information is still fresh in the student's mind!”

In a similar vein, freshman year is a good time to start a portfolio of the work of which your student is most proud, including papers, projects, and any non-academic achievement. This portfolio will come in handy not only as a potential future supplemental submission but also as a reference point when writing college essays.

On the one hand, ninth grade may seem early to begin talking and thinking about college. But, as Altshuler says, “families will benefit from learning as much information about the process as possible.” Glassman says that applying to college is a process that should be taken one step at a time, to make it more manageable and less stressful.

As in training for a major athletic event, this process begins with the development of a strong core of basic muscles, such as time management skills, genuine intellectual passions, and meaningful teacher-student relationships. In the college admissions marathon, focusing the initial attention on a solid foundation will inevitably produce the best results – both now and in the future.