Q: Even though my daughter is just going into 9th grade, I feel like we're already behind in the college process. Some of my friends have started their kids on SAT prep now, in 8th grade. Will my daughter have an advantage in also starting early on this? What else can I do to help her be ready for college?

A: It is NOT a good idea to start prepping for standardized tests this early. Junior year – 11th grade – is the appropriate time. First of all, test scores are NOT the most important part of a student's college application. Emphasizing test scores sends the wrong message. Students who start on test prep too early will be absolutely sick of the test before 11th grade, and they may also sour on the whole topic of college if you start stressing it too early.

Is test prep all that effective? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. (The test prep industry will want you to think that it is essential.) I know students who have taken test prep programs and have improved a little, or a lot, or not at all. I know students who have taken the tests multiple times, with their scores actually going down. And I know students who have not prepped at all, other than reading the information in the test brochure, and have done very well on their first try.

So please, de-emphasize the tests at this point. Right now, the best thing that you can do for your daughter is to be supportive of her education. Create a home environment where learning is an exciting and joyful experience. Encourage her to read all kinds of things: young adult novels, mystery, science fiction, history, biography. Students who are habitual readers tend to do much better on the critical reading section of the SAT than those who read only the minimum that is required at school. Find some interesting new titles at the public library and have them accessible at home. Every other month, you might try reading the same book – and then having a discussion about it. Did you side with any particular character, and why? Did you think this person made the right choices? Were you satisfied with the book's ending? Discussions like this will enhance your daughter's thinking skills, and can also be a fun shared experience!

Students who do well in their math classes tend to do well in the math sections of the standardized tests. Is your daughter succeeding in math, or struggling? If the latter, speak to her teacher and ask how she might improve. At this point, keep your goals small. The SAT or the ACT can wait.

Please don't start taking her to visit colleges too soon, either, or burn out might set in. Instead, encouraging her learning skills and keeping her positive about her future will create an environment that will make her want to pursue higher education. This isn't a race between you and your friends. Making the transition to high school will be enough of a challenge. Prepping for college admission tests can come later.