Even though your brain is crammed with college admissions info, somehow the crazy process of applying to college still feels like a scavenger hunt.

That’s where this list comes in. Wisdom from those who’ve already tread this path — plus some lesser-known facts — may change your and your child’s approach to this process… and it just might set your mind at ease.

  1. Don’t try to read every guide.

    One or two good ones will be plenty.
    If you’ve browsed college admissions books online, you know that there are dozens to choose from and they all sound like required reading. Don’t overload your shopping cart with promising-sounding, anxiety-provoking titles! That way lies madness, and let’s face it, you’ll never get around to reading them all. Limit yourself to one or two good titles and go from there. We’ve done the vetting for you. Here are five college admissions books worth reading.

  2. Leadership matters

    College admissions officers admit they’re attracted to applicants who’ve been recognized by their teachers or peers for their leadership qualities. So if your kid is a student council president or a team captain, that’s terrific. Luckily, leadership comes in lots of guises, and it’s definitely not too late for your child to get immersed in an activity and be recognized by their teachers, coaches, or peers for their excellence. Perhaps they can pursue being a Boys/Girls club state representative, a senior patrol leader, a student mentor, or hold an office in the drama club. If they’re not currently involved in an activity they’re passionate about, encourage them to start a new group, club, or sport and get it accepted as a school-sponsored activity.

  3. Apply “The Grandparent Test”

    Your child’s social media presence is fair game as part of their college application; schools don’t want bad apples disturbing their campus. Encourage your teenager to clean up what’s out there and be cautious about what they post from now on. A 2016 Time article reports “40 percent of admissions officers say they visit applicants social media pages to learn about them.” IvyWise writes that 35 percent of admissions counselors found something that “negatively impacted an applicant’s chances of getting in.” Have your teenager to Google themselves to see what’s out there, erase embarrassing tweets, and follow these social media tips to clean up their online presence. From now on, tell your teen to apply what IvyWise calls, “The Grandparent Test,” which works like this: “If you wouldn’t want your grandparents to see it, don’t put it online.”

  4. No community service? No worries.

    Contrary to what you may have heard, experts say community service is vastly overrated as an element of college applications. In an article called “Colleges Don’t Care About Community Service“, Ian Fisher, former admission advisor at Reed College, avows, “there is nothing extra special about community service.”

    Community service is valuable for kids with a passion or a cause, so long as they’ve demonstrated that devotion over time. According to a survey by Dosomething.org, 70 percent of admissions officers prefer students who work consistently on just one issue or project — and are “more impressed by long-term local grunt work than a summer of volunteer work abroad.”

  5. Ask around

    Social networking, effective since ancient times, is a solid way to gain insight about where to apply. I’ve been asking everyone for their recommendations because my daughter is in 11th grade. Family members have interesting reports on Macalester, Lewis & Clark, and University of North Carolina Asheville. One neighbor recommends Lawrence University; another says her son loves Whitman. I’ve also taken to querying strangers wearing their alma mater’s sweatshirts, which has led to insights on Pepperdine, Middlebury, and Georgia Tech. I also like to check college Facebook pages. University of New Orleans, for example, has excellent oak trees, but reviews of the education are mixed. Cynthia Muchnick, author of The Everything College Checklist Book, suggests asking parents who are a year or two ahead of you in the process. “They have great insights,” she says, “and they’re generally more generous sharing it since their child is not directly competing with yours.”

  6. Freshman year grades DO count (for some colleges)

    Maybe your daughter was distracted by the social adjustment in ninth grade, or middle school didn’t prepare her for the academic challenges of high school. You didn’t worry about her dismal 2.5 GPA that year because you heard, “freshman grades don’t count.” But at some schools, they do.

    Is your daughter’s future irretrievably ruined? No. Everyone likes a comeback story, including admissions counselors. “If a student starts off with a less-than-stellar academic performance, an upward trend will be noted and appreciated,” claims Kyra Tyer, former admissions officer at Brandeis University. Skyrocketing marks in 10th, 11th, and 12th grade can offset an abysmal start. Also, your child’s lapse-turned-fix can be powerful fodder for an application essay.

  7. Guidance counselors have insider info

    A good guidance counselor can tell you about college planning sessions, scholarships, and college fairs. They can also give you the inside scoop on which colleges regard graduates of your child’s high school favorably and which schools tend to admit only one student (or none) each year. Ditto for which schools consider class rank — and which ones don’t look at rank. Counselors should know the published admittance rates for schools as well as unpublished info like how many students from your area applied and were admitted last year — and how many of those admitted applied early action (see #12 below). They may steer your child toward excellent colleges and universities you’ve never considered. And, since they know your school inside and out, they should be able to steer your child toward high school teachers who write great letters of recommendation (and away from teachers who tend to miss deadlines).

  8. Some colleges are free. Actually free!

    Amazingly, there are a handful tuition-free colleges in the U.S. Many of the free schools have specific requirements or require labor in exchange for your education. For example, College of the Ozarks asks students to work on campus 15 hours a week, plus two more 40-hour work weeks. Many highly selective universities, including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, offer free tuition to students from families whose income and assets are below a specific level. Even with free tuition, though, room and board can be expensive and may not be covered.

  9. American students can study in Europe — and it’s free or low cost

    If your teenager would enjoy going to college abroad, many nations, including Germany, Finland, France, Sweden, Norway, Slovenia, and Brazil, provide free or low-cost university education — often in English. Germany is particularly welcoming, and they have excellent schools. Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, for example, is rated #76 in the world — ahead of prestigious U.S. schools like Brown (#87), Notre Dame (#94), and Tufts (#97).

  10. Apply for scholarships early and often

    Few parents and students realize the number of awards and scholarships that students can start applying for as early as freshman year in high school. Check them out at LifeLauncher.com, Scholarships.com, and Unigo.com. For example, the Unigo Scholarship for $10,000 asks applicants to submit 250 words or less answering the question, “Weighing the expected investment and return, is college worth it for you? The Horatio Alger Scholarship provides 106 $25,000 scholarships to “high school students who have faced and overcome great obstacles in their young lives.”

    Your teen has nothing to lose by applying, and much to gain — including practice writing essays, an important skill that will assist them in their writing classes, their SAT and ACT tests, and in their college application essays.

  11. It’s not just the grade that matters, it’s how rigorous the class is

    Straight-A’s in “Mickey Mouse” courses, where an A is the norm, can be less persuasive than a B in an advanced class. A survey from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) reveals that 60 percent of admissions officers factor in the applicant’s strength of curriculum. Challenging course loads indicate to college admissions officers that your kid is gritty, determined, and willing to push themselves. Venkates Swaminathan, founder of college coaching company LifeLaunchr.com, puts it this way, “Tell your kids to take challenging courses, but only ones they’ll enjoy!” If your teenager is thinking of studying engineering or math, have them take AP Calculus and Physics, but don’t also feel compelled to take AP English or European History. The key, he says, is to take a challenging — but not overwhelming — course load.

  12. Applying early decision or early action improves chances

    According to the College Board, “approximately 450 colleges have early decision [ED] or early action [EA] plans, and some have both.” ED and EA applicants apply earlier in the fall — way before regular applications are due — and it can substantially increase your child’s chances of getting into their first-choice school. ED “typically gives your application a generous boost toward acceptance,” claims Lora Lewis, educational consultant at Unigo.com. For example, in 2016, Columbia University’s regular decision acceptance rate was 6 percent, but the ED acceptance rate was 20.4 percent. The risk associated with this reward, however, is that ED is binding, so if they’re accepted, students must attend that college. Early action, on the other hand, is non-binding, so students can still go elsewhere even if they’re admitted. EA applications typically provide less of an admissions advantage, but not always. Check out the most recent EA, ED, and “RD” (regular decision) acceptance rates at 57 private universities. There are two more benefits of EA applications over ED: students can apply EA to multiple schools (unless the school has a restriction in place, like Princeton University), and for students seeking financial assistance, EA applications give you time to review aid packages from other schools to make the right financial choice, too.

  13. You can get an elite education for public school prices

    Would your teen prefer a small, cozy learning environment over a school with 30,000 undergraduates? Surprise! Many large universities offer honors programs that function as intimate institutes inside the more massive system. It’s like VIP treatment for select students. For example, Arizona State University (ASU) has a total enrollment of 60,000 students, but ASU’s Barrett Honors College has only 5,400 pupils, with many attending small honors-only seminars. Barrett students also have their own dormitory, dining hall, and computer center. South Carolina Honors College at the University of South Carolina also has its own residence hall, 550 honors-only classes, personalized attention, and an average class size of only 16 students. Check out this list of the 50 highest-rated honors programs at public universities.