<p>Hmm... I have not read any of these books, so cannot comment on their usefulness, but here are some thoughts.</p>
<p>College preparation: we found out, with our older S, that our school's idea of preparing for college--in the junior year--was far too late. Having been educated outside the US, we had no idea what CP (college preparatory) meant, as opposed to Honors, etc... Luckily, our S was put in honors classes, so he was on track. Nor did we understand that what high school require for graduation and what colleges deem to be adequate preparation are rather different things (and I did not know then about CC!)
Preparing for college should indeed start in the freshman year with the selection of courses. They should prepare the student to take the most rigorous courses in the junior and senior year (or even earlier, if appropriate). As they finish the highest level of courses in a particular field, students should take the SAT II at the end of that year, when materials are still fresh in their mind and take AP exams as appropriate.
Most top colleges have fairly similar recommendations for high school curriculum. Take a look and plan accordingly.
Financial considerations: there are some threads in the old CC about saving for college, whether in the parents'names or in the child's name. Also look up threads regarding merit aid and scholarships.
College selection: In my opinion, visits should start two years before the student is ready to apply, i.e., in the sophomore year. This is a relative stress-free year compared to junior year and of course senior year. These visits should be quite low-key, to give the student a very general sense of different types of schools.<br>
As for the application process, many of the books mentioned above probably have good step-by-step explanations. I believe the College Board website also has useful information.
An interesting insider's look at the college admission process is Jacques Steinberg's The Gatekeepers about the selection of the class of '04 at Wesleyan. Several years ago, before the new SAT was broached, PBS ran a program on the SAT and its use at Berkeley. It think the title was "Secrets of the SAT." It followed some applicants to Berkeley, discussed their GPAS and their scores and published the text of their essays, with comments from adcoms. That would be a good supplement to the Steinberg book.</p>