The Hollywood college admissions scandal of 2019 brought plenty of attention — unfortunately, the negative kind — to the increasingly cutthroat process of getting your kids into a good school.

Lori Laughlin and Felicity Huffman, both famous actresses who had the highest profiles of some 50 parents charged by the U.S. Justice Department with bribing their children’s way into the University of Southern California and other schools, were accused of taking an extreme approach to the process.

There are legitimate strategies to improve your chances for admission, counselors say. But if your child is nearing the end of his or her high school tenure and you’re getting around to thinking about college, you’re doing it wrong.

“Most people say the road to college starts your freshman year of high school,” said Glen Besterfield, dean of admissions at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “You could almost say the road to college starts in prekindergarten.”

Why such intensity? Consider USF, which for decades languished with the reputation of a local commuter school. In 2019, USF cracked the top 50 of U.S. News and World Report’s list of the best public universities in America, coming in at 44. The year before, the state university system’s Board of Governors established USF as the state’s third preeminent university, putting it on the same footing as Florida and Florida State and providing for millions in additional state funding.

Last fall, USF welcomed its most academically accomplished incoming freshman class ever. The group carries an average ACT score of 29 (of 36, with the U.S. average at 20.9); an average SAT score of 1286 (of 1600, with the U.S. average 1068); and an average high school GPA of 4.13. The group includes about 100 high school valedictorians and salutatorians, along with 34 National Merit Scholars.

“It is becoming ever more competitive to be admitted to USF,” Provost Ralph Wilcox said in the freshman class announcement.

USF’s admissions website states the school rewards applicants for each “academic success predictor” that you can demonstrate.

“Your job is to make yourself the most well-rounded college applicant possible, with a strong high school GPA, impressive course work, solid extracurriculars – and good test scores,” USF says.

Besterfield, the USF admissions dean, offered the following advice for high schoolers:

• Take the SAT or the ACT test “at least twice, maybe three times,” he said. Admissions officials will notice improvement in test-taking. The College Board reports that 55 percent of high school juniors who took the SAT improved their scores significantly when taking the test again as seniors.

• Judges like to see a rigorous curriculum. Advanced placement, dual enrollment and international baccalaureate classes offer college-level courses. “Always get into an honors course if you have the option,” Besterfield said. Each of these high-performance options have advantages and disadvantages; know what you’re getting into. They also can bump up the overall GPA and are weighed heavily by admissions officers.

• Demonstrate that the university you apply to is important to you. If there are priority, early decision or early action enrollment policies, utilize that strategy. You can also demonstrate your enthusiasm by attending summer camp at your No. 1 choice, taking a campus tour, or attending a specialized program such as a science session on your cross-your-fingers campus.

Admissions counselors now recommend that students apply to five to eight schools. Students should take the time to evaluate each college’s application process. It’s all online. It’s a matter of timing and organization.

“My job is to admit a student who can succeed at this university, who will be retained at this university and will graduate,” said Besterfield. “We’re all about student success. We’re trying to admit a freshman class that we know will succeed.”

Start saving early

Hand-in-hand with the college applications process is the pitch for financial aid. Again, if your child’s senior year of high school has crept up on you and you’re starting to think about how to pay for college, you’re doing it wrong.

Start planning on how to pay for college well before your youngster starts. Many families start prepaid tuition or education savings vehicles known as 529 plans when that future scholar is an infant. (The latter is named for Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code, which was added in 1996 to authorize tax-free status for qualified tuition programs.)

Start saving before you get to college.

The key to college assistance is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or the FAFSA form. Colleges use the form to determine your federal aid eligibility, and many schools use it to award their own aid, which comes in the form of grants, work-study and loans.

There is, of course, the specter of crushing student debt looming over new graduates and the future workforce. Research is showing that the nation’s collective $1.6 trillion in college debt is a huge factor in putting off marriage and home ownership, as well as stifling entrepreneurship.

Billie Jo Hamilton, associate vice president for enrollment planning and management at USF, acknowledges that the numbers being thrown around “are a bit scary.”

The average debt load of a USF graduate was $22,565 for 2018 graduates, the latest figures available.

“I try to couch that by saying people will not blink an eye to pay that much for a car. And that car is losing value as soon as you drive it off the lot,” said Hamilton.

“One thing I am concerned about is that there is so much bad press about student borrowing, (potential) students are so afraid of borrowing that they’re not pursuing college,” she added. “We want to be responsible borrowers, but we don’t want them to be so intimidated that it’s keeping them from achieving their degree.”

The FAFSA form is available Oct. 1 for the following school year. Students are encouraged to fill it out as soon as possible on or after that date.

“We encourage every student to fill out the FAFSA,” Hamilton said. “If they fill out the FAFSA and don’t qualify for grants or loans, you just never know until you fill it out. We encourage everybody to do that right off the bat.”

Repayment of student loans is deferred until six months after graduation.

More advice on financial aid: Ask high school guidance counselors and college financial aid offices about state, college and nonprofit grants and scholarships you can apply for. Keep your eyes open for the under-the-radar gifts – the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections just announced in this very newspaper that it will award $1,200 scholarships to three students majoring in political science, public administration, business administration, journalism or mass communications at a Florida college.

Hamilton warns to watch out for scholarship service companies that want to charge you to fill out forms and seek aid. Remember, the FAFSA acronym starts with “free.”

And she says parents should take advantage of “parent nights” that colleges have in collaboration with local high schools.

“Make sure you go as a parent to those sessions,” she said. “There’s a lot you can learn in terms of applying for admission and applying for financial aid.”