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While you should be thinking about your high school transcript when you register for your 9th grade classes, you don't need to map out a full plan for applying to college until 10th grade. Regular check-ins with your college counselor will help keep you on track so that you can be confident that you’re on track to reach your goals.

Talking with a college counselor about your interests, strengths, and goals can help you identify schools that suit you academically, financially, and culturally. College counselors are pros at helping you research and then narrowing your list to the best-fit colleges you should focus on.

Working with your college counselor on a smart high school plan (what courses to take and when) will make college applications less stressful later on.

Most colleges accept scores from either test, and submitting high scores on both tests may give your application a competitive edge. Even if your dream school is test-optional, you may need test scores to be considered for merit-based financial aid or for scholarship applications. Your college counselor can help you understand the differences between the ACT and SAT and identify the tests that will best display your strengths.

Ask your college counselor to help you choose AP classes and SAT Subject Tests that will demonstrate your commitment to academic engagement—without overwhelming your high school schedule.

What you do with your time outside of class shows college who you are and what qualities you’ll bring to campus. Your college counselor can help you find the opportunities best suited for you and help you use them to present the real you—beyond grades and test scores—to colleges.

The college application essay is your chance to show schools who you are. Your English teacher can help you with grammar and style, but college counselors are experts at determining whether the content of the essay allows your unique qualities to shine through.

Competitive colleges use letters of recommendation to assess your goals and character. Make a list with your counselor of potential recommenders from favorite teachers to coaches to your after-school employer, and strategize about who can best speak to your abilities.

Many colleges encourage you to interview with an admissions representative or alum as part of the college application process. Your college counselor can help you prepare with everything from what to wear, what questions to anticipate, and how to tame interview jitters.

Many colleges allow applicants to submit their materials for an early deadline (sometime in the fall) that falls before the regular deadline (usually sometime in January or February). Go over the advantages and disadvantages of applying early with your college counselor as you craft your application strategy.

Ask your counselor for pointers on what to do, see, and ask when you visit the colleges on your list. If you have limited time or resources to make campus visits, strategize with your counselor about must-see colleges and find out how you can best get to know the campuses you can’t visit.

Applying for financial aid can be overwhelming. Your counselor can break the process down for you (and your parents!) including when to fill out the FAFSA and how to search for scholarships.