Spring of junior year is when the college application process really gets going...or at least that’s when it should start. By starting at the right time and taking a deliberate, measured approach, you can set yourself up for an effective, low-stress application experience.

To help you start the college admissions process, Signet’s CEO, Jay Bacrania, conducted an interview with one of our consultants, Blair Munhofen, who is a director of college counseling at an independent school. They discuss the best ways to approach the college admissions process and how parents can play a productive role.

What led you to college counseling?

I honestly fell into it; it was not an intentional decision on my part. I started my career as a teacher. I would occasionally poke my nose into the college counseling office, because I was curious about where my students were applying. It was fun to have those college conversations with my students.

Eventually, the counselor invited me to take on five to ten students of my own. The next year I counseled one third of the class, and eventually I took over the role. I am still teaching and mentoring, only now it’s about the college process.

I try to give my students ownership of the process by offering them knowledge and lots of resources. For many students it’s the first major life decision they make. It’s scary and unnerving, and not 100% in their control, but it can be liberating, too.

Can you give a high-level overview of the college process, from January of junior year through December of senior year?

You have the spring semester, where you do preliminary research and testing. Not much happens over the summer, but when fall arrives you have to apply, in the midst of all the classes and activities of senior year. It becomes a very fast year in that sense. I think the following steps are valuable:

1. Self-Discovery. Ask yourself questions about what you’re looking for in the next phase of your life.

2. Research. Look for schools that could be a good fit based on what you’ve uncovered in self-discovery.

3. Testing. Take the necessary standardized testing. Ideally this is complete by the end of junior year, but it can extend to the start of senior year.

4. Visit schools. Summer is a great time for this.

5. Initial application prep. Start your applications over the summer.

6. Whittle down your list. Use your final grades for junior year, standardized test scores, school research, and personal interests to select schools that are an appropriate fit, admissibility-wise.

7. Apply. This can be a time-consuming process, so plan accordingly.

I love that you start with self-discovery. Can you speak to that more?

You have to be patient with this process. For instance, I encourage students to wait until senior year to write their application essays. There’s some organic growth and depth of experience that brings a different quality to an essay if you write it as a senior.

Self-discovery is about understanding and listening to yourself and what you really want. Otherwise you get results that aren’t yours. I give my students a questionnaire and we have lots of conversations together.

Where do parents fit in? What are healthy ways for parents and students to interact?

A huge part of a parent’s role is listening and asking questions. Resist the urge to push your student; it’s vital that they be the primary drivers of the process. Parents can give input, but they don’t need to craft essays or dictate college visits.

What about parents who are worried that their student isn’t motivated enough?

Start a conversation. Ask “Is something missing? What could get you excited?” If college counseling is available, setting up a meeting with a third party can be helpful. Some students will work far better with a counselor than with their mom and dad. Others may be feeling overwhelmed and shutting down as a result; talking through their feelings can help reduce their stress. Parents should encourage students to focus on taking one small action at a time, rather than trying to do everything at once.

How should students and parents allocate time for testing and the college process?

I make sure my students have a timeline and a clear checklist of what needs to be done so they know how much time they need to plan for, but each student’s personal planning may look a little different. I also have them schedule regular meetings with me, which helps them stay on track and gives us a chance to troubleshoot any challenges they are facing.

In situations where students don’t have access to these kinds of resources, they should still focus on finding or creating their own timeline and schedules for accountability. In certain cases, it can be very helpful to hire an outside counselor as well.

What are the most common pitfalls you see early in the college process?

Not paying enough attention to safety schools. Statistically speaking, you’re far more likely to attend a safety school than a reach school, so spend the time to find safety schools that really excite you. This gives you a strong foundation and a sense of stability throughout the process.

What advice can you offer parents, especially those without access to a college counselor?

The best support you can offer is through listening and holding conversations. I love the idea of a short weekly check-in. Parents and students alike know this is the designated time for college conversations. It diffuses tension and reduces nagging.

This is an exciting time, when students step into making some of their first major decisions as adults. It can be so rewarding for parents to see their kids reach a new level of maturity. If done right, student/parent relationships can actually flourish during the college process.

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