BLOOMINGTON — The start of the 2018-19 college academic year is nine months away, but the early application deadline for many universities was Wednesday and the filing period for the all-important financial aid form began Oct. 1.

Don't panic, even if you have a son or daughter who is a high school senior. However, parents and their kids shouldn’t delay starting the college search.

Now is a good time to gather information online or at college fairs, plan campus visits and — for those seniors — narrow your college choices and fill out applications.

While there’s no instruction manual for students about how to pick the best college, high school counselors and college admissions officials have some advice.

“Picking a college is stressful, but try thinking of it as, 'I have the academic ability of going to college.' Some kids don't have the opportunity to have that stress," said Addie Ince, Normal Community High School counselor.

Rather than getting stressed out, “take time to enjoy the process,” said Illinois State University admissions director Jeff Mavros. “This is an exciting time. See it as an opportunity.”

Bloomington High School Associate Principal, Amanda Jarvis said parents should start talking to their children about college and post-high school plans as early as junior high.

“It’s never too early,” she said.

Officials said the real hunt for a college should begin no later than junior year of high school.

College fairs

Last month, representatives from about 100 universities assembled at Illinois State University in Normal for a college fair.

Claire Meyer, an NCHS junior, spoke to college representatives while browsing the booths with a binder of paperwork and support from her parents.

“I’m trying to talk to as many colleges as possible to get a feel of different schools,” she said.

Mavros said the role of college fairs has changed now that the internet provides an easy way to find out “the nuts and bolts about an institution.”

But Greg King, associate vice president of enrollment management at Illinois Wesleyan University, said the fairs are still a great way to learn about a lot of schools at once. Students also get practice talking to college recruiters, he said.

“It might not be as important in the research aspect, but it's important for students to come out of their shells,” said King.

In addition to college fairs, all Twin City high schools host college workshops throughout the year for families to understand the search and application process.

College visits

Admissions officials say campus visits are an important way to get a feel for the campus and the surrounding community. Most, if not all, offer a variety of options — from large open house events that last most of the day to individualized visits of a few hours.

“There are so many intangibles that can only be answered with a visit,” said King.

The likelihood of dropping out or transferring increases if a student never visited campus before beginning classes, according to Mavros.

He recommends visiting a variety of institutions, from large public universities to smaller liberal arts schools as well as rural, urban and suburban settings to determine the best fit.

King said people in the Bloomington-Normal area can start with visits to IWU and ISU. Even if their intent is to attend an out-of-town school, touring both campuses will give families a feel for two different types of institutions without having to travel far.

Ince said students should “spend their junior year shopping” for colleges via campus visits and “come back their senior year with a game plan of where to apply.”

Both ISU and IWU have several large open house events. One at ISU this month attracted 2,000 prospective students while IWU had 400 at its November open house.

“There's a lot of energy in the room and a lot of fun,” Mavros said of the open house that includes large group sessions on subjects such as housing and financial aid, plus smaller group tours of campus and residence halls.

But Ince recommended avoiding huge open house days and setting up individual day tours instead.

ISU and IWU both offer more individualized day tours most weekdays and some Saturdays. In both cases, you can register online.

The smaller day tours can be customized. For example, meeting with a professor or possibly sitting in on a class in the field in which a prospective student is interested.

Financial aid

NCHS recently hosted a workshop for high school families about Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Members of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission and guidance counselors helped parents and students sort through the paperwork.

Trinity Debord, an NCHS senior, said the workshop was “a huge help.”

“It’s a little stressful. It’s more work than I thought it would be. There are so many essays to fill out. But it’s exciting and rewarding when you turn it in,” he said.

Jarvis said all students should apply for FAFSA, regardless of their family’s income. BHS also offers FAFSA workshops throughout the year. 

“There are so many things available concerning financial aid. It’s easy for parents and students to get overwhelmed,” said Jarvis. “We encourage families to set up a meeting with a guidance counselor.”

Follow Julia Evelsizer on Twitter: @pg_evelsizer

Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter: @pg_sobota

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