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It is stressful. It is time-consuming. There are deadlines to meet, important comparisons to make and places to be.

No, we're not talking about holiday shopping.

Amid all the holiday comings and goings, thousands of area high school seniors have something else on their minds — choosing a college to attend next year.

The start of the 2018-19 college academic year is a mere nine months away, so the ritual loading of the SUV with clothes, TV, a microwave and something to sit on will be here before you know it.

To start things off, the filing period for the all-important Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA, is underway.

Any parent who has filled out one of these forms, ostensibly with the help of their soon-to-be college student, knows that is where the stress begins.

But it is paramount you fill it out  — regardless of your family income — if for no other reason than the stark reality that college costs a lot of money and there is no sign that tuition and fees will go anywhere but up. Securing as much financial aid and scholarship assistance can be a difference maker.

But as The Pantagraph reported last week, this is no time to panic — though parents and their kids shouldn't delay the college search any longer.

What does that mean?

If you haven't started already (besides filling out FAFSA), get cracking on gathering information online and/or at college fairs, plan some campus visits and, for seniors, start narrowing your choices and filling out application forms.

Yes, that often means submitting an essay on such topics as what event sparked a period of personal growth or reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea.

Talk about pressure.

Twin City admissions officials agree that campus visits are important to get a feel for the campus and the community a student might wind up living in. Almost every college, big and small, offers 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 Greg King, associate vice president of enrollment management at Illinois Wesleyan University.

Because the Twin Cities is such a big college town, families can start here by visiting Illinois State University, which is like a lot of larger, public schools, and Illinois Wesleyan, a good representative of private, liberal arts college. Heartland Community College is another option for students.

Both offer group tours, but also more individualized day tours most weekdays and some Saturdays. And, yes, there are workshops for FAFSA throughout the year. You can find them online.

The holidays are a time for families to be together, but with winter breaks coming soon, it's also a good time to review what still needs to be done on the college search front.

But don't stress too much about it.

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