Central High School junior Alex Neff has heard the stories about college admissions becoming more competitive, with more applicants vying for the same number of slots. Then there's tuition. That's increasing exponentially, too, a trend his single mother finds especially troubling.
For Neff, there's also the question of where he'll be able to find a Jewish community on campus -- or at least a local synagogue.
That might be secondary in his search, but the fact that it's a part of the process at all means a lot to a community that's funneled millions of dollars into keeping the next generation engaged in Jewish life.
Over the next year, the Jewish Exponent will follow Neff and two other local Jewish juniors -- Lauren Waksman and Jeremy Rudoler -- as they go through the application process, from sorting through piles of college brochures to waiting for a coveted acceptance notice.
We start at a time when they are deep in the world of standardized tests, guidance counselor meetings and visits to schools that have caught their attention.
Lauren Waksman is the classic picture of indecision. Like many of her high school peers, the 17-year-old from Richboro knows that college is the next logical stage in her life. She just has no idea where she wants to go, or what she'll end up studying. Environmental science sounds interesting, she mused, or maybe hospitality, or journalism, or pre-law.
"So I'm looking everywhere pretty much," said the Council Rock High School South junior.
Or at least everywhere within the Northeast. Staying somewhat close to home is one thing Waksman has decided. She's also written off schools that are too tiny or overwhelmingly large, like Rutgers-New Brunswick. "It is stressful because this is the big year," she said.
Without firm career plans guiding her, she's started her search based on friend's suggestions, with special attention to campus activities so "I feel comfortable not just academically but socially, too," she said.
"It's not going to make a difference if the school doesn't have a marching band," she said, referring to her current role in colorguard. A choir for non-music majors, however, is a must.
"I don't think I can live without choir," she said, lighting up at the memory of a recent music competition. The event meant so much that she rescheduled her SATs for Mother's Day,.
While Waksman doesn't consider herself observant, she said Judaism will figure into her college decision-making a bit.
"I just grew up in a very Jewish family and it's just what I'm used to," said Waksman, who takes evening classes at Gratz Jewish Community High School at Beth El in Yardley. "It's spiritual too, I feel connected to it. If I went somewhere that didn't have a high Jewish population I would feel spiritually awkward, I guess."
For that reason, her parents suggested Muhlenburg College, a small liberal arts school in Allentown where roughly a third of the students are Jewish and the campus celebrated a $4.8 million Hillel expansion in March.
Waksman said she liked it enough after a visit to consider applying, though it might be a stretch academically.
To bolster her test scores, she took a private SAT prep course. Although she said that provided her with useful strategies, it still was "an evil test, for lack of a better term."
With that over, she's asked her parents for a math tutor. She'll take the ACT on June 11 to give her application "something extra" just in case the SAT scores she'll get back any day now aren't as good as she expected.
In the meantime, she's got more recommendations from friends and her guidance counselor to research: West Chester University, Hofstra University, University of Maryland and, if her mom has anything to say about it, Penn State University.
"She says it's too big for her, but I'm going to try to change her mind," said Lisa Waksman, a Penn State alumna.
Hofstra might be out of the question for financial reasons, Lisa Waksman said, but they'll crunch the numbers later.
"My first worry is getting her into college and getting her through the first semester emotionally," Waksman said of her daughter, the oldest of two girls. "I know she can do the work. I just want her to learn some independence. She hasn't really been away from home before for any significant amount of time, not even summer camp."
Quite the opposite of Waksman, Alex Neff, 17, is fairly certain that he wants to become a doctor and has already zeroed in on Penn State and University of Pittsburgh just from reading about their biology programs. Aside from academic esteem, he said, both state schools are somewhat close to his Northeast Philadelphia home, yet still "far enough from my mother so she doesn't hassle me."
He's been thinking a lot about what he'd like to do for a living, mostly, he said, because he doesn't want to follow his parents' career paths. His dad became an accountant after graduating from Temple University and "sits at the computer all day and types numbers and writes reports." His mom went to art school and now manages a restaurant between taking care of him and his younger sister.
"Her schooling didn't really affect what she did in the real world," Neff said, and "I see how she's struggling to make ends meet."
But becoming a doctor isn't just about the money, Neff said. "I've always loved science because it's changing every day."
A series of dissections in an anatomy class last year made him think that medicine might be a good fit.
"There's just something about knowing how everything works in the body," he said. "It was a high."
If his organic chemistry teacher had his druthers, Neff would already be studying for the MCATs to get an edge on the competition years down the road. Neff laughed at the thought. He's got so much to study right now, he said, that he gave up clubs and sports this year. Outside of school and an occasional game of wall ball with friends, Gratz Hebrew high classes on Wednesday nights are his only standing commitment. If he doesn't have too much homework, he said, he'll go to Saturday services or volunteer to lead Sunday school activities at Congregations of Shaare Shamayim, where he's been a member since preschool.
Ideally, he said, whatever college he chooses will have a synagogue nearby so he can still go to services if he wants, at least on the holidays. Or, he said, there would be a Hillel he could get involved with. Next year, he said, he and some friends hope to revive a Jewish student union they had started at Central as freshmen. He's also planning to return to football, which he stopped after freshman year because his grades had slipped.
His mom, Ellen Neff, who is divorced and uncertain how much her ex-husband will chip in, said she has already warned her son that "if it gets down to college 'A' and college 'B,' we're going to go where we can afford to send you."
She's pushing for Temple, where he might be more likely to win a scholarship.
"He can come home and do his laundry every weekend, but he has to mow the lawn when he's here," she said.
"Her boyfriend can take care of that," Neff retorted.
Even though summertime is fast approaching, Neff's still bearing down on schoolwork and preparing for his first SAT on June 4 with a home-study book and the College Board's email "question of the day." He's not too concerned about the test though. The first take is just to get a feel for it anyway, he said.
Every morning before heading off to Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, Jeremy Rudoler takes a moment at the mirror to say something good about the day ahead.
"I could list off half a dozen papers and tests I have to do, but I try to keep everything in perspective," explained the 17-year-old from Bala Cynwyd.
While applying for college only adds to that load, Rudoler seems more excited than burdened by the process.
"Ask me again when I'm applying and I might be more worried," said Rudoler, who's got his sights on a career in economics or medical science, or perhaps a combination of both.
In some ways, Rudoler said, being religiously observant made it easier to narrow down his choices because he knew he'd prefer a campus with kosher food.
"I didn't want to get into, 'Wow, it's a great school but I can't go there because I can't eat,' " said Rudoler, the eldest of three siblings and a member of Lower Merion Synagogue, an Orthodox shul.
On the other hand, Rudoler said, he's purposefully not looking for a predominantly Jewish school like Yeshiva University because he wants to meet people from other backgrounds.
"I've been in a Jewish school my whole life and I really love it, but I would like to be part of the bigger society more," said Rudoler. That said, Rudoler is also contemplating deferring college to take a "gap year" at a yeshiva in Israel.
For now, though, he's focused on finding the right college. Based on the kosher prerequisite and friends' input, he visited the State University of New York-Binghamton, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University. He's also considering Columbia University, University of Maryland and University of Pittsburgh.
"We don't care if he goes to Penn or Binghamton, they're both great schools," said his mother, Shari Rudoler, a radiation oncologist at Jefferson Hospital. "It's college, it's great everywhere."
The more difficult part, she said, may be deciding whether it's worth an extra $100,000 for four years of private-school tuition. With prices so high, she said, she's not sure it is, at least for undergraduate education.
Rudoler said he's not as concerned about reputation as figuring out where he'll be happy. "That's the hardest question," he said. Visits are key, he believes, because it has to "sort of jump out at you that the students are active in society and they're happy and they have a great connection with each other."
"Doing something important during and after college is more important to me than getting into college," Rudoler said. "I don't want to be just studying."
His weekly schedule proves that point. After school, the student council president writes for Barrack's political debate magazine or volunteers for the Friendship Circle, an organization that pairs teenagers with peers who have special needs.
In addition to general campus tours, Rudoler arranged to stay overnight during Shabbat to get a feel for the Jewish communities at three schools. He wanted to make sure he'd be around others "keeping the same crazy rules that I am," he said. The worst, he said, would be to end up at a school where he feels alone and ostracized because of his beliefs.
Staying overnight also presented an opportunity to gauge how much Jewish students are integrated with the rest of the student body, he said. One telling sign: whether others look at him funny because of his kipah. Likewise, he said, he can tell how the Jewish students interact with each other by examining who comes into the Hillel, where they sit when eating and who they talk to.
So far, he said, every Hillel he's visited has had huge signs for Israel advocacy clubs, which he plans to get involved with when needed. But he also hopes to devote free time to other more general campus and community service projects.
"Someday when I'm president of the United States," he quipped, "then I'll deal with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."