Jeremy Rudoler had finally moved college applications out of his consciousness last winter when the University of Pennsylvania emailed to say that early decisions would be posted online the evening of Friday, Dec. 9.
"That got me freaking out," remembered Rudoler, a senior at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.
Worse, he'd have to deal with the suspense for an extra day because he doesn't use computers on Shabbat.
He'd almost managed to stop ruminating over his inbox when he walked into the kitchen that Saturday afternoon to find his parents and grandparents sitting around the table, a letter from Penn right in the center.
"The letter, of course, was giving me heart palpitations so I asked my dad to hide it," he said. "My whole family was staring at me."
It was thin, Rudoler said, so he figured he'd been rejected or deferred. At least, that's what he told himself to calm down until he could find out for sure because he also doesn't open mail on Shabbat.
He was wrong — and just like that, his college search was ecstatically over.
Rudoler and two other Jewish teens first spoke to the Exponent last spring as they wrapped up their junior year and launched into the painstaking process of finding the institution that will shape the next major chapter in their lives. They took — and re-took — standardized tests, sifted through glossy brochures, researched academic rankings, crunched numbers, met with guidance counselors, toured campuses, wrote application essays and waited, some longer than others, to weigh their options.
Now, the letters have arrived and they, along with thousands of other seniors in the area, can finally relax — at least until their first midterm.
Love at First Sight
Compared to classmates who heard back from prospective colleges in March, Rudoler and Council Rock High School South senior Lauren Waksman barely had to wait at all.
Waksman was immediately sold on Temple University after first touring the campus last spring.
"I just knew from the minute that I saw it," the Richboro 18-year-old said.
Since Temple has rolling admissions, she plowed right into the application, updating a personal statement she'd done for an English class assignment and mailing everything by early October. It wasn't stressful at all, she said, until she heard that a classmate had gotten deferred.
"She has the same classes as me, and she's just as smart," Waksman said. "I was really scared."
Fortunately, she only had to wait a few weeks to ease her mind. She was out with friends on the way to a football game when her mom called to tell her that a big red envelop that said "Congratulations" had arrived.
No suspense there, Waksman said dryly. Still, she had her mom open the letter just to be sure. She didn't even wait for her acceptance letter from Hofstra University before committing to Temple. She also got into Rider University, but not University of Delaware.
Eager to get going, Waksman has already attended two "Experience Temple" days, first in February and again in March. She found three roommates through a free online service and secured housing in a suite-style dorm — the only way she would consider living away from home for the very first time. She also settled on environmental science as a major.
"I like the idea of saving the planet, I guess," Waksman said.
At the moment, she's taking English, math and foreign language placement tests online. Depending on those results, Waksman said, she might take a class at Temple's Ambler campus this summer just to get ahead.
It's still a little surreal to think about going off to college, she said.
"You're so close with these people you've known for four years or longer, it's kind of strange seeing them go to a different school than you," she said. "I like my high school's atmosphere and I've really gotten used to it. That's something I'm going to miss."
On the other hand, she said, "I just kind of want to get out and learn something new."
Israel, Then College
For Rudoler, the hard part was having too many good options. He started homing in on a list of high-caliber schools last spring, most of them out of state, and set up several overnight visits. Last fall, he wouldn't disclose the four schools he finally settled on, worrying that it would bring bad luck.
Both Penn and Washington University in St. Louis stood out as top choices, he said. Ultimately, he decided to apply early decision at Penn, figuring it would be the biggest stretch, but if he didn't make it, he might at least get a second shot during regular admission.
"It's a reach school for almost anyone," he said. "For me personally, it was a big reach."
Meanwhile, he submitted applications to Wash U, State University of New York-Binghamton and the University of Maryland. Others that he'd gone to the trouble of touring — Cornell, Johns Hopkins and Princeton — didn't make the cut.
Aside from the chance to study medicine and business simultaneously, Rudoler said he's looking forward to participating in Penn's active Hillel community, which seems to have "sort of every strain of Judaism under the sun under one roof." He referenced a weekend visit where students gathered for a service with a guitar on one floor and an Orthodox minyan on another.
"I figured a school like Columbia or NYU would have that sort of big Orthodox section, but I guess I didn't expect a Philadelphia school to have that," he said.
After all that time deliberating colleges, though, Rudoler won't actually start at Penn this fall. Shortly after submitting his acceptance, he requested a deferral in order to take a gap year at a yeshiva in Israel.
"There's not going to be probably another year for the next bunch of years of my life when I can just take off and go to Israel," Rudoler explained, "So if I want to have that experience of immersion in Israel and intensive Jewish studies, then I should do it now."
Deciding on a yeshiva wasn't nearly as hard as finding a college, he said. In fact, he only applied to one that seemed to have interesting classes and suited his level of observance — Eretz HaTzvi in Jerusalem.
The Longest Wait
Barring a waitlist opening, Central High senior Alex Neff will be going to a college that he has yet to see in person.
The Northeast Philadelphia 18-year-old had targeted Penn State from the start, but knew it might be an academic stretch. Too busy with school and a part-time job to make campus visits, Neff relied on the Internet to look for other prospects with good biology departments, active student life and perhaps some sort of Jewish community. His final additions: the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, Penn State Altoona, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and West Chester University.
As predicted, he didn't get into Penn State. He did, however, get into the Altoona branch, as well as Pitt-Bradford and IUP.
Neff said he was leaning toward Altoona, since he could potentially transfer to the main campus after two years there. Unless, he said, he got into West Chester. Other than Penn State, it's the only campus he's actually seen so far, and "I absolutely loved it," he said.
He waited. And waited. In mid-April, he heard that he'd been waitlisted. He won't know if a spot opens up until later this month.
In the meantime, Neff had to send a deposit to one of his three other options by May 1 or potentially end up with none of them. Instead of scheduling campus visits to help him decide, he sat down to examine financial aid packages.
By the dollar signs, IUP emerged the clear winner. Between grants and federal loans, Neff said he'll be responsible for about half of the estimated $20,000 annual tuition and living expenses — about $7,000 less than he would pay at Altoona.
Neff said he was surprised that financial aid packages varied enough to become a deciding factor, especially since he'd made a point of picking affordable state schools.
West Chester's still "my No. 1," he said, but "I'm pretty content with IUP." He "toured" the campus by clicking through online photos and spoke to Central graduates who went there.
If West Chester does come through, Neff said, he'll go through the numbers game again and research which of the two would better position him for medical school.
Though uncertainty still lies ahead, Neff said at least he's got a narrower idea of where he'll be going and how he'll pay for it. Between financial aid, Bar Mitzvah savings and a new job working six nights a week at a burger joint, Neff said he'll be able to handle tuition without taking out "student loans to my eyeballs." His parents, who are divorced, will help as much as they can, too, he said.
The process has definitely been an experience "like none other," Neff said.
"You want to take the time to plan out exactly what you want to do and don't run on impulse," he said. At the same time, "I figure wherever I go, I'll be happy. People always tell me I'm a friendly guy and I'm just kind of easy to talk to, so I figure wherever I go, I'll try my best to make friends."