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Three students, many choices
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Three students, many choices

Seniors share hopes and fears during daunting college application process

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Sara Strugger, a senior at Livingston High School, is hoping to go to art school. She says she’s in “the final stretch,” working on one of three last-minute projects to add to her portfolio.
Sara Strugger, a senior at Livingston High School, is hoping to go to art school. She says she’s in “the final stretch,” working on one of three last-minute projects to add to her portfolio.

If you happen to be a college-bound high school senior, forget autumn leaves and apple picking. Fall is all about college applications.

Sara Strugger, a senior at Livingston High School, sometimes feels the pressure of the application process so intensely that, she said, she has what she calls a “Sara breakdown.”

“I’ll be working and suddenly my hands will start to shake and I’ll have a total mind freak-out and I’ll go downstairs and I’ll eat three bananas in a row and just sit there. And then I’ll go back upstairs and say, ‘Oh no. I have to go back to work.’”

Students describe the process — from surveying possible colleges, to narrowing down the selection, to writing an essay or personal statement, to filling out the applications — as “never-ending” and “overwhelming.”

Some, like Adam Karp of Springfield, a senior at Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union, will apply early decision, and are nearing the finish line. Others, like Sherri Luxenberg of West Orange, a senior at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, and a self-described “last-minute person,” still have plenty of work ahead of them.

Sara, Sherri, and Adam have agreed to share their college application experiences with NJJN at various intervals through the year.

In this first installment in the series, we asked them about managing the pressure they feel and how they plan to narrow the choice from the bewildering field of public and private colleges and universities.

Adam Karp is the early bird of the bunch. He found his target school when he was in 10th grade (well, sort of), wrote his application essay over the summer (but changed the topic and wrote it again from scratch in September), and will possibly apply Early Decision to Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. (“ED” gives you a leg up on other applicants, but if they say yes, you’re committed.)

He feels the pressure of competition at Schechter so intensely that he declined to share with NJJN a full list of schools he is interested in. And he’ll only commit to saying he “may” apply early decision.

Sara is applying to art school. She lights up as she describes Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia, and said she’s in “the final stretch” of the process.

Sherri calls herself “a little bit of a last-minute person.” She’s still visiting colleges and is taking her SATs one last time in October — and she’s still looking for a campus to fall in love with but so far likes what she’s seen at Barnard College in New York City.

She’s found that visiting colleges provokes in her a “powerful sadness. It makes the whole concept of high school ending a reality,” she said. She’s looking forward to spending a year in Israel before going to college, and she takes a broad, spiritual view of the entire process.

“Whatever happens, in the end, ultimately, God has a plan for me,” she said. “That’s how I like to think about it.”

The visit

All the students said they believe in the power of the visit. “Just walking into the school, even the initial site, has the power to stimulate emotions about your feelings toward that school,” said Sherri.

Despite the rainy-day gloom over Muhlenberg the day Adam visited, he said, “The campus still looked nice.” He liked the layout, but more importantly, he liked the camaraderie among students. The tour guide, he said, “knew this person, that person, gave them a smile, and, ‘Are we going for lunch later?’ — that sort of thing. It seemed like a very friendly atmosphere.”

Everything clicked when Sara visited Temple. She loved standing in the entryway to the building, seeing two students working on “some sort of wooden ark-like thing. They were just hanging out and students were walking in and out with art projects.”

She was struck by the new, high-tech facilities at Tyler, including “the jewelry or metal-cutting room,” a huge kiln, and the glass-blowing room. “I could totally see myself walking in and making a glass sculpture.” But what she raved about was the overall feeling. “The vibe I got was that people were laid back but they cared about their art.”

It can work the other way too. Sara knocked out the Rhode Island School of Design after visiting. “I kind of got the feeling, ‘Yah, we’re really good and we know it,’” she said. Although she knows it’s a good school, and she loved Providence, where it’s located, she is not applying.

Narrowing the field

You can’t apply to or visit every school; how do Sherri, Sara, and Adam narrow their lists to just a few?

Adam’s parents gave him a four-hour driving radius. He added his own desire for a small school, a large Jewish population, and a track record for graduates getting into medical school — his ultimate goal. Adam’s long list includes “Brandeis, Tufts, schools of that league,” he said. And despite their large size, University of Maryland and Rutgers also make an appearance.

Sherri said she wants a rigorous curriculum and a “small, warm, comfortable environment” in a school that is close to home.

But her final list depends on how she scores on that final shot at the SATs, which she took this month. Then, she said, she’ll visit more schools. For now, her list includes New York University, Barnard, Rutgers, University of Maryland, Stern College for Women, and the Queens College Macaulay Honors Program.

Sara said she wants to be in a city and she wants to be on campus with “a good few thousand kids.” She wants somewhere outside New York (goodbye, Fashion Institute of Technology), not too cold (so long, School of the Art Institute of Chicago), and not too far away (so no, thanks, to the great art schools in California).

In addition to Tyler, she’ll apply to the Maryland Institute College of Art, the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta, and — though it is in New York City — Parsons, the New School for Design.

Also on Sara’s list are Rutgers and Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio and she is considering Syracuse University at her mother’s request. Tyler, MICA, and VCU are favorites; UArts, SCAD, and CCAD are her safeties.

Jewish life

Jewish life on campus is a key factor for each of the three seniors.

Adam wants to continue the kinds of experiences he’s had in USY, the youth group of the Conservative movement. He is not only looking for an active Hillel house and a kosher meal plan, but also a critical mass of Jewish students.

“I want to know that everywhere I go on campus, I’ll be able to find somebody that’s Jewish,” he said. Although founded as a Lutheran school, Muhlenberg’s 2,700-member student body is one-third Jewish, according to the Hillel Foundation’s Guide to Jewish Life on Campus. (Adam, however, did not visit the Hillel house during his campus tour.)

For Sherri, a significant percentage of Jewish students on campus or even an active Hillel is not enough. She wants to be assured she’ll have a suitably religious environment.

“I’d like to have group of friends to rely on who are shomer Shabbos, eat kosher, have similar values, if not higher ones — [people] I could look up to and admire,” she said. “As a religious Jew, I’m constantly trying to grow as a person and keep improving in terms of Judaism.”

She has been speaking with other people who attend or have attended the schools she is interested in and she plans to spend Shabbat on any campus she’s serious about, just to be sure it’s for her.

Sara also wants a Jewish community on campus, but for different reasons. She has had a less intensive Jewish experience growing up, but has more recently become interested, especially through her membership at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange with her father, his wife, and their two younger children. (Sara’s parents are divorced.)

“I really love it there, and I realize maybe it’s something that will be important to continue on into my college life,” she said. “I don’t know if all teens do this, but my friends and I do start thinking about what we want in the future, what we want to believe in the future, and it would be nice to have a Jewish community” on campus.

While she has checked to see if there are Hillels at some of the schools she is interested in, she hasn’t checked in Philadelphia.

“I don’t think I’m going to have a problem, especially because in Philadelphia, I’m sure I can find something,” she said.

Whether the due dates for applications are Nov. 1 or Jan. 1, the pressure is on. How are the students handling the pressure? All three describe turning to music to help calm them down. Beyond that — and besides having that “freak-out” — Sara said she throws herself into her art, drawing or painting “furiously” until she feels better. Adam and Sherri both turn to sports; Sherri also turns to family, friends, and teachers for support and, ultimately, to God.

“At the end of the day, I’ll end up where I’m supposed to be. Ultimately, God has a plan for me, and wherever I’m supposed to be, that’s where and how I’ll lead my life,” she said.

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