Nearly 70 percent of high school graduates enroll in college, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This time of year, juniors and even some sophomores — and their parents — are jumping into the college application process. For the first-time parents there are always questions and concerns. And for the students at the area’s three Jewish high schools, the decision of a lifetime is months away.
Part of reaching that decision is getting students and parents to consider a range of options, said Sue Rexford, director of college guidance for Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville. For instance, if a student really has her heart set on an Ivy League school, Rexford will also try to gauge what about that school appeals to the student and suggest a few others that include similar characteristics.
“This is a journey and there is a destination,” Rexford said. “We want them to find the place that works for them, not the place that their friends are going or because the name might seem more significant.”
This is especially important at a time when competition for admission is growing.
“The most selective schools grow increasingly selective,” said Elana Hoffman, director of college counseling at Berman Hebrew Academy.
Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School tries to get families started early, with an initial family informational meeting sophomore year to talk about application timelines and what courses to choose junior year, among other topics.
Then, at Berman Hebrew Academy, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and Yeshiva of Greater Washington, the second half of junior year is the time to create a list of schools and prepare for standardized testing that will be necessary for most college admissions.
Yeshiva held its annual FAFSA and Beyond financial aid workshop at the end of its first semester, said Rabbi Scott Hillman, director of admissions and communication. It also holds a meeting for its juniors and their parents to talk about all facets of the financial aid application process.
Many families go into the process with financial concerns, counselors said, and there’s not always an easy way to alleviate them. Going to an in-state public university is less expensive than a private college, for instance, and there are a variety of scholarships available that counselors can help identify.
But the most important part of financial aid considerations is FAFSA, the federal financial form that takes note of a family’s income, number of children and other assets. It generally determines whether students receive financial aid from schools. Filling it out carefully and precisely will help give both parents and colleges a sense of where the family is at financially, counselors said.
Because all three Jewish day schools are small — Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School has about 85 seniors this year and Berman and Yeshiva have about 30 each — school counselors are able to offer many opportunities for one-on-one meetings and application help. Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and Berman Academy both make the personal statement, usually the main college essay, an English class assignment to give students feedback.
And because they’re Jewish schools, the college application process also means contemplating the role of Jewish life on campus.
“Some students know very definitively what level of Jewish life they want on campus,” said Rexford. “For others, it’s a little vague.”
Students might rate Jewish life as “not very important,” Rexford added, when surveyed about schools, without realizing that their expected level of Jewish life — regular Shabbat dinners, a campus Hillel — that seems normal to them could be a high level of Jewish activity at some schools.
Orthodox families at Berman Academy and Yeshiva of Greater Washington are looking for a much more specific experience. At Berman, about three quarters of seniors applied to the University of Maryland, which has a large Jewish population, said Hoffman.
The vast majority of Yeshiva graduates — 95 percent, said Hillman — will spend their first year post-high school in Israel at a Yeshiva or seminary. Then, many will come back to further their education at a variety of schools, especially places like Yeshiva University and Touro College, or other yeshivas and seminaries.
Where students end up after Yeshiva of Greater Washington “certainly comes up when people are looking for high schools,” Hillman said. How schools help their students in the college application process is a big draw for the day schools.
And then, once the application is sent, it’s up to the schools.
“[Students] actively make their lists, I hope, with their heads,” Rexford said, “but at the end of the day they’re making their decision with their hearts.”