Four months ago, Lauren Waksman had no idea which college she wanted to attend.
Today, the Council Rock High School South senior doesn't hesitate when asked if she's come to any conclusions.
Temple University, the Richboro 17-year-old said, hands down.
"I just feel this pull toward it," she said. "Once you get that gut feeling, you know you're going to go there."
Waksman and two other teens from the area first spoke to the Jewish Exponent in May as they wrapped up their junior year and launched into the college search process. While the stress of standardized testing is now over for the most part, fall brings application deadlines, and after that, the agonizing wait to find out which campus will become home base for the next stage of life.
Here's an update on where they are:
Waksman wasn't even interested in Temple at first, partly, she said, because her dad had gone there. She changed her mind after a campus tour.
"It's beautiful, most of it's new. It's just like that welcoming feeling," Waksman said.
"Every other school I went to, I ended up comparing that to Temple: What does this school have that Temple doesn't have? And it was like, nothing."
She's so eager to go there that she already turned in her application earlier this month. To be safe, she also applied to four other schools, all well before the December or January deadlines: Rider University, University of Delaware, Hofstra University and Montclair State University. She brought Rider and Montclair into the mix more recently, after eliminating Penn State Abington, West Chester University (the campus was "kind of boring"); Rutgers-New Brunswick (way too big); the University of Maryland (too hard to get into) and Muhlenberg College (felt too small, out of academic reach and "I couldn't picture myself going there.")
Since Temple has rolling admissions, she's hoping she'll find out if she got in as early as December. Unless something drastically changes before then, she said, she probably won't even wait to find out what happened with the other schools to enroll. There's another motivation, too -- the earlier she gets in her deposits, the better chance she has of getting suite-style housing.
Even though only one of Waksman's prospective schools used the "common application," she said it only took her about a day to draft all of them because she was able to reuse the same personal statement. She did take extra time to proofread them, which she doesn't normally do, she said, and her mom went over everything, too.
Still, she said, "it was much easier than I expected. I don't know why people think it's such a big deal. People stress about writing 20 essays and I wrote one."
And she didn't even have to start from scratch because she'd written the essay as an assignment for English class last year. She also decided not to bother retaking the SAT in October because her score only went up 100 points after she first retook it in June.
There wasn't time to worry anyway, Waksman said, because even though she didn't end up getting a job over the summer, she kept busy choreographing routines for the color guard. In addition to serving as captain of the band's flag corps, she's continued her involvement in choir and evening classes at Gratz Jewish Community High School at Beth El in Yardley.
"It was something I knew I had to do, so I couldn't get all worked up over it and I had my essay done last year," she said. "I just got it in."
Alex Neff might seem laid-back about college applications, but the Central High School senior said he's actually "beyond nervous" to find out "who's willing to take me."
"I want to have a good future and I don't want it to be limited because of the college I went to," explained the 17-year-old from Northeast Philadelphia.
As was the case back in May, Neff still wants to be a doctor, and he still ranks Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh as his top picks. But he also still hasn't visited a single campus, or submitted his applications.
At Central High School, senior Alex Neff has met with guidance counselor Michelle Ludlow several times since the spring to discuss his best in-state options.
Over the summer, "he didn't want to do anything having to do with school," said his mom, Ellen Neff. "He was enjoying himself because it's probably the last time he has to enjoy himself. He is a little behind, but that's his nature, too. He gets things done when he's under pressure at the end."
Between his new job as a busboy at a local pizza place and his mom managing a restaurant 60 hours a week, Neff said it's been difficult to coordinate college visits. Instead, he said, he's devoted more time to Internet research and SAT practice tests to prepare for a retake earlier this month. After all that, he said, he ended up with the exact same score.
He's going to a Halloween party with friends at Penn State this weekend, he said, so he'll get to see the campus then. The rest, he said, he'll visit after submitting the applications, which he's aiming to finish by mid-November. That'll be better, he said, because he can set up appointments with admissions counselors and make an impression while they have his packet in hand.
"It's a little frustrating to try and sell myself as this wonderful person who will give your college a good name" just by responding to a couple of written questions, Neff said. "On paper, I might not look so great, but meet me face to face and it'll let you know how I am as a person."
Given his grades, Neff admitted that his preferred schools might be a stretch, which is why he's also applying to Temple and a few "safety schools" such as West Chester.
As far as his mom is concerned, he could even start at community college, where the price is enticingly right at $180 per credit.
Neff is already working on college-level courses at Gratz Hebrew high, which could translate into college credit.
"It doesn't matter where you start, it matters where you finish," Ellen Neff said.
She's not worried about him getting into college, but rather how to pay for it.
Neff is well aware that money is tight, which, he said, is why he purposefully limited his search to affordable state schools. From that pool, he looked for the best biology or chemistry departments, whether he'd meet the requirements to get in, what the student life was like and whether there was a Jewish community "to fall back on."
Though Neff hasn't turned in any applications yet, like Waksman, he's been working on an essay as part of an English assignment. Other than that, he said, college applications haven't come up much at school.
"I'm past the competitiveness, I'm just worried about myself and trying to get ahead."
Crunch time is now for Jeremy Rudoler, a 17-year-old senior at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.
He began drafting application essays over the summer, in between working as a counselor for 4-year-olds at Har Zion Day Camp and unicycling classes at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts. This week, he'll put the finishing touches on the most important one: an early decision application that's due by Nov. 1.
But he declined to say which school that was, or the names of the other three schools he homed in on after months of research and college visits -- including a flight all the way to Washington University in St. Louis.
"I'm not trying to hide where I'm applying, I just -- I'd rather not get into it until the decision's been made," explained Rudoler, who lives in Bala Cynwyd. "I'm kind of superstitious and I think if I talk too much about where I want to go, I won't get in."
Likewise, he said, he didn't buy any college "paraphernalia" during his visits.
"I'm not sure I'll get into any of them," he said, so what would he do with a university logo t-shirt then?
With the "hard-core part" of the application process in full force, Rudoler said he visits or emails his guidance counselor at least once a week to get advice on his essays and activity lists, or just to talk.
That's normal around this time, said counselor Carol Jacobs. As students visit more schools and sit down to weigh their options, they start to realize, 'Oh my gosh this is real,' " she said.
December is the worst because some students begin hearing early-decision verdicts and start "second guessing themselves," Jacobs continued. "They look around at each other and say, 'Oh my gosh, if they're not getting in, I'm not getting in.' The tension is just enormous."
Rudoler started out last spring with a list of seven high-caliber schools, most of them private and only two in Pennsylvania. He visited two others this fall, though he dismissed one -- Princeton -- right away because it just didn't seem like a good fit, nor was he sure he'd be qualified academically.
He narrowed the "final four" based on whether he could study medicine and business at the same time, and the feel of the campus -- "whether it was all work, work, work, or whether it was people enjoying life while working a lot," he said.
He wrestled between two favorites when it came time to decide about early decision.
"If I could, I'd actually like to go to both of them, but that's not possible," joked the student council president.
Ultimately, he said, his top choice came down to a feeling. Aside from really good academics and a great Jewish community, "when I was there to spend time, I felt like this was a place where I can see myself for four years," he said.
But, he noted that all four schools he pinpointed ended up being exactly what he said he wanted from the start.
"I either haven't changed yet or I was just right back then."
Rudoler's hoping he'll know whether his early-decision application was accepted by January.
That one email, he said, "will determine my stress level."