This time of year, high school seniors are seeking applications to some of the 3,500 colleges in the United States.
While they wonder how they'll look in that Harvard or UCLA sweatshirt, how to pick a major, whether to choose a small or large campus, or how far away from home they want to go, there's one question Jewish college-bound high school seniors can overlook.
Is a college or university "Jewish-friendly?" That's a question Oakland college counselor Martin Nemko, who coined that term, urges his clients to consider.
In the past nine years, Nemko has helped hundreds of students, about half of them Jewish, gain acceptance to the college best matched not only to their academic level, but also to their financial status and personality.
In addition to working with students individually, Nemko has written more than 200 articles on higher education, authored the book "How to Get an Ivy League Education at a State University," and hosted "School and Career Talk" on radio station KALW in San Francisco for the last six years.
When Nemko counsels Jewish students, he says he always advises them to take the Jewish-friendly standard into account.
"Life is not easy at colleges right now for Jewish kids," he says, citing anti-Israel sentiments at some politically liberal colleges across the country, including U.C. Berkeley.
The solution is to find a school with a combination of qualities. Those criteria include: a high ratio of Jewish students, 15 percent or more; active Hillels and other Jewish organizations; and a history of "overall Jewish friendliness."
A strong Hillel alone can make a difference to a Jewish student struggling to find a social niche, Nemko says — even if the student isn't religiously observant.
"There are intellectual, social and holiday things going on that you don't have to be religious to enjoy. It's a way to kill a lot of birds with one stone," he says.
"At any college, many kids are a little scared, looking to make a big college [feel] smaller and become part of a community."
While fraternities and sororities are appropriate for some students, others are turned off by "a lot of drinking and a sexist environment," Nemko says.
Hillels, by contrast, can provide "a more intellectual, less socially intense environment, where students can take a class, or get involved with social action," he says.
Above all, Nemko says Jewish friendliness should be considered as only one piece of the college-decision puzzle. Even schools that have traditionally been welcoming for Jews could be "gross misfits for some kids."
With that disclaimer, Nemko points out some of his favorite Jewish-friendly schools.
For "A" students, he says he "loves Haverford and Bryn Mawr," both small, lush campuses in the suburbs of Philadelphia with Jewish populations of about 25 percent.
Colgate University is another Nemko pick — that is, "if you're willing to live in the sticks." At 3,000 students, Colgate is an ideal size, and perfect for sports- oriented students who don't mind the isolation of Hamilton, N.Y., he says. Other recommendations for top students include Columbia, Duke, Oberlin, Tufts, Vassar and the University of Pennsylvania.
Nemko's suggestions for "B" students may not be household names, but the college counselor says he can think of several superb colleges where Jewish students will feel quite comfortable — even though some are in areas not known for their Jewish communities.
Grinnell, for example "is a great school, 30 percent Jewish, and right in the middle of Iowa." There is also Emory, a 40 percent Jewish school located in Atlanta. Other schools include Ithaca College, "Cornell's forgotten sister," in upstate New York, and Brandeis University near Boston.
As for University of California campuses, Nemko calls them "Jewish neutral," but points out that the Santa Barbara campus has the highest percentage of Jews, at 20 percent.
The central problem with the U.C. schools is their size, says Nemko, a staunch advocate of smaller learning institutions. For highly motivated students, a large school can be effective. Nemko's daughter Amy, for example, thrived at UCLA and is now studying law at Yale. But the majority of students benefit from more personal attention, he says.
Larger schools often administer only multiple-choice exams, which limit students' chances to practice their writing skills, he argues.
"Writing is an art that develops over time. You need feedback. No matter what career you choose, the ability to write a coherent report, a letter arguing for a salary increase, a love letter, is important. You will always be writing. It's crucial to develop that skill. It sharpens your thinking."
Whatever way students and their parents juggle college priorities, Nemko encourages them to research the Jewish-friendly aspect of any university.
"I always tell people to check it out, make a phone call to a Hillel. What could be easier? Let your fingers do the walking."