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Navigating College Search and Applications as a Jewish Student

Picture of Sam Joustra
By Sam Joustra on August, 22 2023 | 7 minute read

As we near the end of August, many students are packing up their suitcases and heading off to their first year of college. And for our freshly-minted high school seniors, they’re starting to look ahead to what that journey will look like over the next year.

I remember one of the most exciting parts of preparing for college as a high school senior was thinking about all of the clubs and organizations I was excited to join, and all of the people I would meet. For the first time, I would be surrounded by people from all over the world, and while each of us chose Goucher for our own unique reasons, we were united by the fact that we all intentionally chose it. I could find new groups of people and try new things that I had never had the chance to experience- people who shared my values and interests. As a Jewish person, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted my college Jewish community to look like—but I knew I wanted to be at a school that had a substantial population of, and resources for, Jewish students.

As a Collegewise counselor, I help students think critically about what they’re looking for in their college experience. This extends beyond the major they hope to pursue, or what their learning environment looks like; we talk about what kind of communities they want to both contribute to and learn from. For many students, finding a community of like-minded peers from a shared faith background is an important part of finding the right college fit. For many Jewish students, finding a community that is open, safe, and inclusive for those of Jewish faith is a critical part of their college search.

As in the national collective, this country has seen a steady rise in antisemitism on college campuses. Given this rise in antisemitism, it is more important than ever for students to know that they will feel safe and welcomed on campus. Many students are looking to how colleges respond to these acts of antisemitism and violence, and how they proactively cultivate communities that do not tolerate this kind of hate. For this reason, finding campuses with strong Jewish communities is not just a matter of comfort and familiarity, but it could be a matter of safety. As in any case, no two students are the same; they are not necessarily drawn to the same college campuses, nor do they seek identical college experiences.

Institutional Data on Jewish Populations

One of the first questions a Jewish student may ask about a school is “How big is the Jewish student population on campus?” One of the most reputable resources to turn to for this data is Hillel. Hillel International is the largest Jewish campus organization in the country (and world), with chapters at nearly 900 colleges and universities across the U.S. Hillel has a very helpful tool on their website where you can search for colleges and universities with a Hillel on campus, or even a Top 60 list of schools with the highest percentage of Jewish students. You can even use the “Compare Colleges” tool to see side-by-side data comparing schools’ Jewish student population sizes, availability of Jewish Studies majors, study abroad programs in Israel, and more. As a first step in searching schools with a certain percentage of Jewish students on campus, whatever your preference is, you can find it easily on Hillel’s website.

Finding Jewish Community on Campus

The data doesn’t say it all—after all, there can be a difference between finding a Jewish population on campus and finding community. Simply being among a group of Jewish students does not mean you will find what you are looking for in terms of shared life experience, tradition, or camaraderie. Let’s go beyond the statistics.

There are many facets of Jewish life that a student may be searching for in their college experience to find meaning, to mirror the traditions and comforts of home, or to connect with students who have shared beliefs and values.

Below is a (non-exhaustive!) list of offerings and resources that support Jewish students that you may find on a college campus:

  • Hillel on campus
  • Chabad on Campus center
    • Chabad, another organization for Jewish students of all backgrounds, is housed on 700+ college campuses worldwide
  • Student-run Jewish and interfaith club and organizations
  • Weekly Friday night Shabbat services and dinner
  • Formal on-campus synagogue services during the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
    • Many of these services are interfaith and span the spectrum of observation. Brandeis University, for example, offers Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform High Holy Day services.
  • Kosher dining halls (whether separate, or Kosher dining options within a dining hall)
    • The University of Michigan’s Hillel has a student-led initiative called the Jewish Penicillin Hotline, where a parent or guardian can request to have a cup of matzoh ball soup delivered to their sick child. (The position of “soup-ervisor” is even an on-campus student job!)
  • Sponsored trips to Israel through Hillel or other organizations like Taglit-Birthright
  • Historically Jewish fraternities or sororities
  • Jewish Studies majors or minors built into the academic curriculum
    • Muhlenberg College is one of the only liberal arts colleges in the country to offer both a major and minor in Jewish Studies!

Resources for Jewish Students Applying to College

The Hillel website also maintains a hub of over 650 merit scholarships students can apply for, ranging from essay contests; to awards for students with significant commitment to service; or even students who pursue a Jewish Studies major in college. Many large Jewish foundations, both local and national, may offer their own scholarships, too, including statewide chapters of the National Council of Jewish Women, the Jewish United Fund, and more.


A Note about Intersectionality

Intersectionality of identity is also important to remember- there is no one single way to identify as Jewish, and for many students, it is one of many important identities they hold. You may find Jewish communities on campus that honor that intersectionality. For example, the American University Hillel chapter oversees multiple student groups, including the Jewish Queer Collective, Russian-Speaking Jews, and more.

Telling Your Story

While being Jewish may be part of your identity, it may not be your entire story. Actually, I’m betting that you are far more interesting and dynamic to have just a single story! College campuses want to cultivate caring, inclusive, and supportive communities for students of all backgrounds, and many colleges will ask specific supplemental essay questions about identity or background where you can share parts of your faith identity, how you have been shaped by it, and how you will continue to meaningfully contribute to those college communities. Whatever role Judaism plays in your life and in your communities, your perspective is valid. There is a place for your voice, and a place for you to express that voice in your application.


Additional resources for students:

Additional resources for allies, families, and counselors:


About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self - whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include counselingtest prepacademic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates.


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