By Aaron Siegal-Eisman, 17, Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies
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Aaron will be choosing a college this month and hopes his parents will be happy with his choice.

I am the youngest of three siblings. My sister and brother went to their first choices for college. My sister wanted to go to a small Jewish school that was not too far from our house. She felt that American Jewish University in Bel-Air was a good fit. My brother really liked Syracuse University in New York. He wanted to get away and meet new people and Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications has a good journalism program.

At first, I wasn’t worried about the cost of college because my parents let both of my siblings go to their first choices, which weren’t dependent on cost. But because of their decisions, money is an issue and I had to find a school that fits me, but is also affordable. My parents are going to help me pay for college but I’ll also need to take out loans. They don’t want me to owe a lot of money like my siblings by going to an expensive college.

In ninth grade, I started getting excited about college because I was taking a life skills class and did a project on Boston College because I had a neighbor who was a sophomore there. I did an eight-page report on everything about the private school, like academics, sports, food, etc. It made me want to go there. It’s only six miles from Boston. I imagined going to a Celtics game with friends. I liked that there’s a sense of history on the East Coast, where buildings are 200 years old, unlike in Los Angeles where a 20-year-old building might be historic. My neighbor really liked the school. He had an apartment with his friends just three miles from Fenway Park, the oldest stadium in baseball, where the Red Sox play.

I felt like staying close to a major city, which would give me opportunities to get internships and jobs after college. I also wanted to go out of state because I wanted to meet people from different parts of the country. I wanted to go to a school with a Division I sports program because I love watching sports. I’ve seen college football games on TV where the fans have their shirts off in the freezing cold with their chests painted. They have a lot of pride in their school and I wanted a sports team to be proud of and root for.

Besides Boston College, I was thinking of going to NYU or another New York City school since I had relatives in Buffalo, New York, and a brother in Syracuse and could visit them on holidays. I could see myself taking the subway and going to classes in the city. I could see myself cheering for New York teams like the Yankees and the Jets.

I knew I wanted to study journalism

Illustration by Brian Lopez-Santos, 17, Marshall HS

In 11th grade, I got more interested in sports journalism. I think it would be fun to be a sports journalist because of the chance to interview famous athletes and travel to cities around the country. My journalism teacher told the class that Northwestern University was a great school. Northwestern has one of the best journalism programs in the nation (Medill School of Journalism). When I learned it was in Chicago I got excited. It’s a big city with sports teams I could cheer for. I could see myself going there, even though it cost nearly $54,000 a year in total expenses.

I wasn’t thinking about cost because my sister and brother got to go where they wanted. I knew  my brother’s tuition was expensive. I couldn’t see why my parents couldn’t give me an education that cost the same.

My sister’s school, American Jewish University (AJU), costs $34,000 per year, including tuition, room and board and other costs. My sister graduated this past May. She is looking for a job so that she can pay off the $70,000 in college loans that she and my parents split.

During my freshman year, my brother was looking at colleges that had great broadcast journalism programs. Since he didn’t have the best grades he applied early decision to Syracuse and signed a contract stating that if he gets in, he has to go to the school. My brother got in and was bound to Syracuse, which is about $48,000 in total costs per year.

So far he has taken out $70,000 in loans to split between my parents and him. My brother took off the fall semester of his junior year help my parents out. He was angry that they told him to stay home, take classes in L.A. and earn money. He took classes at Santa Monica College, which Syracuse accepted as credits. He also worked part-time at Blockbuster and sold a lot of stuff on eBay, from books to video games. He saved money living at home, plus made about $5,000 for tuition and living expenses. He went back to Syracuse for the spring semester.

I didn’t think cost was a factor until the second semester of my junior year, when my parents made it a factor. They told me, “You should not look at private colleges or schools that go over the total cost of $35,000 a year.” It felt unfair. It seemed like my siblings got better opportunities than me because I am the youngest. “Why can’t I get as fair an education as my brother?” I asked. My mom said there’s no such thing as fair and unfair. “Life isn’t fair, deal with it,” she said.

I saw this wasn’t a joke. They wanted to make it clear that I needed to look at colleges that would be affordable for me and them. My dad already says he’s going to be working until we’re all out of college. They wanted me to see that I could get as good an education as my brother and sister at a public school. They didn’t want me to have to pay so much for college.

Still, I tried to find a way to afford my top choices. I went on and other websites and researched scholarships . I realized I wouldn’t make enough through scholarships to pay for a $50,000-a-year school. I was thinking, maybe I could live with my uncle in Boston and save on housing costs. But that would save me only $8,000 a year. I was bitter for a while, but my parents told me, “You might not go to the school you’ve always wanted but it’s not the end of the world.”

From then on my college search changed. I took all of the private schools off my list. I looked for schools that cost less than $35,000 a year.

In July, I started with 20-30 schools for which my SAT scores and grades were around their average. I took a quiz called College Search on that helped me find my likes and dislikes with colleges.

I discovered public schools I hadn’t even heard of

As I started doing research, I saw that there are more options for journalism than Syracuse or Northwestern and they would be cheaper. The search that helped me most was when I typed in “best journalism schools” and “colleges with sports journalism” in search engines like Google and Yahoo. I found out about the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State. There are maybe only five sports journalism programs in the country. I was excited that there was such a great program for a specific field.

I bought the Princeton Review book The Best 368 Colleges. It helped because I read lists like “Best College Newspaper,” which helped me cut some schools. Lastly, I went on my top schools’ websites to look for more information on their journalism programs, like what courses were offered. I did a lot of research because this was an important decision that will change my future.

By the end of the summer, I narrowed my list down to 12 schools. During September of my senior year, my dad and I took an East Coast tour of Penn State, University of Pittsburgh and University of Maryland, three of the schools on my list. At Penn State, I met an advisor at the College of Communications. He drove us to a press conference with Brent Musburger, a famous sportscaster. I actually met the director of the sports journalism center, who took us inside the new baseball stadium. After the tour I could see myself going there. I liked the atmosphere and devotion to sports the students have.

What I liked about Maryland was that the Merrill College of Journalism had distinguished alumni like Connie Chung and sports reporters Jimmy Roberts and Bonnie Bernstein. Plus, Maryland is just a 15-minute bus ride from Washington D.C.

I realized that Pittsburgh wasn’t the school for me because it didn’t have a journalism major. I hadn’t looked into whether it had a journalism major because I loved the location and great basketball program. I also didn’t like the campus because it was a bunch of big buildings, instead of smaller, specialized building for each college of study.

From these tours Maryland and Penn State became my first and second choices because of their great journalism programs and locations.

I started cutting my list down. I took off the University of Florida because the campus was too large. I also cut the University of Pittsburgh and three more schools, the University of Illinois, University of Connecticut and University of Texas. I had my final list of seven schools by Oct. 1.

I made a spreadsheet of the colleges I was applying to that included categories like total cost, journalism program, location and sports. After I finished, my dad and I talked about the schools that were on my list and why I liked them. We talked a lot about the cost for each school and what we could afford.

My dad liked my choices, but wanted me to add some Cal States to my list just in case I didn’t get into the out-of-state schools. There aren’t a lot of schools in California with journalism programs, which is why I looked out of state. I added two Cal States, Cal State Fullerton and San Francisco State, that I thought were “super safeties” (I had a 100 percent chance of getting in). That made my final list nine colleges—five out-of-state and four in-state.

The schools I liked in order were the University of Maryland, Penn State University, Indiana University, University of Wisconsin, University of Oregon, UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis, Cal State Fullerton and San Francisco State. All of these schools cost between $20,000 and $32,000 a year.

There are lots of schools that could fit you

It was fun looking at different colleges, like was it in a small rural town or big city? There are so many schools and so many choices. You can find five to 10 schools that fit you and what you want in a school. You might think that the University of California schools (UCs) are cheap with $8,000 in annual tuition, but including housing and other expenses, they cost about $24,000 a year for in-state students. When you look outside of the state you can find just as good of an education at a school that possibly is cheaper.

To pay for college, my family and I will look for loans, grants and scholarships. Hopefully, my college will give out financial aid for things like already having a sibling in college. I will also try to find a job while I’m in college to help pay the cost.

The College Center at my school, Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, has butterflies on the door that have the student’s name and what schools they have gotten into. Last year whenever I would go in to ask the college counselor questions or do research on the computer, I would see the butterflies. I liked some of the schools the seniors were going to, like NYU. I could imagine myself going to a campus like that.

At first I felt like the world was ending when I had to consider costs but I realized my parents were looking out for my best interests by telling me to find a school that is affordable so I won’t end up with a lot of debt. Now I have a butterfly on the door of the College Center with five schools that have accepted me so far. I’ll be finding out if I got in to the other schools soon. They are all great schools that fit me. I’d be happy going to any of the schools I applied to, not just my number one school.

Aaron’s college search tips

I am all done with college applications and I’ll soon decide what school I’m going to. I want to share what I’ve learned about the college search process with other teens. It was manageable because I started early and used books and resources on the Internet. Have an open mind because there are thousands of colleges. The most important thing is to find a school that fits you.

• By your junior year, get to know your college counselor. They have many resources, such as books and college pamphlets, and you can get advice from them on colleges and scholarships.

• Start your college search by the second semester of your junior year. Start by finding schools that fit your SAT or ACT scores and average grade point average.

• Think about what you want in a college. Do you want a large or a small college? Do you want a school known for its sports or academics? How important is location? Asking questions like these will help you come up with a good list of colleges.

• Talk to your parents about how much they are willing to pay. Keep in mind that you can look for scholarships to lower the cost and apply for student loans. Talking with my parents helped make my search more realistic and helped me narrow down the colleges on my list.

• By the beginning of senior year, you should have a list of colleges that you want to apply to. This gave me time to work on applications and essays, so that I wasn’t late on any deadlines.

• If you can, plan a trip to colleges in the same area. Include visits to sports facilities, advisors, dorms, cafeterias or whatever you’re interested in. Also explore the town or city the college is in.

• Deadlines are important. Get your applications and recommendations in early. Turning in things at the last minute will cause you stress.

Other stories about college …

How I chose the right college. Jennifer, 18, had her mind set on the East Coast until she realized she could get a great education and be happy close to home. (November – December 2008)

Applying for financial aid. Starting early made it easier for Sasha, 19, and her parents. (November – December 2008)

College: How we got accepted.
Our special package on getting into college includes inspirational stories from students at San Fernando HS, advice from a teacher and a reality check from Geraldo, who almost let the pressure get to him too much. (October 2006)

Wait—an SMC class in South America?
Jenn, 19, dreaded attending a community college, but then she found out about all the amazing classes and travel opportunities. (October 2005)

Give black colleges a look.
These traditionally black colleges in the South opened 17-year-old Lauren’s eyes to future possibilities. (January – February 2004)