For Memorial High School seniors Julissa Ventura and Delia Cohen, college acceptances came as early Christmas presents this year, with an added bonus of almost full scholarships for their first year.
They were both accepted into prestigious schools: Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, and Johns Hopkins in Maryland.
Pennsylvania's Swarthmore College is a prestigious liberal arts school just 11 miles outside of Philadelphia. "I went to visit the school and just fell in love with the campus," said Julissa, 17, who got her acceptance letter on Dec. 14.
Following an interview at the college on Nov. 15, Julissa handed in her application the very same day, hoping to get an early decision instead of waiting out her chances in the months ahead.
"I thought about it, but it's a very small college, and I thought I would have a better chance if I went for early decision," said Julissa.
On average, Swarthmore College accepts about 500 students a year from all over the country. Julissa now finds herself among those 500, and as an added bonus received a generous scholarship and a number of grants to almost completely cover her first year expenses.
"The school itself gave me $31,027, and federal grants are expected to total about $5,600," said Julissa, who is also eligible for small loans and work-study.
Julissa first heard about Swarthmore College while she attended the Governor's School hosted by Monmouth University for a four-week course study of political issues over the previous summer.
"I was selected for the program, which went from July to August, and it was a really special experience for me," said Julissa. "I made a lot of connections, the teachers were really great, and that is where I [first] heard about Swarthmore College."
With a total of 102 students attending the summer program, Julissa became enticed by the small class college environment, and made up her mind that this is where she wanted to be.
"It was nice to see the setting of college before I actually entered," said Julissa. "You learn to live on your own, study on your own, and manage your social and college life."
Other than Swarthmore College, Julissa had applied to several other schools including the University of Pennsylvania and Drew University. She was even accepted to Rutgers University, but Swarthmore was always her first choice.
"Once I found out I was accepted, I had to withdraw my applications from other schools," said Julissa. Julissa is hoping to study the field of political science, combining her love of history and intrigue with the governing system. She also hopes that her example will inspire her other peers to aim for high goals.
"You have to try; it doesn't matter if you are not seen as one of the top high schools in New Jersey," said Julissa. "Worry about the hard work you have done, and that will pay off."
And while Julissa spends her next four years near the city of brotherly love, Delia Cohen will not be that far off in Baltimore, Md., studying pre-med at the also prestigious John Hopkins University.
"I had visited other schools, and this is where I felt most comfortable," said Cohen, 18. "[Baltimore] was like a home away from home."
Cohen had recently visited John Hopkins University in October through a program called the Colors of Hopkins, which invites students from all over the world to visit the school.
By the end of the visitation program, Cohen had decided this was where she wanted to begin her lifelong dream to become a doctor.
"I grew up always saying to my mother I want to be a doctor, and during my sophomore year I had taken anatomy and physiology, which drew me more into medicine and the study of the body," said Cohen.
Cohen was fortunate to just barely make the deadline for early decision, which was expiring that October, and she e-mailed her application.
"The last day [of the program] I asked for an application, and they offer a fee waiver to those who were participated in the Colors of Hopkins," said Cohen.
Come Dec. 15, Memorial High School was hosting their Winter Pep Rally, which Cohen was involved in. That same day, Cohen found out Julissa had received her acceptance to Swarthmore College, and although she was very excited for her friend, she was also a little nervous because she had yet to hear back from the school of her choice.
"[Julissa] was being very supportive to me too," said Cohen.
Hoping that her letter had at last arrived, Cohen had just enough time to go home for a minute before the pep rally began, but she saw nothing in her mailbox.
A little disappointed, she went inside to check her e-mail, which she didn't even have to open. Right in the subject line from John Hopkins, it said, "Congratulations."
"I was jumping around my kitchen and I was telling my little sister, 'I'm going to be a doctor, I'm going to be doctor,' " said Cohen.
Her sister told her, "Finish college first."
Cohen definitely plans to do just that.
"I feel like this just happened, and I'm so excited. You have to be your own advocate, and I've been putting myself out there since freshman year," she said.
About a week later, Cohen also received a $32,000 scholarship from the college, and along with additional loans, grants and work-study, which would aid with her housing; she is receiving a total of $41,000
Both girls have taken a number of Advanced Placement courses, which will give them instant college credit if they pass their end of the year exams. They have been involved with extra-curricular activities such as the National Honors Society, the Key Club, and Tiger TV.
"Those rigorous classes is what has helped me [succeed]," said Julissa, who is also this year's president of the National Honors Society and the Key Club.
In addition, Julissa is currently ranked number 2 in her class.
"Hard work does pay off," said Julissa.
"I feel the teachers mostly prepare you, and high school offers you a lot of opportunities," said Cohen. "You have to put yourself out there to get yourself noticed, and if you believe in yourself, you can actually succeed." Cohen also took a summer writing course through the Barnard Pre-College program of Columbia University just last year.
"It was my first college-level experience and I loved it," Cohen said. "You grow really close to everyone there. You end up learning so much and you soak up everything."
For the rest of their senior year, the girls are hoping to find more scholarship opportunities, and continue to work hard for their upcoming AP exams in May.
"They are truly an inspiration; some of the most compassionate, self-driven and diligent women I have ever come across in my 17 years here," said Stacy Bogert, guidance counselor at Memorial High School.