"Mom, the people who run our cafeteria also run kitchens in prisons!"
Not that there's anything wrong with that! While some colleges have famously good cafeteria food (St. Olaf is one), most dorm food can get a little tedious after awhile, and all that pizza and pasta can lead to the dreaded "Freshman 15" pound weight gain. How can you make that assembly line food taste a little more palatable?
TOP TIP #1 Bring Your Own Condiments
I'm not talking about ketchup and mustard here. Bring steak sauce and teriyaki sauce (or teriyaki steak sauce). A little worchestershire sauce can add that umami flavor that baked steak lacks. (You didn't think they had a grill back there, did you?) What about a little Sriracha for those steam-table eggs that were just about to turn green? It's entirely up to you whether you want to share your flavor boosters, but sharing is a good way to make friends in the cafeteria.
TOP TIP #2 Spice Blends
Just like tucking a bottle of Lea & Perrins in your backpack will make your mouth happy, spice blends will do the same. I like Penzeys Spices for these. They have a number of blends for every taste, they come in convenient glass or plastic bottles with shaker tops and they're also easy to take along with you to the cafeteria. My sons' favorites are Sandwich Sprinkle for pasta, Pizza Seasoning (duh), Beef Roast Seasoning for beef and Old World Seasoning for chicken. You can order a set of four or eight as a gift set. The Kind Heart gift set has a nice assortment for those who can't decide what to pick.
Now imagine it's winter, and the cafeteria requires a walk through the snow or the rain for food that's not so spectacular anyway? Or you end up studying late at the library and don't get home until after the cafeteria closes? Wouldn't it be nice to be able to cook something for yourself, when you're hungry? Most, if not all, college dormitories forbid open flames or heating elements in the dorm rooms. This means no hot plates, no rice cookers, no toasters, no toaster ovens and, many times, no coffee maker. (Don't worry, caffeine addicts, there will be at least one coffee shop on campus.) Most dorm rooms are small enough that small electric appliances would just be in the way anyway. What you cannot live without are a dorm-sized fridge and microwave.
TOP TIP #3 Check with Housing Office what size fridge/microwave is acceptable before you buy!
There's nothing worse than dropping a couple hundred dollars on a fridge only to have it taken away on move-in day. This information is usually on the "What to pack" list, but if it's not, it will be somewhere on the website or in the housing packet.
Decide with your new roommate in advance who is going to bring the fridge and who will bring the microwave. When choosing a fridge, look for one with a separate door for the freezer compartment. That will help keep your frozen foods frozen no matter how many times the door gets opened.
Microwaves are easier; they only need to fit the required wattage. However, if you have a microwave, you need microwave dishes to cook in.
TOP TIP #4 Some high quality dorm cookware
I'm going to recommend three Pampered Chef products, simple because I've been using mine for 15 years and they're still perfect. The Small Micro-cooker holds 1 quart of soup or ramen and has a strainer lid for pasta, mac-n-cheese or steamed vegetables, or to let steam escape when popping popcorn. The Large Micro-cooker holds two quarts and also has a strainer lid, for larger servings of whatever. And the Rice Cooker holds three quarts so makes up to 9 cups of rice at a time. Amazon reviews would have you believe it can cook a whole (small) chicken. I have not tried that, but you could certainly steam a chicken breast in there (or in the large micro-cooker) if you wanted.
As I mentioned, I'm calling out Pampered Chef because that is what we've used, and what I sent my boys to college with. The links and pictures are from Amazon, but you may well be able to get a better price from eBay or your local Pampered Chef consultant. Amazon also offers a number of other versions of these products. In addition to the cookers, you'll want to have a mixing spoon and spatula of some kind available. The cookers can double as mixing bowls, and they nest to save space under your bed.
TOP TIP #5 Check if your dorm has a shared kitchen and whether that kitchen is stocked with supplies
I've seen kitchen set-ups that run the gamut from a single kitchenette for the whole residence to two fully-stocked kitchens per floor. If you have the luxury of a fully-stocked kitchen, you probably won't need the cookware until you move out on your own. If the kitchen is lacking or inconvenient, sometimes it's nicer to heat a can of Spaghettios in your room instead of running down to the kitchen. Btw, both these kitchens are at the same college. The difference is the age of the dorm.
How about you? Do you have any must-haves for eating in the dorms? What about favorite recipes that require no heating elements? Leave a comment below, then check out my Dorm Cooking Pinterest board, and feel free to add links to your favorite recipes!
Admissions Committees have two ways to get to know the real you: your essays, and your letters of recommendation. (Three ways, if you interview, but not everyone can do that.) Colleges want to know the living, breathing, learning, pizza-eating, Netflix-binge-watching student who will wander their campus, stay up all night studying in the library and play beach volleyball in the residence quad. As with the essays, colleges want to know: Who are you? Will you be a good roommate? How will you contribute to campus life?
A simple transcript doesn't answer that question. Your essay presents that information from your point of view, but the letters of recommendation from your counselor, your teachers or other adults who know you well can make the difference between a place on the waitlist or an offer of admission. So here are some tips to keep in mind to get great letters of recommendation.
1) Start Early
Most students don't even think about getting recommendations until fall of senior year, when they see the application requires them. Then they approach the teacher in their hardest class, thinking that having a letter from their AP English or Calculus teacher will look good to the Admissions Committee. Stop right there.
While I'm sure your AP English teacher is a lovely person and writes really good letters, he or she has only known you for a month or two. Probably not enough time to get a feeling for you as a student, much less you as a person. Admissions committees can tell when the recommender doesn't know the student well, so it comes off as a lukewarm recommendation, even when the letter sings your praises.
A better idea is to approach your junior year teachers in the spring, after they've had you in class for an entire year and have really gotten to know you and your classroom habits. If you have one, approach a teacher in a core class (English, math, social studies, science, foreign language), who has known you over multiple years. Not only will they have more to write about, but they can also offer perspective on how you've grown and matured since freshman year.
2) Be polite
Remember, you're asking your recommenders for a favor. Be polite: ask in person first whether or not the person feels they can write you a good recommendation. Hopefully they will be honest with you. A poor or vague recommendation can actually be worse than no recommendation at all.
3) Give your recommender plenty of time
Contrary to elementary school suspicions, teachers don't live in their classrooms or get put away in the broom closet at the end of the day. They have lives and families and other responsibilities (shocking, I know). So your request for a recommendation is the equivalent to a big homework project: they're willing to do it, but it's going to take some time to fit it in. Give your recommenders at least six weeks lead time before the letter has to be in the mail/submitted via Naviance or the Common Application. This is another reason why asking at the end of junior year is better than fall of senior year. Your recommenders have all summer to work on your letter at their convenience, so you're likely to get a better product. In the fall, you're competing for time with other seniors' letters, plus homework grading, lesson planning, Parents' Night and all the other things teachers have to do to start off the new school year. (You didn't think teachers just taught the same lessons in the same way year after year, did you?)
4) Give them plenty to write about
Many teachers ask (or require) you to fill out a "Brag Sheet" for them to refer to when writing your letter. This is a way for them to fill in any gaps in their knowledge about you, and a way for those senior year teachers to have something to say about a student they may have just met. If you've been keeping your activities resume or website up to date, this would serve the same purpose as a brag sheet. Better to write a personal letter or email to the teacher, thanking them for agreeing to recommend you, and reminding them of one or two things you have identified as important for the admissions committee to hear. Demonstrated leadership and academic achievement are almost always good topics. Have you distinguished yourself in classroom discussion? Has this teacher singled you out for praise for a project, paper or other accomplishment, or invited you to do something special (join an academic team, take a more advanced class, teach Spanish to preschoolers)? Mention that in your request letter. (If not, you might consider whether this is the right teacher to ask for a recommendation.) Here's a sample of what the recommendation request might look like:
With your request letter, you need to provide stamped envelopes addressed to the school the letter is going to. Multiple schools need multiple copies of the letter, so mention all the schools in your request. If you're using Naviance or the Common Application, mention in your letter than you will send them email links to upload their letters. If you like, you can ask your recommenders to seal their letters in envelopes that you will then include in your application package, but since paper applications are pretty old school, that can be weird. Having multiple sealed hard-copies is quite handy for scholarship applications, though, as many of those are not as internet-savvy.
A Note About Naviance and other online applications:
Web-based application programs allow you to just list your choice of recommenders, who are then sent an email by the program with a link to upload their letter. This is meant as a convenience for the recommender. However, it makes it way too easy for students to let the program do the asking for them. DO NOT LIST ANYONE WITHOUT FIRST ASKING THEM IN PERSON AND FOLLOWING UP WITH A REQUEST LETTER! There is no better way to get a terrible recommendation letter--or no letter at all--than to essentially summon your teacher's recommendation.
5) Follow up with a thank-you note
About four weeks after you send the request letter, send a (preferably hand-written) thank you note to the teacher. This accomplishes two things: a) reminds them how awesome you are, in case you decide to apply to more colleges or to scholarship competitions and need more copies of the letter in the future, and b) reminds them of the deadline, in case they've become so busy they forgot. Teachers are usually pretty organized and great at multitasking, but things happen. A polite note can keep your applications on track without nagging.
BONUS TIP: While it can be convenient to have non-confidential recommendations, admissions officers generally give more weight and credibility to confidential letters. This doesn't mean that you can't ever see your recommendations (some teachers will show them to you anyway), but indicating on the application that you have not seen the letters is better.
The college essay, for undergrad or graduate school, is the most dreaded, and most important, writing you will do senior year. The dread is in direct proportion to the importance: if it was just any old essay, who cares? But no, this essay, this one or two page piece of writing, determines your. entire. future.
The admissions essay is how you distinguish yourself from the crowd of other students the Admissions Office has never met, and whose numbers all look the same. The Committee wants to know: what makes you special? Will you be a good roommate? Will you contribute in the classroom? On campus? Who are you and why do you want to go to our school?
Your college essay doesn't have to be monumental, it just has to be true to you. Just like your Facebook page and your Twitter account (which you have cleaned up, right?), the essay is your chance to put your best foot forward and show what is unique about you. Since college is the place to re-invent yourself, consider this your first opportunity. Who do you want to be when you get to college? Write that person's essay!
Rules for making your essay the best it can be:
1) Don't be afraid to show your personality. If you dropped a draft of the essay in the hallway between classes, would your best friend know you wrote it? You can (and should) ask for proofreading help and reactions from your friends, your parents, your admissions consultant and/or your teachers, but the final editing decisions must be yours, in your authentic voice. The Admissions Committee can spot a parent-written essay a mile away. (HINT: They usually sound like "Jeremy has been a model student with a 3.8 GPA...")
2) Pick a topic you feel passionate about. Was your bar mitvah or quinceanera super important to you or was it just an excuse to have a party? (One of the new Common Application essay topics is on a "coming of age" ceremony in your ethnic background.) Was working at the soup kitchen that one Thanksgiving really the turning point in your life?
If these really were transformative experiences, then write about them. But if you're writing about something because someone told you that's what Admissions Committees want to hear, forget it. There will be thousands of warmed-over soup kitchen essays, and writing the same essay as everyone else is not the way to distinguish yourself.
3. Don't wait until the last minute.
Seriously, don't wait until the day before your application is due. Not only will it cause considerable stress and probably ruin your winter break, but you'll lose the opportunity to get feedback from others. I know what I'm talking about, my mother had to lock me in my room to get me to write my essay. #real talk
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