college gifts Insider Tips

Graduation Gifts and Dorm Room Essentials: College Edition

Congratulations, high school graduates! June is always a busy and exciting month as seniors around the world finish their last semesters of high school, celebrate graduations, and look forward to some well-deserved rest. It may be hard to believe, but in just a few short months you’ll be packing up your belongings, saying goodbye to high school friends, and heading off to your top-choice college—your home for the next four years! To get a head start on your back-to-school shopping, we’ve put together our favorite dorm room essentials for freshman year. (Note to parents, these make great graduation gifts too!)

Dorm Room Furniture

Comfy Dorm Chair with Sherpa Seat

graduation gifts dorm chair

It can be tough to find practical seating for small spaces like dorm rooms, but you’ll need a spot for friends to sit when they come over. This simple design solves your seating woes—it’s comfortable, modern, and ergonomic. The sherpa seat is an especially soft and fashionable touch.

Watercolor Floral Leaves Pillow Case Cover Set

graduation gifts pillows

Colorful throw pillows are an easy way to give your dorm room some personality. These modern, geometric pillow cases are made with quality linen/burlap and are safe to machine wash. Check out the different patterns and colors available!

Geometric Gold & Blue Area Rug

graduation gifts rug

An area rug brings immediate flair to an average dorm room (not to mention it’s softer on your feet). We love this Scandinavian geometric design for a classic, modern look.

Modern Gold Desk Lamp

graduation gifts lamp

Step up your bedside light game with this sleek design—perfect for bedtime reading.

Classic Desk Bookshelf

graduation gifts bookshelf

Take your study area to the next level with this classic bookshelf, which goes on top of your college-provided desk. These extra shelves will help you keep your school supplies organized and maximize productive space.


Marimekko Rosarium Comforter Set

graduation gifts comforter

We love the bright patters of Finnish designer Marimekko, which brighten up even the darkest freshman dorm room. Make sure to order your twin sheets in extra long!

Weighted Blanket

graduation gifts weighted blanket

Everyone’s favorite new bedroom essential is a weighted blanket, and there’s a good reason why. These blankets are proven to promote an immediate soothing, calming effect—perfect for exam week or just winding down after a busy day of class.


Luxe Cordless Eye Friendly LED Desk Lamp

graduation gifts LED desk lamp

Worried about all the eyestrain from late night study sessions? This cordless desk lamp provides 40 hours of adjustable reading light in a sleek, portable package.

C-Pen Reader

graduation gifts C Pen reader

Overwhelmed with note taking? Confused over pronunciation? Use the C-Pen Reader to text straight to your notetaking software, look up terms, and read passages aloud.

COWIN E7 Active Noise Cancelling Headphones Bluetooth Headphones

graduation gifts headphones

These noise-cancelling headphones allow you to tune out the distractions of dorm life and enjoy music, TV, and video games without blasting the volume on your old earbuds.

Apple MacBook Air 13″

graduation gifts MacBook Air

Your most important possession as a college student will be a reliable laptop. Perfect for students on the go, the MacBook Air combines the power of a dual-core Intel Core i.5 processor and the simplicity of Mac OS X in one easy-to-carry and easy-to-use package. Set it up this summer so you have time to get to know its features before the school year begins.

Kitchen Gadgets

Nespresso Vertuo Coffee and Espresso Machine

graduation gifts coffee & espresso maker

If you’re a coffee drinker, don’t settle for watery dining hall French roast. With your own Nespresso machine, you can impress your hallmates with cappuccinos and frothed milk at just the push of a button.

NutriBullet 12-Piece High-Speed Blender

graduation gifts nutribullet smoothie blender

Don’t have time for a proper breakfast? Would you rather hit “snooze” than make it to the dining hall? The NutriBullet is a great gadget to keep on hand so you can make smoothies on-the-go before walking to class or dashing to practice.

Brita Water Filter

graduation gifts brita water filter

Another dorm room classic—keep your mini fridge well-stocked with fresh water at all times! And reduce your environmental impact by avoiding plastic bottles. It’s a win-win!

Philips Wake-Up Light Alarm Clock

graduation gifts alarm clock

One way to make 8am lectures a little less painful? Use a sunrise simulation alarm clock! This gentle light therapy lamp and alarm clock helps you wake up feeling more refreshed with natural light that eases you into the day. This is a game-changer, especially in the winter months (and a must-buy if you’re going to college in New England)!


Quitterie Pencase Pencilbox

graduation gifts pencilbox

Tired of losing your good pen or your jump drive? Try one of these stylish pencil cases from Japanese design icon Delfonics Stationary.

Thule Subterra PowerShuttle Electronics Carrying Case

graduation gifts electronics carrying case

Swimming in a sea of cords? Unable to find the right charger or cable? Tired of twisted headphones? Keep forgetting the correct adapter or dongle for your presentation? This electronics organizer from the Swedish travel experts at Thule will keep all your accessories neat and tidy.

Mesh Popup Laundry Hamper

graduation gifts hamper

Cheap. Durable. Simple. This unassuming laundry hamper has almost 2500 positive reviews on Amazon for a reason: it just works.

Bathroom Accessories

Barefoot Dreams CozyChic Bathrobe

graduation gifts bathrobe

When it comes to cozy bathrobes, nothing beats this Barefoot Dreams CozyChic robe, made with poly-microfiber knit. The best part? It’s machine washable!

Hiverst Hanging Toiletry Bag, Shower Caddy Tote Bag

graduation gifts shower caddy

As you make the trip to your dorm bathroom, you’ll want a convenient and organized way to carry your shampoo, body wash, and other shower accessories with you. We love how this hanging toiletry bag is full size bottle compatible and made with breathable mesh so it dries quickly.

Monogrammed 3-Piece Towel Set

graduation gifts towels

Now is the perfect time to buy fresh new towels for the year ahead. Adding your monogram will ensure your towels don’t mysteriously go missing!

Just for Fun

Healthy Snacks Care Package

graduation gifts healthy snacks

Freshman fall wouldn’t be complete without late-night study sessions. Make sure you’re prepared with healthy snacks to keep you going as you finish up problem sets, write that conclusion, and flip through your flashcards.

The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College

graduation gifts book

College brings with it all kinds of unexpected challenges. This book is a great gift for a recent graduate who wants to prepare in advance for the realities of freshman year.

Jane Austen: The Complete Works

graduation gifts Jane Austen books collection

Show off your love of classic literature with this beautifully-bound complete set of Jane Austen’s novels. These would look great on your bookshelf and are always great to pick up if you need some bedtime reading!

Tervis Individual Tumbler with University Emblem, 16 oz.

graduation gifts Yale tervis tumbler

Represent your new school with the gear to match! We love these durable and practical Tervis tumblers—customized with your school’s logo for game days.

Happy Shopping!

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Top Tips for Selecting High-Impact Extracurricular Activities

Today’s students have to balance many competing obligations. With rigorous course loads, standardized test prep, family obligations, and after-school jobs, they often don’t have much time for extracurricular activities. Yet, as we’ve noted before, extracurricular commitments are a crucial part of the college admissions process. With limited time and energy, students (and their parents) often ask us, “How can I identify high-impact extracurricular options? What activities can I carry out that will make a real difference in the college admissions process?”


The answers to these questions are, of course, different for every student. There are, however, several useful rules of thumb that students can use to determine whether their activities will have a significant impact during the college admissions process. When assessing extracurricular activities, we’d recommend asking yourself the following questions:


Admissions officers see countless students who participate in Key Club, write for their school newspaper, or are members of their school’s Robotics Team. As a result, while these activities can provide helpful evidence of your interests and involvement in your school community, they generally won’t excite admissions officers. 

This isn’t to say that you need to give up these activities, especially if they are important to you! That said, you should ask yourself whether you could explore your interests by taking on more unique activities. Could you launch a service project to address a local issue or support an underserved community? Apply to be a freelance writer for your city’s newspaper? Carry out an independent research project on robotics, with an eye towards publishing your work? Pushing yourself to look beyond school clubs and to be creative with your activities will help you to stand out from the crowd during the admissions process.


As we’ve noted before, admissions officers are looking for evidence of students’ passion for particular academic subjects. By developing an especially strong extracurricular background in one or two disciplines, students can provide evidence of their love of learning and give admissions officers a sense of their possible college majors.

For this reason, we recommend that students pursue activities that align with their passions. Do you like creative writing? If so, why not attend writing-focused summer programs, edit your school’s literary magazine, and submit your own pieces for publication and awards? Or perhaps you prefer international relations. If so, Model UN, an internship at an embassy, and a published research project on the dynamics of an international crisis would provide great support for your stated interests during the admissions process.

extracurricular activity quality


The most impressive activities are often highly competitive. After all, everybody wants to take part in them! Participating in selective extracurricular activities — whether that’s competing on a national academic team or obtaining a high-level research position — allows you to impress admissions officers with your commitment to a particular subject and makes it easy for admissions officers to identify you as a top student in that field. Keep in mind: while all selective activities can be helpful, there’s a big difference between activities that are selective within your school and activities that are selective at the state or national level. From an admissions perspective, the larger the applicant pool, the more impressive your involvement.


Awards and publications can also help to differentiate you from the many other students interested in a particular area. When faced with numerous college applications from students interested in biology, for example, admissions officers are likely to prioritize students who have won science fairs and published articles in peer-reviewed science journals over students who have simply enjoyed their biology classes. As with selectivity, admissions officers distinguish between small-scale awards (winning school essay contests, publishing on a blog) and high-level awards (winning national competitions, publishing original research in peer-reviewed journals). 


Admissions officers want to put together a class of engaged and inspiring students who are likely to do great things. To this end, they often look for students who are natural leaders, actively pursuing subjects that are important to them and encouraging others to join them. Students applying to college can demonstrate their leadership potential by serving as president of their class, school clubs, or local organizations. They can also launch initiatives that are important to them, founding clubs and service groups or developing free workshops for underprivileged students. In addition, students can demonstrate leadership by carving out space for themselves in local or national organizations, serving as teen liaison to the town council or spearheading a movement to get young people involved in a political group.


While it’s wonderful to help people in need around the world, admissions officers pay particular attention to students who work to improve their local communities. After all, college campuses are communities in and of themselves, and admissions officers want to enroll students who will make their campuses more supportive, inclusive, and productive. 

With this in mind, we encourage students to look for opportunities to help out the people around them. Is your community facing a significant environmental threat? Are you living in a food desert? Are families in lower socio-economic brackets going without important resources? Once you’ve noticed an issue, come up with some ways that you might help to improve it and put them into action. If you can substantively better your surroundings, admissions officers will take note.


As we’ve discussed before, recruited applicants have a significant advantage when it comes to admissions. Because they have a talent that the school needs, they are given priority during the admissions process and are sometimes admitted despite lower grades and test scores. As a result, pursuing activities that can lead to recruitment (such as athletics, debate, etc.) can be very rewarding.

It’s worth noting that, in order to reach the level of official recruitment (especially for athletes), students have to devote significant time to that activity, often participating in multiple leagues and attending tournaments and camps. This extensive commitment to one activity can certainly pay off, but it can also lead to lopsided extracurricular records that disadvantage students who are not ultimately recruited.


In providing this list, we hope to give students some general guidelines to use when navigating the extracurricular landscape. We’re not encouraging students to give up activities that they enjoy, but we hope that asking these questions will lead students to enhance and supplement their profiles in productive ways. As for students who would like personalized guidance on developing a strong extracurricular background: we’re here to help!

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The Legacy and Wealth “Hook” at Elite Colleges

We are often asked if being a legacy applicant is a benefit in admissions. “If my mom went to College X does it increase my odds of being admitted?” Typically, your parent having gone to the college to which you are applying will carry weight, but check with each school. Some schools such as MIT clearly state that they do not factor in legacy status or alumni relations when reviewing candidates for admissions. That said, there is a section on the Common Application that asks where your parents and siblings attended (or attend) college/university and for the majority of colleges and universities, it is a big plus.


Some colleges state they only “count” legacy for early applicants, yet, of course they are reading the information about parents’ schools in the Common App education section, and that is a factor in some way. We’ve had past students ask us if their godmother, uncle, cousin, grandfather or sibling will “count” in legacy admissions, and the answer is most often no.  At many schools it’s usually parents only, sometimes grandparents, but be sure to check with each school’s admissions office for specifics.

As the Atlantic recently reported, “Applying to college as a legacy is like having a superpower. It has been estimated to double or quadruple one’s chances of getting into a highly selective school, and has been found to be roughly equivalent to a 160-point boost on the SAT. At the most selective institutions in the United States, it’s typical for 10 to 15 percent of students to have a parent who also attended.”

Columbia University notes the following on their website: When an applicant is extremely competitive and compares favorably with other similarly talented candidates, being the daughter or son of a Columbia University graduate (from any Columbia school or college) may be a slight advantage in the admission process. This advantage may especially apply for “legacy” candidates. Please note: applicants are considered to be “legacies” of Columbia only if they are the children of Columbia College or Columbia Engineering graduates.

So, that last line is especially important as having a parent who attended any Columbia school is a “slight advantage” but to be an official “legacy applicant,” the applicant must be a child of a parent who graduated from Columbia College or Columbia Engineering. And, we would argue that the legacy “boost” is most valuable when used in the early round, so that would be early decision for Columbia. This is different from Harvard where legacy admission comes into play only for children of Harvard College alumni, not the 11 other Harvard schools.

Legacy admissions becomes complex when the notion of a dramatic boost in admit stats enters the picture. As has been reported in The Guardian, the Boston Globe, and in recent Harvard University court documentslegacy acceptance rates tip the scales at an alarming rate.

  • Naviance data across 64 U.S. colleges and universities shows that on average the admissions rate for legacies is 31 percent higher than for non-legacies. Note:

Class of 2022 Overall Acceptance Rates vs. Legacy Acceptance Rates

University Overall Acceptance Rate Legacy Acceptance Rate                (rough estimate)
Harvard 4.49% 33%
Princeton 5.49% 11%
Georgetown 14.5% 44%
Notre Dame 17.7% 35%

A further breakdown of Harvard admit data reveals more:

Harvard Legacy Data Separated Out By Race

Of the white applicants accepted to Harvard            21.5% were legacies

Of the Asian applicants…                                               6.6% were legacies

Of the African Americans applicants…                       4.8% were legacies

If you’ve been following the Harvard admissions trial, then you know the trial is working to determine and assess some high stakes issues relating to race and admissions “hooks.” Note:

White Harvard Applicants and their Massive Hook-Boost

  • Over the past 6 years, Harvard admitted ~2,680 white students who had an athlete, donor, legacy, or staff/faculty son or daughter hook.
    • Those 2,680 admits represent more than ALL Asian admits (2,460) during the same 6 years;
    • And just slightly less than ALL of the African American and Latino/a admits (2,693) COMBINED.

The bottom line is that 42 percent of private institutions and 6 percent of public institutions consider legacy status as a factor in admissions, according to a 2018 survey of admissions directors by Inside Higher Ed.

As Inside Higher Ed also recently reported, with supporting data from Opportunity Insights and Dr. Raj Chetty’s research, at Brown, 70 percent of students come from the top 20 percent of family income in the U.S. and Brown alumni children (legacy admits) make up 10 to 12 percent of the recent classes admitted.


The above highlights the extent to which legacy and race in college admissions can bump a student into or out of the Ivy League pool. Is it becoming a question of “Who’s swimming?”

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Athletic Recruiting: The Scandal and the Reality

Athletic recruiting in lower-profile sports programs was at the center of the recent admissions scandal, along with special accommodations and cheating on college admissions testing.  Former Georgetown tennis coach George Ernst allegedly accepted bribes to help 12 students earn admission as tennis recruits over the course of 6 years. Rudy Meredith, Yale’s former women’s soccer coach, allegedly accepted a six-figure bribe to list an applicant as a recruit. Stanford’s now former sailing coach John Vandemoer pleaded guilty to racketeering and conspiracy for falsely designating applicants to Stanford as sailing recruits. A volleyball coach at Wake Forest, a tennis coach at UT Austin, plus a handful of USC coaches—water polo, soccer, and crew— and an athletic administrator were all charged with federal crimes.

What we know is that the individuals perpetrating these crimes went to great lengths to falsify students’ athletic accomplishments. But how did these falsified athletic (and academic) records make it through the admissions process, especially at these schools with holistic review processes for athletic recruits?


Coaches are vested with the responsibility of developing a list of prospective students who meet both the college’s admissions requirements (usually based on grades and test scores) and demonstrate the athletic abilities and potential that coaches seek for their teams. The recruitment process—heavily regulated by the NCAA and within leagues like the Ivy League that typically have more stringent processes—coaches review student credentials, watch students play at tournaments or online, offer on-campus summer camps where talent and potential are assessed, and invite students for “official” visits. Typically for a sport like crew the coach might have 6-8 spots to fill with his/her recruited picks. A tennis coach might have 3-6 spots to fill.

No coach is an island. Even the smallest teams typically have an assistant coach or two (sometimes unpaid) and athletic departments include staff charged specifically with NCAA and institutional compliance. Despite their status as “lower profile,” all coaches and all teams are accountable to the university’s athletic director and a great deal of vetting should occur before a coach asks the admissions office for an early review of a prospective student athlete.

Once the coach receives a ‘green light’ to recruit a student athlete (timing varies from school to school, across athletic leagues), the coach then shares that feedback with the student athlete and encourages him/her to submit a complete application to the admissions office. Among Ivy institutions, this early review process begins July 1 in the summer before senior year. Beginning October 1, Ivy schools may issue “likely” letters to recruited athletes—after a complete review of the student’s academic and athletic credentials.

athletic recruiting college admissions scandal

It’s at that point that this story becomes a head scratcher. The FBI has outlined how the perpetrators doctored photographs, cheated on testing, and presumably fabricated essays and lists of activities. But what about letters of recommendation from guidance counselors and teachers? Presumably, their letters on behalf of elite student athletes in their classes would highlight these students’ exceptional accomplishments in the athletic arena. Admissions officers at schools that practice holistic admissions emphasize a close review, looking for themes and patterns, reading recommendations and essays, not just admitting based on scores and grades. Knowing what we know now, it’s hard to imagine that the students admitted under fraudulent circumstances had recommendations that lauded their exceptional athletic abilities. Did admissions staff read the letters of recommendations for these recruited athletes or simply trust that the coaches had done their due diligence?

No doubt college staff in admissions and athletics departments are wrestling with these very questions. Although it seems unlikely that universities will disband teams and no longer offer coveted seats in the class to talented athletes who meet the school’s academic benchmarks, a tightening of controls, greater levels of scrutiny, and other measures will be put into place to guard against this kind of “side door” process.

The larger question of the role that athletic talent should play in the college admissions process is a more complex one but will no doubt be a topic of conversation as the marquee NCAA basketball tournament gets underway this month.

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Is the SAT/ACT Essay Still Needed?

In 2005, the College Board debuted the “new” SAT, which included a new and mandatory essay. The impetus for the change was both a desire to prioritize the importance of good writing but also in response to pressure from the University of California. The large UC system, enrolling over 200,000 students, said that fewer freshmen were prepared for the rigors of college writing, and threatened to drop the SAT altogether unless a writing section was added. Not to be left behind, the ACT also added an optional writing section in 2005.

No one disputes the importance of writing, but nearly 15 years later, are these writing assessments relevant? Do they provide admissions committees helpful information to assess a student’s writing ability?


Let’s start with a look at the current admissions requirements of schools atop US News and World Report’s top national universities and liberal arts colleges to see what they say about this assessment:

National University

Essay Liberal Arts College



not required Air Force Academy

not specified

Cal Tech

not required Amherst recommended

Carnegie Mellon

not required Barnard

not required

Columbia not required Bates

not required


not required Bowdoin

not required


not required Bryn Mawr

not required


optional Carleton

not required


not required Claremont McKenna

not required


not required Colby optional


not required Colgate

not required

Johns Hopkins

not required Davidson

not required


not required Grinnell

not required


not required Hamilton

not required


not required Harvey Mudd

not required

Notre Dame

not required Haverford

not required


not required Middlebury

not required


optional Naval Academy

not specified


not required Pomona

not required


not required Smith

not required

U Chicago

not required Soka University


U Penn

not required Swarthmore

not required

UC Berkeley

required U Richmond

not required


required Vassar

not required


not required Washington and Lee

not required


not required Wellesley

not required


not required Wesleyan

not required

Wash U

not required West Point



not required Williams

not required

NOTE: This list is subject to change. Be sure to confirm with each school prior to applying.

Only two top national universities – UC Berkeley and UCLA (as well as the rest of the UC system) clearly state on their websites that the essay portion of these exams is required.  Of the top national colleges, only two require it—Soka University of America, and West Point—and one (Amherst) recommends it.


Does this mean that admissions committees no longer value writing? Absolutely not. They will review grades in rigorous and honors level English courses, your essays and supplements, other standardized testing (especially AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition), recommendations, and increasingly, graded English or history papers.  Yes, many schools, Princeton for example, are finding that the graded papers required by all applicants are helpful in evaluating for admissions.

So, don’t stress out about the essay portion of your SAT or ACT, unless you are targeting any of the schools mentioned above, but do focus on improving your writing abilities through rigorous coursework and reading great literature (fiction, non-fiction, classic, and contemporary) and challenging periodicals. Beyond just getting into college, improving your writing skills will be key to your lifelong success.