What to get students who are heading soon to college and in the difficult process of trying to get there? Here’s an unusual gift guide from college admissions counselors, collected by Brennan Barnard, director of college counseling at the private Derryfield School in Manchester, N.H.

By Brennan Barnard

 My heart sank as I saw her making her way across the crowded room of extended family. She had zeroed in on her target — me. Moments later, I was smothered in a full body embrace that left traces of my great aunt’s overwhelming perfume on my stiff, collared shirt for the remainder of the evening. Her interrogation began:

“How is the fourth grade?”
“Do you like your teacher?”
“What are you learning?”
“Are you still playing soccer?”

She peppered me with questions and I humored her with brief responses, my brother and cousin taunting me from across the room. With a pat on my head, she went off in search of her next prey, and another holiday tradition was endured.

Though such interactions evolve as we age, many of us know the painful experience of holiday small talk. Quite possibly the most difficult period for these exchanges is during the college search and application process. High school juniors and seniors learn to dread family and neighborhood gatherings where conversation will inevitably turn to college admission.

“So, where are you looking?”
“How are your test scores?”
“Want to hear what school would be great for you?”
“Have you heard a decision from your early application?”
“Guess where my son was admitted.”

In the spirit of the holiday season, if you want to share the greatest gift of all (apart from maybe a school building donated in the student’s name), give the gift of silence. When you gather for the holidays, give applicants a pass on college admission talk. If he or she wants to discuss the college search, it will come up. If not, mum’s the word! As my co-counselor, Bruce Berk, suggests, “Before you ask kids about their SAT scores, consider how you would like it if they asked about your weight or your salary.”

Are you looking for other gift ideas for your college applicant? Here is a list from college admission deans and high school counselors to solve your shopping woes:

  • Front Row Seats: “Tickets to an event (sports, art, music) with your child.  It should be an event your child likes (i.e.  not Beethoven’s 5th if your child isn’t into your local orchestra) and will look forward to.  During the event, you will not talk about college or the college process.  You will either talk about something else or not at all.  You will simply enjoy the gift of time with your child, remembering that soon enough, there will be a time when he/she will be living somewhere else.   Nobody looks back fondly on that time when they talked incessantly about college during a basketball game or dinner out with their child.  Everyone remembers an event where everyone had fun together.  It will help to create a positive tone going forward in the process.  Knowing that you enjoy spending time with your child is really important to them—even if they don’t ever tell you that.  They tell us about their favorite moments with you all the time in our offices.  Making memories is always worth the time.”—Renee Wruck Bischoff, Director of College Counseling, Hawken School, OH
  • Sleep: Give the gift of rest. It has been a busy fall for students engaged in the college search, visiting schools, working on essays and supplements late at night and coping with general stress around the admission process. “Let your child be lazy, sleep in and take a pass on some gatherings. If you are looking for something you can wrap, consider a mattress pad. Sleep is key and will be difficult on the mattress that college’s provide.”—Katie Phung, Admissions Counselor, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, MA
  • Control: “Everyone wants to be in control, yet candidates do not possess this authority when it comes to the outcomes of their applications. It is the Year of the Drone, which can be both a distraction and an object on which to project one’s manipulative tendencies.”–Director of Admissions, Large Northeast University
  • Time: While the gift of time is not always possible, a meaningful holiday gift is a wristwatch.  “Not only is this an attractive fashion accessory, but this is a subtle reminder about time and deadlines.  While high school teachers may have been lenient about deadlines and extensions, it is important to remember that the college process deadlines are serious. Taking the time they need to plan and write compelling and meaningful essays and applications in order to submit them by the deadlines is critical in making sure the student is presenting the best candidacy for admission.”—Barbara Tragakis Conner, Director of College Counseling, Foxcroft School, VA
  • Awareness: “Coloring is the new meditation! ‘The Mindfulness Coloring Book’ by Emma Farrarons is a book of intricate design to color. It is easy to get lost in these beautiful images and is just what the doctor ordered when waiting for decisions or just trying to get away from all of the college chatter for awhile!”—Catherine Dear Ganung, Associate Director College Counseling, The Taft School, CT
  • Picture This:Frame a Photo. Life moves so fast. Stop and capture an image from daily life – students, take a picture of your favorite spot to sit at school with your friends right there. As you find a new place to sit next year, it will be helpful to remember that you will find your way. You always have. And, a student can get their parent one. We always hear from parents/guardians, ‘They are never home,’ and soon, they won’t be. Give your parents/guardians/mentors a picture of something you have most appreciated about them and about the home they have provided you.”—Courtney M. Skerritt, Associate Director of College Counseling, The Hockaday School, TX
  • Organization: ” One thing I would suggest is a My Cloud. It’s a personal storage device that provides a way to store photos, docs, everything that’s on your computer. It plugs into your router and per the website, ‘you can wirelessly back up and centralize all your content in one place, and access it from any device, anywhere you have an internet connection.’ It seems a little more secure than storing everything on the iCloud or Verizon cloud. Also it sounds like a handy thing for a college student or a junior/senior.”—Rhody Davis, Director of College Counseling, Viewpoint School, CA
  • Detachment: The perfect book for the parent on your list is, “Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years” by Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger. “It’s the book that the University of Miami sent my dad in the summer before I enrolled, and I didn’t even know he read the book until my Junior year in college. I was a first-generation college student, and my dad isn’t a voracious-reader type, so I was surprised on a couple of levels that he found this book helpful. It’s a shame he didn’t share it with my Mom – she had issues with letting go (that’s for another holiday story).”—Nikki Chun, Senior Associate Director of Admissions, Caltech, CA
  • The Real Story: If you are looking for the perfect book for a high school senior, “The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College. “This gift provides college-bound students tips on what to expect when they go to college next fall. It also answers questions that high school seniors may not have thought to ask about college life.”—Roland M. Allen, Director of College Counseling, St. Margaret’s Episcopal School, CA
  • Gear: Resist the urge to go on a spending spree in a specific college’s bookstore. Even if the college is the student’s first choice, wait until the decision is made by both the college and the student. The student could be denied admission and suddenly the school’s sweatshirt is a harsh reminder. Hold off on gifting a bumper sticker or college mug until the student has enrolled at the school, as teenagers have been known to change their minds.—Director of Admission, Ivy League Institution
  • If You Cannot Resist: “The infamous, ever-ironic, always nostalgia-inducing “COLLEGE” sweatshirt worn by John Belushi in ‘Animal House.’ Because it’s not where you go, it’s what you make of it.” (Hopefully more than Belushi’s character Bluto did in the film!)—High School Counselor
  • Send a Message: For the college applicant tired of talking, consider the “Don’t Ask Me About College”  T-shirt. —Karen Crowley, Director of College Counseling, Portledge School, NY
  • Relax: “A gift certificate for a massage for the seniors, which they will need after all the stress and time spent hunched over the computer keyboard filling out applications.”—Moira McKinnon, Director of College Counseling, Berwick Academy, ME
  • Shake it Up: “A Magic 8 ball. Mine gets a lot of action this time of year and leading up to April 1st.” –Sheila Reilly, Director of College Counseling, The Madeira School, VA
  • Now Boarding: “TSA Pre-Check. If you flew/are flying to college tours, chances are you’re flying to attend college, and coming home during the busy holiday lines at the airport.  Make life easier for your soon to be frequent flyer.  Get it before spring preview days if you have to fly to those. This gift is easily paired with a wrapped neck pillow and extended cell phone battery charger.”—JJ Anthony, College Counselor, Ensworth School, TN
  • You Are Here: “If a student has chosen a college, a travel guidebook for the city/state they will be moving to so they can get excited about their new ‘home.’”—Elizabeth J. Cheron , Director, Office of Undergraduate Admissions, Northeastern University, MA
  • Sustenance: “High school seniors may want to ask Santa for a sampler pack of ramen soup in their stocking. Determining which flavor is their favorite (chicken, beef, shrimp) will be powerful information when they call home in September asking for a care package and some money. After all, isn’t living on ramen a right of passage in college?”—Caitlin Rogers Connelly, Associate Director of Admissions, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, NY
  • Well Equipped: “Every student about to embark on the college experience needs a tool kit. Whether building bunk beds in their dorm room or helping the cute co-ed down the hall hang Christmas lights, good old hammer and nails will come in handy.”—Scott Herrmann-Keeling, College Counselor, MICDS, MO
  • Wet but Wicked Smart:” Tilco makes shower curtains to review French, Spanish, math, SAT, etc.!”—Nancy Keller-Coffey, Director of College Counseling, Millbrook School, NY
  • It’s All About Balance: “Lately the seniors at our school have taken to playing Jenga in the senior hang-out. With the tag line, “How do you stack up?” this makes the perfect gift for your college applicant. This Zen-like game not only holds important lessons about balance and failure, but also reminds us to live in the moment. When things seem to come crashing down, we can always rebuild and start over. It is also a fun game for some quality family holiday time.” —Brennan Barnard, Director of College Counseling, The Derryfield School, NH