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College Admissions & Baking Bread

What could bread baking and college admissions possibly have in common? More than you may think! The more perfect analogy would specifically use challah bread, which consists of eight strands of raw ingredients yielding a dough that combines to make an intricate and distinctive pattern making each loaf unique, but equally tasty.

Like many other people during this time of COVID19 and sheltering in place, I was less engaged with people. This extreme extrovert and “getting it done” person didn’t want to let my brain wither on the vine, so I decided to learn new skills. I revised my website, started a blog (you see?), and learned some gardening techniques.

Since these times are stressful, I used my go-to relaxation technique and continued baking many, many desserts! Many friends, neighbors and my huge freezer benefited. But, again, after searching for and then mastering my new favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe and reviving an old-time favorite coffee cake, I wanted to learn something new.

I had never tried baking bread. It seemed daunting to work with yeast, which came out of its dormant state and began fermenting with warm water and a food source. I thought there was some art in bread baking that I didn’t possess. Also, it took a lot of time, which I usually didn’t have. But, voilà, the pandemic hit, and I had much more time on my hands since I’m not traveling for business or pleasure. There seemed to be hours upon hours that would allow for plenty of baking mistakes (more kindly put as learning experiences). What else is this typically busy person and 40 year baker to do? Dare I try bread baking? Why not?

One of my favorite breads is challah, but only a very particular style; the one most similar to the New York style that I grew up with. I searched reviews and then recipes whose ingredients seemed close to what would yield my esteemed challah. I thought I found the perfect ingredients for the taste I was looking for, but now it came down to the packaging/making it stick together and making for the best presentation. I had to learn how to braid the challah. As long as I was learning, I wanted to challenge myself to the bigger eight braided strand, which I remembered from my childhood.

I made recipes with some pretty sad looking braids. Some did not have the right taste or texture. So, “if at first you don’t succeed…” I tried and tried, again. FINALLY! I found the taste I was looking for and the number of risings necessary to get the reminiscent texture. But, my final product was still looking pretty shabby. The ingredients produced the perfect bread, but my intertwining of the strands had something to be desired. I read about how to braid, but I am more of a visual learner, so I went to YouTube.

Eureka! I found a woman not only demonstrating the technique, but explaining the logic behind it! I need both. For a while, I practiced while I played her video on my computer as it sat on my kitchen countertop. After about ten challahs, as Henry Higgins tells Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, “By George, I think she’s got it!”

Since my work as an independent college counselor is “braided” into my psyche, after weeks of baking challah, it came to me.

Just as Forrest Gump thought that “life was like a box of chocolates,” college admissions was like a braided challah.

Challah and college admissions have many raw ingredients, but it takes a full bake and an intricate interrelated weaving of the parts to turn them into the best product. The ingredients in bread are simple: eggs, flour, oil, salt, sugar and yeast. Not so in the college application process, which includes determining which schools will be best for you, your GPA, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, teacher recommendations, experiences and a personal narrative essay.

Both the challah and college application process take multiple strands to make them complete and each is different. Every strand contributes to the construction of the product, whose pattern creates the beauty of the whole. My challenge to all proceeding through the college admissions process: show all strands of you, “risen and fully baked!”


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