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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCSB chapter.

Spring Quarter at UCSB: the time for sunny beach days, academic burnout, annual last-hurrahs, and–most importantly: fraternity formals. There is, essentially, a pyramid hierarchy of fraternity events: at the base of the pyramid is your weekly parties, one step above you have fall and winter date parties, and finally at the top is the spring quarter fraternity formal. Spring formals aren’t your typical “bus to the local bar for the night” date parties. They are, essentially, an odyssey to uncharted areas of Nevada or the more well-known Palm Springs, where fraternity boys and their accompanying dates spend their extended weekend making…well, memories.

As a Sigma Pi’s date to Vegas, you can expect to spend your days by the pool and your nights in hotel suites or casinos. Or, as an Alpha Tau Omega’s date to Laughlin, you can look forward to afternoons on the lake and nights at the local karaoke bar. Regardless of the formal, these memories don’t come cheap. Sure, the guys are traditionally responsible for paying the steep fee of their date’s ticket–chivalry really isn’t dead, but it’s the dates who put their blood, sweat, and tears into the most important aspect of the entire trip: the fraternity cooler. If you’re gearing up for a weekend fraternity formal, grab a triple shot of espresso, pull up those Bob Ross videos, and get ready to spend every free hour perfecting your craft. 

Though its origins are unknown, cooler-painting is a nation-wide ritual and a time-honored Greek-life tradition. Invitation to a UCSB fraternity formal is, implicitly, accompanied by the expectation that a cooler be painted and stocked as an expression of gratitude for the upcoming trip.

Whether you’re artistic or not, most girls see the cooler as a fair trade for a cost-covered chaos-complete weekend. Does this mean you have to paint your date a cooler? Of course not, do what feels right for you. But I will say, amidst the back pain and shaky hands, the process can be really fun. Plus, the cooler is arguably the most priceless piece of artwork the fraternity guy will own, so you’re basically painting the Mona Lisa to his Musee du Louvre. If you really get into it, you’ll be surprised at what you can pull off. 

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Photo taken from Pinterest @saramcclure 

Let’s get into the process of what my roommate — a retired cooler painter of the ‘23 formal season — likes to call “arts and crafts for twenty-something-year-old boys.” Timeline wise, you’ll love yourself for starting sooner rather than later. Theoretically, you can bang out a cooler in one day — the aforementioned roommate awoke with the sun to sand, prime, paint, and seal her cooler in one long day and one even longer night. It’s certainly doable, but she’d definitely back me up in advising against this approach. Instead, I’d say give yourself a generous couple of days. It should be a marathon, not a sprint. After all, the most personalized coolers require the utmost creativity and attention to detail. 

Before you even think about painting, let’s get one thing straight: prep work is key. You’ll need to sand and prime your cooler. While coolers ordered on Amazon or bought at your local Target are the most cost-efficient, they don’t come sanded. For those of you trying to avoid spending more on the cooler than the actual formal ticket itself, it’s time to buy a sanding block, blast music, and release any pent-up aggression on your cooler’s lid.

Ten minutes and two sore triceps later, the top should be smooth enough to prime. When choosing a prime, opt for a white spray-on prime for easy application and an even base-coat. You’ll need to allow your cooler to air out for twenty-four hours, give or take, before you let your creativity unleash. Once it’s dry to the touch, it’s time to paint. If the sand-prime process doesn’t appeal to you, there’s always COOLERSbyU, a company specializing in ready-to-paint coolers.

I’m not going to tell you what to paint and what not to paint, and neither will your date. That being said, I’ll give you an idea of what a typical cooler includes. More often than not, you’ll see the fraternity’s letters/colors on at least one side of the cooler. You can’t go wrong throwing either the name of your date or the fraternity into your designs. You could, for instance, paint the California license plate, replacing the random letters/numbers with “[fraternity]-93117” to make the design more special.

Another safe bet is to include your date’s alcohol of choice, customizing the brand’s logo with his name. Speaking of your date, the cooler is your gift to him: if you know him well, by all means personalize it to his taste, hobbies, etc. He’s outdoorsy? Paint a mountain landscape background. He has a favorite album? Paint the cover! If you have the time and dedication to get intricate, by all means. If you don’t, then don’t.

There’s no need to compare your cooler to others’. Your friend might be painting a cooler for her boyfriend of two-years. You might’ve just met your date last Thursday night. Don’t know his alcohol preferences? I’m willing to bet he’s not picky — pick one and paint it! Pinterest and TikTok are solid starting points for inspiration. So grab your pencils, acrylic paints, paint brushes, a beverage, your friends, and get after it.

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Photo taken from pinterest

This probably sounds like more of a chore than anything, but my friends and I found it fun–at least, up until three sides in. We spent three nights painting coolers to Stevie Nicks, laughing at who knows what in the midst of fatigue-induced delusion and snacking on leftovers to power us through. If you know other people going, make a night out of it. It’s like sip and paint, but prolonged… and, admittedly, stressful at times. But hey, it’s a bonding experience — and it’s really not that deep. I promise you won’t win “worst date of the year” if your paint has smudges or your lines aren’t crisp. Honestly, even if your cooler is a masterpiece, it’s the inside that counts–the guys are just wholesome like that. 

When all is said and done, remember to seal your cooler. You wouldn’t want all that work to go to waste when your cooler–exposed in the open back of your date’s truck–weathers torrential downpour on the drive over (true story.) Plus, you might be able to touch up your cooler and reuse it the next year if you’re going steady with the same date.

Is it quick? No. Is it easy? No. Is it worth it? The cooler is your ticket to the formal, so if a three day everything under-the-sun excursion with fraternity guys, close friends, and potential new friends sounds appealing, then the answer is yes. Ultimately, cooler-painting is an experience to add to the books, a way to get excited about the trip, and a thank you to your date for inviting you. 

And hey…if all else fails, you could always buy a pre-painted cooler on Etsy.  

Hi, I'm Syd! I’m a Comm major at UCSB focused on digital marketing with a minor in Professional Writing. I started as a PR intern, then moved on to editorial, and now I'm excited to take on the role of Social Media Director! I hope you enjoy our content :)