MAY 2017
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Using Your High School Summers Wisely

By William

Another school year is reaching an intense climax with a battery of AP assessments, final exams and high-stakes standardized tests. Hard-working high school students can be forgiven for looking to the summer as a chance to unwind. Beach trips and lazy afternoons on the couch have their place, but the months away from school still require planning. What you choose to do when nothing is required reveals a great deal about your deepest values.

For students who plan to apply to selective colleges, summers make a difference. Applicants frequently face essay and interview questions that directly address summer activities. A high school summer provides a window into how each student manages unstructured time. It shows how actively students engage with interests of their own choosing. If you learn to show initiative as a teenager, you’re likely to grow into the kind of adult who works to make an impact as well.

When it comes to the interests you pursue, worry less about the specific interest than in the fact that you are pursuing something important to you. Summer is your chance to dive deeply into a passion. You could teach an art class, learn about laboratory research, or lobby your local government on an issue that matters.

One thing you don’t need to do is pin your hopes on attending an expensive summer program at an elite university. A summer at Stanford is not a ticket to four years in Palo Alto. In fact, because summer programs can be found everywhere, attending one may indicate a lack of originality. If you’ve already signed up for a program and it genuinely provides the best way for you to work on your own development, that’s terrific. If you haven’t, consider this an opportunity to find something else to do that will provide even better personal growth.

If you’re finishing your junior year and hoping to get a head start on the admissions season by touring colleges, be smart. You don’t need to visit a school before you apply. If you do go, make sure to explore both the campus and surrounding area. Summer visits are challenging because colleges are usually on break just like high schools, so an authentic look at student life isn’t possible. Keep your eyes open and do your own research beyond what a campus tour guide tells you.

One thing you should absolutely do before you begin senior year is complete your main college essay. Common application prompts for 2017-2018 have already been released, although the full application won’t post until August. The stress you’re facing in the spring of your junior year is going to be even more intense next fall. Students who head back to school with their personal statement complete face a much easier time balancing their college application work with their fall course load.

Balance does matter. Yes, you should find a way to pursue your passions more deeply, but don’t forget the value of rest and relaxation. We all need vacations, and families get limited time together. Going somewhere interesting and learning about a different part of the world (even if you only travel a few hours from home) shows curiosity just as much as spending your day in a lab coat.

Whether you’re just completing your freshman year or bracing to become a senior, take time this summer to focus on the activities that matter to you. Worry less about some future admissions officer and more about making yourself into the person you want to become. Choose to engage, and rewards are certain to follow.

William Watson-Canning is Executive Vice President of Selective College Consulting and can be reached at (813) 210-9614, e-mail or visit 


The Elements of Celebration

By Anu Varma Panchal

This is how Malayalee Hindus celebrate Vishu, our New Year, which usually falls on April 14. The night before, the family matriarch sets up a “kani,” a beautiful arrangement of lamps, rice, gold, silver, vegetables and fruits, yellow flowers, white-and-gold cloth, a picture of Lord Krishna and a mirror. Before dawn, she wakes up everyone one by one, covers their eyes and walks them to the puja room so that the first thing they see when they open their eyes on the new year is this auspicious display. Then there are fireworks, visits, gifts and a big feast served on banana leaves.

As a kid, I’ve always felt the solemnity and awe of the moment when my mother shook me awake and guided me through the darkness to see this light. Now as a parent, I go all out with Vishu and all my holidays, from Halloween and a secular tree-and-Santa Christmas to all the Hindu ones. With my husband and I hailing from different communities, we have almost double the number of special occasions that I feel compelled to make my children experience, half of which I’m googling and phone-consulting my way through. Especially because I have no family in town, I feel the pressure to do everything “the right way” so my children can experience the real deal as closely as possible. But celebrating in a bubble without older people in the house can be hard. I don’t always do things right. Substitutions occur. Mistakes happen. I lose momentum in the hubbub and routine of a regular work/school day, an anticlimax exacerbated by the weird disconnect caused by going through your ordinary day here physically while mentally engaged with “real” celebrations that are happening back home through family WhatsApp and phone calls.

Decorations, clothing, menu, rituals — there’s no end in sight to the trouble you can take to put on a holiday. Is it worth the hassle of creating an approximation of the real thing? Is there is even a “real thing” to speak of? Anytime we enact a set of holiday rituals, we’re trying to replicate something we experienced years, sometimes decades, ago, and now view though the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. Just as my parents’ stories of celebrations from their childhood differ from mine, so too will mine from my children’s. More than an adherence to ritual and custom, what I’m really trying to do when we make a rangoli for Diwali or go to the fairgrounds to fly kites or play holi is place my children on a continuum of tradition, but perhaps what’s even more important than the tradition is who’s standing with you there.

This year, Easter and a long weekend coincided with Vishu. My parents, who had been visiting me, flew to Toronto to be with my uncles and aunts there. On a whim we joined them, and so did my sister and brother-in-law. After eons, we were all together for Vishu. We saw our kani, dressed in our ivory and gold Kerala clothes and devoured our feast (which my aunt had taken a good week to prepare on her evenings after work). Rather than visit relatives in the heat of an Indian April, we took a long walk on the shore of Lake Ontario in the raw spring chill. Serendipitously, neighborhood kids were setting off fireworks in the dusk as we arrived home.

But what really nailed the holiday feeling for me was none of the ceremonial stuff. It was the night before. We had eaten and drunk and talked for hours before wandering off to assigned spots to sleep. The house burst at the seams with people, and I dozed with my daughter on a mattress in the basement amidst a chorus of snores and creaks. Just as I was nodding off, I heard the fridge open; it was my aunt, rummaging through the shelves for something to keep out for tomorrow. Soon, I heard murmuring. My mother had joined her, and then my other aunt. It was almost 2 a.m. and the three of them chatted desultorily upstairs about the mundane details of preparing for the next day, none of which were my problem anymore. I let go of being the grownup, and snuggled deeper under the covers with the sound of their talk weaving above me. Ceremony is secondary to that ephemeral sense of delight in togetherness that underlies any holiday done right. Just for that night, I got to be the kid falling asleep in the cozy knowledge that upstairs, the grownups were creating holiday magic for me — and that a large part of that magic was simply their presence.

Anu Varma Panchal is a mother of two and owner of

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