Major/Minor's blog on the latest in college admissions and academic success. 
Start planning your summer college visits now

By Katie Lawrence, ESM Senior College Coach

With spring break now behind us, summer is right around the corner and now is the time to start planning those college visits. This is a great opportunity to visit colleges, whether you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, or even younger! It’s never too early to start learning about different colleges and seeing where might be a good place for you to spend four years. Here’s my four tips for campus visits:

1) Take LOTS of notes - Keep one notebook for all college “stuff” or one note on your phone for writing notes when you’re visiting. Write down what you like and don’t like about the school. Also, write down things that stand out to you, such as any conversations with students or your tour guides about what they like doing on campus, why they like attending the school, why they chose to attend there, etc. When you’re walking around campus, ask current students for directions to the admissions office, a class, the student center, where you can get a snack, etc …and when they hopefully say yes, ask them what they think about their experience as students. This not only helps you get great information/a real perspective from students on what it’s like to attend the school, but it also gives you another data point into what students are like at that school! All these notes will not only help you form an opinion on whether or not you like the school, but will also come in very handy when you write the "why do you want to attend this school” essay, which most schools require.

2) Prepare at least 2 questions for each school visit. Go on each school’s website before you visit the school and see what they focus on - is it their arts program? Their student-faculty ratio? What are the current students saying about the school on This will not only help you get more out of each visit, but if you happen to get an admissions officer giving your tour or any time with them, they’ll almost always ask you if you have any questions (and you’ll look awesome, prepared, and interested when you do! There’s always a chance that they could be the one reading your application, and if he/she remembers you positively, that’s HUGE!).

3) Be sure to always check in at the admissions office of each school you visit. This way, if you end up applying to this school, they’ll know that you visited the school - it will help demonstrate that you’re really interested in the school (which is one of the primary admissions criteria). Also, find out who your school’s representative is, as this person will be the first person who reads your application and has a large say if you get in or not.

4) Dress to impress! Dress as if you’re going out to a nice dinner with your family or going on a job interview. This might mean khaki or corduroy pants, a skirt (not super short), a button-down shirt, etc. No ripped jeans or anything you’d wear to the gym.

Try to picture what it would be like if you were a current student there, in each environment. Take notes, reflect, and most of all, enjoy your visits!

This is the Most Important Skill in Improving Your SAT/ACT Score

By Jordan Dodson, ESM Prep

If I could offer only one tip to students who are trying to boost their ACT or SAT scores, it would be this:

Practice becoming an active reader.

A lifetime of reading is crucial to doing well on the ACT and SAT. While there is only one reading section per test, strong reading comprehension skills are important for every section. For the Math and Science sections, students need to read the questions carefully to extract important information and determine what the questions are asking for. For the Writing and Language and English sections, students need to improve sentence structure, catch grammar and punctuation errors, and make sure passages are concise, organized, and on-topic. In general, students need to read efficiently and strategically on every section of the test.

The ACT and SAT are just as much about speed and endurance as they are about testing a student’s knowledge and analytical skills. Students face back-to-back sections that demand their full attention and understanding to answer questions correctly. With each test falling just under the 4 hour mark, many students fall victim to fatigue and lack of interest in the passages and questions they face. They zone out while reading, losing valuable time and missing precious points.

This is where active reading comes into play.

Here are 3 tips to build active reading skills:

1. Annotate. A word loved by English teachers and loathed by students. Time is of the essence on the ACT and SAT, and while it is important to refer to a passage or question when choosing an answer, it is a waste of time to read the same passage or question multiple times. Annotating can help you stay engaged with the content, look back at the text more quickly, and be an active reader.

I remember annotating Crime and Punishment in my AP English Literature class my senior year of high school. The memory is not a fond one. My teacher graded us on the thoroughness of our circling, highlighting, and note-taking in the margins. At the time, I couldn’t imagine why my teacher wanted to torture us with such a time-consuming task. Wasn’t it enough just to read the novel and discuss it in class? However, a year later as a freshman at UC Davis, I found myself retracting my previous distaste for annotating. Suddenly, the clouds parted and I discovered how important it was to mark up the text. As I poured through scientific journals for my animal science class and wrote my own research paper, I realized how quickly I could find information if I circled and highlighted it in the text. I could easily use the notes I took to support my research, and I paid more attention to what I was reading. Annotating soon became a habit that I still value today.

Fortunately, your annotations on the ACT and SAT do not need to be as thorough as those expected by your English teacher, nor should they be. Circle proper nouns in passages and keywords in questions. Put a star next to an important statement or main idea. Use plus or minus signs to track shifts in tone. Summarize a paragraph in one word and jot it in the margin. Essentially, you are creating a map of the passage that you can reference later. I do suggest you avoid underlining, as many students tend to underline too many sentences and details; again, you want to keep it short and simple.

2. Look up definitions of unfamiliar words. I find myself doing this all the time, whether I’m reading a novel or an article online. When I see an unfamiliar word, I first consider the context and make an educated guess as to its connotation and meaning. Do I think the word has a positive, negative, or neutral connotation? What is another word I can use in its place? Then, I use a dictionary (or let’s be honest, Google) to look up the definition. While there is no longer a vocabulary section on the SAT, I have noticed that questions in the Writing and Language and Reading sections often include advanced vocabulary words. Additionally, both the ACT and SAT incorporate “vocabulary in context” questions in the reading section. Naturally, reading more will breed familiarity with how words are used in different situations, making it easier to understand a word’s meaning in an ACT or SAT passage.

3. Focus on main idea and tone. Unfortunately, time is short on the ACT and SAT reading sections (especially on the ACT!). The reading passages are often excerpts from a greater work or brimming with description and detail. You are not always given the complete context, and you do not always have time to read every word.

If you can grasp the main idea and tone of an ACT or SAT reading passage, then you can often narrow down answer choices for many questions. During tutoring sessions, I like to ask students to read a passage in 3-4 minutes and then summarize it for me in 1-2 sentences. While this seems like a simple task, it can be challenging for students to separate the main points from the minute details.

One way to quickly find the main idea of a passage is to read the first and last paragraph. It is also important to understand the purpose of each body paragraph, so pay attention to topic sentences. Additionally, keep an eye out for emotional words that may indicate the tone.

The more you read, the more you will identify structural elements and content within passages. You will also pick up speed while reading and learn how to effectively skim for important information. The good news is that you don’t have to limit yourself to ACT and SAT passages to prepare. Choose to read something that interests you! If you’re into sports, read ESPN articles; if you’re into current events, read New York Times op-ed pieces; if you’re into science, read some recent research journals. Continue reading and annotating fiction and nonfiction novels in school. Remember, the ACT and SAT reading sections will include literary narrative, social science, humanities, and natural science passages taken from research papers, opinion pieces, stories, speeches, and articles. The more you read from a variety of topics and sources, the better you will do on test day.

5 Ways Juniors Can Start Their College Essays Now

By Lucas McAdams, ESM Senior College Coach

For the majority of my students, the most time- and energy-consuming aspect of college admissions is essay writing. A typical college list (composed of a few “safety”, “target”, and “reach” schools) can easily average more than one essay per school, while a college list consisting of the most prestigious schools can require two or three essays per school. In some cases, this amounts to a total writing load in excess of what students are typically assigned in an entire year of high school.

Of course, the real issues begin when students don’t properly space out this workload, waiting until September or October to get started, expecting that they can finish everything by their deadlines (usually November or January). While they may be able to complete everything in time, essays written under that sort of pressure are rarely exceptional.

In some ways, it makes sense to wait until after Labor Day to start essays. Schools don’t always post their supplemental essay prompts before September 1st, and the last thing a busy student wants is to write an entire essay only to later find that she wrote it on the wrong topic. Still, it’s possible to start the writing process long before fall of the senior year and still remain efficient, because when done properly, this essay writing process involves significant preparation, brainstorming, and planning.

This list does not necessarily need to be followed from #1 to #5; the proper order will differ from student to student. Also, not every student needs to complete each of these tasks. The idea is simply for students to find inspiration and begin to think about how they can tell their most powerful stories.

#1: Read Powerful Personal Writing

One of the most interesting challenges I’ve encountered when coaching students through their college essay writing process is the fact that students are rarely assigned autobiographical writing assignments in high school. Instead of being asked to reflect on their own experiences and beliefs, they are typically tasked with writing analytical essays, book reports, or research papers. This means that unless a student has kept a diary or journal on their own, they often don’t have much experience with the personal reflection that college essays require.

An offshoot of this dynamic is that students often have little idea just how powerful and interesting autobiographical writing can be. One of my favorite assignments for sophomores and juniors is to have them find an autobiography or memoir from someone they are interested in.

Choices abound, from David Sedaris to Malala Yousafzaito to Art Spiegelman. Even if students can’t find the time to finish an entire book (or two), reading a few inspiring passages can go a long way in helping them think about how they might write their own stories most effectively.

#2: Answer the Question: What Do I Want from My College?

In my experience, the best college planning process consists of two main aspects: research and reflection. Too often students emphasize the former without considering the latter. When it comes to planning out their college list, students are often great at learning about and comparing different schools, but they don’t always take the time to sit down and reflect on exactly what they are looking for from their college experience. Doing this early and often helps to keep them on track as they’re planning their college list, and it has the added benefit of being useful later on while writing the all-too-common “Why College X?” supplement essay. Students should put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and reflect on questions like:

  • What sort of school culture do I want to be a part of? What adjectives would I use to describe my ideal environment? 
  • What academic programs am I passionate about? What topics must a school offer me? Within these programs, what sort of relationship do I want with my professors and peers?
  • How far from home do I want to be? How long do I want it to take for me to get home when I need to? 
  • What sort of social support do I want from my college? Do I want to explore a completely new scene on my own, or do I want more support?
  • Outside of the social scene and academics, what else do I want to be a part of? What do I need from the larger community surrounding my college?

Whenever possible, students should move beyond the basics when writing their answers to these questions. Descriptions and details will be helpful when it comes time to repurpose these notes into an essay.

#3: Explore the Prompts

As I mentioned before, supplemental prompts often aren’t finalized until the early fall, but if you know where to look in the spring or summer, it’s possible to get a good sense for what some of your main essays will require. First of all, the personal statement writing prompts for the Common App are already finalized, so it’s a good idea for students to familiarize themselves with those. What they will notice is that the prompts are quite broad, allowing for students to tell essentially whatever story they want (more on this later).

Another set of prompts I’ve been having juniors check out is the UC personal insight questions. Although these are not finalized yet for the high school class of 2018, they present eight questions that are useful for students to consider. Many colleges ask similar supplemental questions, and answering these can often help students identify what their most powerful stories are. While brainstorming, students should keep notes that they can reference when it comes time to actually write their essays.

#4: Complete the Values and Experiences Exercise

Some students come into the essay writing process with a clear vision for what they want to write, or at least for what their strongest stories are likely to be. If that’s the case, great; they should maintain that momentum and dive right into writing. However, most students are less sure of what stories they want to tell. Given that the Common App personal statement prompts are so broad, I like to have these students start off with the “Values and Experiences” exercise.

To begin, I have students write down the positive characteristics that define them. There are thousands of adjectives to choose from – “hardworking”, “creative”, “spontaneous” – anything that they feel represents their character. When they start to run out of ideas, I ask them to consider what other people would say. How would your parents define you? You friends? Teachers? Coaches? I try to keep students brainstorming for 15-20 minutes. Often, the most interesting words come only after students have been forced to think hard.

With this list of characteristics generated, I then tell students to take each adjective and consider which activities, experiences, events, or other aspects of their lives reflect that word. For “hard-working”, a student might think of the time in which she spent an entire weekend revamping her elderly neighbor’s landscaping. For “creative”, she could talk about the YouTube channel she maintained for the past few years. For “spontaneous”, she might mention the time she managed to talk her mom into going sky-diving with her. Whenever possible, students should think of multiple experiences, activities, or events for each attribute, as the best essays are often written about subjects that reflect multiple characteristics. Whether or not a student starts writing the personal statement immediately after completing this exercise, it will still be a useful resources for inspiration moving forward.

#5: Read Successful Example Essays

Many students find it beneficial to see examples of successful essays from the past, especially because they often aren’t as familiar with autobiographical writing as we’d like them to be. These can be found from a variety of sources online, as well as from school counselors or private college coaches. I list this step last because I’ve found that some students didn’t like reading essays from my previous students. At worst, I’ve seen a few students lose motivation for writing their own essays because they found the samples so out of touch with their own experience.

If you are going to read example essays, it’s worthwhile to seek out a sample that is similar to your own background. If you aren’t going to talk about a “life-or-death” experience, then you might not find it useful to read about the time someone gave CPR to a stranger at the public pool. If you have no experience in sports, then you might not be interested in reading someone’s personal statement about their devotion to lacrosse. However, there are always smaller details that you can pick and choose from each essay you read; keep an open mind and search for inspiration wherever you can!

4 things Betsy DeVos can do to improve US education

By John Sheffield, ESM Prep Managing Partner / Senior College Coach

Every employee at ESM is passionate about students, their education, and their futures. Enthusiasm for young people’s potential is the foundation of our recruiting, hiring, training, retention, and organizational structure. All but two employees work directly with students to effect change first-hand. Our workforce has varied interests, but a collective passion for student success unites our entire staff around our motto and namesake “Every Student Matters” and its corollary: that every student’s education outcome can be improved.

Because of these views and the elevated tenor of politics during the Trump administration, the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education has become a particular touch-point in our organization. I write not to examine her qualifications or experience, as both have been examined thoroughly, but to advocate for the policies that I hope Secretary DeVos adopts during her tenure so as to improve education in our country. 

1) Students first, accountability second - Whatever the direction education policy in the Trump administration takes, it should begin and end with students. While this may seem obvious, it has not always been the case. In Michigan, where Secretary DeVos has most successfully pushed her policies, for-profit schools have proliferated and have often been less than satisfactory. Furthermore, their continued funding is not tied to student results. While I don’t think that profit-seeking behavior is compatible with public education, I know that all student services need to be tied to demonstrable results. Common Core has faults, but it is a standardized evaluation of student performance, and by extension, educator performance. Any replacement should evaluate student performance on both growth and proficiency, and these evaluations should determine how federal education dollars are distributed. This admittedly has not always been the case with past administrations, but anything less is a breach of the government’s responsibilities to taxpayers and an abrogation of our shared responsibility to students.

2) Equal access - All students in America deserve access to high-quality education regardless of race, gender, ability, religious preference, sexual identity or expression, or geographic location. Federal money cannot be distributed to any school (private, public, or charter) that doesn’t uphold these commonsense and legally-guaranteed promises. In addition, school choice cannot supplant the existence of high-quality, local public schools. Other school options can provide significant benefits: alternative school structures provide testing grounds for new pedagogical strategies, specialized schools can benefit students with specific needs, and alternative accountability practices enable teacher evaluations to be free from the often differing motives of unions. However in many geographies, and in particular rural areas, the local public school is the only option available for students. To divert funding to other places leaves those students who can’t reach another school with one, now less-funded, option. Any policy needs to consider the outcomes of all students.

3) Educate for economic evolution - Our world and our economy are changing. Education should reflect that. While this means increased focus on technical and STEM skills, it should also include new methods of delivery, pedagogical systems, and renewed focus on creative skills that cannot be as easily automated. It may also involve reinvigorating funding to vocational skills and alternative methods of higher education. And it should take into account the rising costs of higher education and incorporate plans that can stem the increasing unaffordability at many institutions.

4) An educated electorate - A goal of any education policy should not just be to prepare people for their economic futures but to train them to be informed citizens. This means developing critical thinking skills that empower them to evaluate the disparate sources of information now available and make informed decisions for themselves. After all, an uninformed democracy without guaranteed rights looks a whole lot like mob rule.

Education policy could undoubtedly be improved by a shake-up. In math performance on the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, the U.S. ranked 35th, underperforming the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average and falling from the 2013 rankings. There are many reasons for this performance and they should all be evaluated. Comparing teacher compensation is tricky, but it’s instructive to compare what a teacher earns to other choices available to him/her. US teachers are paid about 32% less than other similarly educated professionals, and that difference is larger in the US than all but 5 OECD countries. Drawing and retaining talent had been a priority of previous Secretaries of Education. Teaching strategies could also be reexamined. Singapore (which led the PISA exams in Math, Reading, and Science) focuses its math teaching strategies on fewer concepts, more visuals, and increased attention to a student mindset that encourages effort as the pathway to improvement. (Common Core was meant to better align with international systems such as Singapore’s).

There are unquestionably many improvements to be made, but I hope Secretary DeVos advocates for the common-sense positions that help all students. And in this increasingly politicized and polarized climate, I hope that politics can stop where our students’ futures begin.

John Sheffield

Senioritis can sink your college dreams – don't let it

By Leah Gilbert - ESM College Coach

This is an exciting time for seniors, as those last college acceptances are rolling in, and everyone is breathing a big sigh of relief. The end is so close - soon you’ll be making your final choice, and making the deposit to save your spot in the class of 2021. You’ll sign up for orientation, possibly meet your roommate, and start buying dorm supplies. It’s a lot to think about, but it’s most students find it genuinely exciting to plan out the next few months.

There is another side of this, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you can’t let senioritis completely sink its teeth into you. Not yet.

You see, the thing is, even if you’ve deposited, even if you applied Early Decision, your acceptance is conditional. If your grades slip or your academic record is otherwise impacted, your college is going to know about it. School counselors send your grades from the first half of the year on to the schools you’re applying to in the fall. But did you know they also continue to send your grades to any schools with open applications, and then your year end grades to your college of choice? Your senior year grades are the best representation of what you are capable of academically, and if you let those slip, it doesn’t send the best message about you.

How do we know your acceptance is conditional and contingent upon keeping up your grades? After your school counselor sends your final grades out, if the school doesn’t like what they see, they send you and your counselor a letter. Sometimes it says you’re beginning the year on academic probation, and sometimes your acceptance is revoked entirely. Those letters usually go out in July, leaving you with about 5 weeks before the beginning of the school year to make a plan. While uncommon, we have received copies those letters, and they’re no fun for anyone involved.

In short, keep working. You’re so close, but if you need help, let us know. And just so you know, your journey with us doesn’t end after graduation - we have a whole team of mentors who want to help you make the most of college.

Leah Gilbert

When it Comes to Picking a College, Trust Your Gut. But not Always.

By George Zhu, ESM Mentor

My high school college counselor gave me a great piece of advice: go to Reed College, a tiny liberal arts institution in the Pacific Northwest with a faculty to student ratio of 1:10 and a reputation for academic rigor and iconoclasm. In late March, with my acceptance to Reed in hand, I sent in my enrollment paperwork to…UC Davis. I figured that a college degree was a college degree and that I would be happier near the Bay Area at a school that was demographically identical to my public high school in San Francisco. I based my decision – one of the most important decisions in my life – on not much more than a hunch; I made no college visits, talked to zero alumni, and never even bothered to compare academic offerings.

That fall, after a month at UC Davis, I realized I had made a mistake. UC Davis was suburban, sprawling, bureaucratic, and full of undergrads looking to make grades and move on to their professional lives. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it was not what I was looking for in a college experience. I wanted to live somewhere urban and culturally vibrant and I wanted to be intellectually challenged by my peers and professors. A year later, I applied to transfer to Reed and when I got there, it immediately felt right. I was in the epicenter of a kind of urban existence that would later be called “Portlandia,” debating literary theory at the student center pool hall at 1:00 AM, and playing basketball with my philosophy professors. I sent a long and very grateful letter to my old high school counselor: you were right. Thank you.  

For seniors who are anxiously awaiting acceptance letters from colleges, there’s another decision looming that’s as important as any you’ve made so far. If you’ve been working with ESM on your college application process, you’ve probably already thought a lot about fit and your needs and expectations, which means you’re miles ahead of where I was as a high school graduate. But despite all the preparation and research, you’ll never quite know until you get there, which is why we reached out to two ESM alumni who are currently college students to ask about their selection process and what advice they would give high school seniors.

Aragon d’Harambure is a French citizen currently studying business at University of California, San Diego:

As an international student, the most important criteria when choosing colleges was the reputation. If I plan on working outside the US, I want employers or business partners to know what my education level represents.

When I was choosing between George Washington University, UC San Diego, and Northeastern, I compared the school brands. Northeastern was not as reputable as the other two, so that choice was eliminated. Then, the final decision was to be made between two equal schools with different assets. I chose California because of the fresh energy and innovative mindset of its people. San Diego, the campus, the ocean, and the weather also played a big role: you want to live in a place you can call home.

Looking back on my decision, there are some things I would have done differently. UCSD is indeed excellent in academics, with a wonderful campus and a reputable brand. However, I didn’t find the business-oriented community I was looking for. UCSD is primarily a scientific school. Hence, I would strongly advise you to research the community in addition to the institution. For that, you can ask ESM to help you; they can refer you to a large network of alumni who go to schools like mine.

If you have the choice, think about the reputation first, then about the community, and finally about the area. Once you are in college, get involved and plan for your future. Making plans and always staying active are what can make you a more competitive student, and ultimately a more interesting person.

Kyle Berger is an undergraduate at Santa Clara University:

I started out the college application process with no idea of where I wanted to go or what I wanted in a school - and I wasn’t very excited about the idea of leaving home, either.  One day my parents stepped in and set up a meeting with ESM to help me get my act together, as parents do.  I expressed a lot of the same feelings to Billy, my college coach.  In response, he asked me 10 questions about myself and what I would potentially want out of a school.  After he’d finished, he told me, “Okay, you’re going to go to Santa Clara.”  

Today, as I write this, I am sitting in Santa Clara and I couldn’t be happier. Getting here took a lot of touring - and I would say that was the most important part of the process.  It is crucial to get to know the school and get a feel for what life will be like to make sure it will be a good fit for you.  I would say that as helpful as the school-sponsored campus tours are, it is very important that you get a feel for the campus on your own.

I actually really disliked the Santa Clara campus tour. If I was going off my gut reaction based upon the school-sponsored tours, I probably would have ended up at St. Mary’s or Gonzaga.  However, right before it was time to make my decision, I came back to Santa Clara and just walked the grounds myself - and as corny as it sounds - it just felt right.  Letting myself walk wherever my feet took me, like I would and do as an actual student, is an entirely different experience than the one you get from the tour guide, and I think it is something that everyone who is interested in a school should do.  I’m not sure that there are many things that I would have done differently - Billy and everyone at ESM puts you on a pretty fair path to follow, one that I and my brother (who also worked with ESM) have found leads you to success.

Kyle and Aragon’s experiences offer great lessons that I wish I had as a naive graduating senior. Whether you’re considering a large campus like UCSD or a smaller school like Santa Clara University, there’s no replacement for getting to know life on campus. Get away from the tours and talks. Take time to walk the campus on your own. Talk to other students who are in your major or in the club or activity you’re interested in joining. Get a sense of not only what’s possible, but how vibrant and active that community is. Then ask yourself: is this what I picture when I imagined myself as a college student?

Meet the Mentor: Drew Robinette’s Infectious Optimism

Drew Robinett describes himself as a northern California kid from a northern California family, but as an academic mentor at ESM, he’s quickly proven himself to be many other things – among them, a Yale graduate and a passionate advocate for students. Born and raised in East Sacramento, Drew began tutoring students his sophomore year of high school as part of a peer mentorship program at Jesuit High School and has served as a mentor in numerous capacities, including a broad spectrum of volunteer work.

Though he tutors students across a variety of subject areas, he is most interested in science, and is currently preparing for medical school. No matter the subject, Drew enjoys the energy and humor his students bring to their work.

“I am always surprised by the many unique skills and gifts of my students. They might be impressed by how quickly I can balance a chemical equation, but I am truly amazed when they describe their various athletic, musical, and personal accomplishments. Hearing about my students aspirations to play a sport professionally or some awesome charitable club they started at school really affirms why I do this job in the first place,” Drew says.

His self-described optimistic goofiness and positive outlook have served him well in his role as a performer (he’s sung in the oldest underclassmen a cappella group in the world, the Yale Spizzwinks(?), and participated in a college dance troupe) as well as in his position with ESM, where he is motivated by the hopes and dreams of his students. Drew views their own struggles with his characteristic optimism, noting that they reflects their determination to achieve some other goal for which their difficulty is a stepping stone.

“Nothing beats watching a student learn to appreciate and even enjoy the process of learning and the lifelong skill of setting out a plan to reach a long-term goal. I want to give my students the knowledge, confidence, and academic credential to achieve their personal dreams. While most of my student’s passions are not chemistry or biology, the skills and lessons of diligence, determination, and organization that I can teach them in the study of these disciplines will prove valuable in any life path they choose,” he says.

Drew’s father instilled in him the hard work and dedication he passes along to his students, and, perhaps most importantly, Drew notes, the ability to accomplish great things if you believe in yourself. He hopes to offer his students support and confidence, and he’s excited to empower them as they seek out their own life paths. While finding common ground with students can sometimes present a challenge, Drew aims to identify a meaningful space in which he can illustrate the importance of academics to their long-term success. “I’ve yet to come up with a way that getting an A on a math test helps you get a date to prom. But making connections between a student’s real life and their life inside the classroom helps to build trust and understanding, and helps them see that their schoolwork is not some foreign enemy to be overcome but an integral part of their growth that will help them one day achieve their goals.”

But there’s more to life than a report card, and Drew makes sure his students understand that. While college applications can glorify certain achievements, a dream school should align with the things that are important to them as they move forward. He encourages a holistic look at colleges for this reason, and tries to be an unwavering advocate for the students he mentors. It is clear that Drew really believes in the populations he works with, even when they don’t believe in themselves.

“The best advice I’ve ever been given is to look at yourself in the mirror at the end of every day and—no matter how bad of a day it was—tell yourself that you did the best you could,” Drew says, “I think that sometimes people can be too hard on themselves, but really everyone out there is just trying to make the best of their life and it’s important to realize that as long as you’re trying your best, you should be proud of yourself.”

5 steps to solve (and love) ACT math word problems

It’s okay to admit it: most everyone loves ACT math word problems.

There are few things in life more satisfying than carefully reading through a word problem, defining your variables, putting together a plan, checking your units, and finally solving. Not to mention the joys of learning new and useful applications of your math knowledge to real-world situations, like estimating the height of a tree based on the length of its shadow or calculating the odds of pulling that red sock from your sock drawer filled with blue and green socks.

But what if you’re one of those rare unfortunates who struggle with these problems? Are you condemned to permanently wander the wastelands with the other math illiterates? In short: no. Follow these simple steps to rejoin your word-problem-solving friends and neighbors:

1) Expect to read any word problem twice. All word problems are designed to confuse you by front loading details, hoping that you’ll try to hold everything in your head as you read the actual question.

2) Focus on understanding the question on your first pass through. What are you solving for?  What are the units? Putting these questions in your own words (and not just repeating the last sentence of the problem) can be extremely helpful in focusing you on what you need to solve for.

3) Scan the answer choices. A few may immediately appear as extremely unlikely and can be eliminated from consideration. The remaining choices will give you an idea of the range your answer will fall within.

4) Read again, but for details. This is where the majority of your thinking and solving will happen, so take your time here. Isolate the relevant numbers and try to organize your thoughts graphically. Very few higher difficulty word problems can be solved in your head, so get everything written out and organized.

5) Solve and bask in the glow of your own brilliance for ONE second, and then move on to the next question!

Let’s walk through an example:

Parking a car at a short-term airport parking lot costs $2.50 for the 1st hour or any part thereof, $2.25 for the 2nd hour or any part thereof, and $1.75 for each additional hour or any part thereof after the 2nd hour. Your ticket shows that you parked your car in this lot from 9:38 a.m. to 2:17 p.m. on the same day. What is the cost of parking your car in the short-term airport parking lot, according to this ticket?

(Note: Prices include all applicable sales tax.)

A.    $10.00

B.    $11.14

C.    $11.75

D.    $12.50

E.    $13.50

  1. Note how many different details are presented to you in this problem. There’s the different prices for each hour and also the length of time the car is parked. 
  2. The question itself is straightforward: “What is the cost?” Solving that question involves figuring out a dollar amount that accounts for the time spent parked in the lot.
  3. The answer choices are fairly close, ranging from $10.00 to $13.50, so we’re probably not going to be able to eliminate any choices at this point.
  4. Returning to the details, we know we need to work out timing first, since the price per hour is dependent on how much time we’ve spent in the garage. Parking from 9:38 a.m. to 2:17 p.m. means we were parked in the garage for a little under six hours. To be precise, 5 hours and 39 minutes. The phrase “any part thereof” means that anything over the previous hour counts as another hour. So we’re looking at paying for 6 hours of parking.
  5. That means we were there for the first hour, the second hour and then four more hours. Going back to our hourly rate, that would mean 2.50+2.25+4(1.75) = 11.75. So our correct answer choices must be A.

That’s all there is to it! Practice your newfound word problem solving expertise on the problems below. 

Taking the ACT/SAT? Do this the week before

The week before any standardized test is often filled with stress and anxiety. Adam Allouche, ESM’s Director of Test Strategy, has a few tips for you on how to use this time to maximize your score come test day.

1. Take a Practice Test

A full-length practice test is the best way to conclude your test prep, and is a reliable indicator of how you will perform.  Most importantly, practice tests help test takers build the stamina needed to get through four grueling hours of testing. Try to take the practice test on the Saturday morning the week before your test date so that you can get in the habit of getting up early on a weekend, and schedule a meeting with your mentor for the following week to review your practice test results and review your core strategies one last time.

2. Do Not Cram

Preparing for the ACT and SAT is not possible overnight. Instead, trust the process that you and your mentor have perfected over the previous weeks. Feeling unprepared is not uncommon in the week before the test, but it is almost always just nerves. Don’t stay up late taking full sections or tests on your own to make sure that you are “ready,” as you are more likely to develop bad habits than to have a breakthrough that will greatly increase your score. In the week before the actual test, you should review your practice test results and your strategies for each section with your mentor, and then relax! If you want to do a little bit more prep, spend some time reviewing math formulas for 15 to 30 minutes a day.

3. Relax!

This point is as much for parents as it is for test takers.  A test taker’s ability to relax in the week before the test is key to his or her score, as it will help to minimize the inevitable pre-test jitters and allow them to focus on the task at hand.  Adding extra stress, or even just discussing how important these tests are, can undo even the highest of achievers. Your children know how important these tests are (we tell them all the time), so don’t mistake their attempts to relax for indifference!

Test takers should try to relax by having their favorite meal for dinner the Friday night before the test and going to bed early. In addition, stretching, yoga and meditation have been proven to be effective stress reducers and to boost student performance.

4. Don’t change your routine

Don’t try to do something different on Saturday morning; stick to what you know works! Stay away from coffee if you don’t normally drink it in the morning, and do NOT have any sugary, caffeinated beverages (Red Bull, Monster, etc.), even if you feel tired when you wake up.  They will have your head on your desk before you know it.  Drink water, have a healthy breakfast, and head to your test filled with confidence!

Test Day Checklist

Wake up early (about the same time you wake up for school)

Have a balanced breakfast, without too much sugar

Sharpen 4 no. 2 lead pencils (no mechanical)

Charge your calculator (or put in fresh batteries)

Pack a snack – water bottle, granola, dark chocolate, banana

Dress comfortably with layers – temperatures in test centers can vary

Have your admission ticket and ID card handy

Arrive 15 minutes early to the test center

“Will I get in?”

By George Zhu

The campus visit is going great. Red and gold leaves litter winding paths; ivy-covered Gothic facades and handsome red brick dominate the landscape. The faculty seem both hip and approachable. Classes look intimate and rigorous. The students, enviably happy and confident, seem secure in their knowledge that they will one day be our future scientists, academics, leaders in business and politics. Even the food in the commons is … not bad. Now the campus tour guide opens it up for questions from the parents and prospective students, but the one question that hangs in the air, unasked, is the one you’re all thinking: Will I get in?

No one at the admissions office or on the tour will give you a straightforward answer, even though it is by far the most universal and relevant question any parent or student could have. Why is it such a difficult question to answer? As more and more students apply to college, the American college admissions process has become more obscure and labyrinthine. The variables seem endless: GPA and test scores of course, but also athletics and clubs, letters of recommendation, personal statements, curricular rigor and family legacy, to name a few.

Although no one can tell you with absolute certainty whether or not you’ll be accepted, it’s possible to make an educated guess on what your chance of admission is to any given school.

“The question is fairly answerable in that you can make some accurate predictions based on GPA and test scores,” explains ESM College Coach Lucas McAdams. That information can then be used to help create a list of “safety” schools, colleges you’re virtually certain to be accepted to, “target” schools, colleges you think you can get into but are less certain, and “reach” schools, colleges that are on the outer edge of your admissions odds.

According to Lucas as well as our other ESM College Coaches, a better question for everyone trying to make his or her way through this process is not “Will I get in?” but “Am I happy with the diversity of the schools to which I’m applying?”

For nearly all students applying to college, curating a list of institutions that is diverse in terms of selectiveness is crucial. Think of this process as parallel to what the schools themselves are doing – mitigating risk by attracting a diverse portfolio of students who are likely to thrive. The perfect balance between safety, target, and reach schools will differ based on the individual student; some students are comfortable with one safety, one target, and many reaches, while other students will seek out a list of schools that fills each category more evenly (and ensures them more acceptance letters). All students, however, should have at least one school that falls into each category.

Just as important is making sure that you’ve found a great fit at each level, from your safety schools up to your reach schools. That less selective university that you think you have a great shot of being accepted to may lack some of the name recognition and prestige, but it should still offer you plenty of things to get excited about – whether that’s educational and professional opportunity, a vibrant social life, beautiful facilities and small classroom size. In fact, excitement is still a requirement for a safety school. Just being able to get into a school doesn’t make it a safety – you have to actually be interested in going there, or else it isn’t a very safe option at all.

During this season of uncertainty, it may help to reframe the question so that we’re less fixated on “will I get in?” and instead wonder “will I be happy for the next four years?” The answer to that question goes beyond a student’s transcripts and statistics to a more holistic understanding of what kind of student you are and what you’re looking for in the next four years of your life.

There are several resources that ESM College Coach Katie Lawrence recommends to parents and students looking for more data than what is usually available on any college’s admissions homepage. If your school has Naviance (, you have access to years of admissions data in geographical context (meaning specific to your high school and region), which can be incredibly helpful in refining and determining the likelihood of acceptance because it is similar to the data referenced by admissions officers.

Another great and more universally available resource is Niche (, which compiles data on acceptance rates, costs, average test scores, majors offered, and much more. Two useful tools on Niche are the ability to search and filter schools by a multitude of categories, and crowdsourced reviews by students that score not only admissions and academics, but also student life.

We get it. The college application process is undeniably stressful, and the lack of certainty doesn’t help. But there’s no need to panic. A rational and successful admissions season begins with reframing some fundamental questions and assumptions. Rather than “Will I get in” (and the attendant existential question “Am I good enough?”), we encourage you to think carefully about what kind of student you are, as well as your needs and expectations. When you’re putting together your list of schools, think of the process as a two-way street. Just as you are competing for a spot in their freshmen class, they are competing for your time and resources.

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