Major/Minor's blog on the latest in college admissions and academic success. 
Boost your SAT/ACT score with one punctuation mark


By George Zhu, ESM Prep

Commas are a little bit like our smartphones: we use them every day, but few people have any idea how they really work. Everyone loves the period for its stalwart utility; semicolons are the provenance of the pretentious and can be largely ignored. But the comma? We all need them and we all use them, but ask ten people what commas are for and you’ll likely get ten different answers. This is largely because comma usage is stylistic and, like many aspects of English grammar, ever-evolving to suit modern linguistic needs. As much as I’d love to take a deep dive into the history of this little punctuation tool – starting with St. Augustine’s 4th century moral panic over misinterpretations of Biblical text – the good news for you test-takers out there is that there’s a fairly small set of very clear rules that you will need to know to answer every comma question on the SAT and the ACT. Let’s begin with perhaps the most confusing aspect of comma usage found on either test: connecting clauses.

Connecting clauses

This is not the first thing that most people think of when they think about commas, but that’s precisely why it’s the most frequently tested aspect of comma usage. Luckily, for purposes of the ACT and SAT, the rules you’ll need to know here are relatively straightforward (with few exceptions).

Dependent clause to independent clause:

When I get home from school, I like to get right down to studying grammar for four or five hours.

Because rent is so expensive in the city, I’ve decided to live in a van down by the river.

A dependent clause (quick reminder: a clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a predicate) that leans against an independent clause should always be separated with a comma.

Independent clause to independent clause:

Sometimes it is really hard to think of example sentences, but other times, it is really easy!

The Cretaceous period might be my favorite age of dinosaurs, but the Jurassic period is also pretty cool.

Arlo loved to swim in the sea, so he was excited to move to San Diego.

Two independent clauses can be mashed together in several delightful ways, but when using commas, they need to be connected with a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) and followed by a comma.

Relative clauses

Relative clauses are a subcategory of dependent clauses that begin with a relative pronoun such as who, that, which, where, or when. The rules that govern relative clauses are somewhat complex, but for standardized testing, you just need to remember two basic rules:

1. If your relative clause begins with “that,” you won’t need a comma. If it begins with “which,” you will need a comma.

Mordechai loved watching movies that were made in the Eighties.

Mordechai loved watching Back to the Future, which was made in the Eighties.

2. If your “who, where, when” clause is crucial to the identification of the noun, then there is no need for commas. If it is additional information or detail, then you will need commas.

People who believe in vast government conspiracies probably make poor jurors.

Mortimer, who loves reggae, thinks that aliens landed at Roswell, New Mexico fifty years ago.

In the first example, eliminating the relative clause would make it difficult to identify the specific subject of the sentence. It would read “People probably make poor jurors,” which is improbable. In the second example, Mortimer’s love for reggae is not essential information to the main purpose of the sentence. Without that relative clause, the sentence “Mortimer thinks that aliens landed at Roswell …” still makes perfect sense.

Simple, right? That’s all you need to know when it comes to clauses and commas on either test. Review and test your mastery with some of these practice questions (from a past test):

1) The nebula, is home to thousands of young stars, is often called a galactic “nursery.”


B) nebula is home to thousands of young stars, and

C) nebula, home to thousands of young stars, and

D) nebula, home to thousands of young stars,

2) At first glance a Renaissance fair, looks a lot like a theme park.


B) glance, a Renaissance fair,

C) glance, a Renaissance fair

D) glance a Renaissance fair;

3) Nancy Drew, the teenage heroine of heaps of young adult mystery novels, is alive and well and still on the job.


B) novels is alive

C) novels, is alive,

D) novels is alive,

4) Imagine the excitement in 1902 when audiences first saw Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), a groundbreaking movie produced by Georges Melies.


B) 1902, and when

C) 1902, which

D) 1902, where

5) Conversely, if we were running late for an appointment. She would chide us by saying, “Get a move on.”


B) appointment; she

C) appointment and she

D) appointment, she







Meet the Mentor: Eric Harter Makes a Difference in the Lives of Students

Eric Harter includes “educator” among his top three roles, behind only husband and father. It’s a crucial aspect of his identity, and one he’s very proud of. While he loved being a teacher in the classroom, he has found that his new role with ESM allows him the flexibility to embrace fatherhood and make a meaningful difference in the lives of students.

Prior to his position with ESM Prep as an Academic Mentor and College Coach, Eric was a middle school science teacher in East Oakland, commuting five hours a day to and from school. Knowing that leaving the position when he moved to Sacramento would mean that it would remain vacant, he left his house at 4 am each morning and returned at 7 pm each night. “It was the right decision and happy I made that choice. I adored the students I worked with and taught.  There was no doubt it was the most difficult job I will ever have, but also one of the most rewarding.”

Eric’s goal in the classroom was to enable his students to believe in themselves and find success by working hard. He was motivated by watching students achieve their goals and playing a part in helping them search for the one thing that would empower them to exceed their own expectations. In his role with ESM Prep, Eric finds that he’s similarly driven. “One of the particular things I find exciting is ACT prep.  Often, the student has a specific goal and we work hard to achieve that goal.  When the student receives the score they wanted, it is one of the most special moments of this job.  I pursue that feeling because it is so gratifying.”

It takes a particular kind of person to motivate students, and Eric attributes his ability to connect with them in such a meaningful way to his former geometry teacher, who was always available to answer questions and offer advice. “He helped me find ways to put stories into my teaching that my students would love and that helped me connect with even the most difficult students,” Eric says.

Ultimately, Eric sees his job as getting students into college. Though every person that he works with is different and has a unique set of needs, he’s able to help his students build a plan that will end with them getting into the college that’s best for them. Eric works with parents too, and has found that their passion for the education of their children matches his own. Often, getting to college is a team effort, and Eric says that the appreciative emails and texts he receives from parents make his day.

If Eric could tell students one thing about college it is that it will be one of the most fun experiences they will ever have, particularly if they’ve worked hard to land a spot at their dream school. “That moment they walk onto that campus as a student is a feeling they will never forget.  It isn’t easy.  It is likely one of the hardest things they will ever do, but it’s worth it!”

5 things to remember in your first 30 days of college

By Marney Randle

ESM College Transition Coach

Congratulations: you’re officially on campus! The move-in process is complete. You brought enough items to fill your residence hall room. You have unpacked and everything is where you want it to be. You met your roommate(s) and, from what it seems, it will be a cool connection. You know which classes you’re taking, and your books are already purchased. Everything is great, right?!

And then you get that sinking feeling. You ask yourself, “Is this really happening? Did I make the right choice to come to this college? Am I going to make friends? Where are my classes? What about the food in the dining commons? How do I do laundry? Did I prepare enough for this whole college thing?!”

These questions, feelings, and doubts are totally normal! Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Here are five things to think about in your first 30 days of college. It’s not everything, by any means, but something to get you started. These are some themes and suggestions based on my work with college students who are aiming to start their first year off right.

1) Enjoy the ride. College life is an adjustment in many different ways. You’re meeting new people, learning new ideas and skills, and challenging yourself in new ways. It’s a big deal! This may be the first time you’ve been away from home for a long period of time. Embrace it, own it, and know that some days may be a bit easier than others.

2) Get involved. The residence halls are your home away from home. Connect with your roommate(s), talk about expectations of each other for the space you share. Get to know your RA - they are a great resource!! (Trust me on this one!). Go to residence hall-sponsored events and get involved! It’s a great way to meet people and do fun things.

3) Connect with your instructors. Adjusting to a new academic rigor may be a challenge. Be graceful with yourself. Get to know your professors and teaching assistants/graduate assistants. Go to office hours!

4) Tap your resources. College campuses offer SO many resources. It’s sometimes hard to keep track and know where to begin. With ESM’s College Transition Program, students have an Educational Coach who works one-on-one with them to navigate these resources and truly tap into all of the opportunities for your college experience. The first six weeks are extremely important for college success - let’s help you get there.

5) Yes, Freshman year matters. The time to find summer internships begins in the fall of freshman year. Enjoy yourself but understand that freshman year, and freshman year grades, will stick with you throughout college and beyond. Take advantage of the opportunities to put yourself on the pathway towards success.

You can do it - we believe in you! Embrace the fact that you’re #officiallyofficial, and we’ll help you start your college experience off right!

Why we love online tutoring

The debate is over: online tutoring works. In a recent survey of eight million online tutoring students, more than 90% reported improved grades and confidence levels.

We at ESM love online tutoring for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that it allows students to connect with the absolute best mentors no matter where they are in the world. When it comes to tutoring success, finding the mentor who fits the student both academically and personally is incredibly important. Students no longer have to settle for someone local who may not be an ideal fit.

Former ESM student and Columbia University freshman Zack Murdock met online with multiple mentors from different states for help with a variety of subjects. Online tutoring with ESM, he says, “is no ordinary tutoring session—it is a mentoring session. When my hour or sometimes two-hour ACT sessions came to a close, I almost always felt like I was saying goodbye to a friend—not a boring tutor.”


Not only do students benefit academically, but online tutoring allows for increased scheduling flexibility for both students and tutors. Online tutoring helps students fit tutoring into what is often an increasingly busy schedule filled with extra-curricular activities. Students and mentors can schedule meetings at times that work for them, day or night, and students can meet with their tutors from the comfort of their home or even during free periods at school, saving time on travel.

“With everything going on in life, the fact that my mentor was available basically at any time, and that I could work with her wherever I was, made things stress free,” said ESM student Lizzie Fuchs.

ESM’s online learning platform, Zoom, also allows for expanded options for different learning styles, and 24/7 access to instructional materials. All sessions can be  recorded so students can review previous lessons at their convenience. With a shared “whiteboard” functionality, students and mentors can collaborate on problems in real-time using tablets and then export PDF notes that neatly capture every topic discussed in the lesson. 


“When I tutor a student on Zoom, our session is just as personal and engaging as it would be in person,” said ESM mentor Jordan Dodson. “In fact, because of the various tools Zoom offers, it can even be more productive than an in-person session.”

Finally, online tutoring gives students more access to tutors with expertise across different subjects, allowing them to study for a chemistry test on a Wednesday with one tutor, and then meet with a different tutor the following day to go over their English essay. The possibilities, and the potential, are endless.

Let us find the perfect tutor for you, no matter your or their location. Call (866) 878.1491 to speak with one of our academic advisors.

Summer Learning Loss is a Real Thing

By Justin Scott

ESM Senior College Coach

After working hard for the duration of the school year, students often want to take summer off. But according to one hundred years of research, doing so jeopardizes the gains they’ve made in the classroom over the preceding nine months. We call this phenomenon “summer learning loss.” and it happens to everyone: high and low income students, public and private school students, high and low IQ students.

Summer learning loss affects reading comprehension, math skills, and a host of other learned competencies, and as a result it affects students standardized test scores. This should come as no surprise. For example, take a student who preps for the ACT weekly during the school year and takes the exam in June. If she were to take the summer off of prep, she would forget a host of the tricks and strategies she learned during the school year, and her prep for the September test would be a stressful game of catch-up. We have seen this over and over again - after a promising June test, the first test of the fall comes in lower than we hoped for.

On some level, we know this intrinsically - if you don’t use it, you lose it. But the numbers back it up, and they are convincing: on average, students lose 2.6 months of math skills over the summer. They lose two full months of reading skills. Worst of all, future learning is impacted because a full six weeks of the fall are spent re-learning what has been forgotten. This compounding effect is why we think it is so important to spend the summer actively engaged with academic material, from continuing SAT/ACT prep to reading challenging novels to practicing foreign language skills in conversation.

Fortunately, addressing summer learning loss doesn’t have to occupy too much of a student’s time. Studies show that 2-3 hours per week of concentrated academic focus can stave it off. Anyone can make 2-3 hours a week happen, right? That’s as simple as doing an hour of tutoring, an hour of homework, and an hour of leisure reading. But, of course, students shouldn’t stop there. Since there’s no schoolwork to worry about, summer is the best possible time to get serious with your test prep. Make logs of everything you need work on. Work with your mentor to systematically address those weaknesses while you can focus fully on them. Read vociferously, training your eye to read faster and more accurately. Sign up for an online math course, moving at your own pace and getting ahead of your classmates. If you don’t know where to start, we can help.

No matter where you are – 90th or 60th percentile, 9th or 11th grade, pre-algebra or calculus – summer learning loss is serious, but it is also seriously preventable. Sign up for one of our Launch camps, peruse the summer course offerings on Laurel Springs, or put together an aggressive reading list, and watch yourself make gains instead. Ask your mentor about ESM’s summer booster and bridge programs, writing skills workshops, and summer test prep opportunities. 

Juniors: Start Your College Essays Now

By Leah Gilbert

ESM College Coach

This is my favorite time of year: the days are longer, classes are wrapping up, and summer is so close you can practically smell the sunscreen. It means days at the beach or maybe a summer gig scooping ice cream, but more importantly it means days where students get a much deserved break from their busy academic requirements.

However (I know, I’m sorry).

While many students shrug off anything to do with academia, unfortunately the college application process doesn’t stop. In my time as a guidance counselor, I would encourage (read: beg) my students to get a solid draft of their college application essay/personal statement during the summer in between their junior and senior years.

Why? It’s simple, really. Fall of senior year is one of the busiest times you’ll experience in your life. You’re balancing applications, getting the best grades you can, and spending time with the people you have grown up with. It’s a lot. Trust.

And it’s not just your main Common App essay you should be working on. Besides the fact that some schools aren’t even on the Common App to begin with, supplemental essays are being required by more and more schools. These will take a lot more thought and effort than you might think, especially with questions like “So where is Waldo, really?” and “What makes you happy?”. Looks simple, but those are big questions to answer in 250 words or less.

If you were to spend an hour, three times per week, on your essays, you’d have them all nearly completed before school even starts. That leaves you plenty of time to make edits, and add any supplements for schools you hadn’t initially planned on applying to. I’m not great at math, but by my calculations that still gives you 1,320 hours of summer.

Save yourself a lot of frustration by getting the major essays (that every college wants to see, by the way) done and over with. Remember, Common Application accounts opened during the 2015-16 school year will roll over into 2017 for the first time ever. Make it count.

Take advantage of this time. We’ve been through this, so let us know how we can help.

Rejected? Yes, We’re Saying There’s Still a Chance.

By Cailean Bailey - ESM Prep Senior College Coach

Today’s college admissions statistics are sobering. More students apply to more schools than ever before, which means your chances of getting the dreaded rejection letter are higher than ever.

The 2016 acceptance rate at UC-Berkeley, for example, was 14.8%…so what happens if UC-Berkeley was your #1 choice, but you ended up in the 85.2% of students who didn’t get in?  

All is not lost. You may still appeal the admissions department’s decision with a letter. Here’s how:

  1. Do your homework to see if appeal letters are accepted…some schools will not accept them, while other schools might “discourage” them, but might still read them.  
  2. Review your own application to see if there was an error or misinformation that could have affected your status.  
  3. Offer to enroll at a later date. For example, you could write: “While I know that UC Berkeley received a record number of applicants, it is still my top choice and, if accepted, I will attend without question, whether it be for Fall 2016, Spring 2017, or even Fall 2017.”
  4. If your GPA and exam scores don’t meet the requirements listed at the school, offer up something new to them. Demonstrate how you would impact campus diversity or demonstrate your value by showing off your unique passions.
  5. Present new information to the admissions department. Do you have an update for them that might change their perspective on you?  Perhaps you won a new award or dramatically improve your grades or test scores since submitting your initial application. One example: “Recently in Model U.N. I won a research award and a commendation for my delegation in a committee of more than two hundred people. Those achievements just prove my love for learning and eagerness to make an impact in the world. I am not afraid to step out of my comfort zone.”

Taking these steps could potentially get your application a second look.

Still on the waitlist? Here’s what you can do

First thing’s first: know that not all hope is lost and there are many reasons a student can get waitlisted. Sometimes it’s because you may not be as qualified as other applicants, but often times there just are not enough spots for every qualified student to be granted admission in the initial round. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a chance of gaining admission down the road if there is still mutual interest between you and the school.

What exactly is a waitlist?

When an admissions department is determining how many students to accept, they have to estimate the percentage of admitted students who will enroll so they can have a full class of incoming students the following year. Sometimes these estimates are wrong, and that is where the waitlist comes into play.  As more students apply to more schools, the yield (percentage of students accepting the offers) is falling. That means more students are getting put on the waitlist.

There are some strategies you can use to turn that waitlist into an acceptance letter. (The following tips and strategies are not a guarantee of admission into any school, rather they are what we have seen to be successful in the past.)

1) Stay on the waitlist

The first thing you should do is notify the school as soon as possible about your intention to stay on the waitlist. This will ensure that you remain in consideration as they begin to accept students off the waitlist. If you haven’t already established a personal connection with your regional admissions representative, now would be the time to do so.

2) Express interest

We recommend you put together a short (300-500 word) letter for the admissions committee. In your letter, state clearly your conviction for attending the school, explain that if you were accepted you would definitely be enrolling in the fall.  On top of that, describe what you would bring to their campus, take a moment to reflect and envision yourself as a student at their school. What would you be doing to make it a better place? Research in a certain building or field? A specific activity or cause that you want to champion? Admissions committees tend to appreciate students who show initiative and have a plan for what they want to do if admitted. This is your second chance for a “why your school” essay, show them what kind of college student you will become.   

3) Supplemental materials

Some committees allow for additional material to be submitted for waitlisted students. Check with your school, but if this is the case we suggest finding one or two additional people who could write you a recommendation. Be sure to choose people who you think would highlight qualities that have not already been featured in your previous application materials. Show the committee something new about yourself.  

4) Keep them in the loop

A lot has probably happened since you submitted your application, your fall semester grades are finalized, maybe you achieved something significant in an extracurricular activity or went on an educational trip; keep them updated on any new accomplishments in your life. The waitlist period is a great time to address any perceived weaknesses you had the first time around, use this opportunity to highlight your strengths of your application and improve upon the areas that you think could use some work.    

5) Cover your bases

In the meantime, you should accept an offer from another school you have interest in attending, and put down a deposit. You don’t want to be left empty-handed of you aren’t offered a spot at your waitlisted school.

6) Wait and see

After a certain point, you have done all you can do and you have to let the admissions committee do their job. This means do not harass the admissions department by asking for weekly updates on your admissions status. We also recommend parents don’t get involved, admissions committees tend to prefer students taking the initiative and you are the student they are considering admitting, not your parents.

As previously admitted students begin to notify the school that they do not plan on attending, the school will begin to admit students off the waitlist. If you follow these steps and show how you could be an asset to the school you have a real chance to gain admission. The decision is now out of your hands and the admissions committee has some tough decisions to make, good luck.  

Meet the Mentor: Alex Burston

One of ESM Prep’s newest mentors could be found wandering the halls of the National Gallery in London rejoicing in the recent ban on selfie sticks or bantering about Chelsea FC returning to dominance next year.

Alex Burston grew up in London, but attended both British and American schools throughout her primary and secondary education. While her dream was to grow up to be Posh Spice, she instead sang backup for the Spice Girls with her youth choir in front of more than 20,000 people. Her educational journey then took her to Yale University for her undergraduate years, studying art history and singing acapella for the group “Proof of the Pudding” (just like Glee).

After graduating from Yale, Alex returned to London and received her master’s degree in curating the art museum from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. She is now pursuing her PhD in post-war British figurative painting and dreams of running her own museum someday.

Her work with students is focused on helping British students prepare for and successfully navigate the US college admissions process. Alex is an ACT and SAT expert, and tutors for AP subject exams as well. She loves working with students and seeing the “lightbulb” moment when they understand something after working really hard.

When she is not working with her students, Alex can be found walking her two dogs, Penny and Olly, or exploring new nooks of her favorite museums.      

Meet Kavya Tawari – Making a Difference in STEM Education

By Dawson Henshaw, ESM Prep

While women comprise 48% of the American workforce, they make up only 24% of workers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) jobs. This trend won’t last long if ESM Prep student Kavya Tewari has her way, and she is already making huge strides to help girls embrace STEM fields.

Growing up, Kavya remembers reaching middle school, where all of a sudden girls started to lose interest in science and math. According to Kavya, the sentiment that “you’re a girl, you can’t like science” was all too prevalent, even at an all-girls school.

While just a senior in high school, she has already accomplished more than many people twice her age. In her sophomore year, she taught herself basic coding and developed an app where girls can interact with a virtual doll and learn coding. She hopes this can help expose girls to computer science early on, “instilling a sense of confidence and beginning to bridge the gap of general inequity of women in STEM,” she said. Kavya received multiple grants to work on this project, totaling over $1,000, and has dreams of creating an actual doll to accompany the app.

But her entrepreneurial attitude doesn’t stop there, she proceeded to take an iOS development class and create another app, this one named “STEMinist World.” She says her goal is to “bring more visibility to women role models in the STEM fields, and help girls envision themselves as future STEM leaders.” Through this app, which is available in the Apple app store, girls can learn about women in multiple STEM fields, and can even upload a picture of themselves. Kavya is already well on her way to becoming a role model for other girls, as she currently runs workshops for elementary and middle school girls to help them learn the fundamentals of coding.

Kavya is a dreamer, and in her search for where to go to college, she didn’t know really where to “Both my parents grew up outside the United States, so we didn’t really understand how the entire college application process worked” she says, and that’s where ESM came in. Kavya’s mentor walked her through every step of the process, helping her create a best-fit school criteria, a personal statement for her applications, SAT preparation, and much more.

She is still deciding where to attend college, but she wants to find a school where she can take a liberal arts curriculum and still pursue STEM subjects and social entrepreneurship.

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