Major/Minor's blog on the latest in college admissions and academic success. 
When Should I Start Studying for the ACT or SAT?

By Adam Allouche, ESM Director of Strategy

One of the most common questions I receive from parents is “when should my son or daughter begin studying for the ACT or SAT?” While there is no definitive answer to this question, my response is usually “the earlier the better.”

Developing standardized testing skills is important for students of all ages, and developing them earlier in their academic careers can not only help maximize success and minimize stress come junior year, but also improve student performance on tests in high school (especially math).  Below are a couple of suggestions on how to begin to prepare younger students for the rigors of the ACT and SAT.  

1. Surprise! It’s reading!

That’s right, add me to the long list of people telling students to read. Reading is the single most important skill that they can improve upon to prepare for standardized tests. For younger students, reading can greatly improve both comprehension and grammar knowledge without them even knowing it. Students that read more will develop a greater ability to find the main idea in reading passages, and will get used to varied and complex sentence structures that are used in grammar passages on both the ACT and SAT. Their ability to intuitively determine whether a sentence “sounds right” grammatically or what needs to be changed to make it grammatically correct will innately improve just by reading!

My Recommendation: Students should read at least one newspaper or scholarly magazine article a day, and should not read about articles in the same field of study on back to back days.  Opinion / editorial pieces are great resources, as they will usually have clear main ideas that the author tries to support. These are the types of passages that will be prominently used in standardized tests (in addition to prose, which students get enough of in English class).  

2.  Algebra is King

One of the biggest misconceptions about the ACT and SAT is that the math sections test advanced material that is hard for students to understand. The reality is that more than 90% of the questions on both tests cover material from Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II, courses that the average high school student will have finished by the end of junior year.  For more advanced students, preparing for the ACT and SAT is more a review of concepts they learned in class two or three years ago than a furthering of what they are currently learning in their Pre-Calculus or Calculus class.

My Recommendation: Implement thirty minutes a week of ACT and SAT practice into a student’s study schedule once they begin to take Algebra I. The earlier students know how concepts they are learning are presented on each of these tests, the better. All ESM mentors are well-versed in both tests, and can help to develop weekly test prep exercises for students based on what they have learned in their math classes. This weekly practice will help keep older concepts fresh in their minds and force students to use different mathematical concepts in one sitting, an ability that is vital to student success on both the ACT and SAT.  

Want to take the ACT in April? Remember to register by Friday Feb. 26th.

How to Start Building Your College List

So you’re starting the college application process. Congratulations! The first step in the process is building a list of schools to which you’d be interested in applying. We usually suggest this initial list contains 20-30 possibilities, and it’s important to consider a number of different factors. Here are four steps to get you started on building your college list:

1) Start geographically. Are there areas you are especially interested in? Are there areas you definitely do not want to be in? Are you absolutely against cold winters, or do you want to ski on the weekends? Is being near the ocean important or do you prefer having the mountains nearby? Do you want to be close to home and family, or do you prefer some separation? Start by taking out a map and deciding where you could live for four years, and where you couldn’t.

2) Small, medium or large? Decide what size of school you would prefer. Do you want small classes and familiar faces, or does the diversity and options of large universities excite you? How closely do you want your college experience to resemble that of your high school? Consider your ideal-size school.

3) Environment. Do you want all the amenities and energy of a big city? Or is it enough to be close to a large metropolitan area, and enjoy a little bit slower pace in the suburbs? Is a small college town in a rural area more your style? Consider what you want the off-campus environment to be like, as you won’t be spending all of your time on campus. 

4) Program of study. If you have a pretty good idea of what you’d like to study in college, make sure every college on your list has that program or something very close to it. If you are undecided, as many students are, a school with a solid liberal arts program with lots of options might be a good idea for you. There is nothing wrong with discovering your passion in college.

How do you get from a list of 20-30 to a list of 10 schools you’ll apply to? Start visiting campuses. You don’t have to visit them all, but visit a handful and take notes on what you like and don’t like. Make sure you talk to current students about their impressions. Then extrapolate what you find and how you feel and apply that to the schools you weren’t able to visit, based on what you know about them. Start crossing off schools that don’t meet your criteria.

The X Factor: For many of our students, when they find that right-fit school, they just know. They can feel it in their gut. Don’t dismiss that feeling. Sometimes the school you really love isn’t the school that looks the best on the spreadsheet. 

Four Must-Have ACT Tips

Many high school juniors across the country will be taking their first official ACT next Saturday (February 6th).  Adam Allouche, ESM’s Director of Strategy, is here to alleviate some of the test-day jitters by offering up one strategy for each of the test’s four main subject areas:

1. English – Slow Your Roll!

Historically, one of the most difficult aspects of the ACT is that it is extremely fast-paced; most students have serious difficulty finishing the sections in the time allotted. However, of all the subjects on the test, the English Test is the least restrictive with regards to time.  So, don’t feel the need to rush through the section! Use the nine minutes allotted per passage to insert each answer choice you think could be correct into the sentence.  Read the sentences before or after the current question to ensure that pronouns, verb tenses, and transition words are used correctly.

Remember, you are better off using all of the nine minutes allotted per passage to be thorough than to rush through the section, finish with 10 minutes left, and then go back to check some answer choices in your spare time.

2. Math – How to Get Past Your “Oh Crap!” Moment

For 99.99% of ACT test takers, there will be at least one question on the ACT math test that completely stumps them. For most students, that number of questions is closer to five or ten.  When you get to a question that throws you for a loop initially, don’t panic! Try to use your mathematical knowledge to take the information given to solve a small part of the question.  Even if you don’t get all the way to the answer, you can use that new information to eliminate wrong answers. You can also use some of our ACT math strategies (plugging in values, estimating, guess and check) to eliminate answer choices.

Let’s say you did not know the answer to 10 questions. If you blindly guessed on those 10 questions, probability says that you would guess correctly on two questions. However, if you were able to use your mathematical knowledge and strategies to get down to two answer choices for each problem, probability says that you would guess five questions correctly. That three-question difference can make a huge difference on your score!

3. Reading – The Backup Plan

Reading four passages and answering forty questions in only thirty-five minutes is an extremely difficult task.  As a result, students can sometimes arrive at the final passage (natural science) with only a few minutes to go in the section. If this happens to you, remain calm. There is still a way to salvage some points in the final passage.  First, skim through the passage very quickly (1-2 minutes depending on how much time is left) and circle every name, date, number, proper noun, and term in quotation mark.  In addition, try to use the introduction and topic sentences to get some semblance of the main idea.  When you get to the questions, do not do them in order.  Instead, look for questions that have specific line references first, as that will help you locate the necessary information the quickest. Next, answer any questions that reference a proper noun, number, or quoted term by scanning through the circled terms in the passage to find the term mentioned and answer the question. Save the questions that refer to the passage as a whole for last, as you will accrue more knowledge about the passage as you reference back to it to answer the previous questions!

4. Science – The Two-Handed Approach

The ACT Science Test evaluates students’ abilities to locate and interpret data found in various tables, charts, and graphs.  Students should start each passage not by reading the introductions, but by going straight to the data to identify key terms and quickly find trends in the numbers.  When reading the questions, use the index finger of your non-writing hand to move zero in on the data mentioned in the question.  For example, take the following question:

Suppose we were to test solubility at 200°C. According to Figure 1, How many grams of cesium bicarbonate would we expect to dissolve?

Here we can see that Figure 1 is mentioned, along with the keywords solubility, the temperature 200°C, and cesium bicarbonate.  When you see that Figure 1 is mentioned, put your finger on Figure 1, then move it to the data for cesium bicarbonate, and find where it intersects with 200°C.  This approach will save you time by leading you to the correct answer before (or at least shortly after) you finish reading the question!

Now go practice these techniques with your ESM mentor! You should never use a strategy on an official test without practicing if first. Good luck, and stay confident!

4 things you can do right now to help your MBA application

ESM recently hired MBA admissions expert Katie Lawrence (above), who graduated from Princeton in 2008 and the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth in 2014, and who worked at Stacy Blackman MBA Consulting, to head our MBA counseling practice. Katie worked in the admissions office when she was at Tuck so she has first-hand experience seeing what MBA interviewers and admissions committees are looking for in prospective students.

No matter where you are in your education or career, you can do a lot now to increase your chances of getting into a top MBA program:

Current college students:

  • Take the GMAT and/or GRE as soon as you’re ready. The scores are valid for up to 5 years and current students test better than people who are busy working/not in “school mode” anymore, so take it now and get it out of the way! 
  • Be a leader on campus. Get involved. Start a club. Lead teams and organizations. Business schools will look at how you got involved in college to see if you will likely be a contributing member of their community.

College graduates:

  • Develop strong relationships with your bosses. Most MBA programs ask for a recommendation from your current supervisor. Make sure they have lots of great stories about your work ethic, intellect, and strong character to make writing stellar recommendations easy.
  • If you took the GMAT and didn’t do well, consider taking the GRE. The GRE isn’t reported in school profiles and isn’t factored into school rankings, so if you have good work experience and got strong grades in college, you may get a little more leeway with a less-than-perfect GRE score. Some people also consider the quantitative to be a little easier. But if you crushed the GMAT, definitely submit it. 

If you’d like to learn more about the MBA application process—whether it’s the right path for you, what schools best fit your interests, and how to successfully get accepted to your top-choice schools—please contact Katie @ or 908.656.6534 to learn more.

Good luck!

Want more from a campus tour? ESM and Campus Sherpa can help.

Going on a traditional campus tour is a great way to familiarize yourself with a college campus, but but that’s only part of the story. What isn’t on the tour? What aspects of campus is the school not highlighting? What does it look like from a student’s perspective?

That’s where Campus Sherpa comes in. They match you with a current student to give you a more personalized, inside look at campus life.

ESM’s partnership with Campus Sherpa allows its students concierge access to the service’s network of tour guides on over 70 campuses. After you’ve discussed with your ESM mentor what schools may be the right fit, let Campus Sherpa set up your tours.

“It’s like having a sibling at every campus you don’t have a sibling at” is how co-founder David Patou describes the service. 

David and his friend Alex Mitchell, current students at Georgetown University, founded the company their freshman year when they realized their campus tour left out a lot of important pieces, both positive and negative. They set out to give prospective students a more comprehensive look at everything that happens on a college campus.

Campus Sherpa offers 3 different options for their tours, a 45 minute “Trek”, a 2 hour “Excursion”, or a 5 hour “Summit.”  These tours give prospective students a chance to get a candid look at the residence halls, meet current students, go to a club meeting, or even sit in on a class. Your Sherpa will be there to answer any questions and give you a sense of what being on campus feels like for students.  If you can’t make it to campus, or want to chat with a current student and learn more about a school, they also offer skype visits with one of their Sherpas.  

Here’s How to Interpret Your PSAT Results

On Thursday Jan. 7th, after a highly publicized three-week delay, PSAT scores from the October 4th test will finally be available online.  Adam Allouche, ESM’s Director of Strategy (above), is here to help you get the most out of your results by offering a few pointers on what to look out for when you get your scores on Thursday.  

1.     Focus on percentiles, not scores!

In previous years, your PSAT score could serve as a reliable indicator of where you would approximately score if you took a full-length SAT, as the College Board had years of data with which to work to determine your score for each section. This is simply not the case this year! Your Evidence-Based Reading Score and your Math Score are derived from three separate thirty-eight-point scales, and the report offers little to no explanation on how those three scales are converted to your overall scores. Instead of obsessing over your scores, focus on the percentiles of your two scores. These percentiles tell you how you fared compared to every other junior who took the PSAT. While there is not yet enough data collected to know what a Math Score of 600 really means, we do know that being in the 93rd percentile means that you are in the top 7% of scores.  

2.      Review Your Question-Level Feedback!

Too many students that take the PSAT simply look at their scores and then toss their reports aside without carefully examining how they arrived at that score.  Don’t be one of these students! Reviewing your answers can be extremely helpful in identifying what you need to work on in the coming months to prepare for the Redesigned SAT (rSAT) or the ACT.  Meet with your ESM mentor to go through EACH question, both correct and incorrect, to develop an idea of what was easy for you, what was hard for you, where you dropped easy points, and how you can improve in the short and long term.

3.     Don’t just focus on HOW, but WHEN

When students review their answers on standardized tests, they usually spend most of their time looking at the questions they did wrong to see what mistakes they made and how they should have arrived at the correct answer. While this is useful, it is not the only vital information you can get out of reviewing your answers. Try to see when you are answering questions incorrectly. Are you missing a number of questions early on in sections when questions are generally easier? If so, you may be rushing and misreading key information. Do you notice that you tend to miss questions in bunches of two or three? You may be letting your hesitations about one question carry over into the next question or questions. Try taking a deep breath after questions you find difficult to reset and regain your focus. If you are missing most of your questions at the end of sections, then timing might be your biggest issue on the test.  All of these things are extremely important to know as you begin to prepare for the rSAT and the ACT.

4.      Ignore your score!

It’s very important to remember that the PSAT is a PRACTICE test. The reality of the matter is that unless you achieve a near-perfect score that qualifies you for the National Merit Scholarship Program, your score on this PSAT does not hold any weight. In addition, because this is the first year of the rSAT, the variance in difficulty between this test and the first full redesigned rSAT could be greater than normal. So, just because you scored highly on the PSAT does not mean that you will automatically score highly on the rSAT this spring. On the other hand, failing to achieve the score you were hoping for on the PSAT doesn’t mean you won’t reach your goal on future tests! No matter what your score is on the PSAT, you’ll have to work hard in the coming months to improve.

5.      Next Steps - Take the ACT! 

The rSAT has been criticized by almost every test prep company across the world, including by us in our previous newsletter. While you can surely use the PSAT to isolate general areas in which you need to improve, your goal should be to use them to improve your ACT score!

Why an Investment Banker Became an ESM mentor

Katie Lawrence stands in the Pacific Ocean in San Diego after riding across the country from North Carolina, helping build affordable housing along the way with Bike and Build in 2012.

Picture this: you are in your first full-time job out of college, working for one of the world’s premier investment banks: Lehman Brothers. You are not only the youngest member of your team, but also the only woman. Six days after you start on the trading floor, you get a call saying the company is going bankrupt and you need to clear everything out of your office; they don’t know if you will have a job tomorrow. This is the situation Katie Lawrence faced at her first job after graduating from Princeton in 2008.

“It was a chaotic time, with people constantly trading, yelling, and throwing footballs on the trading floor. But I was fortunate to have had good mentors and learned a lot very quickly,” Katie said. 

Having grown up with an older brother and playing sports with people twice her size, she learned to be scrappy. She was kept on at Barclays after they acquired the remnants of Lehman and spent the next 4 years working on the trading floor at Barclay’s Capital before deciding she wanted to return to school. After going through the grueling process of MBA applications, she decided Dartmouth was the best fit.   

Growing up, Katie was always doing something athletic: she played lacrosse, swam competitively, and went on multiple long-distance bike trips. Before she even began college, she had completed bike trips across the United States, Canada, Alaska, and France. She loves cycling and leading teams so much that she then worked for Bike and Build in the summer of 2012. She organized and led a team of 25 young adults on a three-month bike trip from North Carolina to San Diego. They raised over $100,000 for affordable housing, stopping in 9 different states along the way to help Habitat for Humanity build houses.

She started at Dartmouth that fall, and her passion for helping students get into college grew after she got a job in the admissions department. This passion began while working with Minds Matter while she worked in New York City. Through this organization, she was paired with a low-income, at-risk student at the beginning of their sophomore year of high school. The relationship continues through college acceptance and high school graduation. They met weekly to work on homework, study for the SAT, fill out college apps, and establish a lifelong mentorship.


“No matter how badly the world around you was crumbling, you always got to spend those few hours every weekend with each other. It gave me some great perspective on the world,” Katie said.

After Dartmouth, she moved out to San Francisco and returned to the world of financial services, working at JP Morgan Private Bank. She continued to help mentor students and became a junior board member for Summer Search, which helps at-risk youth achieve their dreams of college.

The pull of mentorship eventually became too great for Katie in 2015, when she decided to devote all of her time to helping students achieve their dreams, becoming a full-time ESM mentor and a member of the executive team.  

She currently mentors high school students in the college application process as well as prospective MBA students. Katie’s first-hand experience in the MBA applications process makes her an invaluable resource to those hoping to gain acceptance to their right-fit program.

Katie is constantly looking for her next long distance bike trip, triathlon, or marathon, but in the meantime she will continue to soak up all the west coast has to offer, enjoying her monthly trips to beautiful Sonoma wine country.  

ESM’s Internship Success Guide

Internships are a great way to get a head start on your career, showing potential employers that you were interested enough in their field to seek out opportunities even before graduation. When it’s time to apply for that first job, you’ll have an undisputed leg up on your competition, because hiring managers will know that you have real-world experience, and you’ll be able to talk extensively about what you have learned. You can make the most of your internship with ESM’s tips: 

Experiment. No, you don’t have to know exactly what you want to do with your life to get a summer internship. They can be a great opportunity to explore a field in which you think you might be interested. You may love it, or you may find out that it’s not for you. Either way, it is a worthwhile experience. So if you are like most students and you aren’t totally certain what you want to do for a living, find something that interests you and give it a shot.

Work your network. After you have a general idea of what field you want to intern in, start asking around for leads. Family friends, parents of your friends, teachers and coaches - all of these people can help you find an internship opportunity. Whether you realize it or not, you already have a network of people thatyou can start asking about any internship opportunities in your field of interest. You never know who will make the crucial connection that will get you started.

Be bold. If there is a particular company you know you want to intern for, call them up. Ask them if you could meet with them about being an intern. When you do this, be prepared to make a strong case for why you want to intern with them, and be ready to send them your resumé and cover letter.

Be inquisitive. During an interview, make sure you have questions for them as well. Prepare questions about the company and the internship program. Will you have an assigned mentor? What kinds of duties will you be expected to perform? How many hours will you work per week, and will you be paid? You’ll probably have to do some grunt work, sure, but you want to make sure you’re getting some experience that is germane to the particular career field, too. You don’t want to be stuck making copies all day and doing nothing else.

Be on time, never complain, and make your boss’s job easier. This goes for any job, really, but especially in internships you want to be the person whom everyone thinks of positively. The people you work with could very well be making hiring decisions in the future, or provide a valuable reference to you in future job applications. Make yourself valuable. Be reliable and friendly. Your goal should be that when they are looking to hire a new employee in the future, they think of you.

Follow up. Even after your internship is over, stay in touch with your contacts there. Drop them an email from time to time letting them know what you’re up to, and ask how things are going back at the company. You never know when they might have a job opening, or when they might know of an opening elsewhere that is a good fit for you. 

Justin’s 5 Essential Finals Studying Tips

ESM Mentor Justin Scott shares his 5 essential tips for studying for final exams. Don’t go into finals week without them. 

1) Rewrite your notes.

One of the biggest mistakes students make is trying to make sense of a whole semester by looking over their lesson-to-lesson or chapter notes. That’s the wrong approach. Condense your notes, using bullet points or short paragraphs with bolded terms. Give yourself something manageable to work with. The more streamlined and organized your notes are, the more you’ll be able to connect the dots on test day. Plus, the act of rewriting and reorganizing your notes will commit them to memory.

2) Turn your phone off

It’s 2015 and try as we might, none of us is free from technology’s vicegrip on our attention spans. The biggest favor you can do for yourself this finals season is to turn that phone off! We know – that’s really, really hard to do. But if you can manage it, you’ll be amazed at how much more efficiently you’ll study. Remember: 30 minutes of focused study is better than one hour of distracted study. The better you follow this rule, the less time you’ll have to spend hitting the books.

3) Partner up

Studying can be fun, believe it or not. Humans are social beings, and we’re no different when it comes to test preparation. Get together with a friend and use flashcards to nail key terminology or important historical events. Walk through challenging math problems and help your friend tackle any weaknesses. Working together has other, less obvious benefits, too. For example, you might not realize you’re weak in an area until you see it done right. Or you might learn that your friend has a great trick for remembering something tough.

4) Know what to expect

Every teacher is different, but at this point in the semester you’ve probably come to know yours pretty well. What have your unit tests looked like? What subjects does your teacher harp on again and again? Use the past to predict the future, and tailor your studying to fit what you expect to see on test day.

5) Ask Questions

If you don’t know what’s up, ask. Don’t go into the test with any uncertainty.

Alexandra’s Hard Work Pays Off – Or, How We Learned Standardized Test Requirements Aren’t Set in Stone.

By Dawson Henshaw / ESM Group

When Alexandra McGinnis got home from school in early November, her mom handed her the envelope she had been waiting for.  The magic words were enclosed: “Congratulations! You have been accepted for admission to The University of Mississippi.” She had done it. She will be joining her sister Addison in Oxford, Mississippi next fall.

When Alexandra began her college search she didn’t know where she wanted to go. That is, until she walked on to the Ole Miss campus for the first time to go on a campus tour with her older sister. The beautiful oak trees and that famous southern hospitality was all it took, she knew that’s where she needed to spend her next four years.  

There was only one problem: her stubborn standardized test scores. In grade school, her Education Records Bureau (ERB) testing feedback sheets always said she would struggle with standardized tests.  

“Ever since first grade, her teachers would tell us she works so hard but never does as well on her standardized tests, so that’s what makes her improvements such a huge deal,” her mom, Dory, says.  

On her first attempt at the SAT, Alexandra didn’t do as well as she had hoped. There was 230 points sitting between her and the admission requirements of dream school. She knew she had to get to work. 


Alexandra McGinnis

That was when her mom reached out to ESM mentor Rachel Presson. Rachel and Alexandra met on a weekly basis to work through practice problems, perfect time management strategies, and find ways to address her test anxiety.  In just three months she was able to increase her score by 150 points.  This was a huge improvement, but she needed to build on this and work even harder to get those last 80 points.  

She continued to meet with Rachel and work on different practice problems, scheduling out daily studying sessions up until her final SAT test last month.  She was able to improve another 60 points this time around – which left her 20 points lower than the requirement.

Alexandra sent these new scores to the admissions department, hoping for the best. When she talked to the admissions counselor on the phone they told her that even though she was still a few points short of the required scores, her improvement impressed them so much that they were willing to offer her admission. All of her hard work finally paid off.  

Alexandra will begin her freshman year at The University of Mississippi in 2016 where she plans to pursue a business degree, join a sorority, and be one step closer to her dream of living in New York City.

If Alexandra were to give advice to someone in a similar situation, she says you just have to “Practice, Practice, Practice! Take deep breaths and go one problem at a time.”    

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