Major/Minor's blog on the latest in college admissions and academic success. 
Yes, You Can Use Your Common App Essay for UC Applications. Here’s How:

By Lucas McAdams, ESM College Coach and Mentor

Essay writing during college application season can be a very time-consuming and draining process. Knowing that, we try to organize the process for our students as well as possible, ensuring that excellent essays are written, but also minimizing the amount of time and energy our students have to spend while doing so. One of the main ways this can be done is by re-purposing previously written essays for multiple essay prompts.

Here is a step-by-step process on re-purposing the personal statement for the Common App (CA) for use on the University of California application (UC). Of course, many of these recommendations can be applied to other applications, as well:

1) Finish your Common App personal statement. In all but a few scenarios, the personal statement for the CA should be the first piece of writing that you complete during your college application process. It’s the one essay that nearly every student will be required to write, and the prompts are broad enough to allow virtually any topic, making it a gentle introduction to the essay writing process.

2) Examine the UC Essay Prompts. Here are the two this year: (1) “Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations”, and (2) “Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?”. The first essay I will call the “community” essay, and the second I’ll refer to as the “talent” essay.

3) Decide which UC prompt is more closely aligned with the topic of your personal statement. The “community” essay works well for personal statements that discuss topics relating to a student’s upbringing or environment. The “talent” essay works well for personal statements that discuss topics relating to a student’s hobbies, passions, and extracurricular activities. Of course, it’s possible that your CA personal statement may not align well with either prompt; in that case, it’s usually best to start from scratch on both prompts rather than try to force the issue.

4) Make a plan for what you will write on the other UC prompt. This ensures that your two essays will complement each other well. You don’t want them to be redundant or contradictory.

5) Write the other essay first. Again, this ensures that the two essays will complement each other, but also it will give you a sense of how much you’ll need to cut from your CA personal statement for use on the UC prompt. The CA essay maximum length is 650 words, and most students usually run right up to that limit. The UC essays cannot add up to more than 1,000 words, and it’s typically best for the breakdown between the two UC essays to be between 500/500 and 600/400, so usually it is necessary for students to cut from their CA essay in order to apply it to the UC.

6) Once you’ve finished the other essay, or at least have a draft completed, begin to alter your CA essay. Ensure that the essay fits the UC prompt very closely. If it doesn’t, admissions officers will suspect that you simply copy and pasted another essay. That isn’t what we’re doing here; we’re adapting your original work for use in answering a related question. Let me emphasize this point: I have never seen a situation in which it was appropriate to use the exact same essay for two different applications. You should always make at least some minor changes to your previous work before using it again.

7) As always, have a mentor or essay editor review your work before submitting. The worst case scenario: you accidentally mention “CU Boulder” on your “UC Davis” application. Don’t be that guy.

Following these steps can ensure that you write high-quality essays in an efficient manner. Pay attention to the details; your future self will thank you for it!

What a Start-Up Camp for Urban Youths Taught Me

Tutorpedia educator Vivy Chao started her own camp for urban youths to launch start-up projects. Here’s what she learned in the process:

It’s 1999, and I’m sitting in an Advanced Placement history class.  I think to myself, “All this memorization and testing will make sense when I grow up. There’s a reason for all this that I don’t understand yet.”

I hated history class. I hated it with a deep passion. Class time involved the teacher – all 5 foot 3 inches of him – standing in front of the classroom, talking and talking and talking. Oh, there was a slide here and there, but the slides were usually filled with more words that were the same as the ones that were coming out of the teacher’s mouth.  It was excruciating sitting in this class because there was no rhyme or reason to why I had to memorize all the dates involving the French Revolution. FYI – I’ve yet to use the info I learned. Sorry, I never entered Jeopardy.  

When I became a teacher, I thought it was only going to be a brief stint—at least until I found a “real” job. I started out teaching SAT prep; then it was reading comprehension, writing, and grammar.  The more I taught, the more connected I felt to the students. I began listening to their stories.  All the kids had dreams of going to top colleges and had set intense goals of acing their SATs. Watching them reminded me of myself. Several years had passed since I had been sitting in the AP history class feeling completely disconnected from the subject and hating everything about school, but listening to my students made me realize that nothing had changed in the classroom.  During this period of time I grew more disillusioned about traditional learning environments and began questioning why students even went to school. The kids looked tired, anxious, and unhappy. When I began teaching at a California State University campus, I ran into the same problem—miserable students who didn’t see the value of their education.

Last year, I decided to build my own learning environment and started a nonprofit called Yang Camp. The purpose is to help urban youths learn how to launch startup projects of their own in low cost formats.  Much of this was taught with technology using the Lean Startup methodology.  I spent a summer building relationships around the city and once I had put together a curriculum that reflected my vision, I reached out to my contacts and asked if I could produce my program at their organizations and schools.  My pilot program introduced me to a subset of students that I previously had limited exposure–middle school students.  

The first day of class I walked onto an old high school campus that had been turned into the location for three different schools.  When I entered the classroom, I was welcomed by a lovely seventh grade boy:

    Boy: “Hi, who are you?”

    Me: “Ms. Vivy. I’m here for your entrepreneurship class. What is your name?”

    Boy: “I’m Bob.”

    Me: “Hi, Bob.”  <Bob proceeds to run off screaming and laughing.>

Once the class settled in I went through roll call and discovered I had over thirty students. Whoa! That was a lot at once. After I finished taking attendance, which took more than the three minutes that I had allotted in my head, I proceeded to go through my presentation with the students. Within thirty seconds I had to ask two students to stop talking. A few seconds later I looked up to see yet another student flicking hand-made paper balls at a classmate. I stared at the paper ball flicker, who noticed and quickly stopped. Approximately four minutes into my presentation I realized over half the class was not paying attention–many were fidgeting with their tablets or laptops, doing the I’m just taking notes and not playing on a computer game move. Shh! Is she looking at me?

Through this first program, I learned the art of setting boundaries. It’s an art form that involves understanding group dynamics, human psychology, and child development. I learned how to mold the most difficult students in class to some of the top ones by approaching them differently. I learned sending students to the principal’s office meant possibly breaking their trust. I also learned that if I spoke to the students like adults and laid down the facts and the consequences they were more open to accepting responsibility.  

In light of the physical altercation that happened between the South Carolina sheriff deputy and a student at a high school recently, schools should have their campus discipline plan at the top of their to-redo list. Schools are not prisons. In fact, for many students, schools are the one final bastion where they can be safe. At the same time, schools are also not a place where kids should be allowed to show disrespect without a teaching moment.  As Maya Angelou said, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

4 Essential Tips for the November SAT

The November SAT Test is right around the corner. For many high school seniors, this will be the last time to take the test before applying to college. Here are some tips from ESM’s Catherine Uy to help you prepare:

1. Flashcards for vocabulary - Vocabulary on the SAT reading section is extensive, and it’s very hard to learn many words in a short amount of time. Whether you use old school index cards or a flashcard app on your smartphone, it is important to study vocabulary words. Whenever you come across words you don’t know, look up the definition and make a new flashcard.

As you study, separate the words into two piles: words you know and words you still need to practice. Bring these flashcards with you wherever you go so you can study them whenever you have down time.

2. Answer the question asked - As you practice for the upcoming test, read the questions critically and be sure to answer the question asked. It seems like common sense, right?

This is especially important in the math section. Students often find “x” and immediately choose the answer that matches what they calculated, which is a trap. Often, the question is not asking for “x”, but asking for a different number that involves plugging “x” back into an expression.

3. Spend time reviewing the most frequently tested topics - For math, this means focusing your study time on algebra I and geometry. You will be able to score highly on the SAT math section if you have you these subjects down since the test hardly touches on algebra II. For the writing section, this would mean reviewing grammar and punctuation rules. Reading prep should be focused on reading comprehension and vocabulary.

4. Take a full-length, timed practice test - Practice is the key to success! Simulating the actual test as much as possible will not only help with testing jitters, but will also give you a feel for what to expect on test day and what areas you need to work on before taking the actual test. The College Board’s official SAT tests are the best source for these timed practice tests.

We highly recommend that you make studying for the SAT a priority starting today and keep these tips in mind as you prepare.

Need some personalized help? Give ESM a call at (866) 878-1491 or drop us a line at and we’ll pair you with an SAT expert who can work with you one-on-one and help you score higher.

Why You Shouldn’t Take the New SAT - Two Perspectives From ESM Mentors

The College Board is completely changing the SAT. Beginning March of 2016, students will see an SAT that is intentionally more similar to the ACT. The most significant change is that the test will now have four longer sections: Reading, Writing/Language, Math (no calculator), and Math (with calculator). The College Board will make the essay optional, where students will be tasked with literary analysis. Vocabulary will still be tested on the new SAT, but it will be less archaic and more relevant to words used in your college and career experience. The reading questions found on the new SAT are also more grounded in real world scenarios, including history and science. The math sections are expanding to include more advanced math topics such as complex numbers and more advanced trigonometry. Although the vocabulary will be updated, the reading section will always contain a US founding document in every test. Timing has also been changed to a less restrictive time for each section, which makes for a longer test.


By Catherine Uy, ESM Academic Mentor

While these changes are for the better and long overdue, they create a set of uncertainties that students should consider before taking the new SAT. There are a limited amount of study materials available to help you prepare for the new SAT. College Board has released a few sample practice tests, but you won’t see an official, previously administered new SAT test until after March 2016. This lack of official tests will make it difficult to do any serious amount of prep.

Another consequence of a new test is the high level of uncertainty. If you plan on taking the new SAT in March 2016, be prepared to wait two months for your scores. College Board is waiting for more data to analyze before releasing the initial scores. If you are planning to take this test as a junior, delayed test scores won’t leave you much time to retest since you should be focusing on college applications after your junior year. After taking all these factors into consideration, we at ESM strongly believe that it is not a good year to take the new SAT.


By Lucas McAdams, ESM College Coach and Academic Mentor

College admissions is an innately uncontrollable process. Even when executed perfectly, there are always factors outside of our control. We can decide where to apply; we can write the best essays; we can study for the ACT and take it a dozen times - but in the end, luck always plays a factor. There’s always someone sitting in some room, in some building, on some campus, choosing one person between three or four qualified applicants. At that point, all we can do is hope that our application is chosen.

As a college counselor, when I think about this innately uncontrollable process, my instinct is to try to control every last thing that I can. It’s with that spirit in mind that I am pushing families away from taking this spring’s new SAT.

There are two main factors in play here:

1) Put yourself in the position of the college admissions officer judging the high school class of 2016. Let’s say that you have to choose between two qualified applicants, who in nearly every respect are identical: same GPA, same extracurriculars, same course load, same high school. They both scored in the 90th percentile on standardized tests; the only difference is that one student took the ACT, and one student took the new SAT. Who would you choose? Would you take the student who achieved her score on the test that has been used for more than a decade, on which you know the scores are verifiable and consistent across generations of students? Or would you take the student who achieved her score on the test in literally its first installment, on which you knew very little about what the scores actually signified? Obviously you would lean toward the student with the more proven score.

This begs the question: what is the College Board doing to make these initial scores more verifiable? That leads me to the second major factor in play:

2) The College Board has already announced that it isn’t going to release the scores from the March 2016 test until after the May 2016 test, allowing it to score the tests more consistently and give college admissions officers more confidence in interpreting those initial scores. Yes, this will help with our first factor (though not much). More than that, though, it’s going to be frustrating for families - for parents, for students, for college counselors - to take a test in March and not receive the scores back until late May or early June, in some cases until after the student’s spring semester has ended. Again, it relinquishes control that we should have. Control over the decision making process in terms of planning how much more studying a student needs to do, what test he’s going to take, if he can go on vacation after the school year, or if he needs to plan to take the June test.

Finally, a quick note to those considering taking the “old” SAT, currently being offered until March: it is likely that a handful of schools will not accept these scores for students in the class of 2016. Virginia Tech became the first school to publically announce this decision, and I expect more to follow in the coming weeks - meaning that it’s better, again, just to focus on the ACT from the beginning.

Take control of the college admissions process when and how you can.

Don’t be a guinea pig for the College Board. 

3 Steps to Starting the School Year Off Right

ESM’s Justin Scott (above) shares three sure-fire ways to start this year out on the right foot:

It’s September, which means students everywhere are saying those three dreaded words: summer is over. Yes, here in California, the heat and sun will carry on, but students from Stockton to San Diego are filing back into school classrooms for another year of enrichment and challenges.

We want to take this opportunity to remind everyone how important it is to start the school year off on the right foot. Here’s what that looks like:

1) De-clutter. Keep your workspace clean, and keep your backpack organized. Save yourself the headache of lost worksheets and jumbled notes – keep everything in its right place and you will find it easier to get stuff done.

“Messy stuff irritates me. I don’t like messiness. If you leave something around my house, I’ll tell you to move it back, clean it up, throw it in the trash - just get rid of it. I need stuff neat, organized. And once I start cleaning stuff, I don’t stop until it’s done.”  – Russell Westbrook

2) Get a calendar. Calendars will help you keep track of important dates without having to balance all of that information in your head. This is 2015, so go with a digital calendar like Google Calendar (Free; Check it out – G-Cal has some great features that can help you stay on top of your assignments, test dates, weekend trips, and workload. For example, you can color code your commitments by type, set reminders that will automatically text or e-mail you, and even set up group meetings that automatically notify participants. By creating a visual representation of your schedule, you’ll have a better idea of when you’re busy or not – meaning you’ll make better choices about when and when not to be social.

“For every minute spent organizing, an hour is earned.” -Anonymous

Of course, to fill your calendar, you’re going to want to know the most important dates of the year. If you’re a junior or senior, those will include SAT/ACT test dates, AP test dates, and college application deadlines. If you’re a freshman or sophomore, those might include project due dates, club fairs, or college info nights.

3) Set goals. One of the best ways to stay focused and organized for the year is to set goals. What kind of student do you want to be? How hard do you want to push yourself? Will you stay in that one weekend to bump the B+ to an A-? Come up with actionable goals and write them down. Make them visible on a daily basis. If you can see the promises you made to yourself every time you sit down at your desk, you will be more likely to keep them.

“Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.” – Tony Robbins

For underclassmen, the process of planning and organizing may seem like it can wait. But take it from us: the students who get organized and serious about their goals early have a smoother ride through high school. That shouldn’t be surprising: if you’re organized and committed in 9th grade, chances are you’re going to rise above your fellow students academically. Then, come 11th and 12th grade, you won’t be scrambling to make up for lost time – you’ll be comfortably reaching lofty goals and setting new, higher ones. Don’t be the stressed-out senior frantically trying to make up for two disorganized years that resulted in weak freshman and sophomore years.

“Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.” – Immanuel Kant

Nobody expects students to have all of this down pat – after all, most adults are still figuring out how to most effectively plan and organize their lives. Yet that’s why it’s so important to start now: habits are hard to establish, but once you’ve made them routine, they are much easier to maintain. 

Five Tips for the New ACT Essay Format

By Jordan Wolf-Dodson, ESM Academic Mentor


Starting this September, the ACT will introduce a new Enhanced Writing Test.

Prior to fall 2015, students had 30 minutes to write an essay about a high school topic and argue their opinion. Essays were scored on a 2-12 point scale.

Now, students will have 40 minutes to analyze a complex societal issue and 3 given perspectives on that issue, as well as argue their own perspective. Essay scores will be based on 4 categories (Ideas & Analysis, Development & Support, Organization, and Language Use & Conventions) each on a 2-12 point scale. These scores will then be converted to a scaled score out of 36, just like the other four ACT sections.
See an official prompt and sample essays on the ACT website:

Here are my tips on how to successfully tackle these changes:

1. Spend 3-5 minutes outlining your essay. The new prompt gives you a page specifically for outlining, so it’s important!

2. Use specific examples to support or refute perspectives. If you’re at a loss for examples, refer to the ones given in the first paragraph of the prompt.

3. Address the three given perspectives clearly in your essay.

4. Choose one of the given perspectives as your own argument. This can save you valuable time, since you won’t have to address a fourth perspective too.

5. Spend 2-3 minutes proofreading at the end. Obvious spelling and grammar mistakes can lower your Language Use & Conventions score.

Good luck and happy writing!

How to Write a Personal Statement for College Applications

Forget the prompt. There’s usually a list of six or seven prompts.  One might resonate.  But it’s not your job to answer it.  There’s no right or wrong answer to a personal statement. Nobody is judging you on how well you answer the prompt.  In fact, nobody is judging you, period.  

Just be you. Presenting yourself as who you are is your best bet in the college admissions process. The personal statement is nothing more than a conversation.  You get fifteen minutes (or 650 words) to show them who you are. Stay focused on you.

Write like you talk. In school, you’re probably avoiding contractions and evading jargon. When you hear “essay,” you probably think “introduction, body, conclusion.” You know the five-paragraph analytic essay structure by heart. Great news: forget all of it. The way we talk is incredibly indicative of who we are. How we communicate makes us who we are.  And remember, that’s your goal. Show them who you are– the words you use, the subjects you prioritize, the tone and attitude you take. It’s all about attitude.

It’s a process. 10% writing, 90% rewriting. When you reach that final draft, they’ll probably be only a few sentences you still recognize.  So how do you get there?  Expand! Expand! Expand! Forget about the word count. It takes a lot of words and a lot of steps to arrive at really great details. It takes many unnecessary sentences to find that one very useful sentence. A great essay feels polished at 1000 words. Then it’s cut down to 650.

Sure, there are brands. Feeling frazzled by this “just be you!” and “don’t worry too much,” mindset?  Well, good news: personal statements tend to emulate one of three archetypes.  Often, the prompts push you towards one or another. There’s the “Critical Reflection” type, where your statement is a discussion or argument. There’s the “narrative,” where your essay tells a story, shows a moment, or narrates a journey. There’s the “poetic” archetype, which reads like a philosophical discussion, a creative splatter of words and paragraphs. You’ll settle into one that fits the kind of thinker you are. This will happen organically. No archetype is better or worse for showing any

Don’t worry about originality. There are great, interesting, compelling essays on hackneyed, ordinary subjects. And there are terrible essays on really original topics. It doesn’t matter how “different” your story is. It’s how you tell it that’s important.

Parents, stay off the page. You’ll want to help, of course. This is a critical time in your child’s life. But, do you want your kid attending a college that accepts them for who they are, or one that accepts them for who you are? Writing a great personal statement demands a lot of vulnerability. Colleges want your kids to show themselves raw and unfiltered on a page. For any parent, that’s terrifying. But the only way a kid will get there, is feeling they won’t be judged for what they put on the page. What can you do? Plant the seeds that get them thinking about who they are. Everyone has a story they tell about your kid. You’ve got many more than a dozen. Tell them those stories. Somewhere in there is the kernel of a really great essay. Let them find it.

For more reading: Use These Two Words On Your College Essay To Get Into Harvard

ESM Group Acquires Tutorpedia

July 30th, 2015

Dear Valued ESM Clients,

I have some exciting news to share with you today: ESM is proud to announce that we have completed the acquisition of Tutorpedia, a San Francisco-based educational services firm.

As you can imagine this has been months in the making, and we’re very excited to be adding the Tutorpedia team to our growing ESM family. For over a decade Tutorpedia has been an industry leader, helping thousands of students in the Bay Area prepare for standardized tests and improve academic performance.

What will this mean for you as a current ESM client?

ESM’s roster of talented and dedicated academic mentors will expand significantly. As a result, our breadth of expertise will deepen and broaden across all our service offerings. We will be bringing more exceptional educators into the ESM family who can help students in all of our regions achieve their educational goals.

This transition will be seamless and our clients won’t encounter any visible changes. We are working harder than ever to make sure our students have the most opportunities possible to be successful in their quest to find their right-fit college.

I want to thank each and every one of you, our current and past clients, for the trust and faith you have put in me and everyone at ESM over the years. It means everything to us. It’s your faith and trust that has allowed us to expand like we have.

If you have any questions about this development, or anything else, please reach out. I’m always available directly at or (916) 801-0603.


Billy Downing

Founder & CEO, ESM Group 

How Social Media Can Help You Get Into College

Some think that social media can only be harmful to students applying to college, seeking jobs, or exploring scholarship opportunities. An endless stream of articles on the internet suggests getting rid of your social media account altogether.

Fortunately, there are other creative options that will allow you to maintain a social presence online while presenting your best self to college admissions boards. By striking the right balance between personal and professional, you can use social media to portray yourself as the ideal candidate to the college of your choice.

Express your enthusiasm

If you’re like most high school students, you’re really excited about your upcoming transition to college—so why not show it? Why it may seem unlikely that college admissions counselors are viewing your social media profiles, it is happening more and more, so try expressing your school spirit online.

Post photographs of you in school gear, on campus, holding your application, etc. You’ll prove to your college that you’re excited, enthusiastic, and ready to move in!

Link to thoughtful articles

While many people use social media as a personal soapbox, college admissions counselors might like to see you engaging in academia outside a formal setting. By posting articles about issues you care about (especially as they relate to your educational experience), you prove that you are engaged in a larger world and concerned about things happening outside of yourself.

Avoid aggressive, negative, and offensive articles, but don’t be afraid to present your beliefs in a thoughtful, articulate way.

Complete your profile

No, we’re not talking about that lengthy album of selfies you’ve regretfully neglected this summer—but there is room to update your profiles to reflect your larger self. Depending on the social media outlet, you may be able list past and present jobs, books you enjoy, or causes you’re passionate about.

Take the time to complete your profile to reflect the reasons you might be right for a particular college.

Curate your photographs

Sure, a family bbq may well be worth photographing and, while it won’t negatively influence a college’s perception of you, it won’t do much to sway them either. Social media is, at it’s core, a carefully curated version of ourselves we choose to present to the world, so take that a step further.

If you’re actively involved in community service, leadership activities, or meaningful employment, snap a few photographs and post them for your friends, families, and college admissions committees to enjoy.  Comment or caption with relevant material about how the experience has impacted your life, decision making, or personal growth.

The bottom line

If there’s some question about the appropriateness of what you’re posting, you may not want to post it. Alternatively, you can adjust your privacy settings, but you would be wise to continue posting with some caution. Think of ways you will make your grandmother proud—and make them a part of your social media profile.

College admissions procedures aren’t what they were even ten years ago, and that’s okay. By paying careful attention to the image you’re presenting to the world (even the online one), you won’t jeopardize your chances at a particular school and—better yet—you just might impress them. 

9 Important Changes to the SAT You Need to Know About.

More information is becoming available about the revamped SAT, and ESM’s own Lucas McAdams has been digging through it. Here are 9 changes you should know about if you’re taking or considering taking the new test:

  1. The reading and writing sections will be recombined. That section and the math section will both be out of 800 points (total back to 1600).
  2. Vocabulary will be more “relevant” (read: less archaic).
  3. Math problems will be more “relevant” (to college/career scenarios). 
  4. The reading/writing section will place a heavier emphasis on using evidence from the passages.
  5.  More problems will be grounded in “real world scenarios." 
  6. Science and history/social studies will be sprinkled into each section (including math). 
  7. At least one of the "US founding documents” (Declaration of Independence, Federalist Papers, etc.) will be sampled in each test. 
  8. The (now optional) essay will require students to analyze a source - “students will explain how an author builds an argument to persuade an audience” - like a basic literary analysis essay. The prompt will be shared ahead of time, with only the source material changing.
  9. No more guessing penalty. 

More than anything, it seems that the College Board is trying to make the SAT more contemporary and relate-able to students, while supporting more skills being taught in classrooms on a daily basis. 

The new test will first be administered in March 2016.

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