Major/Minor's blog on the latest in college admissions and academic success. 
How a passionate conservative wound up at UC Berkeley – and loves it


Madeline Dyer never planned to apply to UC Berkeley. Like many high school students she thought it was out of her league, and probably not the right fit for her, given Berkeley’s reputation as a liberal mecca and Madeline’s passion for conservative politics.

But apply she did, at the encouragement of ESM Group founder and Senior College Counselor Billy Downing.

“Maddie wanted the ‘big school’ experience, and she is very competitive and very intelligent. Plus, for California residents, Berkeley is a great value. So I suggested she consider it.” Billy said.

And thanks to that guidance, Madeline is now thriving as a sophomore in Berkeley.

Maddie just finished her term as Public Relations Chair at her sorority, Alpha Delta Pi. She’s on the board for the Berkeley College Republicans and California College Republicans, works in student government, and tutors elementary school students through the Sage Mentorship Project once a week. She’s studying American politics and will spend this summer in Washington DC interning for the Institute on Business and Government Affairs.

Madeline was a driven student in high school, but one who had difficulty obtaining the kinds of SAT scores she wanted. She struggled too with identifying the particular kind of school and college experience she wanted for herself. And then, upon the recommendation of friends, she met Billy.

“Billy connected me with an SAT prep tutor who was a huge help. They really helped me raise my scores higher than I expected to on my own, and when I met Billy, he helped me figure out what I was looking for in a college—where I should apply and where I could be focusing my energies,” Madeline says.

She said she’s been able to maintain that focus she developed with the help of ESM, excelling academically and in her life outside of school.

When she graduates, Madeline wants to work in energy policy, preferably for a multinational corporation in their government affairs division. Madeline is quick to acknowledge the global nature of climate change and energy policy, and hopes to help America become a global leader in policy enactment. She sees herself traveling the world, meeting with international leaders to, as she puts it, “figure out how the bad guys like big oil companies can actually be vehicles for change.”

“If it hadn’t been for Billy pushing me to apply to Cal, to go outside my comfort zone and be more confident in myself, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Madeline said.


Madeline with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

Meet the Mentor: Ted Robinson

Ted Robinson in 2011 at the Colosseum in Rome, Italy on a family trip.

Ted joined ESM as an academic mentor in the San Francisco Bay Area after graduating from Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. He answers our questions here:

You’re a hockey player from Long Island, New York who went to college at Tulane in New Orleans. What was the biggest adjustment for you in the Big Easy?

The pace. Then the cultural differences. I had so much going on when I was in high school, two sports in a season, a part time job, school clubs, but that was the norm. Everything was half speed when you interacted with locals in New Orleans. Campus life at Tulane is a relatively accurate sample size of the US so we had students from all over the map. But when you go off campus you are in the heart of the south – the music, art and creole influences are absolutely noticeable. I grew up hanging out in pizzerias, playing ice hockey, and embracing the seasons. In New Orleans, I was in an environment of parades, festivals, college football and real humid southern weather.

After Katrina you worked as a teaching assistant in public high schools in New Orleans. What did you learn through that experience that informs your mentoring work today?

I learned that when I was able to demonstrate to my students that I cared about helping them improve, they gave me their attention. Before class began, I was able to prepare for essay workshops and statistics lessons so I knew what the class was learning on that given day. I am now able to employ these skills into my meetings with ESM students. It makes a huge difference!

Why did you decide to pursue academic mentorship as a profession after graduating from college?

I believe that improvement in a certain area after putting in hard work is the single greatest achievement you can make personally. Academic mentorship is the best job I could have that celebrates this sense of accomplishment with someone other than yourself.

What subject do you enjoy teaching the most?

English and chemistry. I enjoy analyzing and discussing an author’s view on an issue and a student’s opinion on that issue. I’m passionate about writing techniques: imagery, metaphors, symbolism, point-of-view and tone. I think it’s a real talent to be able to form an educated opinion on a certain theme that answers an essay prompt or even incorporating it into your own life. I also love the elements. Knowing chemical reactions and connecting their symbols to their common uses and real world functions is really exciting for me.

You drove out from New York to join us at ESM in the San Francisco Bay Area. How was that drive?

I drove that in two legs, from New York to New Orleans and New Orleans to San Francisco. I’m going to be honest: it wasn’t much fun, I was more focused on swift travel than on sight-seeing. I was able to take a road trip with my friends this past summer. That drive was much much better. My favorite state is Arizona, the canyons and rivers are sensational.

Best band you’ve seen live in the bay area:

Rise Against. I saw them at the Fox Theater in Oakland. The lead singer makes a big effort to talk to the audience, he’s like a motivational speaker who impressively incorporates positivity in music.

ESM Opens Learning Center in Orange County


The center, located in San Juan Capistrano at 27130 Paseo Espada (above), will serve as an after-school and weekend location for ESM’s clients to work with talented ESM academic mentors in southern California.

In addition to serving as a venue for ESM’s customized, one-on-one, mentorship-based academic tutoring services, the space will also allow for small-group work and practice tests and classes.

“The facility will really allow us to expand our educational offerings in the area,” said ESM founder and CEO Billy Downing. “It’s going to be a great venue for learning.”

A growing client base in the area necessitated the opening of the Learning Center, and is the second one operated by ESM. The Sacramento location opened in June of 2014 to serve families in the Central Valley.

To service the new students, ESM recently brought on several new academic mentors in Orange County, including Justin Scott, Christian Lawrence, and Brennan Buchan who will join ESM veteran Chelsea Azevedo to help boost student achievement.

Meet the Mentor: Monica and Math


By Monica Kendall

I love math.

That’s a strange thing to hear. I’m always taken aback when someone says that.

I tell people that I majored in math in college and usually all I hear is a long sigh followed by a drawn out, “I hate math!”

That’s a really strange thing to say to someone who has just told you what their passion is. But it’s part of how we relate to each other – talking about hating math.  So when someone says this to me, I just smile because I understand. Math is hard. And it is nice to commiserate.

But, I don’t hate it anymore. Now, It relaxes me. It’s consistency calms me.

Haruki Murakami says it so well:

Math is like water. It has a lot of difficult theories, of course, but its basic logic is very simple. Just as water flows from high to low over the shortest possible distance, figures can only flow in one direction. You just have to keep your eye on them for the route to reveal itself. That’s all it takes. You don’t have to do a thing. Just concentrate your attention and keep your eyes open, and the figures make everything clear to you. In this whole, wide world, the only thing that treats me so kindly is math.

There is a flow that math takes, and there’s a flow you can enter when working on math problems. You might have experienced with something else like basketball, painting, or playing the guitar. It’s as if your brain shuts off and you’re entirely absorbed and present with what you’re doing.

But as with anything else, it takes practice to get to that point. Math takes practice. It’s not something you are usually inherently or immediately gifted with. As painting takes practice, as free throws take practice, math takes practice. You might need to solve for “y” a thousand times before it feels like you know what you’re doing.

Unfortunately, most of us grow up with this idea that math is something you must be built to do. I always assumed that I was not built to do it. Everyone said it was so hard. So when I didn’t understand it right away, I labeled my brain as a “non-math brain”. And when my teachers explained things to me, I would zone out at the first hint of a difficult concept.

“There she goes again talking about functions. This is where I’m just too dumb,” I would say to myself.

But I was not too dumb – I was getting in my own way.

One time, while I was slogging through a pre-calculus class and crying a lot as a result, I recognized that I had kind of a bad attitude. I realized that I was approaching math with expectations of failure and embarrassment. That expectation was fulfilling itself dutifully, as self-expectations tend to do. I was too afraid of failing or even of asking a stupid question to let myself learn.

So, I decided to pretend that I could do it and that I loved math. I began writing down everything my teacher put on the board to force myself to pay attention. I allowed myself to make mistakes so long as I learned from them. I asked questions in class as if everyone else was wondering the same thing (they were).

Pretty soon, I was fascinated! Small pieces were coming together for me, and I began to see math as a puzzle.  This is when math started to feel like relaxation. The pressure had eased a bit, and I began to enjoy math for its own sake. I found that I could turn on my music and work on math problems for hours while having a pretty good time.

Math is now just about the simplest thing I can do. These days, the objectivity of math feels like a vacation from the subjective complexity of everything else happening around me.

I want everyone to have this much fun!

Monica Kendall ( is an academic mentor for the ESM Group in Portland, OR.

ESM adding new coaches, mentors

With 15 years of experience counseling students in public and private high schools, Jennifer Rasmussen joins the ESM Group as Senior College Coach.

Jennifer Rasmussen

“We are thrilled to add Jennifer to our team of mentors and coaches,” said ESM Group founder and CEO Billy Downing. “Jennifer’s experience, expert knowledge, and counseling skills are going to be a huge asset for our students.”

Jennifer’s passion, commitment, organizational abilities and patience are utilized every single day as a full-time senior counselor at Jesuit High School, a college preparatory school in Sacramento. She says she loves working with students to prepare them for their journey into college, and helping them find the one that fits their aspirations the best.

She is a graduate of CSU, Sacramento with a M.S. in counselor education and B.A. in childhood development.  She also has a Pupil Personnel Services (PPS) Credential.

A wife, mother, and athlete, Jennifer enjoys training for and competing in marathons and triathlons.

Jennifer joins a growing roster of ESM mentors and counselors in California. The company also added numerous academic mentors in September, including Christian Lawrence, a graduate of Biola University, and Yale graduates Justin Scott and Tyler Guse.

Meet the Mentor: Lucas McAdams
Your city: I just moved to Oakland, CA from Portland, OR. ESM’s CEO, Billy Downing, somehow convinced me to leave the city I was raised in (and still love) - but I’m glad he did. I’m excited to be here!

Your favorite thing about the Bay Area so far: The view. I had no idea this place was so beautiful.
One thing you wish you could take with you from Portland: Wow, that’s hard. One thing? With apologies to my family, my friends, the rain, craft beer, Taste Ticker sandwiches, and intelligent urban planning, I have to go with Portland Timbers games. As a soccer fan in the US, there’s really nothing comparable. Wait, maybe that’s a little selfish - should I go with the rain? Or would people down here actually hate me for that? Ah, this is too hard!
Degrees earned, colleges attended: In 2011 I graduated from the University of Oregon (quack quack) with a major in Political Science and minors in Business and Computer Science. 
Why you’ve decided to work for ESM: Though my degree choices in college wouldn’t have told you this, working with students has always been my passion. I love coaching, mentoring, and teaching, and ESM is a great combination of all of those things. 
The subjects you specialize in: SAT/ACT, math, English, and astronomy. True, I have never tutored anyone in astronomy (aside from my girlfriend as she struggled through ASTR 123 in college, a story she still hates when I bring up), but when the opportunity arises, I’ll be ready!
Trailblazers prediction for 2014/15: Regular season W-L: 59-23. Third seed in the West. Will beat the Grizzlies in the first round and the Clippers in the conference semi-finals. Will lose in seven games to the Spurs in the conference finals. Lamarcus Aldridge will finish 2nd in MVP voting; Damian Lillard will finish 5th. Nic Batum will average 15.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 6.1 assists… should I continue?
Dish you cook to impress your girlfriend: I’m just an awful cook - my girlfriend does nearly all of the cooking for us. I’m a darn good dishwasher, though! If I had to make something to impress her (though the simple fact of me making her something would probably do the trick), it would include a BBQ and some red meat. Pretty impressive, right?

How a scout would describe your basketball game: McAdams’ best attributes are the intangibles: communication, leadership, etc. At 5'11", he’s often undersized, but rarely backs down to a difficult match-up. A too-streaky but still dangerous shooter, and more oddly, a streaky passer; a spectacular bounce-pass assist will sometimes be directly followed by an ill-advised turnover. More than anything, he’s a competitor, and will hopefully make a much better coach than player someday.
Can you vote in UK elections?: I need to look into that. My father was born in Oxford, and by a miracle stroke that entitles me to a UK passport; I just received my first earlier this year. I haven’t made it across the pond yet, but when I do, voting is one of the first things I’ll look into. Why not? I always have loved politicians who aren’t afraid to scream at each other.
We're Growing

ESM’s academic mentorship service is expanding, and we’re adding new mentors throughout California.

Today, we welcome Christian Nathaniel Lawrence and Justin Scott in southern California:

Christian was born in southern California but lived in Trinidad and Tobago for ten years of his childhood. He says this experience dramatically shaped his joy of engaging people from varied cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

At age 16 he moved back to Redlands, CA with his family and finished junior and senior years of high school before heading to Biola University for undergraduate studies in mathematics. Christian considered both engineering and medicine, but found his calling in math education instead. After graduating he taught math Glen A. Wilson High School in Hacienda Heights, CA for five years.

“Teaching high school math for five years was very rewarding both as an academic mentor and as a life-mentor for so many students. Words cannot express how blessed I feel to have had the window and voice in so many young adults’ lives through teaching in high school,” he said.

For the next step in his life Christian is studying to become an actuary, a mathematician for insurance companies. He joins ESM as an academic mentor as he prepares to take rigorous actuarial exams. 

Justin Scott earned his Masters in African studies from Yale University in 2013, focusing on energy and environmental issues in West Africa. He earned a Bachelors in English Literature from Georgetown University in 2010, where he also ran a unit of the largest student-run business in the world “Students of Georgetown, Inc.”

Justin comes to ESM with a long history of teaching, tutoring, and college counseling, from classrooms in Sub-Saharan Africa to one-on-one settings in Washington, DC. He has a track record of success in each of these locations. In 2011 one of his low-income mentees in DC earned a prestigious Gates scholarship to Northwestern University.

Most recently, Justin has worked as a teaching assistant and grader at UCLA and Yale. He knows what top colleges are looking for, and he knows how to maximize applicants’ potential. He has a passion for helping students edit their essays and develop their creative voices, and his broad skillset allows him to tutor students in subjects ranging from SAT and ACT prep to English, European history, and American history.

Outside of the classroom, Justin enjoys running, playing basketball, producing electronic music, analyzing baseball statistics, surfing, and backpacking.

Meet the Mentor: Elena Coupal
We’ve started a occasional new series at ESM called “Meet the Mentor” where we will profile one of our mentors in a question-and-answer format.
Elena Coupal has agreed to be the first. Here’s all about Elena:
Your cityI was born and raised in Sacramento, I completed my undergraduate studies in San Diego, and now I’m attending graduate school in Salt Lake City, UT.
Degrees earned, colleges attended: I graduated from Saint Francis High School in Sacramento in 2008 (Summa Cum Laude), and I earned my B.S. in Biochemistry/Chemistry with a minor in Literature/Writing from UC San Diego in 2012. I’m currently working on my M.S. in Genetic Counseling at the University of Utah and expect to graduate in May 2016. 
How long you’ve been with ESM: Two wonderful years and counting! 
The subjects in which you mentor students: SAT, SAT Subject, ACT, and AP test preparation, chemistry, biology, mathematics up to calculus, English, history, literature, Spanish, religion and philosophy, study skills, economics, and psychology. 
Your favorite childhood activity: Building forts, playing in the mud, traipsing about the neighborhood with my friends, swimming, sneaking around the house in the middle of the night to find my parents’ hidden stashes of chocolate, and reading voraciously! 
Hobby you’re most passionate about: I collect and breed various species of tarantulas. Most recently I collaborated with JR’s Invertebrates to breed the Maraca cabocla (Brazilian redhead) species, and we produced the fifth captive born and bred egg sac in the US! The spiderlings (or “s'lings” for short) are adorable :) 
Where you will be 10 years from now: In ten years I’ll be practicing as a Genetic Counselor, hopefully owning a house, with a menagerie of pets (and maybe a kiddo or two!). 
Sweet or savory: Sweet! I have the biggest sweet tooth. It’s a problem. 
How your grandma would describe you, in one word: “Testarossina!” My Nonna (Italian grandmother) made up this word, which loosely translates to “my little hot red Ferrari treasure." 
Your approach to academic mentorship, in one sentence: Helping students achieve their goals by building rapport, providing collaborative guidance, striving for success, and fostering a life-long passion for learning.
Favorite Sunday afternoon activity: Besides sleeping in, I love to swim, go blues dancing, and explore thrift shops with friends!
Trend or Aberration?

Should Colleges Use Admissions Criteria Other Than SAT Scores and Grades?


  • Bard College, a prestigious liberal arts college in upstate New York, will offer students admission if they can write four 2,500-word research papers that earn a B+ or better by the college’s standards. That means no need to worry about low grades or SAT scores.

Is Bard onto something? Should colleges use other admissions criteria instead of SAT scores and grades to find the best candidates?

In “Didn’t Ace SAT? Just Design Microbe Transplant Research,” Ariel Kaminer writes about Bard’s new experiment in college admissions.

High school seniors with poor grades and even worse SAT scores, you may be just what one of the nation’s most prestigious liberal arts colleges is looking for.

You need not be president of the debate club or captain of the track team. No glowing teacher recommendations are required. You just need to be smart, curious and motivated, and prove it with words — 10,000 words, in the form of four, 2,500-word research papers.

The research topics are formidable and include the cardinal virtue of ren in Confucius’s “The Analects,” “the origin of chirality (or handedness) in a prebiotic life,” Ezra Pound’s view of “The Canterbury Tales,” and how to design a research trial using microbes transplanted from the human biome. If professors deem the papers to be worthy of a B+ or better by the college’s standards, you are in.

The college is Bard, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and it says the new option, which has not previously been announced but is to begin this fall, is an attempt to return the application process to its fundamental goal: rewarding the best candidates, rather than just those who are best able to market themselves to admissions committees.


  • Should colleges use other admissions criteria instead of SAT scores and grades to find the best candidates? Do you think Bard College’s experiment is a good one?
  • Do you think that SAT scores or grades are the best indicators of who will be successful in college? Why?
  • Look at the sample topics for research papers that Bard is offering to applicants. Do you think you could do well writing these research papers?
  • If you were a college admissions officer, what criteria would you deem most important when looking at an applicant? How would you select which candidates to admit to your college?

Other things matter besides just grades and test scores!

Build Entrepreneurial Experience Before Applying to College

Many of the most competitive colleges actively seek students who are leaders. After all, the best colleges are inundated with applications from bright, motivated students with excellent grades and test scores, so some other factor is needed to distinguish candidates.

The call for leadership goes along with the mission of many institutions of higher learning that seek not only to educate, but also to make the world a better place by positively affecting the next generation of leaders. Focusing on potential leaders allows an educational institution to spread the effect of their investment in the student out into the wider world.

This effect is referred to as “leverage” – using a relatively small investment to produce an outsized result.

Entrepreneurial experiences are one of the most remarkable and beneficial ways high school students can stand out from their peers. Typical high-achieving high school students will demonstrate their leadership potential by seeking roles in student government, heading clubs or even through volunteering with community groups.

Entrepreneurship, though, takes a different sort of leadership. Starting a business is much riskier and requires substantially more courage and innovation than stepping into a ready-made role at an existing organization.

Even starting a business where you’re the only employee shows evidence of leadership by example. That student has demonstrated that he or she sees a problem or inefficiency and has the imagination and wherewithal to attempt a solution, the exact characteristics that are desired by admissions departments of top-tier colleges.

So what exactly counts as entrepreneurship, and how successful must a student be in a business?

The good news is that entrepreneurship doesn’t need to include an actual business at all.

For example, a student could use programming skills to develop a website that simplifies community outreach for a nonprofit organization. Or he or she could design an online system that allows local stores and restaurants to notify the food bank when surplus food is available for pickup.

A lower-tech example might be a student who organizes peers to read to younger students in an after-school program for disadvantaged children. Successful projects often rely on existing resources that are used in new and original ways. This type of social entrepreneurship depends on innovation, organization and drive – the desire to take charge rather than just wait for results.

Many high school students started successful businesses by marketing to their peers or to society at large. And a handful have become wealthy because of their startup ventures.

One high school student who grew tired of his phone battery running out invented a wind-powered battery charger that could be mounted on his bicycle’s handlebars. It was a simple, elegant solution using off-the-shelf technology in novel ways. But innovation could be as simple as running bake sales with the option of bicycle delivery.

Keep in mind though that the majority of small business startups fail – if making money were easy, everyone would be doing it. But even if students do fail, the experience gained is still valuable and well worth the time invested.

Regardless of the venture you attempt, it is critically important to cultivate and maintain relationships throughout. Not only will these relationships form the basis of the next startup attempt, but you can call on them for letters of recommendation when applying to college. 

Every applicant will have recommendation letters from teachers or coaches, but very few will have testimonials to the drive and dedication required to start and run a business or social program. What matters from a college applications standpoint is that a prospective student showed initiative and had the courage to try something new.

Even an unprofitable attempt at running a business shows more willingness to take risks than the student who stayed on the well-trodden path of student government and club leadership.

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