College Admissions

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dream school.

ESM's mission is to help students across the world gain admission to the right school for them, from Princeton to Purdue to Pepperdine.

Our mentors are passionate about helping students find the schools at which they'll be happiest—whether they are known as "elite schools" or not. Rankings matter, but waking up every morning happy and ready to learn matters more.

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Don't just wing it.
Make a plan.

Select a grade to see a basic plan for that year.
ESM is here to help at any point along the way.


Freshman Highlights

  • The game has started
  • You are ranked #1 in your class
  • Evaluate your class schedule
  • Outside activities/clubs
  • Think about summer plans and how to get ahead

Consider this fact: you begin your high school career ranked #1 in your class! Your freshman year is the beginning of your journey toward developing, pursuing, and ultimately achieving your goals. Like any goal-setting process, it’s important to begin with a plan. Evaluate your class schedule: is it rigorous without being completely overwhelming? Are you on track to take the classes you’d like to complete throughout your four years — if, for example, your goal is to take AP Calculus as a senior, are you currently enrolled in Geometry?  It’s important to begin building a road map of your academic potential.

Your freshman year is also the time to think about your interests: what will you be involved in outside of your academics? Freshman year is the time for exploration: try new clubs and student organizations, decide which sports you’re going to pursue, and consider if you’d like to run for student council or write for the school newspaper. There are so many ways to get involved, both on campus and in your wider community, and what’s important is that you’re using your time to cultivate your interests.

Start to think about your summers: how would you like to use this time? Is there a local volunteer opportunity you’re passionate about? Do you want to take Spanish 2 over the summer so you can take AP Spanish as a senior? Setting goals for your summers can help you lower your stress-levels during the academic year.


Sophmore Highlights

  • Take PSAT
  • Visit colleges and universities
  • Build relationship with your college counselor
  • Continue outside activities and clubs
  • Start SAT Prep / SAT Subject Prep /ACT Prep
  • Reach out to college coaches via email

By the end of sophomore year, your academic course load projection should be pretty clear, and you should know which activities are the ones you’re sticking with. That means that you need to continue your extracurricular exploration from freshman year and be ready to pursue leadership opportunities as a junior and senior.

The exploration shouldn’t stop there; sophomore year is also a good time to start visiting colleges and universities. Sound too early? It’s not! This is how you’ll start to build a first-hand understanding of what you’re looking for. Do you need a fast-paced, urban environment, or more of an isolated campus? How big of a college community feels right to you? Are you thinking you’d like to try a completely new corner of the world, or would you like to be in an environment closer to home? The best way to answer these questions, and ultimately provide crucial data in curating your individualized college list, is to experience varied campuses early on.

You’ll also need to take the official PSAT and begin to consider the tests that lay ahead: the SAT, ACT, and SAT Subject Tests. Sophomore year is the best time to begin preparing for these exams—it’s important to develop a study-plan that extends all the way to your final test opportunities during your senior year. As a sophomore, you’ll have a fairly good idea of which SAT Subject Tests you’ll be a candidate for; in many cases, this will overlap with your eventual AP course load.

Finally, this is a great time to start building relationships with the adults who will help support your application process: your favorite teachers (who may write your letters of recommendation), your college counselors (both in school and private, if you have one) and athletic coaches (if you’re hoping to get recruited for your sport).  It’s never too early to get people in your corner!


Junior Highlights

  • Take PSAT/Pre-ACT
  • Take SAT/ACT
  • Take SAT Subject Tests
  • Finalize college list
  • Visit additional colleges and universities (meet with coaches and players)
  • Start thinking about Early Decision or Early Action
  • Think about teachers who could write you a recommendation

We know the myth: junior year is the most stressful year of your life. And, we’ll admit, it’s a busy time, but with all the planning and goal setting you’ve done, you’re more than ready to tackle this year and all it entails!

If you haven’t done so already, you’ll need to start sitting for official SAT, ACT, and SAT Subject Tests. It’s a great way to acclimate yourself to the testing environment and identify your testing strengths and weaknesses early on in the process. If you start testing now, you’ll only have more experience and more opportunities to improve before your final test dates. Ideally, you’re able to finish this testing process entirely by the end of junior year.

Even though you’ll be in the midst of a challenging workload and extra-curricular commitments—by now you could even have AP’s and varsity sports—you’ll need to work with your counselor to finalize your college list. As your list starts to become clearer and more concise, you’ll need to visit and tour campuses to make sure you’re certain about applying. If you’re a potential collegiate athlete, now’s the time, too, to set up meeting with coaches and players of your various future opportunities.  

Inevitably, as your research about the colleges on your list intensifies, some schools will emerge as your top choices. Junior year is the time to start considering various application strategies: where do you want to apply Early Decision? Early Action? And as you start to think about these applications, you’ll also need to consider a crucial component: your academic letters of recommendation. Usually, junior year teachers are the best choice for these letters of rec, so begin to consider whom you’d like to ask come fall.


Senior Highlights

  • Start college essays in the summer
  • Register for the Common Application
  • Fill out activity worksheet
  • Take a strong course load – 7th Semester grades are key
  • Submit applications early
  • Get documentation to school officials right away
  • Take a breath and relax
  • Seek out internship opportunities or part-time jobs. Summer after senior year should still be productive.

OK. Here it is. The moment we’ve all been planning for: your senior year!

Though this perhaps isn’t what you want to hear, your senior year actually begins in the summer. This is when you’ll need to begin your college essays (yes, there’s more than one!), register for the Common and Coalition Applications, and begin filling out your activities worksheet. If necessary, summer can also include test-prep, as you’ll be coming up on your last chance to take your various ACT and SAT tests.

During your senior year, you’ll need to take a strong course load—one that shows your commitment to an upward trajectory in terms of difficulty and performance. Avoid that creeping senioritis! Make sure you’re challenging yourself and that you’re prepared to work hard: your 7th semester (fall, senior year) grades are critical to the admissions process!

Sound stressful? It can be. But the best way to obviate the stress is to be prepared. This means completing your essays early, making sure you have your letters of recommendation requested at the beginning of the semester, and submitting your applications well ahead of all deadlines. That applies to all aspects of the application process, including the documentation you need from your high school, like transcripts, school reports, and letters of recommendation.

Now what?

The sudden lull post application submission can feel a little unsettling, but now it’s time for you to take a deep breath and relax. You did it. It’s still important, of course, that you keep up your grades and commitments, but take some time to have fun and be creative, too. You can start to think about how you want to spend your upcoming summer: look into part-time jobs or internship opportunities that are suited to your interests. The summer before college should be both fun and productive!



Nearly 4.5 million students applied to U.S. colleges in 2017—the most in history.

111,000 to UCLA. 33,000 to Princeton. Harvard's acceptance rate was 4.5%. USC's was 11%. With such competition, you need a robust plan. We're here to guide you along the way.

Our first-class counselors offer expert guidance through the bewildering maze of acceptance rates, "yield rates" and early versus regular admissions. But what sets us apart is our emphasis on the relationship—not the numbers. We'd love for you to go to Harvard, but only if that's where you'll be happy and shine. In other words, our mentors will get to know you—the real you— and we will find the right college for that person.

Common Questions

How to Stand out in College Admissions: A review of Cal Newport’s book "How to Be a High School Superstar"

How to Stand out in College Admissions: A review of Cal Newport’s book How to Be a High School Superstar

What if there were a way to get into competitive colleges without sky-high GPAs and test scores? After all, when colleges publish their averages of these statistics, doesn’t that mean there are plenty of people below those averages that got in? Sure, there are athletes, legacy considerations, and so forth, but have you also considered how irresistible colleges find entrepreneurs, community leaders, and inventors? These are not necessarily born geniuses, but rather people who eschewed the conventional strategy of loading up on APs and extracurriculars for an interesting life that is not geared towards getting accepted into college.

Cal Newport’s book How to Be a High School Superstar has a subtitle that promises “a revolutionary plan to get into college by standing out (without burning out)”. In it, Newport presents a lot of radical, counterintuitive advice, but backs it up with real case studies of “relaxed superstars”, students who have found a way to stand out amongst the competition without packing their schedule to the gills. In fact, he stresses the importance of “underscheduling” in order to give yourself plenty of free time for exploration. This free time should be used to explore interests and follow up on opportunities, things that a student bogged down by 5 AP classes, 3 clubs, and a sport might not be able to do. The key is not to find vanity activities, but rather a deep interest, something you would eagerly do over binging on Netflix on a Saturday morning.

To an admissions officer, there might not be a big difference between a student with 4 AP classes and one with 5, but there is a big difference between the umpteenth treasurer of the key club and someone who has published a book. If I had to describe in a single word the type of person that colleges are looking for to shine through the mass of generic students, it would be “interesting”. The best way to become interesting is to focus on very few interests and achieve a mastery that makes you fascinating to talk to. For example, I played violin during all four years of high school. I sank in hundreds of hours and even got pretty decent at it, but to be honest, I didn’t continue playing after high school; and if you interviewed me about it, there would not be much for me to say. That means it was not really a deep interest (even though I did enjoy it), and it didn’t provide a level of innovation that would really make me stand out to colleges. Imagine if I had used that time to teach myself how to make beats and reach out to local DJs, which ultimately could have led me to perform a set in a club or make a song that went viral. That would make for a more interesting story, show more initiative, and be more fun than being the nameless member of the orchestra that I was.

Cal Newport’s book goes into much more detail about how students can implement this groundbreaking plan. It is not easy, but it is very much a case of working smarter instead of working harder. I highly recommend checking the book out not just as a way to make yourself more attractive to colleges but instead as a way to lead a happier and more fulfilling life.

5 Tips from an Empty Nester and ESM Mom

Five Tips From an Empty Nester

Three years ago, my husband and I became empty nesters: one child in law school at Chapman, the other a freshman at Columbia. We travelled, ate at different times, and had control of the TV. But the house was so quiet. Fast forward three years to this past March, when the world was turned upside down. Both kids came home to quarantine, and the house became active again: our daughter practicing law from our old playroom upstairs, my husband practicing law from the dining room, our son online with finals, me practicing therapy—virtually—from our home office. Books and papers everywhere, piles of things in the kitchen, and everyone clamoring for more bandwidth. 

I looked upon this family chaos and pinched myself, remembering that this really was a “Rockwell moment”, one that we may never get again. So, let the mess stay! I tried to focus on the bigger picture. Recently, our daughter set up her own place and moved out, and our son went back to his Manhattan apartment to finish senior year online. I am happy to report that somehow we all made it—and the house is quiet, yet again. 

Amidst the chaos, it’s often hard to take the time we need to genuinely check in with ourselves and with our kids. These are trying times, and I’d like to offer some best practices for coping with our strange new normal. Whether your kids are  at home or on campus “Zooming” for college or finishing high school remotely, here’s five tips to help support our students: 

  1. Listen to your kids.  Are they worried, unhappy, nervous, or scared? Unsure of their future? Set time aside each week for family meetings in which you all can vent and support one another. Journaling thoughts and feelings can help decrease stress also, especially if no one is around to chat. If some of the family is away at school, try a weekly zoom meeting with everyone on the call, to visit and catch up on the day. Contacting a counselor if you feel issues are escalating can also help. There are lots of resources on college campuses if your student is away.

  1. Have fun together in your bubble. Families that play together stay together!  Try a cooking challenge at home or at school where you each take a day of the week. Grocery shop together online or safely in stores...maybe in teams? Get inspired. Google recipes. We all need to eat. This can be a great study break away from the screen. Board game nights are terrific also, as well as setting up friendly card games like poker or Monopoly tournaments with those in your bubble, both at home and away.

  1. creative!  Take a look at a Michael’s craft store or online at Etsy and see if something speaks to you. The holidays are coming up, and it’s fun to see what crafts you can creatively partake in together. If you’re in a dorm or apartment, make something to put on your walls or desk. Pick something easy and work up to more difficulty. It’s all about success!! Art can be a de-stressor and a great break from studies. You might even end up with a new hobby!

  1. Zoom homework sessions with friends. Or, weather permitting, take blankets to a park and social distance with your computer. A change of scenery is good, and it’s a lot less lonely together outside or virtually. Remember to schedule in study breaks. Going the distance, keeping marathon pace, is fine in small “time chunks” (1-2 hours). Giving yourself permission at least 30 minutes in between homework or online classes to “do something” will help you to be successful in the long run. Keeping a planner helps tremendously with time management and helps to block out time windows for tasks. If you’re in high school and wondering, “Why am I working so hard?”, keep in mind this “new normal” is not forever. There will be an end. Don’t let this pandemic derail your dreams. You’re in control!

  1. Exercise! Find time as a family or in your college bubble every day to take a walk, even if just around the neighborhood (pandemic requirements allowing of course). Walk the dog or each other! Set up an area in your house/dorm with a yoga mat, ball, and a few small weights. Use apps to find workouts.  Exercise is great for endorphins and can help you feel better. Use this as a study break or in between online classes.

Try to find a bit of joy in each day and with each other!

Marci Murdock, MA, MFT 

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, residing in Las Vegas, Nevada. Both of her children went through ESM. For further questions, she can be reached at

Applying Early? Here's What to Know

Applying Early? Here's What to Know

ED, EA, REA, EDII strategies...what to do where?  This question is now at the forefront of high school seniors’ minds as we navigate college admissions in this incredibly unusual year.

First, a question I often get asked is, “Should my student apply Early Decision I?” What hasn’t changed this year is that ED I is still a binding commitment generally due November 1 for schools that offer the option (some have dropped it this year). Applying ED I also continues to be a strategy for applying if you have a clear #1 choice.  

The acceptance rate at most colleges that offer ED I is normally two to three times higher than the Regular Decision acceptance rate, so it makes sense to take advantage of the option at your #1 choice if it’s available--that’s easy. The other easy choice is if your clear #1 choice does not offer ED, because then you won’t apply anywhere ED--you don’t want to end up wondering if you could have gotten into your first choice.  

For everything else in between, it’s a bit harder. If you feel ambivalent about your favorite 2-3 schools that don’t offer ED and your favorite one that does, it’s worth doing more work. Imagine you got accepted to all of will you decide where to go? Do the research, talk to current students, do virtual tours, evaluate as if you’re really choosing, and see if the ED school comes out on top. It’s tough to make the choice without visiting any of the schools in-person (and, of course, we generally can’t at the moment), but sometimes a clear choice does emerge and you can pick a path, so it’s worth doing the work.

Restrictive Early Action is a little trickier, so I’m going to ask you to do some work. REA is not binding, and for some schools, the admissions rate is no different from the RD admission rate.  To find out, look at the Common Data Set for the school in question. You can usually just Google “[College Name] CDS” and it will pop up. Make sure you’re looking at the CDS that’s on the college’s website, not somewhere where it may have been filtered. Sections C21 and C22 are data on Early Admission programs, and oftentimes you can find the REA data there. Notre Dame, for example, says in that section that they don’t offer ED but they do list their REA numbers. From that, you can see that they admitted 25.8% of REA applicants. If you do a little math, you can also calculate the admission rate for Regular Decision applicants (you need to subtract the REAs from the total numbers in section C1), and it comes out to 1,983/16,621=11.9%, more than 2x the Regular Decision admission rate--so you treat it as an ED but follow their restrictions.  

EA is much easier to decide. I advise all my students to apply EA everywhere they can (assuming that their application is not going to benefit from an extra semester of grades or another test score), and, for their first choice school, ensure that they mention that they will matriculate if admitted. While it’s not binding, the college will like knowing that if they admit you, you will come. Other than that, check REA restrictions (if you are planning to apply REA somewhere) and go for it--it will make December MUCH less stressful.  

Lastly, ED II. ED II is really asking the question, are we your second choice? ED II deadlines are generally at the same time as RD deadlines, so the application itself is no different; you’re just committing to attend the ED II school if admitted. The logic is that if you applied REA or ED I and were denied admission in mid-December, you have the opportunity to commit to your second-choice school in your Jan 1(-ish) ED II application. The same ED I logic applies but hopefully with a smaller list because your ED and EA schools notified you in December.  

Last bit of advice: don’t try to game it. Let the process work, and prioritize the fit of the college for you over any kind of deadline. If you have a clear #1 choice, go for it; don’t settle for 2nd best simply because they have certain deadlines.  

UC System Barred From Using SAT/ACT Scores in Admissions Process

UC System Barred From Using SAT/ACT Scores in Admissions Process

A couple weeks ago, a California judge issued a preliminary injunction that bars the University of California system from considering ACT and SAT scores as part of their admissions process, effective immediately for the high school class of 2021. 

The original lawsuits were filed in December 2019, claiming that "the UC System is knowingly creating barriers to higher education for students of color and students with disabilities." 

This decision doesn't answer that question; the injunction issued by the judge instead directly relates to the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on the access to these tests: 

"The current COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in restrictions in the availability of test sites," Seligman said in his ruling. "While test-taking opportunities for all students have been limited, for persons with disabilities, the ability to obtain accommodations or even to locate suitable test locations for the test are 'almost nil'." 

Under test-optional policies, not submitting test scores does not penalize students, but submitting high scores can provide a boost to a student’s application. Because students with disabilities have had little opportunity to take the test during the pandemic, the judge argues, the option of submitting scores is practically unavailable. Essentially, the inability to use scores as an advantage was ruled to be an unfair disadvantage for those students.

The UCs are currently evaluating their legal options, so more news--and potential challenges--is sure to follow. But even if the decision is appealed, the judge has remarked that the plaintiffs are likely to prevail. The next court date is scheduled for September 29th.

This decision could have sweeping effects across the entire college admissions landscape, but that remains to be seen. For now, we still recommend students take these tests if they are safely able to do so.

Do you work with athletes?

Yes, our resident expert on the athletic process, Josh Davis, would be glad to assist you with your overall process, plus specific questions you may have about the NCAA Eligibility Center.

How many schools should I apply to?

As with almost everything else in college admissions, it depends! Are you applying Early Decision to your dream school where your GPA and test score exceed the 25-75 percentile range? You might only need to pick two or three backup schools. Are you shooting for the moon and applying to schools with very selective (<30%) selection processes? You might want to cast a wide net, with at least five such schools, plus three where the acceptance rate is between 30-50%, plus a true safety school.

Sometimes, students go too far. There is very little reason to apply to more than fifteen schools. Biting off more than you can chew might drag down the overall quality of your applications, counterintuitively limiting your options when the acceptances roll in.

If my college has gone test-optional, should I still submit my test scores?

It really depends—do you feel that your test scores are an accurate reflection of your abilities? Are they firmly within your target school's 25-75 percentile range? Do you need to submit scores for your specific major or concentration? If so, then yes, you should still submit your scores.

Will you help me even if I only need a session or two to get my application perfect?

Absolutely! If you feel like you only need to work with an expert to put the finishing touches on an already great application, we're here to help.

Don't just wing it.

College admissions is no walk in the park.





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"Katie received her acceptance letter last night and is absolutely thrilled.  USC has been her dream school since 6th grade."

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