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TestMagic Blog: College and high school admissions

SAT vocab: enigmatic February 17, 2022 11:16

What does enigmatic mean? Read below for the definition.

Quick vocab quiz for the word enigmatic

First, before you read about the word enigmatic, try this quick vocab quiz:

enigmatic most nearly means

(A) practical
(B) stupid
(C) mysterious
(D) smelly
(E) elegant

What the HSPT is, why it's important, and how to prepare for it October 21, 2021 18:32

Overview of the HSPT or High School Placement Test, which many Catholic high schools require for admission, why it's important, and how to prepare for it.

HSPT Test Dates for the San Francisco Bay Area (2022) September 16, 2021 15:52

HSPT test dates for the San Francisco Bay Area in the USA. Updated for 2021.

August 2021 SAT registration: No spots available July 6, 2021 13:10

August 2021 SAT registration: No spots available for many, including San Francisco Bay Area test-takers.

When will registration for the August 28, 2021 open? May 31, 2021 15:41

Registration for the August 2021 SAT is slated to be available 'by early July'.

Writing the hardship essay for your college application May 4, 2021 19:06

Candid advice about writing your hardship essay for your college application: Advice, tips, and examples.

Your college essay: I don't know what to write! May 3, 2021 13:09

An overview on how to come up with a topic for your college admissions essay.

UC and CSU to require COVID-19 vaccinations April 23, 2021 13:51

The University of California and California State University have announced that they will start requiring students, faculty, and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 starting in the fall of 2021 or when the FDA formally approves the vaccine (whichever occurs later).

The 5 ways COVID-19 is changing UC admissions May 27, 2020 16:00

In May of 2020, the University of California Board of Regents voted unanimously to make five historic changes to how it admits students applying to the University of California.

SAT Test Dates during COVID-19 May 20, 2020 14:20

The world is undergoing massive upheaval, and few sectors of public life will experience the disruptions that education is currently seeing.

On this page, we track the ever-changing upcoming schedule of SAT tests.

Top 20 college applicants: Some activities that you should start ASAP April 16, 2020 11:38

You need these cultural activities for certain top colleges, but especially for Columbia.

5 things you can do right now to stand out April 10, 2020 12:01

Parents and students, this is for you if you're applying to college in the fall: 5 things you can do now to stay busy and improve your application.

Register early for the SAT July 22, 2019 18:13

Register early for your test (specifically the SAT and ACT). If you wait too long, you may not find any spots available near you.

Add more detail to your writing October 9, 2018 17:29

Be sure to add descriptive details to your writing.

Most common essay mistakes: Avoid using informal words, such as "stuff" September 11, 2018 11:20

When writing your essays (for example, for the SAT, ACT, SSAT, GMAT, GRE, or TOEFL) avoid informal language.

Most common SAT Essay mistakes: How to use the author's name September 3, 2018 15:01

One of the most common SAT essay mistakes related to how to refer to the author or speaker of the source.

August 25, 2018 SAT, the day a leaked SAT was used officially August 30, 2018 17:59

Summary: There are credible allegations that the Aug 25, 2018 SAT had been leaked to the Internet in 2017, meaning a large number of test-takers had already studied the questions in advance.

About the video: I was interviewed by ABC TV here in San Francisco about the SAT leak.

If you’re studying for the SAT now or have taken it recently, you’ve probably heard about the colossal failure on the part of College Board–the SAT given in August of 2018 was a repeat of an SAT given previously overseas.

To make matters worse, that test had apparently been “leaked” in PDF form to the Internet (probably as early as 2017), meaning that it was widely available to anyone who knew how or where to look for it. (I have never seen the test, but I have seen discussions online about it.)

College Board has a policy of not commenting on the “specifics of question usage and test administration schedules”, so this is all unconfirmed, but ample evidence supports the conclusion that it was the same SAT given in October 2017 in Asia.

Why it’s bad

I think it is fairly clear why reusing a large part or all of a previous SAT test is at best problematic and at worst massively unfair–those who have seen, taken, or practiced from that test before have an extreme advantage when taking the test.

One of the most common methods of studying is to take many practice tests and review them. If you’ve done your studying properly, you will see where you went wrong and remember your mistakes. If you happen to see that question again, or even a similar one, you should get that question right.

Furthermore, it is common in some places to “share” tests for studying purposes. In some cases, this “sharing” is done on a very large scale.

In a word, a very high number (but certainly not the majority) of students had seen, taken, and reviewed this particular test before they took it last August 25. But more students had not, and it is these students who are at a disadvantage.

How do we know that the SAT was leaked?

As I said above, College Board has not confirmed that the August 2018 SAT was recycled from October 2017, but there is simply too much anecdotal evidence showing that it was. Online, in the usual places, you can find people saying that they had seen the August test before.

A quick search of Twitter and Reddit shows:

Screenshot of Twitter

Screenshot of Reddit

And I’ve personally heard at least three different students tell me that someone in their test room last Saturday told them that they had seen the test before. For example, one test-taker announced, when the test was over and he was on his way out, that he had taken the test before, upon which the proctor politely dismissed the class except for that one test-taker. (Well done, sir!) Another student told me that, after the test, someone was showing people his copy of the test on his phone.

How do SATs get leaked?

Most people who take the SAT have never seen that test before. Or the questions on it.

However, that doesn’t mean that some people somewhere don’t have access to a particular test beforehand. In fact, there are entire operations devoted to getting copies of these tests or “reconstructing” them after they’re administered.

Here are the common ways that SATs (as well as a few other high-stakes tests) are compromised:

  • A corrupt proctor steals a test or copies it during the administration of the test.
  • Huge numbers of students take an official SAT; each is assigned a section to memorize and then recreate later that day back at the lair of the company that organized the group.
  • A test-taker will covertly photograph pages of the test.
  • A test-taker in one time zone will contact another test-taker elsewhere to divulge parts of the SAT.

For the record, I have not seen this happen anywhere in San Francisco, nor do I know anyone who has engaged in this sort of activity. But it does occur in some places.

What will College Board do?

This is turning out to be a public relations disaster for the nonprofit College Board. Especially after the controversy of the June SAT (that one was too easy, resulting in lower-than-expected scores), College Board needed to deliver a hitch-free testing experience in August. That didn’t happen.

College Board, again, is neither confirming nor denying the reuse of the test. However, they are stating that they will scrutinize the test answer sheets to find cheaters (my term, not theirs). This is actually standard practice for the College Board, but you can bet that they will be especially cautious for this test administration.

As of now, College Board is maintaining that nothing will change, and scores will be released as scheduled on Sep 7, 2018.

Some students fear that their scores will be canceled. (That's the rumor going around amongst the high school kids.) I honestly cannot envision that happening—there's simply too much at stake for too many people, and College Board can't just cancel the scores of the 200,000-300,000 people who took the SAT in August.

How does College Board determine cheating?

How does College Board decide that someone had previous access to the test? There are several ways that I have heard of over the years. First, College Board will look at your previous SAT or PSAT scores if you have them. If your score improvement is significant, College Board may decide to withhold your scores while they investigate further. In this case, you will get a notification from College Board informing you that they are going to examine your scores more closely.

The second method that I’ve heard about (and this was a while ago, so this may not happen any longer) is that College Board will compare your answers with those seated next to you. Presumably, if there’s too close a match, one of you will be suspect.

I can speculate on a third method, but it makes sense to me—a close analysis of your performance would indicate how you typically fare on certain question types. For example, if your weakness is permutations in math or inference questions in reading, and you suddely jump in those question types, your answer set may get flagged. Of course, if August was your first sitting of the test, this method would not work. (And again, I am only surmising here.)

So in terms of numbers, what sort of increase could trigger this warning? In the past, our students who have raised their scores about 500 points (yes, it’s possible with hard work) have been singled out. Fortunately, in all but one case, the students later had their scores released. (For the one whose scores were not released, the student admitted to me that he had had some sort of unfair advantage.)

In the end, however, no matter what College Board says, there will almost certainly be people who did not cheat who have their scores canceled and conversely, those who did who don’t get flagged.

The worst-case scenario and what to expect

If you’ve never taken the SAT or PSAT before, and you didn’t have access to the test beforehand, you should be safe.

However, if the following apply to you, you need to be prepared:

  • You’ve taken the PSAT or SAT before before, and you studied really, really hard for the August test and had a good chance of raising your score. In other words, if you have a big (but legitimate) jump in scores between administrations, you may become suspect.
  • You took the PSAT before and didn’t really try very hard, and in August, your score jumped.

Consequences—in the past, both with the SAT and other tests I’ve coached (GMAT, GRE, and TOEFL), the following could happen:

  • A suspect set of responses could be withheld and then released as usual.
  • A suspect set of responses could be withheld permanently, after which:
    • A student could be offered the chance to retake the SAT; presumably if the score is close, the student can keep her score (perhaps the higher score?).
    • A student’s scores could be canceled, and the student barred indefinitely from ever taking the SAT.

I’ve not heard of the last situation, neither with our students nor with students I’ve read about. However, there was a GMAT mini-scandal some years ago in which a handful of test-takers were banned from ever taking the GMAT again. (Please note that College Board is not associated with the GMAT in any way.)

Of course, if someone is prohibited from taking the SAT, he can just take the ACT instead. Or apply to U Chicago!

Why did College Board resuse the test?

College Board has largely remained mum on the subject, but has spoken about the need to reuse questions in the past, but not an entire test. The reason for reusing questions would be to cut costs—I’ve seen an estimate online that estimated that it could take up to 30 months and cost up to $1 million to prepare a single SAT test. College Board has also said that they can’t just whip up a new test in short order; presumably, it’s a lengthy process that needs to be planned far in advance.

While reusing a single test item or a handful is perhaps excusable, the reuse of an entire test is not. To make matters worse, as stated previously, this test was readily available online. (Note: A lot of people are stating that it was available only in Asia. I’d like to point out that if it’s on the Internet in Asia, it’s also online outside of Asia. Plenty of students outside of Asia had access to it.)

A reporter asked me why College Board would reuse an entire test. I’ll tell you the same thing I told her—no one but College Board knows for sure. However, my educated guess is that they were aware of the situation but could not reasonably cobble together an entire SAT in time to administer a new SAT in August. In this scenario, the alternative would have been to put out a sloppy, under-edited test, which would likely have put College Board in a very unfavorable situation. At least in this case, College Board can blame illicit behavior on some unknown bad actor.

I saw an old comment from College Board online that said that if they did use a new test for every administration, the cost of the SAT could double. People already complain about the SAT testing fees, so College Board is probably not too keen on raising that fee. I do know that the GMAT and GRE cost $250 and $205 respectively to take, so the SAT’s fee of $47.50 sure does seem inexpensive by comparison.

What will happen in the future?

For sure, the security of the SAT will increase in the future. College Board is already shipping some tests to certain testing sites in locked containers. This may mean more security while taking the test as well, though in this particular situation, that wouldn’t have helped a whit.

I can also only imagine College Board will attempt to speed up the process of moving the SAT to computer, which would be a massive undertaking and frankly, perhaps not feasible for the numbers involved with the SAT. For most of you reading this now, if the SAT moves to a computer-based test, it will likely happen long after you’re in college and are finished with the SAT stage of your lives. (I remember some rumors of moving the SAT to computer around 2000.)

It is also possible that universities will start requiring their own admissions tests; the University of California discussed this at some point back in 2001 (which was one of the reasons the SAT changed in 2005).

What will TestMagic do?

If you prepped with us for the August test, and you need to retake it, we’ve got your back! This applies to both students in our group classes and doing one-to-one tutoring with us. Just get in touch, and we’ll get you sorted.

Final thoughts

This story is still unfolding and there will surely be protests, petitions, complaints, and changes to come. We’ll keep you updated, and we also ask that you also get back to us if you’re one of our students. We’re here to help.

SAT Study Plan August 23, 2018 13:47

Read this if you haven't started your SAT prep yet, or if you're wondering whether you're going about prepping for the SAT in the right way.

Where to download official SAT practice tests August 21, 2018 17:09

So you've heard that official SAT tests are the best source of SAT practice material.

Here's where to download them.

UC admissions for fall 2018: Brutal May 31, 2018 13:33

Applying to college in 2017 was tough. Read our thoughts on this past application cycle.

What to do the day before your official SAT October 23, 2017 13:55


If you read only one thing:

  • Get lots of sleep (9 hours should do it)
  • Know where you’re taking the test
  • Calculator batteries, sharp pencils, erasers, watch
  • Snacks and water
  • Layered clothing
  • Admission ticket and ID
  • On last-minute studying: Up to you
  • Be prepared for proctor mistakes

Your SAT (or ACT) is tomorrow. You’ve got to do your best. You’ve been studying for months. (Or not!) You’re probably at least a little bit nervous about your test. (Which in fact can actually be a good thing. More on that a little bit later.) What should you do during these last 30 hours or so?

We’ve put together some last-minute tips for you based on our two decades of experience. But first, a caveat: We are giving advice based on our experience with thousands of students over about two decades. However, you know you best, and shouldn’t do anything that you know will cause your performance to suffer.

Now our advice:

Sleep nine hours

Sleeping cat

If you’re like many of the teenagers that I see, you go to sleep with three digits on the clock, and wake up at 6 or 7 AM. (You probably know that this is not healthy and not conducive to optimal learning.)

I would like to suggest that at least for the night before your test, you try getting a normal night’s sleep. Teenagers, who are still developing mentally and physically, need lots of sleep to help this development. A teenager needs at least eight hours of sleep a night. Don’t believe me? How late do you sleep during vacations, when you have nothing scheduled? I don’t know about you, but I remember one glorious summer when I slept till 11 AM every day. That was great. I woke up feeling rested every day, full of energy. You should treat yourself to this extra sleep the night before your test.

So try to sleep what you know is the right amount for you – nine or 10 hours is not unreasonable. I know that there is a certain element of machismo associated with pulling all-nighters and being able to attend class after sleeping only five or six hours, but for this high-stakes test, please do yourself a favor and get a proper amount of sleep.

Make sure you know where the test center is; leaver earlier than you think you should

Map app on mobile phone

This is a simple one: Make sure you know how to get to the testing center. Whether you’re being driven, you’re walking, taking the bus, or whatever, make sure that you know how to get where you’re going, and where to park. Remember that there may be heavy traffic on the weekend. I know that many of you will be taking the test at your school, so that may be ideal, since you’ll already be familiar with the location.

However, many of you may be taking the test at a completely unfamiliar location. Imagine that you are running late, and you’re having trouble finding the place, or there is road construction in the area, and you can’t get to the test center. Even if you make it on time, you may be stressed out before the test, which could put you in a bad mood for the next few hours.

If you’re taking the test at a new location, make extra sure that you will get there on time, and if you want to go the extra mile, scout out the location the night before. On test day, leave 10 to 20 minutes earlier than you think you should. In some places, weekend morning traffic is heavier than weekday or evening traffic, so you could face a delay.

Reminder: It’s always best to register for the test as early as you can so that you can get a good location (ideally you want a modern site that’s near your home). We’ve had quite a few students register late who had to take the test in another city, which can also add unnecessary stress.

Tip: Waze (as of 2017) is a cool mobile app that updates quickly about traffic, accidents, construction, etc.


TestMagic pencils

I’ve had a few students tell me that they showed up to the test only to find out that their calculator had no batteries. One student even asked, and I’m still not sure whether he meant it as a joke, “Why didn’t you tell me to check my calculator batteries?”

So here I go:

  • Make sure your calculator has fully charged batteries.
  • Make sure you have at least two sharpened pencils. (Note: The rules state that you may not use mechanical pencils, probably because it is too easy to rig them up for cheating.)
  • Make sure you have erasers. (Quick tip: On the essay, if you make a mistake, cross out the words instead of erasing. Sometimes imperfect erasure leaves fine grit behind that can worsen the scan quality and make it hard to read your pearls of wisdom.)
  • Make sure you have a watch to keep track of the time. Yes, the proctors have a very strict script that requires them how to announce the time remaining, but I have heard of many irregularities. Also, I did have one student who told me that her proctor would not let her wear a watch to the test, even though the rules specifically state that you should wear one.

Snacks and water

Healthy snacks

You very well may get hungry during your test. Be sure that you have something to munch on. You should know what works best for you – fruit, chocolate, nuts, trail mix, etc. Just be prepared.

The same with water – make sure you have some drinking water available to you in case you get thirsty. Be careful! Don’t drink so much that you need to take a trip to the restroom during the test. Proctors don’t like that!

Admission ticket and ID

Of course you cannot forget to bring your admission ticket and your ID. Without those, you can’t get in.

Test-day jitters

Feeling nervous about your test? Well, guess what? This can actually be a good thing. Turns out that research shows that little bit of nervousness can help you pay attention more and raise your score. Too much, however, can be distracting and can lower your score. The Harvard Business Review has a good write-up on the connection between nervousness and performance.

Ultimately it’s up to you to decide what’s best for you, but keep in mind that it’s normal to be nervous, and may even be beneficial.

Last-minute studying

Sleeping while studying for the SAT

The standard advice for many test prep experts is for people to relax the day and night before the test and not to study. However, I have had many students who do not follow this pattern. Some students like to study right up to the test, and some have even crammed during the ride on the way to the test.

I would suggest that you at least consider taking it easy the night before, but if you think it’s better that you study, go for it.

Irregularities in proctors

Finally, the proctor’s rulebook is so thick (figuratively speaking) that most proctors will deviate from the rules at some point during the test. I’ve heard many stories of proctors making mistakes, forgetting to announce how much time is remaining, not letting people use the restroom, etc. over the years.

Some proctors are very vigilant, and will walk up and down the aisles while students take tests. Other proctors will sit up front quietly doing their own thing while students take the test. Some proctors are friendly, others are more businesslike in their demeanor.

If you have any unusual or serious deviations from what you think should be done, you should notify College Board, and they will investigate. It’s unlikely that anything will be done (being honest), and you won’t get extra points, but you will be putting pressure on College Board to do better in their training, and you might feel better about making your voice heard. Complain to College Board about a problem on test day.

Of course, good luck! You’re going to knock it out of the park!

ACT: Minor changes in the extended time September 11, 2017 11:40

Summary: For "time-and-a-half" ACT test-takers, tests will be given self-paced during a 5-hour period; the essay will be given during a 1-hour period.
ACT icon for TestMagic

Starting in September 2017, some ACT test-takers with a specific category of special accommodations (“Timing Code 6,” which means 50% extra time) will have a slightly modified testing schedule.

What is changing

When a student who has been given “time and a half” accommodations on the ACT (meaning 50% extra time to take the test) takes the ACT, the student will have five self-paced hours to complete the four test sections (English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science). When that five hours is up, the test-taker will have an enforced break and then will have one hour to complete the ACT essay.

(In the past, test-takers had six hours to complete all sections at her own pace.)

Note that if you’re planning not to take the writing section of the ACT, this does not apply to you–you will still have five self-paced hours for your ACT.

Then vs. now

Before the change: 6 hours for all sections

After the change: 5 hours for test sections + 1 hour for the essay

Why is ACT making the change?

ACT says that they’re making the change to make it “fair” and to give the “same amount of time” for the multiple-choice test sections (i.e., everyone will have five hours to work on the test sections).

But reading between the lines a bit (so to speak), it would seem that in some cases, test-takers who had six hours for the entire test (including the writing section) may have sacrificed some of writing time to work longer on the test sections. For example, it’s theoretically possible that some test-takers would spend six hours on the four test sections and no time on the writing. For these people, again hypothetically, this could cause their reported score to be higher than people who did not sacrifice essay-writing time.

Remeber: For many people and admissions departments, the reported ACT score (for example, 32) is much more important than the writing score. This fact gives people an incentive to score as high as possible on the multiple-choice sections, even if doing so means getting a lower score on the ACT writing.

From the horse's mouth:

Why we're moving towards shorter SAT-prep courses May 15, 2017 14:51

In recent years, however, college admissions have become sometimes brutally difficult and ever harder to predict. Where in the past a 4.0 student from Lowell would be virtually assured of admission at one of the top UCs, now nothing can be taken for granted.

TestMagic on Irving Street February 28, 2017 19:27

If you’ve passed by TestMagic on Irving Street, you may have noticed a lot of construction going on there. And you may have further noticed that TestMagic is no longer at 1722 Irving Street.

TestMagic on Irving Street

So what happened? In a nutshell, the building owners were required to perform significant structural upgrades to the building, and there was really no way that we could stay in that location and teach courses—the construction would simply have been too disruptive.

We’re not sure how long the construction will last, but people who are familiar with this type of construction (so-called soft story retrofitting, which was mandated in 2013 by the San Francisco government) have said that it could take a year or two, and the SF government website states that the construction must be completed by 2019 (that is if the information we’ve received is accurate).

So in short, we had to move out (in October of 2016). It was an emotional time—I had carefully chosen that location in 1998 and grew it from a one-man shop in the late 90s to a much larger operation today in the 2010s (and we’re only getting started!).

Fortunately, we already had another location up and running (since 2004) at 6902 Geary Blvd, not far from TestMagic on Irving Street.

Here’s a copy of the letter we sent out to our students and their parents, which contains more information:

Oct 6, 2016

Dear Parents,

When I founded TestMagic in 1998, I never could have guessed the growth that we would have experienced over the course of eighteen years here in the same space on Irving Street. A lot has changed in this location--there is a Starbucks where Jeff’s Jeans used to be, and there are certainly more boba shops now than there were in the 90s. I have also seen my students finish high school, finish college, and go on to become doctors, soldiers, and respected businesspeople. Many have gotten married and had children. And believe it or not, some of my past students have now started sending their own grown children to TestMagic to study as well!

But one thing has not changed--for eighteen years, we have been in this same spot. We opened our doors here at 1722 Irving Street in 1998, and we have been here ever since, day in, day out.

With this history in mind, I have some news that I need to share. The owners of the building we’ve been teaching in are being required by the San Francisco City Government to upgrade the building to make it ADA compliant and to seismically retrofit the entire building (to strengthen it against earthquakes). This means that they must tear down the walls, remove the bathrooms, and reinforce the foundation. Unfortunately, we are not able to predict how long this work will take. It could be a few months or it could be more than a year. Maybe even two years. Long story short, we are required to leave the premises permanently in the middle of October 2016.

But the good news is that we already have another location up and running at 6902 Geary Blvd (a five-minute drive from TM Irving; near George Washington High School at 33rd Ave.). This will be the new home of TestMagic, and we hope to see you there! This location has been up and running since 2004, so it is well established already. Even better, it’s bigger and more modern.


• Last day of operations at TestMagic at 1722 Irving St: Oct 13, 2016.

• Starting Oct 14, 2016, please visit TestMagic at 6902 Geary Blvd (near 33rd Ave.) for all your classes, private tutoring, and any other inquiries. This location is already open and fully staffed, so you may visit before then as well.

• Phone numbers: All phone numbers are the same. You may use 415-665-6988 to call us (or any other number you’ve used in the past).

• Email, website, etc.: These will all remain unchanged: and

• Staff: All staff, teachers, administrative staff, and management will remain the same. Eva, Nelson, Linda, Erin, Ivy, James, and the whole gang--you will find us over at TestMagic at 6902 Geary Blvd.

To smooth the transition:

• We will offer a shuttle for those who need one on Homework Boost days (MTWTh) from 1722 Irving St to 6902 Geary Blvd before 4pm and then again at 7pm until Winter Break 2016.

• We will offer a 2-for-1 extension of Homework Boost sessions or term for Homework Boost students who transfer from TestMagic (Irving) to TestMagic (Geary). (For Homework Boost and group-class students only; not for private or semi-private lessons.)

We are also talking to each of you individually to make sure that all goes well. Please feel free to get in touch with us at any time should you have any questions.

Finally, thank you for supporting TestMagic by entrusting us with educating your children. It has truly been wonderful to work with each and every one of you for the last eighteen years.

Some people have asked whether we'll move back to Irving Street, and the honest answer is that we're not 100% sure. A lot can happen in a year or two, and we'll just have to see how things look then.

Hope to see you at TestMagic on Geary Blvd!