Register early for the SAT July 22, 2019 18:13Register early for your test (specifically the SAT and ACT). If you wait too long, you may not find any spots available near you.
Most common essay mistakes: Add more detail to your writing October 9, 2018 17:29Be sure to add descriptive details to your writing.
Most common essay mistakes: Avoid using informal words, such as "stuff" September 11, 2018 11:20When 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 15:01One of the most common SAT essay mistakes related to how to refer to the author or speaker of the source.
August 25, 2018 SAT, a date which will live in infamy (in the history of College Board) August 30, 2018 17:59
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.
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.
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 13:47Read 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 13:33Applying to college in 2017 was tough. Read our thoughts on this past application cycle.
Last-minute SAT tips: What to do the day before your big test 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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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 for some test-takers September 11, 2017 11:40
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: http://www.act.org/content/dam/act/secured/documents/ExtendedTimePolicy-FAQ.pdf
Why we're moving towards shorter SAT-prep courses May 15, 2017 14:51In 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.
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org and www.testmagic.com
• 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!
UC Application Verification January 4, 2017 17:48
We have some important information for you regarding a request for verification of information that you might receive.
If you’re a senior applying to the UCs
If you’re one of the lucky 10%, you have received (or will soon receive) a request (well, more like a requirement) to verify a part of your application. The verification process is completely random, and does not mean that the admissions committee doubts anything on your application.
If you’re not a high school senior applying to the UCs
Heads up! The UC system randomly audits about 10% of the applications they receive and asks applicants for additional documentation. Keep this in mind during your years in high school and while you’re planning your applications. For example, you may want to get documentation in advance or be sure to safeguard any documentation you receive. And obviously, it’s never good to lie on your applications (and not just because you won’t get caught—it’s just the right thing to do).
Oh, other universities that you apply to may have similar procedures as well. So again: Don’t lie on your application!
What to do if you get a request for verification from the University of California
Some advice if you’ve received the request for verification:
- Please be sure to follow the instructions to the letter. If they ask for verification of an award, provide verification of the award, not verification of something else or some other reasons why you rock the world.
- Provide all documentation in writing. It may be tempting to make a quick phone call to get your problems sorted, but there’s a chance that the process will glitch, and you won’t have a record of your conversation.
- If you notice a mistake, for example, if the UCs ask you for verification of something on your application that you did not put on your application, respond in writing explaining the error. It is possible that they will then ask you to verify another part of your application instead.
- Check your spam or junk folder to make sure you didn’t receive this request.
- Reply by the deadline—if you do not, your application will not be reviewed, and you will not be admitted.
- Do not ask the UCs to contact someone for you; it is your responsibility to provide the proof and documentation. So don’t call up and say, “Hey, my teacher will totally back me up! Her name’s Ms. Weisenheimer at Maya Angelou High School. Just call her, and she’ll back up everything I said!” They won’t call for you; you need to do the legwork on this one.
- If for some reason you are unable to provide verification, just explain why very clearly (and with a level head, of course). Hopefully, if your story is plausible and seems genuine, they will ask you to verify another part of your application instead.
- Your verification information does not need to be laudatory; it simply needs to prove the accuracy of the information on your application. In other words, your verification doesn’t necessarily need to say wonderful things about you (but of course, it shouldn’t say you are a criminal, either). So something like “Chris Young interned in the Veese Lab at UCSF for eight weeks during the summer of 2020 for approximately 40 hours each week” will work fine. It does not need to say “Chris Young was my mentee during the summer of 2020 at the Veese Lab at UCSF for eight weeks for approximately forty hours each week. I can say without hesitation that Chris was an exemplary intern and fulfilled all of her duties beyond expectation.”
What you need to send
So, what qualifies as proper verification? In many cases, a simple paper letter will do. In others, you may wish to scan an existing document, such as a transcript or an award, and send that.
- Pro tip #1: If you’re going to ask a supervisor or teacher to provide this information, it’s considered polite among those of us who have written many letters of recommendation to provide a basic outline of the information that the letter should contain.
- Pro tip #2: This is another reason to whitelist all UC email addresses in your email client—add all the UC email addresses that you have to your safe-senders list.
Did you receive a request for verification of information? If you’re one of our students and you have questions, just stop by and we’ll help. Even if you’re not a student, please feel free to get in touch, and we’ll still help.
Any other questions? Let us know!
And happy (lunar) new year to all of you!
Example responses to the new UC leadership essay October 29, 2016 19:00
In my last email, I introduced and gave a few writing tips for the leadership personal insight question for the University of California application. At the end of the email, I promised some examples of actual responses.
Recap of the essay prompt:
- Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
(Note: The following writing is completely my original writing based on composites of the hundreds of application essays I’ve read in the past decades.)
In tenth grade, I was president of the Latino Culture Club. There were about 20 members in the club, but most of them didn’t come very often. We met to discuss the unique aspects of our culture in the United States, and my job was to get more members and figure out ways to show our culture to others.
In the first week of the club, I was overwhelmed by what to do. It seemed like I had so much responsibility, but not much time. But I decided that the best way to get ahead and reach our goals was to use: teamwork.
As a team, we were not only stronger, but we had more ideas. Suddenly, people who kept to themselves spoke up. They seemed more excited about coming to meetings. And we also had many more suggestions about what to do. After this, one of the best suggestions came up, we should put on a talent show to show the different kinds of culture we had amongst ourselves. We decided to include singing, dancing, music, and traditional costumes that each performer could pick.
The talent show was a great success, and it could never have happened without harnessing the power of the team. It’s like a bundle of sticks—alone, each one is breakable. But together, they are unstoppable.
In ninth grade, I set a goal for myself: I wanted to increase the presence of the Latino Culture Club at my school—I wanted it to be one of the clubs people talked about and actually wanted to join because they enjoyed it, not because they felt like they were required to.
I initially joined the club because I wanted to share the beauty of Latino culture with others, and hopefully, even improve race relations at [my school]. We have a fairly balanced mix of races at my school, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that our opinions of each other are as fairly balanced. I believe that to some extent we all represent others who look like us and come from similar backgrounds, and if we can create favorable impressions of our cultures with others, we can help reduce the racial tension that plagues some areas of the US.
Running for president, I gave some short speeches and presentations, and my fellow club members seemed impressed. And then I launched my big plan: Pull off an event that the whole school would talk about.
We had dozens of suggestions, from a talent show to a “Cultural Awareness Day” to a flash mob-style performance in the cafeteria of a fusion of hiphop and Latino music. But in the end, we decided on a food festival with music; after all, if there’s anything that brings people together, it’s delicious food.
For several months, we planned and marketed. To create excitement for the event, we announced that we’d be giving out prizes for students who arrived early and for those who visited every table at the festival. I believe that any good leader is also in the trenches, so in addition to overseeing preparations, I was also planning for my table, which would showcase the Brazilian snack “kibe” (a Middle East-inspired mixture of beef and bulgur wheat that is fried and served with hot sauce). I decided to play “baile funk,” a style of dance music popular in clubs in Rio de Janeiro.
We encountered a number of obstacles and disagreements along the way, but nothing that logical discussion and decision-making couldn’t overcome. In the end, I couldn’t have been happier with the result—for the four hours of the event, I heard the laughter of the attendees amid the various types of music being played. While I cannot state with 100% certainty that our club succeeded in creating a positive image of Latino culture at our school, I can say without any hesitation that everybody who attended had a good time and left with tummy full of delicious food, all homemade and provided by us.
See the difference between the two examples? Although nearly the same events happen in both essays, the student in the second essay sounds much more impressive. Many students believe that they must encounter some completely unique hardship or invent the cure for some disease in order to "have something interesting to write about," but really, the events themselves are only half of the puzzle. As these essay examples have shown, the other half of an interesting essay lies in how well the essay is written. Good writing can make a conventionally boring event come alive, just as bad writing can make a dramatically gripping event seem dull.
The takeaway from all of this:
If you think you have a "boring" story, don't worry! You'll do fine as long as you are descriptive and really show your passion.
If you think you have a good story, that's great! But make sure you don't get complacent! A stellar writer with an everyday story easily outshines a mediocre writer with a "good" story.
Best of luck with your college admissions!
Tips for writing the new UC leadership essay October 26, 2016 19:00
Today I’m writing about the new UC applications. This is the first of a multi-part series that I will email out to you first and then publish later on the TestMagic blog (https://enroll.testmagic.com/blogs/news).
In this email, I will start discussing the prompts and how to write about them. In the next email (which I have already written), I will share some sample responses to the first question (the leadership question).
Let’s begin! As you probably know, the prompts for this year (high school class of 2017 applying to start in the fall of 2017) have changed.
For most of you (i.e., high school seniors applying to the UCs), you'll need to pick four questions from the eight and write up to 350 words for each one.
However, note that for transfer students, the instructions are a bit different—you'll need to choose three questions (other than #6) and also write about how prepared you are for your intended major.
Remember this for the UC essay questions
Read 8; pick 4 to respond to. Write up to 350 words for each (i.e., 1,400 words max). (Note: Transfers, see below)
The UC questions deal with:
- A talent or skill you have
- Overcoming educational barriers
- A significant challenge you've overcome
- Favorite academic subject
- Contributions to society
- Your uniqueness
Transfers: Pick 3 from above (except #6) + discuss preparedness for your major.
The full leadership prompt
Here is the entire prompt for the first personal insight question:
- Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
What to write about
Think about this: Along with academic success and passion for all you do in life and in school, leadership is consistently one of the most common topics to write about.
Why? Well, in a word, leadership qualities show that you will: first, succeed in school and in life; second, make the environment of the college you attend better (in other words, when people meet you, they will think, “Wow! What a cool school I go to!”); third, and slightly cynically, go off into the world to represent your alma mater in a favorable light to others. There’s nothing more that a college wants to be able to say than “She’s one of ours!” when you walk up onto stage to claim your Nobel, write a best-seller, or find a cure for the Zika virus.
So do your best to come up with leadership experiences you can relate in your responses. Yes, we realize you’re 17 and most likely haven’t started your own green-energy company or run a YouTube channel with 8 million subscribers. But you’ve done a lot of other impressive things in your life, so don’t sell yourself short, and dig deep to find your leadership experiences. They’re there!
(Note: If you’re younger, please think about how you can add leadership experience into your already packed schedule of activities in the coming years so that when the time comes to apply, you’ll have something to write about.)
If you’re like most of the people we’ve worked with through the years, you have a handful of varied experiences with extracurriculars and leadership, ranging from volunteering for the Nike Women’s Marathon to being class president. Any leadership experience can work, and in some cases, simply taking a risk (when other people were involved) or doing something unconventional can be seen as a good leadership experience. Generally speaking, when trying to find a good leadership experience to write about, you should think of a time when you did something exceptional and inspiring; ideally, your actions should have inspired others to do better and have involved some sort of risk or unique talent on your part.
Let’s take a look at some examples of leadership experiences written by people I’ve worked with. (And in the next article, we’ll look at two examples of writing that could give you some ideas about how to approach the task.)
Some of the most common leadership experiences involve student government and school clubs. Now just because these topics are fairly commonly written about doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not good topics to use in your essays; to the contrary, if approached properly, they can be very compelling and can portray you in a good light. Again, it all really comes down to how you write.
Three examples successful applicants have used in the past
(Note: This may be the first time this question has been used by the UCs for freshman applicants, but this doesn’t mean it hasn’t ever been used before by other programs; these examples come from leadership essays people have written for other colleges, including transfers and graduate applicants.)
We’ve had many students who were active in student government, from treasurer to class president. In some cases, these students had real challenges to overcome and were able to write about them successfully. For example, one student wrote about the difficulty (but ultimate success) of raising $28,000 for the high school prom, and then barely making the deadline to pay. (This person was admitted to a top UC.)
Another student wrote about founding a Chinese Chess Club at his school, since it didn’t have one yet. (This student was admitted to Harvard.)
Finally, in perhaps the most memorable situation I’ve encountered, a student wrote about fighting in a war in her home country. Yes, you read that right—she wrote about joining the military and receiving enemy fire. (She was admitted to a top UC.) We pray that none of you will ever be in this kind of situation, but these experiences represent the spectrum that we encounter.
So let’s say you’re like most others: you fall right in the fat part of the bell curve, and you’re going to write about your experiences with student government or club activities. Yes, we’ve heard that a lot of the activity of these clubs involves sitting around chatting and trying to figure out where to order the pizza from, but do yourself a favor and leave those parts out.
Focus instead on something meaningful (even if it seems trivial to you) that involved other people and your role in ensuring your project’s success. For example, if you’re on the debate team at your school, you could talk about organizing weekly study sessions to stay abreast of current events, politics, and world affairs with quizzes at the end of the meeting to see who did the best for the week. Organizing study sessions may sound simple and maybe even insignificant when compared to some of the more dramatic life experiences mentioned above, but one can arguably say that the weekly study sessions inspired fellow members to take debate more seriously and directly contributed to new, lasting friendships and the success of the debate team, results that no college can say are bad. You are not alone if you think your life in student government has been nothing but mundane; many students actually solve problems and take leadership roles daily without realizing it! So think hard about the changes you’ve made in your clubs and school, however small those changes might be.
In the next email, you can read two sample essays about the UC leadership prompt.
For now, take care, and I wish you all the best!
Reading is much more important than you may realize June 8, 2016 10:57
Hi, all. Erin here. As you know, I teach some of the writing courses here at TestMagic. And, along with a couple of key staff members, including Linda, Nelson, and Eva, design and create the curriculum for the writing classes.
There's one thing that I tell people frequently: IT IS VERY IMPORTANT TO READ. (Some would say no kidding!) Think of reading as brain exercise--just as you would go to the gym to exercise or run around Lake Merced to stay in shape, you should read (and read a lot) to make your mind sharper.
As some of you know, our writing classes emphasize four key areas: reading, writing, grammar, and vocabulary. Each is important in different ways, and skill in each area progresses differently. Reading is important because it gives you new information of course, but good writing stretches the limits of your thinking a bit; over time, this effect can be quite significant.
Writing, of course, is generally thought of as the most difficult skill to master (of the four mentioned), but it is also extremely important--being able to write well reflects an ability to think well, which of course is vital to any kind of meaningful success (by many measures). Grammar and vocabulary are also very important, but in different ways--grammar reflects how a language is put together and vocabulary represents the myriad Lego-like blocks that we construct our ideas with; with the right vocabulary, we can create almost any thinkable idea. But without the right words, we get lost or left behind.
But one of the important things to remember is that all these skills are interrelated; you cannot truly meaningfully improve all four independently (with the possible exception of some fundamental grammar). So, if you want to be a good writer, you should be a good reader; if you want to improve your vocabulary, you should read; if you want to improve your grammar or become familiar with more advanced grammatical structures, you should read.
And I just want to note that it seems to be a rule that if you write about how important it is not to make grammar mistakes, then you will make one.For those applying to college, be sure to check out our tips for writing the UC undergraduate admissions essay as well.
Past Participle vs. Past Tense December 10, 2014 12:33 2 Comments
A few days ago, I received an email from someone who wanted to know the difference in meaning between two sentences.
Compare the two sentences below and think about how they are different.
- The image is burned in my mind.
- The image has been burned in my mind.
Now, I should note before we begin that there are several different ways to interpret these sentences, but I'm going to focus on what I think the person meant when he asked me this question.
The idiom: to be burned in one's mind
And also before we begin, we should clarify what it means for something to be burned in your mind--it simply means that something has been placed into your memory more or less permanently. (Unless, of course, something tragic happens to your brain, which we hope will never happen.)
For example, you could say that you saw something so beautiful that the image is burned in your mind.
Now the difference between the two sentences.
The verb tense difference: is vs. has been
The first obvious difference between the two is the verb tense.
If I say that something is burned in my mind, then I mean that it is in my mind now. However, if I say that something has been burned in my mind, then, since I am using the present perfect verb tense (which likely means that it was burned in my mind at some indeterminate point in the past).
However, I don't think the person meant to ask me that. Rather, I think he wanted to know why it's possible to use this expression in two different ways: is burned vs. has been burned.
Let's take a closer look at the differences between using burned in these two ways.
Past participle vs. past tense
The simple answer is that in one case (is burned), we are using the word as an adjective, whereas in the other case (has been burned) we are using the word as part of the verb phrase that is paired with the subject and explains what the subject did.
Let me explain a little bit more. If I say the image is burned in my mind, I'm basically saying that the image is presently in my memory. burned is basically an adjective.
If I say that the image has been burned in my mind or the image was burned in my mind, then I'm calling attention to the process of the image being burned in my mind. burned is part of the verb phrase.
Think of it this way: in one sense (is burned) burned is an adjective. This usage denotes that the image is present in my mind.
In the other sense (has been burned), we are saying that it went through the process of being committed to memory.
Note on verb tense: I should note that was burned and has been burned are more or less equivalent for our purposes. The difference between the verbs is the tense: one uses the simple past, the other the present perfect. It doesn't really matter which we use for this discussion.
To clarify this let me give you some similar examples.
I should also note that something about English makes this a little bit more confusing (and you probably know this already).
Why this can be a little confusing
The past tense and the past participle of regular verbs in English take the same form, meaning they sound or look exactly the same when you hear them or see them written. For example, talked could be the simple past or it could be a past participle. Compare this with something like went and gone where went is the past tense and gone is a past participle. They are totally different.
Here are the examples.
Is broken vs. was broken
What is the difference between saying that something is broken and something was broken? If we say it is broken right now we are saying it is not functioning. That is to say that the current state is that it is broken. It is not functioning. It is not working, period.
However, we could also emphasize the action of the breaking. We could say that it was broken. For example, we may want to know when the item was broken and we could ask, "When was this broken?" And someone could respond, "Oh, this was broken yesterday."
(And anticipating some questions: Yes, someone could theoretically ask about the state of the toy yesterday: "Oh, I notice that this toy is broken now. Was it also broken yesterday?" In this case, with the context, we would know that what the speaker meant. And yes, in it is possible to create an ambiguous sentence in this case.)
So theoretically you could say that the toy was broken yesterday and today.
Another example coming up!
Is open vs. was opened
Another one that people sometimes ask about is something like this: What's the difference between the store is open and the store was opened? Similarly, the store is closed vs. the store was closed. Again, we have the same difference: In one case, we're emphasizing the present state of the store (is open). In the other case, we are focusing on the action or the process of opening or closing the store (was opened).
Is cut vs. was cut
Finally, I have one more example if things are still not clear. If we say, for example, my arm is cut then I am saying that right now my arm has a cut on it. If I say my arm was cut yesterday then again, I am focusing on the action of the cutting.
I hope this helps. Please feel free to leave a comment or ask a question.
For those applying to college, be sure to check out our tips for writing the UC undergraduate admissions essay as well.