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TestMagic Blog: College and high school admissions

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.

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.

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.

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.

UC Application Verification January 4, 2017 17:48

Summary: The UC system audits about 10% of the applications it receives from freshman and transfer applicants. You may have received this email; if you did, it is vital that you respond.
Are you the 10%?


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!

Erin Billy

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.

Writing dog with writer's block
First, please note that for a good reason, I have chosen not to write these essays to the required UC word count. Why? There is the very real possibility that someone will copy the writing entirely and use it as an actual response. Or more likely, use this writing as a template. Neither case is desirable.

Recap of the essay prompt:

  1. 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.

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:

  1. Leadership
  2. Creativity
  3. A talent or skill you have
  4. Overcoming educational barriers
  5. A significant challenge you've overcome
  6. Favorite academic subject
  7. Contributions to society
  8. 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:

  1. 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!