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TestMagic Blog: College and high school 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!

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.

Reading is important! (Says Erin from TestMagic)

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


A few days ago, I received an email from someone who wanted to know the difference in meaning between two sentences.

The question

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 burnedburned 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.

Some examples

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.