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TestMagic Blog: College and high school admissions

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!

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!

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.