Writing the hardship essay for your college application

In a lot of essay prompts, you are either asked to write about overcoming hardship, or you find that you need to explain adversity you’ve faced in your life. The colleges frequently want this information not just to learn more about you, but also both to know whether you deserve an extra leg up in life and in the admissions process, as well as to see how you’ve dealt with difficulty in the past (since college years can be turbulent ones for some). (Or more cynically, so that they can advertise to the public all the disadvantaged people they’ve admitted.)

Here I will give an overview of how to approach this particular prompt.

Drama girl standing near where people are in a hurry in different directions. Production of the composite picture of the story. A scene filmed overall plan. Abstract image of the double exposure.
Confused about what to write? Maybe stop in the middle of the road for a minute or two to gather your thoughts.

But first, I know that some of you will be thinking that you don’t have any real hardship to speak of, especially compared to many others in the world. Perhaps you believe that if you’re applying to college in the first place, then you’re ahead of the game, so to speak. (Only about a third of Americans enroll in and graduate from college, and only about 7% worldwide do.) If this describes you, bless you. You are either fortunate enough to have lived a safe life or you have the wisdom to keep perspective on your good fortune. If I’m describing you, and you genuinely don’t have any true or perceived difficulty to overcome, you may want to avoid writing about this topic in your essays, wherever they may show up. (For example, you wouldn’t want to complain about getting a Honda Civic for your 16th birthday instead of the BMW you wanted because that’s what all your friends drive. So no first-world problems in this essay, please.)

And I would also like to point out that many people, though they may appear outwardly happy and successful, have faced many kinds of difficulties that aren’t apparent at all. For example, you may be the president of your Future Singing Veterinarians of America club, but secretly you battle depression and don’t feel like you’re understood or appreciated, but you try hard to hide it from others because you don’t want to burden them. So in a word, hardship is often hidden, and definitely relative—what may be easy for some is a real challenge for others, and those who appear to have perfect lives almost certainly do not. (Don’t believe what you see on social media!)

A working definition of hardship or adversity

Again, as I mentioned, hardship is relative, and what may be difficult for one may not be for another. I may struggle to lose twenty pounds while one of my students may be struggling to gain twenty pounds. One person may excel in math, but struggle with writing essays. And another is the opposite.

Hardship is anything significant that you believe has held you back from reaching your potential, something that’s a particular challenge to you, just you.

For example, you may have a learning difference that you’ve had to overcome in order to keep up with your work in school. Maybe that learning difference was undiagnosed for many years, and you had a few teachers who were not patient with you and yelled at you, leaving you a little scarred. (It happens a lot, unfortunately.) Perhaps your parents divorced, and it was difficult for you to adapt to your new life, especially if you had to take on more responsibility or work part-time. In essence, something can be considered hardship if its absence would have made a big improvement in your life.

Again, if it’s not there, and you don’t feel disadvantaged, yay! You don’t need to go make something up. (As a parent, I can tell you that our first goal for our children is to raise them in a happy, safe environment, and many parents are actually able to do this.)

Let’s get more specific with examples of hardship.

Some examples of hardship or adversity

Here are some examples that I’ve seen students write about in the past, as well as a couple I’m suggesting:

  • Overcoming a diagnosed learning difference, such as ADHD or dyslexia.
  • Overcoming an eating disorder, such as bulimia or anorexia. (If this is you, my heart goes out to you.)
  • Losing a parent or close relative. (I’m very, very sorry if you’ve experienced this.)
  • Struggling in a particular academic subject. This one is especially common, so be sure you write about how you assessed the problem, developed strategies to overcome the hardship, and of course, the successful outcome.
  • Adapting to a new country and a new language, ie, you immigrated to the US, experienced culture shock, and had to learn English. Note that for me at least, this is a very common subject to write about, and in California, where more than a quarter of the state’s population was not born in the US. (See below for more comments about this particular situation.)

Next up is vital—that you managed your situation with intense determination.

Demonstrate grit, tenacity, and perseverance in your essay: Always show that you’ve overcome the hardship, not that you’re still in the middle of it

This is key, perhaps even the most important part about writing the hardship essay: You must absolutely show that you’ve successfully managed the challenges you’ve faced and have a reasonable chance of succeeding in college in the future. That’s the kind of person you are. You don’t give up, you get back up if you’re knocked down, you’re unstoppable. You don’t want the people reading your essay thinking, Whoa, poor kid. Man, my heart goes out to him, but I’m really, really not sure that college is the best thing for him right now. He needs to get his life together first, and then think about college.

Yeah, that’s right—if it looks like you’re still in the middle of dealing with your various problems, they’ll decide that college will be a hindrance for you, not a leg up, even if it would be. Or they might think that you would be better off elsewhere, at a different college (they’ll use a euphemism like “not a good fit right now”), perhaps even part-time at a two-year college near where you live.

In general, you want to show that you: a) recognized the problem; b) analyzed your situation; c) came up with a reasonable and effective solution; and d) implemented your solution successfully with enormous determination and resilience. In other words, when life gives you lemons, you’ve got your own perfect lemonade recipe handy, and you’re not afraid to use it.

Now let’s take a look at some topics that seem to show up a lot, so may not set you apart in the way you’re hoping.

Some “hardship” topics that are commonly written about

Every year, I read a few essays that discuss these topics. Most of them are done very well, and show true challenges that the writers have faced. However, just be forewarned that the following are topics that a lot of people, at least the ones I’ve worked with, either use these topics or consider using them.

  • Shyness. “I was shy all throughout elementary school, so in middle school/junior high school I decided to break out of my shell.”
  • Transferring to a new school. “High school was a big transition for me, especially since I was coming from a private school to a public school.” (This one’s especially iffy because of the private school part.)
  • Immigrating and having to learn English in addition to adapting to a new culture. “In third grade, I came to America, and didn’t speak a word of English. I couldn’t understand anything the teacher was saying. I was scared and cried.”

If you’re going to write about these, be extra careful to make it unique and heartfelt. After all, any admissions officer with enough experience will tell you that there’s pretty much no topic she hasn’t read about before in an application.

Some final tips on writing the hardship essay

Some final thoughts, a couple of which I’ve already mentioned, but want to put here again.

  • Open up and tell the truth. But if you’ve got nothing to say about hardship, then don’t. You’re probably not required to write about this, and even if you’ve heard that “admissions offices love to read about adversity,” it’s probably better to skip this if you’ve led a storybook life.
  • Don’t manufacture hardship. Don’t take something that happened and turn it into something huge. If your avocado plant died in third grade, and you were sad, that’s not going to get you into Stanford.
  • Avoid the “pity me” essay—you don’t want to make a list of all the hardships you’ve endured as if they earn you points. Yes, you should talk about your difficulties, but also focus on your resilience and grit.
  • Remember that, in itself, facing adversity doesn’t earn you credit—you’re not going to gain admission as compensation.
  • Always show that you overcame the hardship. You’re past it. You beat it. You improved.
  • Avoid super-common or near-universal hardships. For example, going to high school or not being athletic enough apply to almost every applicant, so others will pretty much just expect you to have overcome these particular challenges.
  • Tread lightly: There are a few subjects that we pretty much always avoid talking about in admissions essays. They are the ones that relate to criminal activity, relationships, sex, and drugs. So unless you really think you’re going to write a gut-wrenching essay or you had a life-changing epiphany, writing about overcoming an addiction to nicotine (in the form of vaping) probably won’t win you any points with the admissions office.

Finally, as always, these are just guidelines. You could very easily write a beautiful essay that breaks some of the rules mentioned above as long as its heartfelt, genuine, and relatable. Trust your own judgment if you can, or ask others for their opinions if you have any doubt.


The 5 ways COVID-19 is changing how the University of California admits applicants

On May 21, 2020 the University of California Board of Regents voted unanimously to begin phasing out the use of the SAT and ACT for admissions decisions.

How did we get here?

We are living in historic times. The world may never be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic. Chances are the ways we work and go to school will undergo massive, permanent, systemic changes. The institutions that educate us and the businesses that pay us will adapt to the new normal and along the way, will discover important benefits and ways to make improvements to existing systems and policies. Old familiar names will disappear. Businesses will go bankrupt. So will many colleges, especially the ones that don't adapt fast enough or don't have the prestige or recognition of larger, better-funded universities. The Harvards and Stanfords of America will weather the storm, but the smaller, private colleges may not. Some of the early changes involve testing requirements, specifically the SAT and ACT. You probably know that the SAT has been under assault for decades; some people think that the SAT (and standardized tests in general) are unfair to many groups. In a word, more affluent students have access to better preparation for these tests, so they score higher on the tests. The 2019 Varsity Blues scandal (in which some rich people basically simply paid money to cheat on the SAT or bribe university representatives) dealt a massive black eye to American higher education. The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 is the latest element in this perfect storm and is serving as the catalyst for the upheaval.

The changes

Note: When I refer to current juniors or 11th-graders in this article, I am assuming that they are applying to college directly and will not take a year off or defer. For example, current college-bound juniors are in the high-school class of 2021 and will apply to college to start in the fall of 2021 (not in the spring of 2022 or the fall of 2022).

Here is an overview of the actions that the University of California Board of Regents voted unanimously for on May 21, 2020:

  • 1 'Test-optional' for fall 2021 and fall 2022: If you're applying to start in the fall of 2021 or fall of 2022, you do not have to take the SAT or ACT if you don't want to. Whether or not you should is another question that we address elsewhere. Note: The University of California is reserving the right to use SAT or ACT scores in other decisions, such as for course placement or scholarships. I believe this policy allows wiggle room for certain departments to look at SAT or ACT scores if they want to.
  • 2 'Test-blind' for the fall 2023 and fall 2024: If you're a California resident applying to start in the fall of 2023 or fall of 2024 (current ninth- and eighth-graders), then the University of California will not look at your SAT or ACT scores. If you're applying from outside of California, you can opt to submit your SAT or ACT scores if you want. Again, whether or not it will help or hurt to submit SAT/ACT scores is a whole 'nother topic of discussion.
  • 3 A new, specific test for the University of California: The University of California will try its best to come up with a new test to replace the SAT and ACT. Yes, I also thought that they wanted to get rid of standardized tests, but the University of California has decided to research whether they can create a test for California that is better than the SAT/ACT. (Opinion: I don't think they can; whatever they come up with will likely look a lot like current tests. There are only so many ways to test verbal and math abilities.) What this means to current eighth- and ninth-graders is currently unclear, but we have several theories that we will elaborate on in future articles. If you're applying from outside of California, well, it's not clear either—you may still have to take the SAT or ACT. Note: It's not that easy to create a standardized test for a state with a population greater than that of most of the world's countries and a university system that receives some 220,000 applications yearly. One of the regents threw out the number of $100 million as the cost to create a new test, which President Napolitano rejected.
  • 4 A new test for fall 2025, unless there's not: No, that's not a joke. The University of California hopes to have a test ready for those applying for the fall of 2025 (current seventh-graders). But if they fail, well, no test for you! Unless you're applying as an out-of-state student; in this case, you might still have to take the SAT or ACT. (But what if you offer to travel to California? We don't know. Nobody knows.)
  • 5 No more SAT or ACT writing test: These tests were already unpopular with college admissions departments, but now it's official. The University of California will not look at these essay scores ever again.

So what does this mean for me?

In an increasingly 'test-optional' world, admissions have become trickier than ever before. Colleges are claiming that they will be able to make decisions just as well as before and if you don't submit SAT or ACT scores, you won't be penalized. (Some colleges, however, have outright stated that they actually still expect you to submit your scores.) Of course, with no test scores or without consideration of your test scores, every other part of your application just became that much more important: Your GPA, your outside activities, leadership, application writing, demonstrated interest, grit, curiosity, and the rest of the usual suspects. We also believe that integrity and ethics will become more important in coming years as well.


Top 20 college applicants: Cultural activities that you should start a few years early before you apply to college.

Summary: If you’re thinking of applying to some of the top 10 or top 20 colleges (Stanford, Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Chicago, Duke, etc.), then you need to plan certain cultural activities well in advance, preferably at least two years in advance. Columbia specifically asks about certain cultural activities.

That’s you. You’re curious, passionate, ethical.

Why I decided to write this article

The following has happened more than a few times when I’m meeting with a student about a college application:

Student: “I’m not sure what to put here, this part about exhibits, events, performances, and lectures.”

Me: “Oh. They just want to know what museums, live shows, and that kind of thing that you’ve done in the last couple of years. [pause] So do you have anything like that?”

Student: “Um… Um… Not really. I don’t like museums.”

Me: “Okay, what about music? Or musicals? Any live music at all?”

Student: “I’m in band; does that count?”

And it goes on like that. Basically a lot of people don’t really have these sorts of cultural activities to write about. I’m here to help you avoid that! Read on.

Filling your time with meaningful activities

Depending on the college you apply to, you may end up needing to answer a question about the various activities you’ve engaged in outside of school, on your own (i.e., because you wanted to, not because you had to). For this article, I want to focus on a specific set of activities, the ‘cultural’ ones, like visiting museums, attending lectures, or seeing live performances.

The colleges that ask you about activities outside of school, clubs, volunteer work, and extracurriculars also tend to be the ones that are the most selective, so if you’re not applying to brand-name colleges, this advice may not apply to you. And if you are, I hope to give you some advice about what these colleges are looking for. (If you want to skip directly to the actionable advice and skip the background information, just scroll down to the actionable advice section.)

Columbia specifically asks about this in a short-answer question:

List the titles of the films, concerts, shows, exhibits, lectures and other entertainments you enjoyed most in the past year.

But even if you’re not applying to Columbia, it’s a good idea to be prepared for these questions, as the questions can change in the future, and many applications ask about books, films, and related activities as well.

Note: I wrote previously about the current situation (2020-04-12) with the COVID-19 pandemic and gave specific suggestions for what you should be doing while quarantining; the following suggestions still apply, assuming of course that one day in the future, we are able to emerge from our modern caves and start socializing and soaking up glorious sunlight.

Related questions: Summers and books, movies, etc.

Before I get started, I would like to note two related questions to answer that appear on some applications I will address elsewhere:

  • How did you spend your last two summers?
  • What books, movies, performances have you read, seen, or attended in the last two years?

I am noting these here because like the other activities that I’m going to address in detail, they are activities that take at least a bit of planning and would preferably be completed a year or two before you start writing your applications.

In short, you need to keep busy during your uptime and downtime if you’re planning to apply to a more selective college.

The kind of person they like to think they admit

Very generally speaking, colleges like to think that they’re inviting a select group of high-achieving students who are intensely curious about the world and passionate in everything they do.

This is the charitable way to describe their ideal candidate.

I heard that Stanford once visited a local high school for an information session, and the Stanford rep said that they are looking to admit (paraphrasing here) that one student who changes the class dynamic, and if they are absent one day, the whole class changes. (Oh man, where’s Bubba today? Dang, we can’t get anything done without Bubba! That guy.)

And I know many of you reading do not see yourselves this way, especially if you come from a background of traditional Confucian values (like many of the American-Born Chinese (ABC) students I work with). For better or worse, you are more tall poppy types in that you don’t like to blow your own horn, call attention to yourselves, or puff yourselves up. And I know it can be a challenge to tease this out of some of you, though I’ve learned that deep down inside, many of you can often see glimmers of these attitudes, but you’re not exactly prepared to trot them out to the world and talk yourselves up. (I have a section/article about the level of humility to strike in your writing for American colleges that addresses this in more detail.)

So, if you want to portray yourself this way on paper, you should be engaged in a good variety of activities that shows your intellect, curiosity, and passion.

A less charitable, more cynical, way to describe the ideal candidate is to point out their extroverted, Type A characteristics that may not describe you at all. This particular tendency strikes a nerve for me; personally, I see myself as more of an introvert than extrovert (though in class I must admit that I really come alive and love the engagement with learners), and while I personally am driven to achieve certain things in my life, I prefer not to do so at the expense of others, so I don’t think of myself as terribly competitive in the traditional sense. (For example, when I play board games, I don’t mind losing. In fact, I kind of like seeing other people win, especially if I care about them. And yes, I know sometimes more competitive people are more fun to play with!) So I sometimes wish that colleges give so much attention to the squeakier wheels, so to speak.

In short, I think there’s a bias against the quiet, introverted, shier types who do not aggressively seek the spotlight, and while I do see a shift away from that preference, I still think this is unfair to many.

Actionable advice

I would recommend at least a two years advance start on a sort of ‘cultural enrichment’ program that involves immersing yourself in various experiences that you find appealing. As always, these count more if you’ve done them on your own rather than been assigned to do them in school.

Here are some specific suggestions:


Visit any museums near you, not once or twice or thrice or frice, but regularly. Take notes about what you learned, liked, didn’t like, or didn’t understand. If you don’t live near a museum, you can try to visit one on a trip. If you’re not so close to a decent museum, just visit one ‘virtually’. The Louvre is a great place to start; it’s one of the most famous museums in the Western world and home to the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo.

Live performances

Attend live performances of music or theater. If you play an instrument, you probably already do this. But if not, go see some live shows! They’re amazing, and you may be able to get free or discounted tickets as a student. For example, the musical Hamilton has a lottery for $10 tickets that isn’t that hard to win (I know several people who have won, and a couple who have won several times).


Visit art galleries to cultivate an interest in living artists. Yes, some galleries can be snooty and may not treat high school students well, but to heck with them! Actually, if you just tell them you’re a high school student interested in art, hopefully they’ll take some time to talk to you.

It’s can also be really interesting to see modern, living artists and what they’re creating. Here’s the work of Robert MacDonald, a friend of mine (and he even did the very first TestMagic lettering and awning on Irving Street in 1998). Here’s a better-known artist (Jeremy Mann) whose paintings go for $30,000 or so from what I can tell.


Attend festivals, ‘faires’, and other types of conventions, such as renaissance faires, the Dickens Faire in San Francisco (I love that one), Comic-Con, or other organized, themed gathering.


In short, you need to stay busy! No rest for the weary as they say. Colleges are looking for applicants who aren’t sitting around on their rumpuses flicking through TikTok (by the way, delete Tik Tok from your phone NOW!) videos, playing League of Warcraft, or binge-watching a Netflix series. Sure, you can do that a little bit, but not a lotta bit.

The top colleges want people who are out in the world, doing stuff, engaging with people, taking in the full human experience and will continue to do that in college.

(But don’t worry, we parents love all of you, warts and all.)


5 things you can do right now to stand out

Summary: If you’ll be applying to an American college in the next cycle (i.e., during 2020 for fall 2021), you need to be prepared to write about what you did during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Master your ollie, memorize the subjunctive in Spanish, keep your gratitude journal. Now’s your chance.

You can be sure that a few months from now, when high school seniors are writing their college applications, everybody, their brother, and their dog will be writing about COVID-19. It’s just going to be unavoidable. Many of you are a little young to remember this, but after 9/11 something similar happened—everybody wrote something about how the attacks affected them (even if in truth fortunately the worst many of us endured was some level of uncertainty or longer waits at the airport).

This time is different. Half the planet is under orders to shelter in place. We are united in a way that has not happened in our lifetimes, and we are, for the first time in history, able to communicate in real time with almost every other part of the globe. I personally have friends in China, Brasil, Africa, and Europe that I’m chatting with daily about quarantining. I’m sure you have similar stories.

Of course, the admissions committees will be aware that there is now the ‘easy, obvious’ topic to write about and many will likely craft new prompts to ask you specifically about your unique experience in a way that suits college applicants.

So, now is the time to get busy. Think about what you can do for yourself, for your community, and for the world. But also think a few months ahead about what you’ll be writing about for your college applications.

I’m sure you have some great ideas yourself, and I’d love to hear them. I have a few ideas that I would like to share (and perhaps you’re already doing one or more), with a couple of other ideas that may inspire you as well.

1. Keep a journal

You may be doing this already, as I know a lot of teachers are requiring their students to keep a journal. I agree with them—this is a historic time, and you’ll want to look back on it some years down the road. I would also suggest recording short videos and taking photos as well; you may want to turn this into a project of sorts, and having various media on hand will help.

But at the very least, write down a few sentences every day to record what you did and how you felt. Take a couple of pictures or videos of life at home, six people in the kitchen, your no-haircut hair, your freezer stuffed with food.

2. Set up an accountability/study group

If you’re like most of the kids I know or work with (even my own children), then you’re seeing this situation as a kind of extended spring break and are enjoying your time off, maybe sleeping later than usual and watching a lot of Netflix. But you’ll admit that you’re starting to feel just a tad bored.

Unfortunately, this is the human condition—we don’t like working so much as having worked, and we often need an outside motivator to keep us working.

This is perfectly normal. Don’t beat yourself up over it.

But if you truly want to set yourself apart, now is the time to be the kind of person you know you can be. This is your chance; there’s no better opportunity. You’ve got the time, and you have more freedom to make choices than you’ve probably had in your entire life.

And you also know that developing your mind is a lifelong pursuit, but one that is especially important to engage in now at your age—learning a lot as a young person is developmentally more important in your early years than it is in later years since your brain is still maturing and is able to take in information in qualitatively different ways now than it will when you’re, say, 60 years old. Disclaimer: Learning is always important. It’s never not important. In fact, learning as an adult can slow down certain kinds of aging and help retain brain function. But young people who don’t get certain kinds of information at certain stages of their development have trouble catching up, and some may never catch up.

Finally, if you’re the type that’s aiming for top schools, then you’re also the type who’s a self-starter, someone who does the hard stuff because you enjoy it or like the challenge, not because you have to. If your teacher recommends reading an article, you do it. You take detailed notes in class, highlight with yellow, pink, blue, and green, and review your notes later. You ask at least several questions in every class, not to kiss up, but because you really want to know.

If that’s you, then you’ve probably already figured out some kind of study schedule. If it’s not you, but you’re becoming that person, here’s your chance to inch towards your goal.

So find a group of friends from school. Set goals for yourselves, set times to meet, and check in on each other. You can even set a time to set daily expectations. ‘Yo Adrian, let’s set up a Zoom meeting for every morning at 9:30 AM to check in on each other. We’ll have a stand-up and announce to everybody what we’re going to get done for the day.’ Maybe even create a Google spreadsheet to write down your assignments and goals with due dates.

You will thank yourself if you do this. Your grades will thank you. And your teachers will appreciate not having to manage you as well.

And on that note, another way to stay busy while helping others coming right up.

3. Offer to help a teacher

You may find this hard to believe, but many teachers are feeling a little overwhelmed right now. For years, they’ve been teaching in one way, and then almost literally overnight, they’ve been told that they need to change virtually everything they do in just a few days. It’s like coming home to your house, and suddenly, you’re living in a tent while you’re rebuilding your new house in a different country. Everything is different. I know some teachers are working 12-15 hour days right now just to adapt to this new learning scenario. If you feel comfortable doing so, you could approach a teacher and ask if there’s any way you could help. Most likely, the teacher will politely decline and say that she, he, or they is happy if you just keep up with the work assigned, but maybe if you offer to help by setting up study groups to keep all students on track, your teacher will be thankful.

4. Give back/help someone else

So much of our lives is consumed by our own desires that we often forget that others have desires just as powerful and real as our own. You may not think so, but someone out there could really benefit from some help from you specifically, from someone to talk about random life stuff to going over some difficult concepts in Pre-Calc. Yes, you. You can make a difference. Put yourself out there and offer to help. Perhaps even get involved with some local tutoring organizations, from your library to community centers to other organizations that are popping up to help others.

5. Make masks

Here’s an easy one! Our President has recommended that we all wear masks when we go out in public. I think this is a great idea, and wearing a mask shows others that you’re taking this situation seriously; by wearing a mask, you’re functioning as a role model. Maybe someone somewhere will see you wearing your mask and think, ‘Hey, if she’s doing it, so will I.’ And that person could also inspire another person!

So a lot of people are asking where they can get masks, while others are stepping up to make them for others to give away. It’s probably just a matter of time before people in the US use masks to make fashion statements, to distinguish themselves, or to promote their club or brand (because if you don’t have your own brand, you aren’t playing the game!), so this is a good time to get in on the ground floor if that’s your thing.

Here’s a good resource to start with:

And you never know, you may save a life! (For real.)

6. Reinvent yourself

Finally, this is your chance to ‘reinvent’ yourself. If you’ve had something in the back of your mind that you thought you could accomplish, now’s the time to start working towards it. I have a friend who, at the very beginning of the COVID-19 spread in the US, lost her job as a direct result of business shutdowns. Not a week later, she and her longtime boyfriend broke up (not unexpected, but still). With no job, and no boyfriend, instead of sinking into the pits of dark despair and self-pity, she has decided to throw herself into remaking herself to be better than she ever was. She is taking online courses in her interests, meditating, keeping a journal, and exercising at home.

So, think about setting some goals for yourself. Here are some examples to get you started.

Write out the following somewhere:

When COVID-19 ends, I will have:

Again, these are just some ideas to get you thinking. Surely you have your own ideas of what to learn or improve, from knitting to baking to Spanish to Arduino.

Final thoughts

These are historic times; what you do now will shape you forever. You have a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime chance to make something of yourself, to be a new you.

And more pragmatically, if you’re applying to college in the next year or two, you may very well need to write about what you’re doing right now.


Register early for the SAT

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

If you follow our advice, you'll never see this screen again!

Planning for the SAT is difficult, but plan you must

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t think that planning for college in the US is difficult. Not only do you need to excel in school, you also need to stay “qualitatively” busy after school, raise your test scores, as well as market yourself to the colleges you’ll be applying to.

So it can be pretty difficult at times to plan things out ahead of time, though we do know people who have the next 1.5 years planned out, down to test dates and hotel reservations!

There are many activities that we definitely recommend you start early on, but one of the most important is simply being sure to register for your test early.

Why? Well, there’s a very real chance that if you wait too long, you won’t be able to get a seat at your preferred location or even in your city. This may not seem like a big deal, but it can be in some cases.

For example, some testing sites can be noisy or disorganized. Here in San Francisco, our students seem to have the best luck taking the tests at private schools, though many public schools have gotten good reviews as well. (One in particular, though, has gotten very bad reviews, unfortunately. But I’m not going to name and shame here.)

When to register for the SAT

When to register? The short answer is to register as early as you can. The system allows registrations up to a year in advance.

To give an example of how hard it can be to get a spot (this was for the SAT), in July I searched for a seat for the test in August (so about a month in advance). There were 0 spots available. I extended my search to a radius of 75 miles. Still 0. Nothing available at all. The closest testing centers I was able to locate were in Sacramento and Fresno. On a positive note, there seemed to be many seats available in Bakersfield.

A couple of anecdotes:

  • For the August SAT test this year, towards the end of May, our students reported that they were unable to find any spots available in San Francisco and had to choose a testing site in Oakland or elsewhere.
  • Someone REALLY needed to take the ACT in July, and had to fly out of state to do so.


(I will update this periodically.)

Can I reschedule my SAT?

If I register early, and change my mind, can I reschedule? You can change your test date for a fee, which is currently (in 2019) $30. There’s actually no deadline for this (and you can even reschedule a previous test date that you missed), but if the test date you want to reschedule for is soon (less than about a month), you may have to pay a late fee as well (currently also $30). And remember, many of the best sites may be full already. Note that more information may be available when you register, on your admission ticket, or in emails sent to you, so always defer to that information.

Can I get a refund of my SAT registration?

What if I cancel my SAT registration entirely? Can I get a refund? As long as you still have at least five days before your test date, good news! You can request (and receive) a refund. The bad news is that you’ll get only $10 (six weeks after the test date at that). See the College Board for all the fine print about refunds.

SAT Essay

Most common essay mistakes: Add more detail to your writing

In general, it is important to include details in your writing to give your ideas more impact and make your writing more interesting. This is especially important for personal narratives and persuasive essays. (Actually, it's hard to think of a type of writing, aside from perhaps a research paper, that wouldn't benefit from ample but relevant detail).

Can you hear the fizz?

Why are details so important? For one, your goal as a writer is to create a vivid image in your reader's mind so that your main points are made more forcefully. It is hard to do this with vague information.

Compare the following two samples of writing to see the difference:

(1) Although college is important for many people, it is not absolutely vital in all cases to become success or to reach one's goals. Bill Gates is an excellent example of someone who is not just successful, but also highly accomplished and influential in his field of work. Bill Gates famously dropped out of Harvard College, one of the most prestigious universities on the planet, to found a little software company called Microsoft in the 1970s. At one point, with a fortune of over $40 billion, Gates was the wealthiest human alive. While one could argue that Harvard played a pivotal role in Gates' later success, it is self-evident that the entire four-year undergraduate program at Harvard College was not necessary for Bill Gates.

Boy did you ever feel good when you were able to get something done on DOS.

Okay, now let's look at the same ideas expressed with less detail:

(2) It is not important to complete college in order to be successful. Take Bill Gates as an example. He didn't finish college, and now he is extremely wealthy, even though he doesn't have a college degree. Bill Gates had what it took to be successful, and he didn't need college at all.

Which sounds better to you? (1) of course! Why? Because it has more detail and is more specific. Try to do the same in your own writing as well.


Most common essay mistakes: Avoid using informal words, such as “stuff”

As you know, there are different levels or varieties of formality in language, including in writing and in speaking. (Note: The formality of English that I generally use to explain concepts is less formal than typical academic writing.)

For example, if you were hanging out with your friends, at some point in your conversation, you might say something like, "Yo, wassup? Whatcha thinking of doing today? I got a bunch of stuff I just gotta get done before I go out."

Of course this kind of speech if fine (and expected) for spoken English. But for formal writing, we all learn that we should avoid vague slang and informal language.

Short list of words that are too informal for academic essays

Here's a list of the words I most frequently see in my students' writing that I generally recommend they change:

  • kid
  • mom
  • dad
  • grandma
  • grandpa
  • stuff
  • a lot
  • a bunch
  • okay

You can probably guess how to change these words, but let me explain a bit more about each.

Why these words are considered informal

  • kid literally means juvenile goat (or juvenile sheep). And for some reason in English, we've decided that we should call our young people baby goats. But this doesn't mean we should carry this peculiarity over to our writing. I quite frequently see the word kid used in formal essays to refer to human children. Instead of kid, use child, girl, boy, etc.
  • mom, dad, grandma, and grandpa should be mother, father, grandmother, and grandfather, respectively. I think that's pretty straightforward–the former set represents the more affectionate language we use with family whereas the latter words are considered more formal.
  • stuff literally means material used as stuffing, such as what you put inside a pillow. In modern English, we use stuff to refer generally to things or other unspecified material or concepts, both concrete and abstract. But in writing, the word stuff is simply too vague and informal for this meaning.
  • a lot has several different meanings, such as the lot in drawing lots or a parking lot. We often use the word lot in informal English to mean much or many, which probably comes from the usage of the word lot to refer to a group of items, especially for sale. For example, visit eBay and search for a lot of fidget spinners, and you'll likely find people selling large numbers together. So, instead of a lot, use many, much, a plethora, myriad, etc.
  • a bunch literally refers to a group of the same kinds of things, such as a bunch of flowers, a bunch of bananas, or a bunch of grapes. In modern American English, we often use bunch to mean many. So, instead of writing that you have a bunch of ideas for how to raise money for the senior prom, just say you have many ideas.
  • guy is used in the US by most people to refer to men or older boys, and now in modern years, to all members of mixed-sex groups. In formal writing, you'd be better off using boy, teenager, man, etc.
  • lady sounds like it would be a nice way to refer to a woman, but it's safer just to say woman since lady technically refers to a woman with a certain status in society.
  • okay is one of my favorite words, and it's one of the best-known and most-used English words worldwide. But it's best used in speech and in informal writing. Try using a more precise word instead, such as acceptable or simply yes.
Will the real kids please stand up?

But how do I know?

Sometimes people aren't aware of which words are considered formal or informal. Fair enough–some of this truly is arbitrary.

One suggestion I've made that seems to help is to imagine which words you'd see on a government (or other) form you'd fill out–in the box where you put in the information about your parents, do you think you'd be more likely to see it labeled "Mother" or "Mom"? What about "Number of children in household" vs. "Number of kids in household"? It would be more common say use "Mother" and "Number of children in household" because this language is considered more formal (as well as more precise).

A few words that I didn't include

I'm keeping a mental list of words that I need to point out sometimes that I don't mention above.

Here's what I have now:

  • ton

Next steps

This is just a short list of a small set of words that I see most often in my students' writing. Of course, there are zillions more words that should be avoided as well.

But this list is a good start, and if you can take to heart the logic behind why these words don't quite fit in certain formal essays, you'll be one step closer to being a better writer.

Final note: Sometimes people ask me whether it's acceptable to use informal language when you're quoting the exact speech of someone. Of course! You can't go around changing people's words, so you should in fact (if the situation arises) use the quoted language exactly as it was spoken or written.

SAT Essay

Most common SAT Essay mistakes: How to use the author’s name

When you're writing your SAT essay, you'll naturally need to make reference to the author or speaker throughout the essay. In my students' essays, I've seen many different ways of doing this, but there's really only one convention that we follow in college-level, formal writing in the US.

Handwritten SAT essay with comments (blurred for obfuscation)

Rule: In general, use the author's or speaker's full name the first time you need to mention her or him. After that, use her or his last name.

(Side note: Ugh. I wish I had a gender-neutral pronoun other than their.)

First, let's look at an example. Imagine you're reading an essay written by Zadie Smith about public libraries. You'll need to refer to her throughout your writing. (Note: The instructions state that Smith is a female; you should be sure to refer to her appropriately when you write.)

I have read essays with several different methods of referring to Smith. The first, and best, is simply to say "Smith." For example, "In her essay, Smith argues that public libraries are important centers of culture." This is the correct way–using Smith's last name (also referred to as the surname or family name).


Best: "Smith claims that libraries exist for altruistic reasons."

This is correct–here we use Smith's last name.

Avoid: "Zadie claims that libraries exist for altruistic reasons."

This is not standard. To my ears, when I hear this (or read it, as it were), I feel like the author is a friend of the writer.

This mistake isn't terribly common, but I do see it, so if you're using this format, you should know it's not considered standard for formal essays.

Avoid: "Zadie Smith claims that libraries exist for altruistic reasons."

I also see this form from time to time–using the writer's full name. We generally don't do this in formal writing mostly because it's just too time-consuming to write out the full name.

What about authors with titles? Or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?

View of the Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial and over the "I Have a Dream" inscription (in Washington, D.C.)

I have read many effective essays that use titles, such as Dr. Nip, Professor Nguyen, and of course, Dr. King.

In an SAT essay, this is acceptable in my opinion, though MLA and APA formats omit titles for in-text citations.

Final note: Be consistent, do your best

Finally, the cardinal rule, as always, is to be consistent. If you go back and forth between using the author's first name and last name, you'll appear inconsistent. Inconsistency shows an undesirable lack of control that also reduces credibility. ("Why should I believe what you're writing if you're just spouting out random words?")

That said, SAT essay readers are hired from pools of teachers, and every single educator I've known has tried to find the good in students' writing; if it appears that you're doing your best (under SAT's timed conditions) to cite the author, I think most teachers would be inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt.


August 25, 2018 SAT, a date which will live in infamy (in the history of College Board)

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

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

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

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

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

Why it’s bad

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

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

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

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

How do we know that the SAT was leaked?

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

A quick search of Twitter and Reddit shows:



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

How do SATs get leaked?

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

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

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

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

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

What will College Board do?

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

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

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

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

How does College Board determine cheating?

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

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

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

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

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

The worst-case scenario and what to expect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did College Board resuse the test?

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

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

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

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

What will happen in the future?

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

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

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

What will TestMagic do?

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

Final thoughts

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


see vs watch – Why are so many people making this grammar mistake?

Summary: You see a movie at a movie theater; you watch a movie at home.
English grammar question--see vs watch
What’s the difference between SEEING a movie and WATCHING a movie?

When I first started teaching English some twenty-five years ago, a constant area to cover in a lesson at some point was the difference between seeing and watching, for example, seeing a movie and watching a movie. Most of the English books that we teachers used in our classes had at least one unit devoted to covering the topic. Other books also explained the related difference between hearing something and listening to something. In classes, we generally described the difference simply like this: You see a movie in a theater, and you watch a movie at home. Or to put it differently, you saw a movie on a large screen and watched a movie at home on a small television set (for example, with a VCR (a very old device used to play videotapes)). Remember, this was at a time when only the wealthy owned large-screen TVs and DVDs did not even exist, so the distinction between the two types of screen was quite a marked one and was therefore all the easier to explain.

The grammar rule: see vs watch

For those students who were more curious and had more questions, I would typically explain that seeing a movie had something to do with the larger screen typically found only in cinemas, which created a more immersive experience. Watching seemed to be a more deliberate, active activity – one had to make a conscious effort to watch something, whereas seeing something was slightly more passive, as if it were occurring before your eyes and you happened to see it. My students seemed to accept this explanation unquestioningly, even if the distinction seemed an unnecessary one.

I never noticed native speakers of English making this mistake, and it was taken as a given that this distinction was an important one, though one that wasn’t completely necessary for the most basic level of communication. So imagine my surprise when I started to notice, some twenty years later, native speakers making this error. In fact, at least among the group that I teach – high school students in San Francisco – the dominant usage is to watch a movie; rarely do I hear students saying that they are going to see a movie.

Complicating things is the fact that home screens are getting larger, and many of the smaller independent cinemas, at least in San Francisco, seem to be quite small in comparison with the stadium-seating in the giant multiplex cinemas, so it could be argued that the home experience, especially if you throw into the mix a $5000 home theater system, is just as immersive, if not more so, as the one in some movie theaters.

It is also completely possible that the language is changing, and the distinction between watching and seeing is disappearing; it certainly seems that way among many of the people I know and interact with. However, if you’re a traditionalist, a purist, or dare I say even a prescriptivist, we see a movie at the theater and watch a movie at home.

On a related point – we typically also see (not watch) other related visual arts– we see plays, we see performances, and we see recitals.

Finally, in a few days I should be able to upload a see vs watch grammar worksheet in our new Worksheets section, if you’d like to test yourself or your students.