Embracing the Challenge: The Impact of Rigorous Classes on College Preparation and Admissions- by Justin M. Buffer, Cambridge Owner and Professional College Planner

I am often asked as a professional College Admissions Planner and Consultant, how much colleges put weight on the rigors of the classes a student took in high school.  My immediate answer is always, in effect, “A lot.”   Although there is no set formula for how many AP or Honors classes a student’s transcript should demonstrate that they were willing to challenge themselves and not try to boost their GPA through less difficult courses.


In today’s highly competitive landscape for college admissions, it’s essential for students to demonstrate academic rigor throughout their high school years. Embracing challenging classes not only equips students with a strong skill set, but it also conveys a strong message to colleges about a student’s commitment to intellectual growth and resilience in the face of challenge.  It shows a university that a student does not shy away from challenges, but rather embraces them.  In common sense terms the logic goes- in eyes of admissions officers- “if a student is willing to push themselves in high school, they will push themselves in college also.” 

On the other hand, if a student opted not to take challenging courses in high school, it might raise questions in an admissions officer’s mind, especially at a more elite university.  Thus, how much of a positive influence on other students can this student have at the university?  Colleges are always looking for good role models for their campuses.  If they shy away from challenges, questions may arise: 

“Will this student be able to handle the rigor of college coursework?” “Can they demonstrate resilience and dedication in the face of academic challenges?” 

 After all, past behavior is often a strong indicator of future actions. Choosing a challenging course load in high school sends a signal to colleges that a student is ready to handle the rigors of higher education. 

And it is important to note that these academically rigorous classes, such as AP, IB, or dual enrollment programs, do more than just demonstrate a student’s capacity to handle tough coursework for university admissions. They also allow students to develop essential skills like time management and effective study habits, skills that are crucial for success at college and beyond.

Moreover, advanced classes also contribute significantly to the preparation for standardized tests like the SAT and ACT. By engaging with complex reading materials, challenging mathematics, and rigorous testing environments, students cultivate critical thinking skills and a broad knowledge base that can enhance their performance on these important exams.  At our SAT/ACT program at the Cambridge Learning & College Planning Center of New Jersey, we often find that students who have opted not to take the more challenging classes often find themselves lacking in necessary background content knowledge to do as well as they can on the reading passages.  Thus, we have to spend more time with them backfilling a lot of this information. 

Besides these advantages, another key advantage of AP and dual enrollment classes is the potential to earn college credit. Achieving high scores on official exams or paying for dual enrollment tuition could lead to college credit, saving both time and money once the student gets to college.


Finally, challenging classes serve as platforms for students to explore their academic interests and possible career paths. Whether they discover a passion for STEM through AP Calculus, or kindle an interest in history from a dual enrollment course, these rigorous classes can guide students towards their future academic and career choices.  Over the years as a teacher, College Planner, and Educational Director here at Cambridge, I have seen countless stories of students who found their passion in a class they initially took to enhance their college admissions portfolio. 


It is also important to note that even if a school offers a limited selection of AP courses, or none at all, students have various ways to demonstrate academic rigor. Admissions officers have often told me that they value the willingness to tackle challenging coursework in whatever form it takes.  Some students of mine who go to high schools with low AP course offerings have chosen to take college classes over the summer at Rutgers to demonstrate to a university that they are serious about challenging themselves. 


In conclusion, undertaking challenging classes in high school can significantly impact a student’s educational trajectory and college admissions chances. After all, how a student tackles academic adversity today can say a lot about how they will handle future challenges tomorrow. 

Submitted College Planning Question of the Week: Does “Demonstrated Interest” Matter?- by Justin M. Buffer, Cambridge Owner and Professional College Planner

Is “Demonstrated Interest” a significant factor in admissions? 

Dear Mr. Buffer:

  “  I was at a lunch recently and one of the parents was asking another parent about “demonstrated Interest.”  I was worried because during our initial meeting I told you my son wants to go to Cornell or John Hopkins, and some others prestigious schools.  Is this something we should worry about?  Should we be showing these and other colleges we are “interested” to increase my son’s chances of admissions? “


  This is a good question and one that I frequently get. Let me say first that “demonstrated interest” is something that is often very misunderstood and a concept, I have found, that many families unfortunately and needlessly worry about. Let me try in my answer here to allay your worries and give you a more clear and more panoramic picture of what “demonstrated interest” actually is and how it applies to the college application process. 

      Demonstrated interest is a term used to describe a student’s level of effort and interest toward a particular college or university. It is a factor that some- but not all – schools consider when making their admission decisions and reflects a student’s genuine enthusiasm for enrolling. Some examples of ways that colleges assess demonstrated interest include visiting the campus, attending events or informational sessions, communicating with the admissions office, participating in campus tours, and expressing interest in specific academic programs or extracurricular activities, as well as interacting with the university via social media or email. This can also be done through a student’s supplemental essay for the particular university by providing specific and unique reasons why they are interested in attending the college.


      The first thing to understand – and I hope this immediately gives you some calm- is that the vast majority of schools do not take demonstrated interest into account. Additionally, the ones that do are not the most prestigious schools. You can see the list on our website here. 


  This is not to say that the schools that do look at demonstrated interest are not reputable universities, but they are not the most academically competitive. So, now that we understand this, the next thing to understand is the simple reason why some universities look at demonstrated interest: they don’t like students whom they admit rejecting their offer!   Universities get rated, ranked, and perceived based on how many of the applicants they admit accept their offer. Thus, smaller, less selective schools may use demonstrated interest as a way to predict students’ enrollment, as the number of enrolled students directly affects their budget and resources (some colleges have recently closed their doors due to low enrollment). So, if these colleges that do take “demonstrated interest” into account can predict which students are more likely to accept an offer of admission, they can make more accurate projections and allocate resources accordingly.


   Selective colleges and universities, on the other hand, do not have this problem because they generally have a large enough pool of highly qualified applicants and can afford to admit students based solely on academic merit and other factors without considering demonstrated interest. These institutions, such as the ones you asked about- Cornell, Harvard, John Hopkins- often receive many more applications than they have available spots and have much more stringent admission criteria, such as high test scores, grades, and a rigorous course load.


So, if a student finds that one of the colleges they are interested in from the list provided is one that takes demonstrated interest into account they should, by all means, take steps to show the university they are interested in. By showing interest in the college through various actions, such as visiting the campus or communicating with the admissions staff, a student signals to the college that they are serious about attending if admitted.


      But, as I said above, for the schools that our students at Cambridge and locally apply to, “demonstrated interest” will not be a factor, and admissions officers that I have spoken to at very prominent schools have consistently told me they know driven students are very busy and have a lot on their plate. They are not measuring applicants’ interest in accepting their offers, as they know they will have many students whom will have to put on a waiting list.   


     I hope this alleviates your concerns and worries, and I will explain all of this soon more in depth during out college planning meetings. 


Colleges that take “Demonstrated Interest” Into Account- by Justin M. Buffer, Cambridge Owner and Professional College Planner


School Name State
American University DC
Antioch College OH
Bellarmine University KY
College of the Ozarks MO
Cooper Union NY
Dickinson College PA
Emory & Henry College VA
Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering MA
Georgia College GA
Hillsdale College MI
Hiram College OH
Ithaca College NY
Manhattanville College NY
Marymount Manhattan College NY
Mercer University GA
Morehouse College GA
Notre Dame de Namur University CA
Pacific University OR
Quinnipiac University CT
Sacred Heart University CT
Seton Hall University NJ
SUNY — Environmental Science and Forestry NY
Syracuse University NY
Thomas Aquinas College CA
United States Air Force Academy CO
United States Naval Academy MD
University of Texas – Tyler TX
Vanguard University of Southern California CA
Wabash College IN
Washington College MD
Webb Institute NY
Westmont College CA


Colleges Where Demonstrated Interest Is Important

School Name State
Allegheny College PA
Appalachian State University NC
Assumption University MA
Auburn University AL
Augustana College IL
Bates College ME
Bentley University MA
Butler University IN
California Baptist University CA
Cedarville University OH
Champlain College VT
Christopher Newport University VA
College of Wooster OH
DePaul University IL
Denison University OH
Eckerd College FL
Elmira College NY
Emmanuel College (MA) MA
Evergreen State College WA
Fairfield University✎ EditSign CT
Florida Institute of Technology FL
Florida Southern College FL
Gordon College MA
Guilford College NC
Hawaii Pacific University HI
High Point University NC
Iona College NY
Kansas State University KS
Kenyon College OH
Lehigh University PA
Louisiana Tech University LA
Loyola University Chicago IL
Merrimack College MA
Mount St. Mary’s University  MD
Nazareth College NY
New College of Florida FL
Pratt Institute NY
Reed College OR
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute NY
Roanoke College VA
Roger Williams University RI
Rutgers University – Camden NJ
Samford University AL
Seattle University WA
Skidmore College NY
Soka University of America CA
St. John’s College MD
St. John’s College NM
St. John Fisher College NY
Susquehanna University PA
Trinity College CT
United States Merchant Marine Academy NY
United States Military Academy NY
University of Arizona AZ
University of Dayton OH
University of Evansville IN
University of Massachusetts – Amherst MA
University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley TX
University of Tulsa OK
University of Washington – Bothell WA
University of Wisconsin – La Crosse WI
Utica College NY
Western Carolina University NC
Wheaton College MA
Wingate University NC


Answer to College Planning Question of the week: AP & Honors Classes- by Justin M. Buffer, Cambridge Owner and Professional College Planner

Question from a parent from South Brunswick High School
Better to take AP Courses and not do well, or take honors and do as well?
From a perspective of getting into college, I feel a high school student is better off taking fewer AP classes in high school and more honors classes if they are not going to perform great in the AP classes.  My son is a 9th grader in South Brunswick High School, and I don’t want the competitive pressure to take too many AP classes to bring down his overall GPA, when he could have just been in 1 or 2 and done well in all Honors classes.  I see many of my friends very concerned with the prestige of Advanced Placement classes. Do you agree with my viewpoint, Mr. Buffer?
Answer from Mr. Justin M. Buffer, Owner and Professional College Planner below:
     I get this question a lot in my work, and here are some general pointers to consider.
         First, all universities, and especially highly competitive ones, are gaging your future, with a common principle in mind: that past behavior is the best indication of future behavior. If a student can consistently succeed taking challenging courses in high school, the reasoning goes, they can do the same in college.  So, a student always wants to present their record to colleges with the intention to demonstrate their ability to handle and do well in challenging coursework.  This can be done with Advanced Placement (AP) courses or in Honors classes.
          There is no doubt, and it is common sense that if a student performs in a stellar manner in multiple AP courses they should do so.  As a matter of fact to illustrate, three students in my college planning program just got into UPenn, an Ivy League school and they each had at least 4 AP classes per year.  But this does not mean that all students should take 4 AP classes if they can’t handle the workload, or if the content is out of their, what I call, “mastery zone.”  Plus, doing super well in numerous Honors Classes, especially at a very rigorous and competitive high school, such as South Brunswick where your son goes, can make him a student very attractive and competitive when applying to college.
        It is generally better for a student to take fewer advanced classes if they are not going to perform well in them, as this can have a negative impact on their overall GPA. High school classes are typically weighted, meaning that grades in advanced classes, such as AP or honors classes, are given more points toward a student’s GPA than grades in regular classes.
            So, if a student is struggling in an advanced class, their GPA may suffer more than if they were struggling in a regular class. I often tell families that students should take as many AP classes as they can “handle.” When I use the word “handle,” I mean take them with a solid chance to master the class.  When I evaluate this question with students and families, I look at their track record, and other things I have gaged about the student’s  learning ability from being in our program.
           In addition, it is important for students to prioritize their well-being and mental health. If a student is feeling overwhelmed or stressed by their course load, it may be better for them to take fewer advanced classes in order to maintain a healthy balance and avoid burnout.
         So, overall, I agree with you, that it is usually better for a student to take fewer advanced classes if they are not performing well in them, as this can help to maintain a healthy GPA and prevent burnout. It is also important for students to consider their own strengths and interests when choosing their classes, and to work with their guidance counselor, academic advisor, or myself, to develop a plan that is right for them.
        Unfortunately, I have seen, as you allude to, that some parents may pressure their children to take advanced classes, such as AP classes, for reasons that are not in the best interest of the child. There are many factors that can influence a parent’s decision about their child’s education, and social prestige may be one of them. Parents may feel pressure to have their child take advanced classes in order to improve their chances of getting into a prestigious college, or to maintain their social status among other parents.
    However, it is important to remember that advanced classes, such as AP classes, are not right for every student. These classes can be challenging and require a high level of commitment and dedication. If a student is not ready or interested in taking advanced classes, they may struggle and become frustrated or disillusioned with their education. In these cases, it may be better for the student to focus on other classes that are more suited to their interests and abilities.
      Parents should carefully consider their child’s individual needs and interests when deciding which classes to take, and to avoid pressuring their child to take advanced classes simply for the sake of social prestige.  They should also not let their child cower from classes, even AP ones, that they can clearly handle but are too lazy to put the effort into. Ultimately, there may be nuances in this decision, which an experienced strong academic advisor or counselor can help you with.
     I hope my answer was helpful for you, and we can talk about this further if you wish. Please go to our App or our website to make an appointment if you wish to.

Answers to College Planning Question Of The Week: Will my high school student getting a part-time job at Panera Bread help him look good at college?- by Justin M. Buffer, Cambridge Owner and Professional College Planner

Mr. Justin M. Buffer, Professional College Planner, Founder & Owner Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey
Question from a parent from East Brunswick, NJ :
 How might a high school student having a part-time job benefit them when applying to college? My son’s friend works at Panera Bread and offered to help my son get a job there because his cousin is the store manager. I am not 100% sold that it is a good idea yet. He tells me that it can help him look good to college admissions officers. Is this true? Is he correct?
Answer from Mr. Justin M. Buffer, M. ED, Professional College Planner and  Cambridge Head Teacher & Founder:
 From my many years helping students with the college process, I have found that a high school student who has a part-time job can benefit when applying to college in several ways and demonstrate skills and discuss experiences that can definitely be attractive to college admissions committees although it is, like anything on a college application, seen in context with a variety of factors.
Last year, one of my college planning students from North Brunswick High School, who was admitted to his dream school- Northeastern University- wrote his college essay about his work experiences at the local Taco Bell.  I am sure that his excellent essay played a substantial factor in his getting in, and his demonstration of real-life interaction with customers, as well as his description of his personal growth through the job, was undoubtedly attractive to admissions officers.
Having a part-time job can also demonstrate responsibility, time management, and a strong work ethic, which are strong qualities for college applicants to display.  Also,  in general, having a part-time job can be a valuable opportunity for a student to explore their interests and career goals and gain exposure to different industries and professions. College admissions officers generally look favorably on students who have gained experience that has shaped their future aspirations rather than just a demonstrated abstract desire to pursue an educational or professional track.
   Also, it is well known that colleges heavily favor soft skills such as effectively and comfortably interacting with people. Thus, a part-time job interacting with customers can be a positive factor when applying to college. This shows that the student has experience dealing with people and can handle responsibility, which are valuable skills in the workforce and college. Having a job can also demonstrate the student’s ability to balance work and school, which is an essential quality for a successful college student. This is not to say that students “have to” get a part-time job, but there are certainly benefits to doing so.   And the job does not have to be “fancy.” Panera Bread, Wegmans, and Starbucks, can be just as or even more impressive than an internship at a corporate office.
     So, overall, having a part-time job can provide a high school student with valuable experiences and skills that can enhance their college application and prepare them for success in college and beyond.  In addition, if it would help your family, having a part-time job can provide a student with financial resources that can help with the cost of college, such as savings for tuition and other expenses.
   I hope that this answer helps you and your family make the decision that is best for you.