Answer to College Planning Question of the week: AP & Honors Classes

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?

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.

Answers to College Planning Questions Of The Week: Does Marching Band and taking business classes in high school help with college admissions?

Mr. Justin M. Buffer, Professional College Planner, Founder & Owner Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey
Question # 1
(Marching Band and College Admissions)
Why might colleges look favorably on an applicant having been in the marching band in high school?
Mr. Buffer’s Answer Below:
Colleges may look favorably on applicants who have been in the marching band, or any other activity that requires dedication, because it shows that they have been committed to a challenging extracurricular activity and have likely developed important skills such as teamwork, discipline, and time management. Additionally, being in the marching band may also indicate that the student has a strong work ethic and is willing to put in the time and effort necessary to succeed in their endeavors. These are all qualities that can be valuable to a college and can make an applicant stand out in the admissions process. 
Question # 2 (Taking a Business Class in High School)
Someone told my son that taking a business class in high school can be beneficial. He has n plans, though, to major in business. Do you think there are some benefits to him taking one?
Mr. Buffer’s Answer Below:
Taking a business elective class in high school can be very beneficial, as can many other substantive classes that give real-world, applicable knowledge. Not only does a business class provide valuable knowledge and skills that can be useful in many different careers, but it can also give you a competitive edge when applying for college or jobs. In a business class, students learn about important concepts such as marketing, finance, and entrepreneurship, which can help them to understand how businesses operate and succeed. They will also have the opportunity to develop important skills such as communication, problem-solving, and critical thinking, which are valuable in any field. Last year, one of my students who was applying to college for engineering and who was admitted to Carnegie Mellon, a top engineering school, discussed one of the group presentation projects he did in his business class in his admissions essays.  So, taking a business class, or any other class that helps students broaden their perspective, even if not related to their future college study track, can be incredibly beneficial for a variety of reasons.
We hope you found these answers from Mr. Buffer helpful!

College Admissions Article: Why Developing Good Relationships with Classroom Teachers is Important: Recommendation Letters: The X Factor of College Admissions


College Admissions Article: Why Developing Good Relationships with Classroom Teachers is Important: Recommendation Letters: The X Factor of College Admissions:   


By Justin M. Buffer, Founder, Owner, and Ed. Director of the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey


It is not uncommon to hear teachers mentioning in the staff room about how their students find it difficult to connect with them. This is understandable because adolescents are going through a life-changing and challenging period of their lives when they begin high school. At 14, a teenage child has to do battle with the transformation of hormones,  absorbing new learning content education, and taking tough exams. And that’s just for starters and does not mention the SAT/ACT!


All the while, they often make a natural enemy with anyone in authority. Even students from cultural and religious backgrounds who are taught or urged to be deferential to authority still often set up an adversarial relationship with educators. Also, the rebellious years are here at this time, and the teacher is one of the leading candidates to be filed under the authoritarian figurehead deep within that adolescent mind. It makes the entire process of forming good relations with teachers a challenging one at best.


However, the need for good relationships is often vital for the competitive college application and admissions process. When students reach the point of this process, they will usually require a recommendation letter from at least two teachers. College admissions officers have stated to me in conversation that they place a high value on these letters or recommendation forms primarily because they are confidential. They know the students don’t have access to them (they are usually uploaded to Naviance or sent confidentially), and they like the fact they are nuanced and not “all or nothing” assessments of students. What I mean by this is the forms may ask, for example, a teacher to rank a student from 1-6 on “Work Ethic,” and also to give further details. So, a teacher can give a student a “5,” but also say that at times the student faltered with consistency in this area. Thus, the “gray” nature of these forms, which I have filled out as a public school educator in the past, gives them a sense of comfort.

The guts of this letter can ultimately help or hinder to pave the way for a student to move forward into an undergraduate, graduate, or accelerated education program. Even for students who will go straight into an apprenticeship and not a university, a letter of recommendation needs to be positive and shine a good light about those three crucial years of the students’ high school development.


Scholarship programs in the United States almost also always demand a good recommendation letter to support an application. A student needs to ask a burning question to themselves, in any year they are in high school: will a recommendation letter – if submitted today – be a favorable one? If not, the student needs to urgently act and form a good relationship with more teachers by showing emotive strength, good character, a strong work ethic, and an advanced learning-acquisition ability.

This does not mean, by the way, that students should buy their teachers gifts or provide false flattery! We teachers can see through this! But they should try and build a good rapport with their teachers and demonstrate humility and a palpable, strong work ethic.

Recommendation letters will highlight how well the teacher knows the full scope of a student. It will also note the duration. Three years is a reasonable period of time to get to know a pupil, particularly as it encompasses the profoundly transformative period that high school is. But even if a teacher only knows a student one year but knows them well, that is OK also! And a guiding principle should be that the more recent the teacher had a close relationship with a student, the better, but should not be a blanket rule that violates a common-sense decision.

A student needs to develop a good relationship with teachers because they will ultimately hold the key to their future. The recommendation letter will also include an evaluation of the student and any skills and accomplishments they will have compiled over the three years. Examples of these accomplishments and strengths will almost certainly be included in the letter of recommendation.

“Relationships, relationships, relationships,” one Fortune 500 CEO said, was the key to lasting success.   If she is correct, then high school is the perfect place to start practicing and integrating the truth of this aphorism.



Mr. Justin M. Buffer is a professional educator, consultant, and college admissions planner.   He is the owner, founder, and director of the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey, that does in-person and online tutoring for SAT/ACT,  K-12 Subjects (All), MCAT, GRE, and more!















One of the greatest challenges students face, both in school and on standardized tests, is transcending their anxiety. At our fantastic and award-winning learning center, the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey, we do our best to help students mitigate this anxiety. Also, in my parent meetings, while often reassuring parents that the anxiety their children experience is quite common, I tell them that it is important to have a strategic plan that all family members are involved in and that the genesis and nature of the student’s anxiety is properly understood.



Academic test anxiety is more than simply getting a little jittery before an exam. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) describes it as a full-fledged psychological condition, a type of performance anxiety characterized by “extreme nervousness about taking a test.” It is important in any discussion about such an important issue to first distinguish between normal anxiety that any student would have and when that anxiety reaches a clinical level.

When parents meet with me, I help them make this distinction.
Test anxiety can strike before, during or after any exam. There are cases where it shows up from the commencement of the school year, especially if a student knows one of the grand standardized exams is on the horizon. It can present itself in diverse symptoms, from as simple as sweaty palms, upset stomach, shallow breathing, nausea, and headaches, to more complicated symptoms such as emotional and cognitive symptoms which include feelings of helplessness and difficulty concentrating. In extreme cases, students exhibit these symptoms even after thorough preparation for the test and having a firm grasp on the material. Despite this, they will freeze or blank once the test is in front of them.


Before discussing how you can help your child cope with such anxiety, let me just offer one thing concerning special needs students: research suggests that students with disabilities experience greater test anxiety than their peers without these limitations. So, it is essential to consider other potential challenges, such as processing speed deficits, learning differences and skill deficits when diagnosing students with test anxiety.

Tips for Managing Test Anxiety

It is worth first noting that different strategies will work for different children. So, I feel that parents should be maximally flexible and have a robust bag of tricks to help their child or children. We operate on the same principle here at Cambridge.

Here are some tips to try:

· Ask your child questions for clarity. Identifying why your child is experiencing test anxiety can be helpful in figuring out the best way to manage it because this will provide valuable clues as to what will help calm him or her down. Have a calm discussion with them, helping to locate the root of their anxiety. Often times, students have a “worst-case scenario” that is not very realistic, such as “If I fail this test, I will never get into college.” You can challenge and reality test students’ misperceptions like this with: “Many students have gotten into college and didn’t do perfectly on every test in high school.”


· Use my effective test-taking strategies taught during our tutoring sessions. If your child is not a student at our center, familiarize yourself with well-known anxiety-mitigation strategies available on the public market. Strategies like familiarizing one’s child suffering from test anxiety with the actual content they’re being tested on can help calm them. Some of these techniques include reading questions thoroughly before answering them (especially for tricky technology-enhanced item types), skipping over questions that students don’t know for better time management, and reviewing answers as time allows, etc. All of these above are part of our repertoire and my curriculum at Cambridge.
· Focus on the positives. Children struggling with test anxiety dwell in patterns of negative thinking when it comes to tests. They often focus on all of the mistakes they could make, things that could go wrong, and how catastrophic a lousy score could be.


Parents should help shift their focus by assisting them to reflect on some successful past experiences. Request of them to tell you (or journal) about a test that they performed well on. How did they prepare for that test? How did they feel about it before and after? Getting them to stop and remember their abilities can go a long way toward breaking the negativity cycle—and calm nerves in the process. This can help bolster their confidence.

· Teach relaxation strategies. Visualization exercises are great for kids because they tend to have active imaginations. It is best practiced when your child is calm. Request for her to close her eyes and identify a place she feels happy, confident, and relaxed. Encourage her to share details about the sights, sounds, and scents in his calming place. As they share, cue them to take deep breaths. Then on test day, remind your child to close their eyes and visualize their calming place whenever they feel anxious.


In helping your child overcome the challenge of test anxiety, one may need to experiment a few before you find the techniques that work best for your ward. Be creative and patient, and you can have a meeting with me about it also. Actively helping your child to develop skills in self-regulation will provide benefits for decades to come.


About  the author:

Justin M. Buffer is the founder, owner, and head teacher/educational director of the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey.

Lang, Jonas W.B., and Jessica Lang. “Priming Competence Diminishes the Link Between Cognitive Test Anxiety and Test Performance: Implications for the Interpretation of Test Scores.” Psychological Science 21, no. 6 (2010): 811-19.