Does volunteering help with College Admissions? Understanding how students can best use their time.



       All the time, my students’ parents ask me the following questions or some variations thereof:

“How important is volunteering?”


“What’s a good volunteering internship my son or daughter should try and get?”

Essentially, what they’re really asking are questions such as, “How important is volunteering when it comes to my child getting into college?” or “How can I increase my child’s chance of getting into a great school through volunteering?”

So let’s discuss this for a moment in the context of a situation I see happen regularly here at the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey….

Oftentimes, my students will enter a crunch period, with the SATs looming on the horizon. Those weeks of study leading up to the exam are critical. It’s an intense patch of time, to say the least.

Regardless, I’ll sometimes notice absences during this period leading up to the SATs.

I went to one parent and asked, “What’s going on? Your child has been absent the past two Saturdays.”

The parent replied, “She has to volunteer; she can’t miss that. ‘Cause it’ll look bad for college…”

   After this happened again recently, I knew it was time to write this article to help correct a misperception that I see as the source of a counterproductive pattern.

I’d like to make it totally clear that Volunteering Is NOT Of Greater Importance Than Doing Well On The SATs, having good grades, taking a strong courseload, and demonstrating great work habits that students’ teachers can write about in their recommendation letters.

Unless a student is in a mandatory volunteering post, which will have a direct scholastic impact, volunteering should not be given priority over more vital factors.

Volunteer pic

Now, this is not to downplay the value of volunteering in and of itself. Don’t get me wrong: volunteering, taken on its own merits, is one of the best things a person can put their time into.  As someone who volunteers regularly at soup kitchens, food packaging centers, and other places dedicated to serving those in need, I know there is strong intrinsic value and worth in volunteering and giving back to society. Yet to volunteer from the wrong motives – namely, pumping up a college application – is hardly a wise use of one’s time, energy, or ability.

When it comes to volunteering, as well as any extracurricular activity, the value lies largely in the substance of the action – in the doing itself, and what comes out of it – rather than in how it will look on a college application. To be sure, a total absence of extracurricular activity isn’t positive. That said, college admissions officers are not inclined to make such activity their leading point of interest.

A college admissions officer specializes in taking each aspect of an application in context. For example, if a student excels in class, does beautifully on the SATs, takes on challenging coursework, AND puts six hours a week into volunteering, THAT makes a major statement, and is worthy of being rewarded. For one thing, such a profile is indicative of strong time management skills. For another thing, it’s indicative of a well-rounded personality. But I front-loaded my list of application items with grades and test scores for a reason:

Because college admissions officers will always look at those first.

It’s unwise to drift into thinking that volunteering will be rewarded for its own sake, as in a meritocracy. Nobody on the college side of the equation will see a given application and go, “Oh good, he or she got mediocre test scores, but they had a big enough heart to volunteer!”

Please take my above words in the spirit with which they’re intended: with a sense of humor.  A large part of my job as the Founder, Owner, and Educational Director here at Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey is to help get families and kids ready for and be informed about college, and if that means denting the mystique of volunteering, then so be it.

Going forward, I encourage you to think of volunteering in the following two ways:

  • Volunteering is Indicative of Good Time Management Skills

The student who achieves balance in his or her profile, with volunteering taking up a reasonable slice of the pie chart, is demonstrating a strong ability to manage his or her time, which will certainly be appreciated by colleges.

  • Volunteering can be a Strong Launchpad toward and intertwined with Achievement

In other words, in the context of a college application, volunteering in the course of lending one’s time and energy to a cause is one thing, but volunteering in the course of achieving something tangible is far more powerful. Here’s a real-world example: One of my students volunteered for a state assemblywoman. During his internship with her, he used his talent for computer science to build a detailed database for her constituents. I thought that was just incredible. He got into Cal Tech, and I have no doubt his creativity and achievement in terms of volunteering, coupled with a letter of recommendation from the lawmaker herself, shined through as a major plus on his application.

Imagine if he had only volunteered there, and walked away with nothing to show for it other than the fact that he had done so…

You’ll never catch me putting somebody down for volunteering. However, when it comes to somebody prioritizing volunteering above their SATs for the sake of looking good to colleges, I will not hesitate to weigh in with some clarity.

Getting into college is a competitive game. Volunteering is one way to play it, but it’s far from the most important one, and it must be approached with a sense of strategy, consciousness, and care.

Advice for Parents: Fostering a love for learning in your child

Advice for Parents:  Unleashing a

love for

learning in your child

By Mr. Justin Buffer, MSE, Founder, Owner, and Educational Director of the Cambridge Learning Center of NJ in North Brunswick, NJ 


“Here at Cambridge, my continuing observation is that our students with a deep thirst for knowledge- paired with a well-trained teacher with whom they connect and who nurtures their curiosity- reach amazing heights of achievement.”

Mr. Buffer, Cambridge Founder, Ed. Director, and Owner describing his formula for success at Cambridge Learning Center


A concerned parent of a younger student recently asked me: “Mr. Buffer, what is the best thing I can do to help my child’s chances for long-term success?”   My response was immediate: “Foster a love for learning.”Love for learning

I feel that anybody, no matter what their current IQ or testing score is at a certain grade level, has the potential for their own expression of genius within them.  Although the time it will take for each to reach that point will vary, everybody can shine brighter  than they did before in their own individual way with a change in attitude, external environment, and appraoch. This is my personal belief shaped by my experience in education and what I have seen happen here at Cambridge. I also back it up by studies conducted by education and sociology researchers. I do not believe that nature solely shapes a person’s destiny. My belief is that, while genetics are always relevant, hard work and environmental factors, even for Special Education students, can greatly boost a child’s (or anyone’s) intellectual functioning, helping to extract unearthed brilliance.

Jess Lair

One of the trends with kids today is that they focus so much on good grades, that they do not care much about actually learning. Likewise, they might only focus on the subjects they think they need to move ahead such as math and the sciences but forget about history and literature.    None of this to say that grades are not important; as a College Planner and owner of an institution that helps to improve grades, I know that they are.  But, if the focus is purely on grades, a child usually does not reach his or her own peak potential.

When we instill a love of learning in children, though, they understand its intrinsic value. School becomes a lot more than passing and failing. It becomes a quest to gather as much knowledge as possible. It enables a child to become a sponge because they want to know more about almost everything and, not surprisingly, usually produces stellar grades. They see the practical value of information and knowledge in the grand scheme of life. That might sound grandiose, but the point is that when a child discovers that learning helps her or him to connect the dots of life easier, learning becomes a “want,” and not a “chore.” This leads to a better overall person who can go beyond grades in what he or she can accomplish.

Children come to understand that when they learn more, the better they feel. Even when they are struggling with other areas of growing up, an ability to learn gives them a confidence that they can eventually handle anything thrown at them. Helping children understand this is one of the key factors I have seen that differentiates those students who reach the top and those who don’t quite reach their potential.

This is a huge factor. I always tell people- even adults: “A love for learning is a foundation for making dreams come true.” It really is. A passion for learning, and not just for making grades, will help someone reach their full potential. You can see how this works in athletics. The best players that reach their potential are the ones who fully love the sport they play. They are not just there for the money or championships, but for the love of the game. It makes them do what they can to achieve their absolute best.

When we look at sports as an analogy with learning and succeeding at school, the same truth applies. Many notable athletes might not have had the most talent, but their love for the game and their passion for playing and competing helped them rise to the highest level. The same is true in academics.

A parent has a central role in developing this thirst for learning. You cannot instill a love of learning in kids without modeling a passion for it yourself. People often say, “This person is naturally curious.” I do not buy into that saying. I do not think there is such a thing as a vastly more naturally or genetically curious person. I believe some parents or guardians shot down or did not nurture a child’s curiosity when they were young. For these kids, they never had an opportunity to learn how to blossom with their curiosity.

This happens so easily.  Sometimes, all it takes is a parent saying, “Stop asking so many questions.” I have seen this happen. On the other hand, I have also seen the parents who know how to help their child’s creativity blossom by encouraging it. When the parent faces something new, he or she says, “I’m going to look that up. I want to learn about this.” They are modeling learning for their kids. They show them that curiosity is powerful. Kids look up to their parents. Just as children observe manners and behavior from their parents, they gain the same insight in regards to learning. I always find it funny when parents ask, “How can I make my child love learning more and be more curious?” The first thing I want to know is what the parents are doing to set an example in that direction. Sometimes, it isn’t much at all.

It is never too late to develop that love of learning. Many so-so students excel in their career today because they latched on to this passion late in life. For a student at any age, you can change your mindset with how you look at learning. Challenge yourself and your children to start asking “why” about everything. If you or your child don’t know the meaning of a word or are introduced to a new event…or anything…look it up. Google it. If it grabs one of your attention, get a book about it, and encourage your child to do the same. The paradox of today is that we have more ways to find information, and less desire to do so by students if it doesn’t directly affect a grade.

Help your child change their thinking, and watch them blossom into whom they are meant to be.


What parents can do to help students reach their SAT Goals

Written by Mr.  Justin Buffer, MSE,  Founder, Owner, and Educational Director, Cambridge Learning Center of NJ


Logo-SATEd Success

Some more common questions I receive from parents of my SAT students at the Cambridge Learning Center are, “What can I do at home to help my child prepare for the SAT? What do I need to make sure my son or daughter is doing so they can acheive a great score on the test?”

You can understand why this concern is so important since SAT scores are an important barometer that colleges use when they determine whom to admit. For some students and their families, this subject generates a great deal of stress on everybody. Let me go over a few regular, essential practices a student can do to prepare successfully for the SAT.

Flashcards: It is crucial that students are studying their flashcards with grammar rules, vocabulary words, and the essential math rules. Even if they know some of them, just by continuing to learn some of the new ones, a student’s score can improve. It is vital that they know how to practically apply these rules and practice using them. This practice method will aid them in successfully answering a few more questions on the test. Learning new vocabulary words will not only help with vocabulary-based questions but also with comprehending some of the reading passages. An added bonus is that commitment to reviewing these cards will often lead to better grades in school.

Studying Errors and Notes: When students come to Cambridge, we give them what I call “Live work.” This is when we give them real SAT problems to do right in front of us, so we can watch their process, and give them real-time feedback. In class, besides doing Live Work, we provide them with plenty notes, strategies, subject content, and feedback. As a parent, you want to make sure they are reviewing these notes, checking/reviewing their mistakes, and discovering how to avoid them in the future.


Properly Utilizing Practice Tests: With practice tests, they aren’t going to do students any good if they do not look closely at their mistakes. I see many of our students often anxious to try another test, after just getting their score on a progress test, but not necessarily thoroughly reviewing it after they get the grade on it. I know my students and their parents have constantly heard me say, “Students should study their way to success, not test their way to success.” I recently wrote an article on this. Instead of only checking their score, you should encourage them to check the answer section for the explanations to the ones they had wrong or tracing the root and causes of their errors. While it is fine for students to congratulate themselves on what they answered correctly, they should spend time on figuring out why they chose the wrong answers to the others. Doing this is vital to maximal success.

Our Student-Centered Websites: Also, encourage your sons and daughters to make use of the online tools we make available on We provide a vocabulary test I created that the students will be directed to take every few weeks to measure their progress. We will soon also offer updated grammar and math practice on this website. The more they utilize these online tools, the better they will do when they take the actual SAT.

Succeeding in the often tricky Evidenced-Based Reading section

One of the sections that students have the most trouble with on the SAT is the Evidenced-Based Reading section. To help with this, they should go back and re-read past reading passages they have worked with. This practice will help them improve their skills concerning content knowledge enrichment. By reading through content they didn’t understand the first time and reviewing their answer choices, students will gain a better understanding why reading passages are set up the way they are. The purpose of this is similar to reviewing the answers to other parts of the SAT – it familiarizes the student with the test. This is such a huge help when they sit down for the actual test. It reduces anxiety, and they know what to expect when they start the exam. We also direct our students to read New York Times articles and other content-based material to backfill the educational material that is tested on the SAT, but not thoroughly taught in school. Students now receive an SAT Content Enrichment packet for this practice.


Understanding the nature of the SAT:

Having our students know how the SAT works is a big part of my SAT teaching and curriculum development philosophy. Standardized tests like this have deception built into them, and this is often a hard pill to swallow for many of our students. The creators of the test design the questions to produce a bell curve of results. Our goal is to help students to see where the deceptions are and to avoid them. I tell people it is like playing chess against someone who is very sharp and constantly trying to outmaneuver you. When you spend more time with someone like this and play more chess against them, you begin to pick up his or her deceptive tendencies and attempts to fool you. That is what we want our students to do with the SAT: quickly recognize when there is a trap set up for them. When they do this, they will definitely test better.

Spending Time Studying and Reviewing: Finally, make sure they are studying an average of at least an hour a night for the SAT. This can be broken up if need be. When they are doing this, coupled with the tutoring we provide at Cambridge and them integrating the directives above, they will be much more likely to meet their goal score. Of course, there is no magic formula. Instead, it is a steady process they have to pursue mindfully.

I hope this article helps you as a parent see the role you can play to aid and supervise your child’s study habits for the SAT. When you ensure that your child is  implementing these steps regularly and readily, you will be greatly pleased with the results. Of course, nothing can replace a motivated, driven, and determined student, so your part in creating a context for optimal motivation is also vital.  For other questions on these matters, please call us or make an appointment to see me.

Helping your children build their vocabulary


Increased Vocabulary Leads to Increased

 Success , Enrichment & Opportunity for students


By Mr. Justin Buffer, MSE, Founder, Owner,

and Educational Director of the

Cambridge Learning Center of NJ

“One forgets words as one forgets names. One’s vocabulary needs constant fertilizing or it will die.”  –  Evelyn Waugh


     People often ask me, “Mr. Buffer, how can I help my children become better readers?” Parents ask me this question no matter what the age of their child is. While the obvious standard answer is that reading more will make them better at it, I want to focus on something else here. In addition to reading, just as important is helping young people build their vocabulary. I am not talking here about the traditional ways of teaching reading and studying vocabulary that they have in school where students are given a set of words and their definitions, and have to memorize them for a test. This can he helpful and important, of course, but there are things outside of school that a parent can do to supplement this formal teaching. These techniques can be done on an everyday basis to help children build their vocabulary. Let’s talk about some of them.

     One of the things you can do every time your child hears a new word from conversation, television, radio, or any source and they ask you what it means, instruct them to go look it up. In the old days, this meant going to a dictionary. That still works, but you can also direct them to a smartphone, a computer, or any other modern technology where you can look up words. The important point is to instill in a youngster the desire and knowledge of how to look up words they don’t know.

   Encouraging your child to keep a vocabulary journal is also a great idea. At the Cambridge Learning Center, we give students a Personal Vocabulary Journal for this very reason. We stress that it is not just for the words we teach them at Cambridge, but also for any words they come across from their teachers, friends, or in conversations with adults. We want to make our students aware that they are exposed to new words from all facets of their life and to pounce on them. Keeping the words in their journal and regularly going back to study them is going to increase and refine their vocabulary. As a parent, you can look at this list with them. Help them learn the words and how to use them appropriately. I always encourage parents and students to use the new words together.

As an example, your child comes home and tells you she had fun with her friends at Chucky Cheese. This moment is your opportunity to say, “Well, what word have we learned recently that means fun?” Doing this will help children understand how to use their new words in their proper context.

   If English is not your first language, this can be a challenge. That’s why I’m adding in the component that you can learn new vocabulary words with them. Together, you can both add new words to your vocabulary lists. Whether English is your first language or not, you can play a game together of substituting one word for another. This fun activity encourages using the vocabulary journal at home and everywhere else.

   What else can you do to help them build their vocabulary? Don’t let any word go undiscovered. If they are doing a math problem, and it says, “Jimmy bought 13 pints of Amalaki,” and they don’t know what this fruit is (an Indian gooseberry), have them look it up. Train them that they are always in the learning and vocabulary acquisition process. When you help foster, encourage, and compliment kids on their curiosity, their thirst for knowledge will blossom, and their vocabulary along with it.

   The good part about learning vocabulary is it actually helps someone become a better reader. Research affirms this, as does our experience here at Cambridge. Also, their new vocabulary seeps into writing assignments. I can tell you as an  SAT teacher, and as the Founder, Owner, and Education Director here, that vocabulary is a vital part of reaching the highest scores on the SAT.

As adults, we know that a good vocabulary enhances our stature in the professional world. This is also true for students. Having a command of language helps them when they need to write papers or make presentations.   It makes a positive impression on their teachers. It will also serve the students well when they go out into the world. It will have a positive impact when they interview for after-school jobs, or when they start applying for college.

   I have seen everything I related to you here make a positive influence on students’ futures and lives again and again. With a good vocabulary, reading and writing become easier. Even for adults, I have seen a tremendous difference in their lives when they apply themselves to improving and expanding their vocabulary. Many parents of our students at Cambridge do not speak English. When we encourage them to do what I advocate here with their children, the results are impressive. Both parent and child increase their vocabulary and grow together.

   I cannot stress enough how important a continuously improving vocabulary is. It exemplifies what I call the difference between having potential and living our potential. Somebody can be functioning with a high IQ, which we often see at the learning center. However, when a student’s vocabulary is lacking, he or she will not be able to accomplish as much as they want or can in school, which, as we all know, can have long-term implications.

   An emphasis on vocabulary is surely a key to advancing in school or in life, and we are proud at Cambridge to help students begin their journeys toward growing their personal lexicon.

Studying not testing is the key to SAT/ACT success!


jb speaking







As the owner and founder of Cambridge Learning Center, I’ve come into contact with many parents who are under the impression that in order to better prepare themselves for testing, their children should simply take more practice tests. There’s a belief that being subject to repeated testing – over and over again – will make students perform better.

I’d like to share that this is a mistaken belief. In my experience, the value of repeated “practice testing” is entirely overestimated.

For no form of preparation in advance of testing is as valuable as studying.

If students do not sit down in a sincere pursuit of knowledge, they will never be adequately prepared for testing. Moreover, although practice tests do have their place, and our students take them frequently and regularly here at Cambridge, students will never be able to maximally improve their test performance without assiduously reviewing the mistakes they made during practice.

Why did I make that mistake? What’s the right answer? What do I need to know to avoid repeating what I did wrong last time?

These are the kinds of questions that students should be comfortable with, and they only crop up in the course of genuine study.

Think of it like getting good at playing music. If you just keeping playing the same song over and over again, you probably won’t break through and improve. But if you work with a teacher who can set you on the right path and identify all the weaknesses that have to be addressed, then you’re on your way to improvement.

Likewise, do you think an NFL team can become great just by playing enough games? Of course not. In between those games, during practice, they have to work out their strategies and iron out their issues.

To be sure, a measure of practice testing can have value. But it’s generally not the value some parents expect. Practice testing can be useful for building stamina and reducing the odds of a student’s skills faltering during test time due to fatigue. So being in test mode for a while, as practice, can often help to ready the mind for real testing on some level.

But the students who truly end up excelling on their tests are the ones who buckle down and study. That calls for sitting down and concentrating. It means working with flashcards. It means reading, reviewing, repeating, and refining. We have developed a study plan for this process at Cambridge.

As the old expression goes, “Practice makes perfect.”

But I’d like to add the footnote that it has to be the right kind of practice. When it comes to test preparation, study is good, but testing is not the answer.