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CMU Student Interview w/ S. Zafar | Part 4: What to Take in High School?

S. Zafar, who attended Carnegie Mellon University, earned a 35 on her ACT, took 13 AP classes in high school, events' chair for FORGE (refugee empowerment club), the president of high school Amnesty International Chapter, and the president of Undergraduate Economics Journal at Carnegie Mellon.


 

Key points S. Andrew shares:

  • "I emphasize the importance of maintaining a balanced life, in which you are able to enjoy your passions, maintain your friendships, stay in good physical and mental health, and uphold your academic responsibilities."

  • "I believe immersing yourself in a broad range of subjects enables you to find interesting intersections between seemingly unrelated subjects (such as music and technology) and fosters a deeper understanding of the different applications of math/programming."





Q: Was there a subject area that was a weakness for you in high school? If so, how did you overcome it?

A: Believe it or not, math was by far one of my weakest subjects entering high school. Due to placement issues, I was switched into Algebra 1 halfway through 7th grade, missing many foundational concepts that my later courses drew on. I felt as if I was always a few steps behind my classmates in math class, as I struggled to learn the prior material required to understand what I was being tested on. At some point, I would walk into math class with a feeling of dread. I began to believe that I wasn’t suited for mathematics, and there was no point in trying to study for a test I was going to fail regardless. I felt as if I was putting a significant amount of effort with no reward, while my classmates seamlessly understood the material being covered. However, part of me felt as if I was choosing the easy way out by simply telling myself that I was “not a math person”. I went from reading the previous chapters of my precalculus textbook to understand what I had missed in class to eventually reading ahead to develop an initial understanding of the upcoming material. Once my grades in math began to improve significantly, I realized the concepts I struggled to grasp were not because I was mathematically inept, but because I simply needed to dedicate more effort into the subject.



Q: You’ve taken 13 AP courses, which is astounding. Could you list and describe some of the AP courses you chose? What made you choose them (interest, GPA, college credit)?

A: Some of the AP courses that stood out to me were AP Macroeconomics/Microeconomics, AP Calculus BC, AP Comparative Government, and AP Music Theory. Although the extra 1.0 GPA grade boost and the favorability of AP courses on college applications were taken into consideration, my primary motivation was to learn about subjects I found interesting in a more academically rigorous environment. Unfortunately, most of my AP credit went unused at Carnegie Mellon University, but they enabled me to forego some prerequisite classes. Searching which AP classes the school of your choice accepts and doing well on the AP tests for those courses can save you a significant amount of time in college.


Q: What skills did you develop in your AP classes that helped you in college?

A: Although I found college courses to be significantly more difficult coursework and course load wise in comparison to AP classes and tests, AP classes were the most difficult courses available at my high school. Juggling so many AP classes at once caused me to learn time management skills; furthermore, how to approach questions in a timed test environment (as many of the tests felt like a time crunch).



Q: How did you study for tests? Specifically, what strategies did you use to prepare for finals and AP exams?

A: I have found past exams to be the most significant resource in test preparation. Unfortunately, they aren’t as largely available for non-AP courses, but there are dozens of past AP exams available online for practice. I would often make outlines of the topics covered in each AP class and go through them one by one, allocating extra time for topics I struggled to understand as well and revisiting them after going through the entirety of the material. After reviewing all of the material, I would dedicate the majority of my time taking prior exams under the same time constraints as the real exam and going over my mistakes.



Q: Did you have to sacrifice something (extracurriculars, work, etc.) in order to put more focus on your academics?

A: There have been certain times in my high school career where I have had to sacrifice other activities in order to focus on my academics; for example, the last few days before college applications were due. However, I never felt the need to sacrifice my passions in order to focus more on academics in the long term. I emphasize the importance of maintaining a balanced life, in which you are able to enjoy your passions, maintain your friendships, stay in good physical and mental health, and uphold your academic responsibilities. I often find that the unhealthy “grind-sleep-repeat” mantra that students often cling to leads to a more negative long term academic performance, as neglecting yourself in other areas often seeps into your academic life.



Q: While you’ve shown a passion for mathematics and programming, did you take courses that weren’t related to this passion? If so, why?

A: I actually had never learned programming prior to my arrival at Carnegie Mellon. I often read posts in which high school seniors attending CMU are afraid of taking programming courses or math courses because they had never taken those subjects in high school. Although I have encountered classmates in the same programming/math classes who have benefitted from years of prior experience, you can definitely excel in subjects that you have not been exposed to in high school. Most of my extracurricular courses in high school were related to the humanities and I never directly applied any of the information I had learned in my college courses; however, I do not regret taking humanities courses. I believe immersing yourself in a broad range of subjects enables you to find interesting intersections between seemingly unrelated subjects (such as music and technology) and fosters a deeper understanding of the different applications of math/programming.




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