Cuffee-Gray weighs in on college process, early decision

Deidre Cuffee-Gray, ARHS's college and career counselor, advises students to keep financial aid in mind when trying to make college decisions.

Many colleges have increased their reliance on early decision or early action applications, in order to increase the yield of students who will attend the school, with some admitting over 50% of their first year class through early admissions, according to Forbes magazine.

But why? When you apply to a college early decision, it’s binding, meaning that if you get accepted into the school, you have to go. But this can also put some students at a disadvantage, especially if they have a high financial need. 

“It privileges families that are less dependent on financial aid,” said college counselor Deidre Cuffee-Gray of ARHS, because students admitted early won’t be able to compare financial aid packages with other colleges.

The most obvious way that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted college applications was that many students were deferred or took gap years, since many students didn’t feel comfortable with taking classes online in their bedrooms while they were paying full tuition instead of being on a bustling, in-person campus. 

“There’s a lot more than the classes [to college],” said Cuffee-Gray. “There’s how you interact with peers, how you interact with professors, how you interact with the campus, the independence that you gain.” As a result, some students realized if they were “going to be in their bedroom,” it “wasn’t worth it” for families to pay full tuition.

Colleges also reduced their class sizes on campus, given how many students needed emotional support while going through the pandemic. This too made colleges more reliant on families who are financially comfortable.

And Cuffee-Gray has noticed that applying to college is currently more competitive. The applicant pool has increased by 10% each year due to the pandemic, so selective schools are tougher to get in to.

“We have many students each year who pretty much apply to the same 25 schools. But they’re just not going to take all of them. Wesleyan is not going to take all 20 kids that applied. Columbia is not going to take all 10 that applied,” Cuffee-Gray said.

One piece of advice? Consider applying outside of the Northeast. ARHS students rarely cross the Mason Dixon line when it comes to applying to college, making Northeast schools especially competitive.

“I think [we don’t look enough] beyond these very selective schools,” said Cuffee-Gray.

 “We don’t [see a lot of ] applications to Vanderbilt, we don’t apply to Tulane, we don’t apply to UT Austin, and so we miss out as a result of that. And we don’t apply to as many women’s colleges,” she said. “Smith College has the largest per capita number of Rhodes scholars. Not Harvard, Smith College.”

And while it is amazing to be able to get into your dream school with all of the competition and increased applicant pools, she believes financial aid should be a big factor in deciding.

“Colleges are hiring analytics companies to look at the kids that are applying and their financial reality, to try and get the array of admits that are going to be most advantageous to them,” said Cuffee-Gray. “They’re using formulas to decide what a family’s tolerance is for paying.  And I would dissuade a student from selling the farm to go to their dream school.”

She also emphasized how important it is for students to take care of their mental health, since the college process can be disheartening. But it’s not personal.  “I think so many students put themselves in a position where they are doing all the ‘right’ things. I think that it’s hard to have done all the things, and not have the outcome that you hoped for or expected,” she said.

Even if students manage to check all the boxes, the college’s admission system doesn’t always work that way. They consider more factors than one’s GPA and SAT score.

 “I think we walk into high school thinking if I do this, this, this and this, I’ll get what I need, we feel like we deserve something. But the system is moving in a totally different way,” requiring flexibility and patience.

Rather than thinking there is “one right school for you,” she advised students to think about all the options out there. 

 “If there are 4,000 schools in the United States, I might venture to say there are at least 100 that are right for you!” said Cuffee-Gray.