Understanding the ins-and-outs of the college application process

Question: I am confused with all the different types of admission processes out there for my student, who is currently a junior. Can you explain the differences and the advantages and disadvantages of each plan?

Answer: Understanding the various admission options is important as families begin to consider college planning early in their students’ junior year. If you think your son or daughter may want to apply early for college, you will need to consider the Nov. 1 deadline when you think about timing for testing, college visits and even summer plans.

Generally, there are four types of admissions: regular decision, early decision, early action and single choice early action. The simplest and most common is regular decision, in which you usually apply by early to mid-January and will hear back in early April. You can apply to as many regular decision colleges as you like under this plan, and you are free to decide which school you will attend in early May. This plan is ideal for the student who feels that he/she will benefit from having time to showcase his/her first semester senior grades and wants additional time to complete testing. Many students are unable to decide on their top school and want the benefit of time before deciding where they will attend.

An early action plan requires that you submit your materials early, usually by Nov. 1, but you have until May 1 to make your final decision. It also means that you can apply to more than one school early and know a decision well in advance of the institution’s regular response date. You do not have a binding commitment to this school and are free to decide whether or not you will attend in May once you can compare your other acceptances and financial aid packages. Examples of these schools include Santa Clara, Loyola Marymount, Chapman and Pepperdine. The only real disadvantage to this plan is that you must submit your materials early and have a solid academic record by the end of your junior year. Some schools, such as Stanford and Yale, have something called a single choice early action plan, which means that you cannot apply to any other school through either an early action or early decision plan.

Lastly, there is an early decision (ED) plan in which your student applies early to one institution, and when notified in early to mid-December that they are accepted, they will definitely enroll. Under this plan, students are free to simultaneously apply to other schools through the regular decision process but agree to withdraw their applications to all of these schools should they be admitted to the ED school of their choice. When students apply to a school under the early decision process, they must sign a binding contract that does not allow them to rescind their decision if accepted, unless they are unable to pay for the school once they have received their financial aid package from the school. While students often enjoy knowing that they are in college as early as December, many students mature and become more knowledgeable about what they are looking for in the spring of their senior year. This plan only makes sense after you have extensively researched schools and the college is definitely your student’s top choice, and if your student meets or exceeds the admission profiles for the school based on grades, scores and class rank. If you believe that your student might be more competitive waiting until their first semester senior grades are sent as well as having additional testing dates, it might make sense to wait for regular admission. While it may appear that many schools admit a higher percentage of students under early decision, students who apply early are often the most competitive, therefore mitigating any real advantage.

In summary, you need to sit down with your student and decide as a family how ready you all will be to rush into this complicated process. Evaluate where your student is at this time and choose which option makes the most sense in terms of financial considerations and your student’s ability to present a strong application in the late fall. I advise families that if your student is not ready to commit, it is wiser not to rush into anything just to eliminate the stress of having to complete multiple applications. When and if your student applies ED, it is one of those few decisions in the college process when there is no looking back.

Joan Franklin is the owner of The College Source, an independent college consulting practice: She is also a certified school counselor in the Issaquah School District. She can be reached at (206) 232-5626 or

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