The Basics: Terms and Concepts to Know

Kinds of Applications

The first terms you should know when applying involve the kinds of applications you can use:  Early Action, Early Decision, Regular Enrollment, and Rolling Applications.  Below you will find a quick outline of what each means and the advantages and disadvantages of each approach.  Most applicants choose to use two or more of the types, but what strategy to choose depends on an evaluation of your data and of the universities you want to apply to.   We develop a strategy that fits you and your target schools  going into the summer after the junior year, but I prefer to make this an open-ended and exploratory process–some students add new target universities all the way into December.  My only caveat is to watch the workload on applications and essays, for which I offer guidance.

If you are just beginning the process, or have not looked into exactly how universities evaluate applications, I suggest reading this article on my CollegeAppJungle site first:  The Secret of College Admissions. 

Early Action

 You apply early and receive an early reply from school.


Stats indicate that the percentage of EA students admitted is higher, but the quality of EA students seems also to be higher.  Could be a wash.

Being accepted does not require that you actually attend–allowing you to wait for other schools that might interest you as well as giving you the opportunity to weigh financial aid packages, which is huge.  Money should almost always be something you think about.  Graduating with debt is not much fun, nor is parents saddling themselves with debt.


Single-Choice Early Action or Restrictive Early Action—schools require that you apply to only one school, and you cannot apply to another school for early decision.  This is a real limitation for this app.  It suggests a level of commitment, but not as much as ED, below.


Accept, Defer, Reject.  See more about deferrals or wait lists, below.

Note well:  there are all kinds of devils in the details for various schools, but these details also afford some opportunities–as an example, I will splice in Stanford’s current early application rules:

Stanford Restrictive Early Action Policy

  • Applicants agree not to apply to any other private college/university under an Early Action, Restrictive Early Action, Early Decision or Early Notification program.
  • Applicants may apply to other colleges and universities under their Regular Decision option.


  • The student may apply to any college/university with early deadlines for scholarships or special academic programs as long as the decision is non-binding.
  • The student may apply to any public college/university with a non-binding early application option.
  • The student may apply to any college/university with a non-binding rolling admission process.
  • The student may apply to any foreign college/university on any application schedule (My only addition to this is to note how generous this is–a result of the high demand and high yield on admissions at Stanford.  Note also, though, that this precludes early apps to the Ivies).

 Early Decision

 Early reply and a binding commitment for both parties.


The disadvantages are singular—if you are accepted, this is it–you notify the other schools that you have been accepted and end your applications race .  You have little bargaining power over financial aid as you have no other schools to fall back on or to use as a tool in your discussion with the financial aid people at your ED school.  As I said, this is it.  No bargaining and horse trading will occur.   ED applications are usually due November 1-15.


It tells the school that you are powerfully interested in them above all other schools.  It appears to boost chances of admission, which is at least partly due to this strong indication of interest (see yield, below.)  Already at the turn of the century, some schools reported a 30% plus increase admission result for ED applicants.  Other studies suggest that ED has an effect equivalent to adding 100 or more points to an applicant’s AP score.  Schools like it for yield—they better predict actual enrollments, and so avoid financial problems for themselves and things like housing problems for their students,  and also look better by some measurements (that is, in the annual rating of colleges–colleges appear to be more in demand when they have high yield).

Weigh this against  the fact that you cannot evaluate different offers, change your mind,  or shop around for financial aid packages upon receiving multiple acceptances.

Have a look at the U.S. News and World Report summary of yield for 2012—notice that they categorize this under “best colleges”, so though yield is supposedly being discounted by some ratings systems, it still matters to the universities:  High Yield Colleges. 


Accept, Defer, Reject

 Regular Admissions—

 Fits the name.  Applications usually due mid-December, most common date being January 1st.


You get a chance to weigh different options, in particular different financial aid packages.  This is huge, and you can still go ED with the school that is your personal Valhalla and then have other options if that does not work out.  You usually have some weeks to do this, receiving acceptances by early April and needing to decide by early May—May 1st, usually.


None, really.  It’s regular . . .

Outcomes:  Accept, Defer, Reject (wait list).  Note that the trend of late at highly selective schools has been that few or none are accepted off of the wait list.

Rolling Admissions—

This is typically not offered by the more selective schools—it is offered primarily by larger public universities.  Some examples include Penn State, Rutgers, the University of Minnesota, SUNY Stonybrook, Purdue (the main campus in West Lafayette) and the University of Alabama.


It has advantages of both Early applications and Regular admissions—you should, in fact, apply early in the application period, which may allow you to get a positive response quite early—as early as many EA and ED offers—and you often don’t need to commit until May 1st.


Some schools devise their applications to be very specific so that applicants are discouraged from using a blanket application.  Others do not—Purdue, for example, used the Common App.  Here is an example of more idiosyncratic prompts from Montclair State University in New Jersey—notice that one essay is not an essay at all:

  • You are writing your autobiography. Send us page 42
  • If you could travel back in time, which historical figure would you travel to see? What would you talk about?
  • Develop the perfect college essay question… then answer it.
  • Make a video in which you express why you want to become a Red Hawk. Post the video on Youtube and send us the link!

Disadvantages—This is also a wrinkle, but it is clearly disadvantageous:  they can  leave you hanging, not giving you a response very early,  especially if your stats put you in a gray zone, and in particular,  if you are a prolific applicant, they may be wary of offering you admission.  It hurts their yield, and they may claim not to care about the various ratings, they have to care, at least a little.  No university wants to see their reputation sinking, and yield still matters for that reason.

Keep in mind that some schools are now looking for evidence that students are not serious about the school (in other words, if they can tell you are using them for a backup. )  This now includes what you post on social media.   I add to that the fact that admissions officers are on the road holding meet and greets quite a bit in September and October, which means that they are not evaluating apps during that time.  However, it’s  generally not a good idea to wait until later to submit a rolling app for the simple reason that fewer spots are  left as the season moves on, which  means a lower chance of admission due to the reduced space and due to the fact that certain categories of people may already be full or seem overrepresented in the incoming class.   I hasten to add that a strong applicant who had too many reach schools in her early round of admissions can send a rolling application after some early disappointments and would compete well at the right school–so it can be a fallback strategy, as well.


Accept, Defer, Reject–If deferred, you are supposed to  be considered in the next round; it’s a winnowing process, but with more apps coming in each time.

And that’s it for basic application types.  I’m sure the strategic uses of different approaches has occurred to you, and it’s something you should be thinking about in June and July as the Common Application gets ready to go live and most universities prepare to open up their applications and post their essay prompts.

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