How to Apply to College… and When.

Some time ago we thought there were only two choices in applying to college:  early or regular. Then we learned about Early Decision, and after a while I could keep Early Decision [binding] straight from Early Action or Admission [non-binding].

A couple of weeks ago we ran into our first Early Action/Restricted. Of course, the way these things go, after we saw it once, it seemed to be everywhere.

Now I’m ready to build a list of what I know [so far] of application choices.

  • Open Admissions
  • Rolling Admissions
  • Early Decision
  • Early Action
  • Early Action, Restricted
  • Regular Admission

[Plus we’d heard about a Gap Semester application from Elon; I don’t know if any other college has picked up that idea.]

Just so I remember where to find this two years from now, when Mod Squad Julie will be applying, here’s the breakdown.

Open Admissions means just what you would think:  if you want to enroll at an open admissions college, simply complete the forms. Our local community college, Piedmont Virginia CC, makes it clear here.

Rolling Admissions, often offered by large, public universities, provides a larger window for the application submission, followed by reported results within a few weeks. For example, a student could apply to Indiana University in the Fall and hear back from them in four to eight weeks. They provide deadlines for scholarship considerations, and applications received after April 1 are accepted on a space-available, case-by-case basis.

Reverend Dr. James Blair, founder of William &...

Image via Wikipedia

An Early Decision application requires the student and parents to sign a document attesting that if the student is admitted, he/she will attend that college. Here’s how the College of William & Mary spells it out:

Students who are admitted to William & Mary through early decision must confirm their enrollment by making a non-refundable deposit within two weeks of receiving the admission letter.  Furthermore, admitted students must withdraw applications from all other colleges to which they have applied.

Early Decision is, in my mind, one of the toughest choices to consider. The double-edged sword of ED offers higher acceptance percentages at many of the most selective schools. See Duke, for example, here on Their ED admission rate is 36%, versus their regular admission rate of 19%. So the odds are in your favor to apply via ED, but you’d better be absolutely certain that’s your first choice — and that you are willing to pay whatever the amount listed on your financial aid letter. The commitment required from the student up front doesn’t leave any room for negotiation in April. The financial advantage lies with the university.

Here’s another reason colleges like Early Decision, from US News & World Report:

Penn campus

Image via Wikipedia

The programs are without doubt a boon for the colleges. ED, in particular, is the proverbial bird-in-hand for admissions staffers facing increasing uncertainty in picking a freshman class as high schoolers hedge their bets by applying to 10 or more schools. By securing in some cases nearly half of the incoming freshmen by December 15, as Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania do, colleges can avoid coming up short after May 1. They also boost their yield, the percentage of admitted students who enroll, which has become a key indicator of popularity.

Another ED question:  how well does a 17  or 18 year old know his or her own mind? Is that student ready to commit in October for the following year, given the incredible changes of opinion from day to day in the teenage brain? The requirement for an ED choice:  this is the one college you love above all others.

Early Action is a much easier choice:  how about applying early and getting a response early and being done with it? Sounds good to me. Students can apply early, usually by around November 1st, and receive a response from the university mid-winter — anywhere from mid-December to the end of January. Here’s a news release from UVA when they changed from Early Decision to Early Action, explaining how and why. According to Greg Roberts, UVa’s Dean of Admissions, “This provides, in our opinion, the most flexibility and freedom to students.”

Students might not hear back from their college of choice before the regular decision deadlines, so numerous applications may still be required. However, a letter of acceptance in January may be much more attractive than waiting til April first.

Stanford University Memorial Church.

Image via Wikipedia

Early Action, Restricted is the one that was new to us. It is not binding, like Early Decision: if the student is accepted, he or she still has a decision to make. However, choosing to apply to a college via Early Action/Restricted means, well, that there are restrictions. Stanford University spells this out very well here.

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.
  • 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.

So far, I’ve only found this with selective private colleges. If you see Early Action/Restricted elsewhere, please let me know in comments, below.

Finally: Regular Admission! This is the standard admissions practice most parents are familiar with from their own experience. Submit your application (and all the multiple supporting parts) by December 31st, receive a response by April 1. Simple enough.

One thing to keep in mind for regular admission:  last year the Common Application website set a new single-day record on December 31, 2010, when students submitted 127,175 applications. Might make sense to complete and submit the app a day or two ahead?

Watch me try and recommend that to Mod Squad Pete…

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Filed under Getting In

6 responses to “How to Apply to College… and When.

  1. I applied ED to W&M. I never actually submitted another app – I knew wtih absolute certainty from age 15 that W&M was the school for me. I had about 8 other applications ready to submit for regular admission if I didn’t get in – I am a lifelong Girl Scout, after all, and all about preparedness! – but when I got my acceptance letter the first week of December, the other apps all went in the trash (this was back in the day of actual paper applications that you had to call and request they send you and then use a typewriter to type on – I so wish we had that universal application back then!). I’ve never regretted my choice…but you’re right, that’s probably fairly unusual for a teenager.

    • Thanks, Jen. So great that you knew exactly what you wanted. Pete’s not choosing ED; he has a number of schools that still interest him. However, we’ve talked about how the regular admission list might change in response to those EA responses. As in, I like this school, why bother applying to more. Depends greatly on which response from which school!

  2. Pingback: Early Action, Early Admission, Early Acceptance? Playing the waiting game. | Dr. StrangeCollege or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Journey

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