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Decoding College Application Plans

You’ve finalized your college list but which application plan should you use? The options can often be confusing to both students and parents. Here’s a quick run-down of the differences and a look at the pros and cons of each plan.

Regular Decision (RD). Under regular decision, you’ll need to apply by a certain deadline set by the individual college. The college will review your application and let you know whether you’ve been admitted by a specified date (often, but not always, April 1.) If you’re admitted under RD you won’t have to accept your offer of admission or send in a deposit until May 1. Applying RD is straight-forward and simple. Because deadlines are often later under RD than for certain other plans, you’ll have more time to submit your application mate-rials to the school. You’ll also have more time to retake the SAT or ACT in the Fall of senior year, which can be a plus for students who aren’t happy with their scores.

Rolling Admission. Some colleges use a rolling admission plan. At these colleges, you may apply at any time after a college begins accepting applications until a final closing date set by the college. In some cases, the final deadline can be as late as a few weeks before the start of the term. Rolling admission schools review applications as they come in, and let applicants know their admission decision as soon as it is made. So, one benefit of applying to a rolling admission school is that you won’t have to wait for months to know whether you’ve been accepted. If you’re admitted, you’ll have until May 1 to accept the offer. One potential downside is that at some rolling admission colleges, competition for admission can get tighter the later you apply, as available spots may begin to fill up. So, if you’re applying to a rolling admission school, make sure to complete your application in a timely manner.

Priority Application Deadline. When looking through college application instructions, you may notice that some schools mention a priority application deadline that is sooner than the regular decision deadline. Applying by the priority deadline will put your application at the front of the line for review and, depending on the school, you may also receive your decision earlier than students who apply by the regular deadline. At some schools, you must apply by the priority application deadline to be considered for merit scholarships. Tip: Always check each college’s admission website to see if there is a priority deadline; these deadlines are some-times only mentioned on the college’s own website, and not on other sites.

Early Action (EA). According to data from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), about a third of colleges offer Early Action application plans. If you choose to apply under Early Action, you’ll complete your application by an earlier deadline than regular decision candidates. Colleges review all EA applications first and let students know their admission decision two to three months before regular decision applicants receive theirs. If you’re admitted, you’ll have until May 1 to decide whether to attend.

In a survey of college admission officers, NACAC found that the number of EA applicants rose, on average, by 15% last year. In fact, survey respondents reported that 43% of their applications came in during EA. Applying EA can increase your chances of admission at some – but not all – colleges. The NACAC study found that among colleges responding, the average acceptance rate for students who applied EA was 71% compared to 65% for regular decision applicants. However, keep in mind that this can vary by college, and applying EA alone is unlikely to improve your chances if you are not already a good candidate for the school. With the exception of Restricted Early Action programs (see below),students applying EA to one school may also apply EA to other schools.

Restricted Early Action/SingleChoice Early Action (REA). Like Early Action, Restricted Early Action requires you to apply by an earlier deadline and provides an early admission decision. If you’re admitted, you also have until May 1 to decide whether to attend. However, as its name implies,Restricted Early Action adds an important restriction to the mix. You may not apply to any other college through Early Action, Restricted Action, or Early Decision; you must restrict your “early”application to a single school, although this may not apply to state/public colleges.You may, however, apply to other colleges through regular decision,rolling admission, or by priority deadlines.This plan is mostly used by highly competitive schools that admit a very small percentage of applicants. While the acceptance rate for the REA pool at some schools is higher than for those who apply RD, keep in mind that you will still be competing against other extremely strong applicants. Some students may benefit from more time to improve their test scores or to provide their first semester grades. Before deciding to apply REA, carefully read the college’s website to make sure you understand the specifics of its individual program. When you apply REA, you are giving up the opportunity to apply Early elsewhere, so this choice is best reserved for a school that you strongly prefer.

Early Decision (ED). Early Decision plans are the most restrictive. When you apply Early Decision, you make a commitment to attend the school if you are admitted. You complete your application by an early deadline and receive your admission decision by the college’s stated date. If you’re admitted,you’ll be required to send in your enrollment deposit right away and also to withdraw any applications you’ve submitted to other schools. By applying ED, you also agree that once you’re admitted, you won’t continue to apply to other colleges. The only exception to this is if the college is unable to provide enough financial aid to cover your family’s demonstrated need (as the college determines it). Because ED is a serious commitment, it should be reserved for a school that you are absolutely positive is your top choice.Colleges offering ED share certain characteristics. They tend to be among the most selective schools, and they also are more likely to be private colleges than public universities. Last year, the growth in the number of students applying Early Decision slowed somewhat after increasing each of the two prior years.Can applying ED help boost your odds of admission? At first glance, the answer might appear to be yes. When NACAC surveyed admission officers,they found that, on average, the percentage of students admitted in the ED round was higher than for those who applied RD (60% versus 48%). However,the best option boils down to the specific college and specific applicant,and not to averages across many colleges.Before deciding to apply ED to any college, ask the admission office for data on the acceptance rates and admission profile for the previous ED applicant pool. Compare your admission profile (GPA, test scores) to those numbers. While Early Decision can provide a solid boost at most colleges,it is seldom enough to get an applicant who is far below the admission profile in. In short, ED can help, but it won’t work miracles.

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