College Admissions Decoder

The college admissions process can be quite involved and there's a lot of special terminology that you might encounter when visiting college campuses. This College Admissions Decoder defines the most common terms and what expectations they carry. 

The Application Process

Ways to Apply

Regular Decision: the standard application process for most schools

This is a non-binding process, and you may apply to as many schools as you wish. Applications are usually due around January 1st, decisions are released on predetermined dates (often in March), and you decide where you are attending by May 1st. Be sure to double-check the deadline for each school to which you are applying.

Early Action: an early application process that allows you to apply to multiple schools

If you are admitted, you are not required to attend.

Early Action Single Choice: an early application process where you may only apply early to one school

If you are admitted, you are not required to attend.

Early Decision: a binding, early application plan

You may only apply to one school Early Decision because if you are admitted, you must attend.

Rolling Admission: an application process where you receive your admissions decision based on when you application is submitted

Holistic Review

Holistic Review: the process selective colleges use to evaluate applications

This means a school will review all parts of your application together in order to get a sense of your fit with that institution, and there are no cutoffs or pre-screening for things like GPA or test scores.

Typical Application Components

Consortium Application: an application platform, like the Common or Coalition Application, that allows you to submit your basic information once, then send it to multiple colleges and universities.

Application Supplement: questions specific to each school tied to a consortium application. Many colleges require a school-specific supplement to the consortium application with multiple questions or essays specific to the institution.

Standardized Testing: most schools will require the SAT or ACT. Some will also require or allow you to submit AP testing or SAT Subject Tests.


Test Optional: some private colleges do not require standardized test scores. This allows your academic performance and capabilities to fully shine without being overshadowed by a test score.

High School Transcript: a record of your academic history in high school. Colleges will consider your grades, courses taken, and the overall rigor of your curriculum.

Extracurricular Activities: a list of everything you do outside the classroom, including your role and the total amount of time spent. This could include a club, hobby, family responsibility, or part-time job.

Letters of Recommendation: letters that describe your classroom presence and personality. Usually, two are required from academic teachers.

Essays: your opportunity to share your personality. Be thoughtful about your topic choice (is this something you want the college to know about?) and always proofread!

Supplemental Materials: may include interviews, portfolios, or audition videos.



Funding Your Education


Many selective schools are private, meaning they are supported primarily by tuition; these schools can have a higher price tag, yet they often offer more financial aid. Public colleges are meant to benefit their state, so they offer different tuition for in-state and out-of-state residents.


Schools that are need-blind will make admissions decisions independent of your finances, while schools that are need-aware or need-sensitive will take them into account.



Types of Financial Aid

 Merit-Based Financial Aid: a type of aid awarded to students for things like a high GPA, high test scores, athletic ability, leadership, research experience, or other accomplishments without taking into account their need for financial support. This type of aid does not need to be repaid.


Need-Based Financial Aid: awarded by taking into account your family’s need for financial support. In other words, your eligibility for aid is based on your family’s financial situation.


Need-based aid is awarded in a variety of forms, including:

  • Grants: awarded by the U.S. government, PA state government, or a college to be used towards your tuition and fees. Grants do not need to be repaid.
  • Loans: issued by the government, a private financial institution, or a college to be used towards your tuition and fees. Loans must be repaid. However, federal and state student loans have low interest rates and deferred payments that don’t begin until after graduation.
  • Work-Study: a program run through the U.S. government in which students work in paid campus jobs and can use their income to pay for a portion of their college expenses and/or tuition.

Applying for Financial Aid

 If you are applying for financial aid, colleges will request a variety of documents in order to understand your family’s unique financial circumstances. They will use these documents to determine your family’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) which is the amount your family is expected to pay toward your education. Your family’s EFC should be similar for every school.



Commonly Requested Forms

 FAFSA: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, an important part of any financial aid application. Every college-bound student should file the FAFSA, even if you don’t expect to be eligible for federal aid. This is offered for free by the U.S. Department of Education and can be filled out online at

College-Specific Forms or the CSS Profile: forms that are often available and seek to provide colleges with a more complete view of your family circumstances than can be obtained from the FAFSA alone. Each college will have different requirements, so be sure to check the policies at each of the schools to which you are applying.