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The College Application Process - What Students Should Know

The application process seems to become increasingly complex with each passing semester. There are more options (early decision, early action, regular decision), more dates and more requirements for students to understand. By adding more options colleges are attempting to make the application process more student friendly. Unfortunately and converse to the desired effect, many students find themselves overwhelmed by the number of options available. In order to take advantage of these application methods and their benefits, it is critical that students educate themselves about the pros and cons associated with each method of application. Colleges and universities use fairly standard definitions to describe each form of application which makes it easier for students to learn about the methods available and understand the differences between each university’s programs.

Early Action (Non-Binding)

The early decision option is a binding application that gives students who have selected a specific institution as their first choice a chance to show their interest in the school and express their commitment. Binding applications require that students withdraw all other applications if admitted by the university. Early decision applications are accepted as early as junior year at some institutions and as late as December of senior year at others. Notice of acceptance is usually received within a month of application.


One of the best features of early action applications is the fact that they afford students a chance at priority consideration without requiring them to attend the university upon acceptance. While students should only submit one early decision application, they can submit early action applications to as many universities as they choose. Typically students receive all the advantages of early decision without having to commit to one specific institution.


For students who are anxious to find out their acceptance status it is worth noting that early action applicants are not notified as quickly as early decision applicants.

Edit but Don't Over-Edit

As far as writing well goes, proofread (at the very least, check spelling and grammar and take out notes to yourself or your parents before submitting) but don't adopt such a formal style that all personality is lost. Remember, your essay is a way for the college or the scholarship provider to get to know you, so you want it to be as much in your voice as possible. While you still want to avoid well-known grammatical faux pas, such as ending a sentence in a preposition or using "there" instead of "their" ("they're" should be right out, as contractions should be avoided in formal writing), you can easily go overboard. If you don't even use semicolons in your normal writing, don't try to overuse them in a scholarship essay. As long as an essay is written well and isn't offensively informal (avoid slang, cursing, and stories of sex, drugs, and bodily functions), your essay is probably professional enough for many admission offices and scholarship essay contests. While some competitive colleges or academic scholarships may require a more formal tone, the same essay-writing advice applies. Even when you're applying for a law scholarship, writing like a lawyer isn't necessarily the recipe for success.

Seek Help

While you will likely want to take your entire application packet and toss it over a cliff by the time you're done assembling it, taking the extra step to show your application essay to people and get feedback can make all the difference. This step can be terrifying—what if they hate everything you wrote? What if you have to redo the whole thing? But just think about what might happen if nobody reads your application essay aside from you and the admission officer or scholarship reviewer. What if you've misspelled your own name or address? What if you haven't clearly made the point you wanted to make? What if you inadvertently offend the person you are trying to impress? These are all real possibilities, and might get your application tossed in the reject pile without a second glance, especially if you face stiff competition.

If you're still feeling apprehensive about application essay writing, there's more help available in our "Resources" section and on the Scholarships.com blog. If you feel ready to conquer the world, head over to our college search or our scholarship search to start finding places to submit that application essay.

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