Admissions Streams: Which is Right for You?

There are a number of different ways that colleges admit students: early admission, regular admission, deferred admission -- the list goes on. Knowing the ins and outs of each plan will help you navigate what can be a complicated process.

"Each college decides which admission plans, or streams, to offer, based on several factors, including its selectivity, academic program and the custom among its peer institutions," says Karen Parker. She is the director of admissions at Hampshire College in Massachusetts.

"Students can only use the plans made available by the colleges they have chosen to apply to."

Each applicant also is different and various factors play into the admissions process for individuals, says Nicola DiFronzo, dean of admissions at Harcum College in Pennsylvania. Before you can decide which stream is right for you, you need to understand the pros and cons of each.

Early Admission

Early admission lets you enroll in college after your junior year. If you're accepted with early admission, you don't have to complete high school before starting college.

For those students who do not need to benefit from senior grades, extracurricular activities and other factors, an early admissions decision can be advantageous, DiFronzo says.

"For those who do not fall into that category, or who wait a bit longer to apply, then regular, rolling or open admissions would be most beneficial," she says.

Early Action and Early Decision

Many colleges and universities offer early action and early decision streams.

An early action plan allows students to find out if they are accepted before other students find out. If you are accepted under an early action plan, you are not obligated to attend that school. You can still apply to other colleges. Because early action is non-binding, it offers more flexibility.

"Early action allows the student to review other admission offers, as well as financial aid packages, while having a guaranteed spot in a college or university," DiFronzo says.

Under an early decision plan, you can apply for admission and receive the school's decision earlier than you would under regular admission. If you apply under early decision, you have to agree to accept an offer of admission. You'll also have to withdraw any applications to other schools once you're accepted.

"If a student is positive of the school [where] they wish to go, early decision can be a way of seeing if they are accepted into their top choice," says DiFronzo.

"Early decision, however, affords the student to apply to only one college during the early decision time frame. Students should always have a backup plan in case they are not accepted to the school in which they applied."

Ideally, if a student chooses one of the early streams, they've already done some thorough research into college options, says Paul Marthers. He is the dean of admission at Reed College in Oregon.

"Early application, in my opinion, should only be made to a college that the student has determined is a clear first choice, a choice that will not change in the months following early application," Marthers says.

"Colleges admit only the best candidates in their pools through early action admission. Never apply early action unless you are fully prepared for the possibility that you will be denied."

It's important for students to realize that early decision is a binding program, so applicants can end up selecting a first choice college that they no longer want to attend several months later, Marthers says.

Regular Admission

Most students apply to colleges and universities under regular admission. In this process, there is a deadline, so all decisions are made within in a similar time frame, DiFronzo says.

"You are usually put into a pool with others, which can be good or bad depending on the strength of the student and the others in the applicant pool," DiFronzo says. "Students need to be sure to get in all admissions materials by the deadline date or they may not be considered."

The regular admission stream gives students the opportunity to apply to multiple colleges and have several options, Marthers says. "Financial aid applicants, in particular, often need multiple options, because financial aid policies and awards can have considerable variation," he says.

Although students eventually do need to decide where to apply to college, using the regular plan gives them several additional weeks to look at colleges and universities and to prepare a strong application, Parker says.

Regular admission plans also provide a chance for students who were denied or deferred under early streams to apply to more colleges or to put in an application to a college they only just learned about, Parker says. "Sometimes you hear about the perfect college at the last minute," she says.

Other Admissions Streams

Some decisions are less complicated and more practical when it comes to choosing the appropriate admission stream, Parker says.

"If you plan to take a year off for travel before attending college, it makes sense to use deferred admission," says Parker.

"You apply for admission while you're still in school and have the close contact with your teachers and school counselor and a consistent address, then defer attending until the following year."

Rolling admission plans have no deadline date for applications, which is another way for late applicants to have some flexibility. "However, once...a particular program is filled, the student cannot be admitted," DiFronzo says.

Another option for students applying to colleges is the open admission stream. It's an "open door policy" with no set admissions criteria except a high school diploma or a general education degree (GED).

Open admission plans are good for those students who decide past deadline dates to attend college, or for those who may not be able to get into a college with competitive admission requirements, DiFronzo says.

"However, if a student is not ready for college courses but wishes to attend anyway, they may not be successful and also become frustrated and dismayed," she says.

How to Choose a Stream

Students applying to colleges and universities need to take their time choosing which stream is best for them.

"As always, students should do their homework," DiFronzo says. "This means researching the admission requirements of the schools they wish to attend, looking at the acceptance rates, knowing the deadline dates and seeing which admissions options are available."

Students often choose the early decision plan to improve their chances for admission at a highly selective college.

"If you have given yourself enough exposure to different colleges to be certain of your choice, give early decision a try," Parker says. "Most students who are admitted under early decision plans are relieved to have the whole process finished early."

Early action plans, which again are non-binding, are useful for students who are ready to apply early but are not ready to restrict their choice to just one college. They receive early notification of acceptance but must wait until about April 1 to receive any financial aid awards, Parker says.

"The advantage to this plan is the extra time," Parker says. "You can make a second or third visit to your top choice colleges after you know you're admitted. Sometimes knowing you can attend causes you to see a college in a different way. You might also have just a little bit more bargaining room with the financial aid office if your attendance is not yet a sure thing."