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Top College and Financial Aid Application Terms You Need to Know

When it comes to college and financial aid applications. a lot of words are thrown around that you may not know yet. Use this list to help you stay on track.

The whole college admission and financial aid process can be confusing and overwhelming, especially when it comes to filling out your applications. The terms and vocabulary used throughout the process can be particularly confusing if you’ve never heard them before. To help you learn more about what you’re getting into, here are some key words you should know before spearheading those apps!

Types of comprehensive applications

Most colleges have independent applications that can be accessed via their website, but there are a few comprehensive application portals you should be utilizing when allowed.

Common App vs. Coalition App

The Common App is a portal you can use to apply to many different schools across the nation. It simplifies the process because you only fill out your GPA, extracurriculars, test scores, and other information once, and the data is sent to whichever schools you want to apply to (limited only by the company's 900 partner schools). The Common App also shows what supplemental questions each school asks and allows you to submit your essays through the portal as well. In addition, the portal will log when you submitted your application, when the college received it, and when the college downloaded it. The Coalition App is very similar. However, it’s traditionally meant for underrepresented students and partners with fewer schools than the Common App.

California State University vs. University of California

There are many schools in the California State University (Cal State) and University of California (UC) school systems, and they’re very popular for students to apply to. The Cal State and UC comprehensive applications are pretty different; the Cal State app only requires your personal information, classes/courses, grades, optional test scores, and majors at the schools you want to apply to, while the UC application portal requires all of the above, plus four personal insight questions, an extracurricular section, and an extra comments section. 

Related: The 5 R's of College Applications

Application deadline terms

It’s crucial to understand the different types of college application deadlines and all the terms associated with them. You need to be on top of your deadlines regardless of when you choose to apply. Here are a few keys things you should know.

Early Decision

Most Regular Decision (RD) college applications are due in late January or February. However, Early Decision (ED) applications are due well before—typically in early to mid-November. Early Decision admission is binding, meaning if you get in, you are required to enroll at that institution—so you should be confident that this is the school you want to attend when applying ED. The only excuses to get out of this contract typically include if your family determines you can’t afford to attend or if you have a sick parent. Because it’s binding, you should only apply ED to one college you absolutely want to attend; if it’s found out you applied as an Early Decision candidate to more than one school, schools can’t take legal action, but they may rescind your acceptances. Thoroughly research the school before submitting your ED application, because you won’t be able to even apply to other institutions once you’re accepted. You don’t have to apply ED to any schools if you don’t want to make this commitment. But the benefit of applying this way is that you’ll know where you’ll be going when you receive an acceptance, so the rest of your senior year will be more stress-free with the application process out of the way. 

Early Action

The deadline to apply for Early Action (EA) admission is also earlier than Regular Decision, but the main differences from ED is that it’s not binding and you can apply EA to as many schools as you want. Students who submit their applications through Early Action are typically higher qualified, so it’s more competitive to get accepted this way. However, some universities tend to accept more students who apply EA or ED because they’re a more qualified batch of students and are clearly interested in going to this specific university (schools love a high matriculation rate). With Early Action, you can simply show your dedication to a particular school and find out if you’ve been accepted to the university sooner. And because it’s not binding, you can decide if you want to attend this institution or wait to hear from others. 


If you apply to a school Early Action or Early Decision, one of three things can happen: You get rejected, accepted, or deferred. Rejected applicants can’t apply for Regular Decision. Deferred candidates, on the other hand, are not accepted or rejected; any applicant not accepted during the ED or EA rounds will have their applications re-evaluated during the Regular Decision round. It basically means a student wasn’t a strong enough candidate among the ED and EA groups but may still be a good fit for the school if there is space in the class after RD applications come in.

Related: 5 Types of College Application Deadlines

Application requirement terms

College admission committees look at many different factors of each student’s personal and academic character to make admission decisions, but there are a couple phrases you’ll hear that you should pay close attention to.

Test-optional vs. test-blind admission

Test-optional admission means it’s your choice whether to send in your SAT or ACT scores. Choosing to not submit them won’t be held against you. However, if you get good scores, then submitting them may increase your chances of getting into your colleges of interest, especially if your GPA isn’t the best or your application is lacking in other ways. On the other hand, test-blind means an institution doesn’t consider scores during admission at all. Don’t send them in, because the school won’t even look at them. 

Supplemental essays

There are the standard college essays you have to write as part of the application process—typically a personal statement and/or a Common Application prompt. However, some schools require you to answer supplemental questions. These are typically shorter essays about your activities or interest in the school, like the “Why us?” essay. Every essay requirement is a way to showcase yourself as a student, but supplemental essays are a way to tell the school why you want to attend and let them get to know you even better. 

Related: Best Ways to Prepare for 5 Different Supplemental Essays

Financial aid terms

Obviously, financial aid means money for college, but there are different ways to obtain it and some key forms to do so. Here are the most common financial aid applications you’ll find.


The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the most widely used source of student financial support among colleges and universities in America, as it’s provided by the federal government. After a school has awarded you what money they can in the form of scholarships, grants, and loans, the US government will determine how much you need and grant your family aid based on their income and assets.

The CSS Profile

The College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile is an institutional aid application most commonly used by private universities and scholarship programs, as colleges and universities have their own systems to determine how they award aid. If you’re applying to a mix of private and public schools, fill out the CSS Profile and the FAFSA before the deadlines to compare your financial packages for different institutions and determine which school is offering you the most and best aid. 

Related: All the Important Financial Aid Terms You Need to Know

Keep in mind that this isn’t a comprehensive list. Although these are key terms you should know, the intricacies of the admission process are nuanced. Research everything as you go so you’re the most informed you can possible be. And remember to stay on top of deadlines and apply for scholarships often!

There’s plenty more college app assistance on CollegeXpress where this came from. Check out Our Best Advice for Tackling Your College Applications for everything you need to know!

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