The student center area at the Hofstra campus in Hempstead....

The student center area at the Hofstra campus in Hempstead. (Sept. 16, 2009) Credit: Howard Schnapp

Spend a few hours perusing college guides or meandering through a college fair, and you’ll discover that the admission process comes with its own language—and plenty of acronyms to boot. What’s the FAFSA? Who needs a CSS profile? And is your kid applying to school EA or ED or neither? OMG! It’s enough to confuse even the most acronym-savvy parent.

So we’ve whipped up this simple guide. Soon, you’ll be fluent—and better equipped to help your student through his search.

Early Action (EA). If your student falls in love with a school, applying early gives him a chance to find out early (often in January) if he’s been admitted. If he applies under a school’s Early Action plan, his admission is not binding—meaning he doesn’t have to enroll.

Early Decision (ED). Unlike EA plans, if a student applies to a school under the ED plan, her admission is binding, so a student should only apply to one Early Decision school. Often—but not always—a student has a slightly better chance of gaining admission under an early-admission plan. Colleges want to admit students who are likely to enroll, and applying early indicates genuine interest.

(A word to the wise: Keep in mind that you’ll have to wait until the spring to get a financial aid package. Be sure you can foot the bill—or have an idea of how much aid you’ll get—before you encourage your student to apply under an early admission plan. Some schools that offer EA or ED will provide financial aid estimates.)

Wait List. Your student isn’t in, but he isn’t out, either. If not enough accepted students enroll, the admissions office turns to its wait list to fill the freshman class. Students are often ranked on the wait list, and it’s okay for a student to call and ask where she ranks.

Deferred Acceptance. When a student applies under an EA or ED plan, sometimes admissions staffers just can’t make up their collective mind, so they defer their decision until the general admissions cycle. Often, the admissions office wants a bit more info on the applicant, like first-quarter grades—so don’t let your kid’s senioritis get the best of her, at least for the first semester.

Common and Universal College Applications. These clever little inventions allow a student to apply to more than one school with the same application. The Common App is accepted at nearly 400 schools—a godsend if you’re having trouble persuading your senior to sit down and get an application done. For the details, visit The Universal College App is a similar beast, accepted at more than 80 schools; check it out at (Bear in mind that some schools require supplements to these applications, so have your student double-check with admissions officers at her schools of choice.)

College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile. Many schools also ask families to complete this document in order to receive nonfederal aid, such as grants, loans and scholarships from the college. The CSS Profile is more in-depth than the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and you can expect to reveal such things as the value of your home and medical expenses not covered by insurance. Visit the College Prep Talk archives at for more info on the FAFSA.

Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The Department of Education will review your FAFSA and send you a Student Aid Report (SAR), which reveals your EFC, or what your family will be expected to pay for your child’s education. Complete your FAFSA online and get your SAR in as few as five days; fill out a paper application, and you’ll have to wait as long as four weeks for results.

Need-blind. The admissions office does not consider students’ financial need when reviewing applications. Except for a few Ivy League schools and selective private liberal arts colleges, many schools cannot afford to be completely need-blind—after all, they only have so much money to give.

Get Resourceful

Whether you’re just shopping for schools or ready to make a final decision, these tried-and-true college guidebooks are top-notch sources for basic info.

Fiske Guide to Colleges 2011 (Sourcebooks, Inc): Though it’s impossible to compare every aspect of one school with another, this guidebook makes an excellent effort to give students good, relative info for school-to-school comparisons.

Four-Year Colleges (Peterson’s): If your student is at the front end of his college search, buy him a copy of this book, which provides info on about 2,500 four-year schools in the U.S. and Canada. A Tip: The longer write-ups are done by admissions professionals whose schools pay to be included in the guide.

The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges, 2011 (St. Martin’s Griffin): Now in its 37th edition, this guidebook is researched and written by students at more than 300 schools. It’s an excellent way to get the real scoop on what life’s like on campus–particularly after your kid has narrowed down her choices.