Learn the Lingo: College Admissions Terms

Have you ever noticed that the college admissions process full of acronyms and new terms?  Sometimes it feels like another language.  It is difficult to figure out what you are supposed to do if you can’t even determine what it all means.  Below is a list of common college admissions terms. This list will help you learn the college admissions lingo and start your college process with confidence!

Standardized Testing

Standardized testing is used in college admissions to create a common “standard” to compare applicants. It is one piece of the college application. Testing policies vary from school to school, and some colleges and universities are test-optional. It is essential for applicants to carefully review the standardized testing policies for each school to determine if they are meeting the requirements.

The ACT is a standardized test administered through ACT.org.  It has four sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science.  Each section is graded on a scale from 1 to 36.  Scores are averaged for a maximum composite score of 36. There is also an optional writing test portion of the ACT (which is required by some colleges).

PSAT/NMSQT is the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.  It is often taken during the 10thand 11thgrades.  Students who achieve a high score in the 11thgrade could qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program.  PSAT scoring is complex, but it does provide a “predicted” SAT score.  Students can also link their PSAT exam to their Kahn Academy account for additional SAT practice.

The SAT is a standardized test administered by College Board.  There are two sections: math and evidence-based reading and writing. Both sections have scores ranging from 200 to 800. There is also an optional essay section (some schools require the essay section).

SAT Score Choice is the term describing the College Board practice of allowing students to choose which SAT or SAT Subject test scores are sent to colleges.  Keep in mind that some colleges and scholarships require applicants to send in their entire testing history.

SAT Subject Test are shorter, subject-specific tests offered through College Board.  Students take the SAT Subject tests to highlight their strengths in specific academic areas. The tests are required or highly recommended for a small number of colleges and universities.

Superscoring is when a college or university considers the highest sections scores across all of the dates that a student took an exam.  Many colleges will superscore the SAT, but most will not superscore the ACT.

Test-Optional is when a college or university does not require a student to submit standardized testing scores to complete their application. Some schools do not require an SAT or ACT for admission, but they do require test scores for a student to be considered for scholarships.  Some colleges are also test-flexible, giving student options regarding which tests scores (or sections of tests) to submit for consideration. Colorado College is an example of a school that practices flexible testing.

Application Process

As a student puts together their college applications, it is important that they understand the terms being used.  This will help them determine the best strategy for them to complete their applications, including determining how and when to apply.

Common Application is an application platform used by more than 800 colleges. Students can complete one “common application” and submit it to several colleges or universities.  Many schools require students to complete a supplemental section.  This allows the college or university to ask school-specific questions, including additional writing prompts.

Coalition Application is an application platform created by the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success. It has over 100 members.  In addition to being an application platform, MyCoalition also has tools that students can use to prepare for the college application process.

A Deferred decision is when a student has submitted an early application, but the college determines they are unable to give a definite decision during the early round. The application is then deferred and considered with the regular admission pool.

Demonstrated Interest is how an applicant shows that they are genuinely interested in attending the school. Students can demonstrate interest in a school by visiting the campus, communicating with an admissions officer or following a college on social media.  Some schools do not track demonstrated interest while others do consider it when making admissions decisions.

Early Action (EA) is similar to an early decision option. However, the student is not obligated to attend the university. Students usually submit early action applications in November or December. Decisions are typically released in December or January.  Applicants have until May 1st to notify colleges of their intent to enroll. 

Early Decision (ED) is an application option where a student applies to college or university and commits to attend that school if admitted. The ED option is binding, and a student can receive one of three possible outcomes: admit, deny or deferred. Students usually submit early decisions applications by November 1st or November 15th.  Some colleges do offer an early decision 2 option with deadlines in January.

High School Profile is a document that is often submitted to colleges by a high school counselor with transcripts.  It gives colleges an overview of the course offerings, grading scale and average standardized testing scores.  Colleges use this information to determine how competitive a high school is.

Regular Decision is an application option where students submit applications usually in January or later.  Decisions are often released in mid to late March.  Applicants have until May 1stto notify colleges of their intent to enroll.

Priority Deadline is offered by some public colleges or universities to encourage applicants to submit applications by a certain deadline. Colleges often do not guarantee that they will have admissions space or scholarship availability after a priority deadline.

Rolling Admission is when a college or university accepts applications and releases decisions on a rolling basis. Some colleges with rolling admissions do have priority deadlines.

Single-Choice Early Action or Restrictive Early Action is an application option where a student can only submit an early application (ED or EA) to one college or university. Applications submitted under this option are non-binding.

Spring Admission is when a college or university admits a student, but the student is not allowed to enroll until the spring semester. Spring admission is a common practice used to help schools control enrollment numbers. Cornell University is an example of a school using spring admission.

Waitlist is an application decision a student receives from a regular decision application.  Students will be reconsidered for admission if the college or university does not meet their enrollment numbers after the May 1stdeposit deadline.

Yield is the percentage of applicants offered admission to a college or university who ultimately enroll.

College Cost

Figuring out how to pay for college begins with understanding how financial aid works and what the total cost will be to attend.  While not every student will apply for financial aid, every student should still know what they are paying for.

Cost of Attendance (COA)is the estimated total cost for a student to attend a college or university for one year.  The COA includes tuition and fees, on-campus room and board and estimations of expenses (books, transportation, etc.).

CSS Profile is a financial aid form required by some colleges (mostly private institutions) to be considered for institutional aid.  The CSS Profile asks detailed questions about a family’s finances.  Students should file the profile by the college or university stated deadlines (usually the same as the admissions application deadline). The CSS Profile is administered by the College Board.

Expected Family Contribution (EFC)is an estimated amount a family is expected to contribute to college costs for one year.  EFC’s calculators can give a general idea of this number.

Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)is the application that helps colleges decide the financial need and how much federal aid a student receives.  The online application can be found at www.fafsa.gov and it becomes available October 1stof senior year.

Need-Blind/Need Aware Admission is when a college or university takes into consideration a students financial status when making an admissions decision. Need-blind colleges do not consider a student’s financial situation, and need-aware colleges do.

Need more direction for your college process?  Check out the Ideal College Planning Timeline to get started!


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