20 Must-Know College Admissions Terms

Nothing is more confusing than the coded words and acronyms that describe the college admissions process.

Here’s our practical—and honest—guide to the “journey” you and your child are about to embark on together.

ACT – A national college admissions test with four subject areas: English, math, reading and science plus an optional writing test. All Illinois juniors take this as part of the Prairie State Achievement test in April. Colleges accept this test or the SAT, but they test different skills, so have your child take a practice test or two to decide which test to prepare for. A perfect score is a 36.

AP – Advanced Placement classes are offered beginning junior year. The class ends with a standardized final and is graded 1-5. Some colleges accept scores of 3 or higher for placement or credit.

Art Course
– One full year of art is required for admission to all Ohio public universities, Illinois State University, and University of California schools. Art, art history, dance, music and theater qualify, but speech, debate and web design don’t.

College Counselor vs. Private College Counselor
– You cannot opt out of using your high school’s college counselor, but you can supplement with a private college counselor if your child needs extra help meeting deadlines or if your family dynamic might be improved with a neutral party. (e.g. If one parent could be described as “overbearing,” a paid counselor might be helpful to make sure the student’s needs aren’t lost in the process.)

Common App
– The online college application that is accepted by most U.S. universities.

Development – The code term for a family with significant donor potential. Giving $1000 a year to your alma mater isn’t going to get you in this category. Donating $35 million for a science center (Melinda Gates’ gift to Duke) does qualify.

Early Action – (EA) – A non-binding form of Early Decision. Provides less of a (or no) boost to your student’s chances because he or she can still apply to other schools. It does give your child an early answer—yes, no or deferred.

Early Decision
(ED) – Your child applies to one school, usually by November 1—although this varies by school—and if admitted with adequate financial aid, he or she must attend. Most high schools require students applying ED to sign a waiver acknowledging that they understand that this is a binding decision. Note: ED is a “hook” since it provides guarantees for the college and boosts its yield.

Extracurricular Activities – Everything from summer jobs to volunteering. Colleges are looking for depth (sticking with an activity) and growth. Starting off freshman year with a bit part in a theater program and ending up senior year as the director or lead actor, is one example. Jumping around (rather unfortunately) seems to count against most students, unless a child can make a strong case for his diverse interests in his essay.

FAFSA – Free Application for Federal Student Aid is the must-fill-out document for all student aid. It’s due March 1, and it’s long and invasive, so don’t put off tackling this monster. Of all college admission to-dos, this is one thing that’s firmly in the parent’s court, and not your student’s responsibility.

– Something that can give your child a leg up in the admissions process. The most common hooks are legacy, non-Asian minority ethnic heritage, athletics or “development.” Note: Hooks help students who are in the admission ballpark, but even the strongest hooks can only do so much.

Journey – Most overused word in the college admissions process.

– A student who has a close relative who attended the university and has donated since graduating. Parents and siblings count the most, but grandparents can help too. More distant relatives aren’t going to factor into the equation unless they’re heavy-weight donors (see development).

Naviance – A web-based college research tool that most area high schools subscribe to on your behalf. For each college there are statistics—and most intriguing—a graph of applicants from your high school by GPA and ACT scores. You see which students got in (green dots) and which didn’t (red dots). Addicting or frustrating, depending on your POV, but definitely worth using.

PLAN – The ACT pre-test for sophomores. It gives an idea of how prepared your child is for the upcoming ACT.

PSAT – The SAT pre-test for Juniors. This test links to the National Merit Scholarship program, and is given in October.

Rolling Admissions – Schools that accept and deny applications as they get them. Most common at large, state schools like University of Iowa and University of Michigan.

SAT – A widely used college admissions test that covers reading, writing and math. Scores for each section are out of 800.

SAT II Subject Test – Content-based tests usually taken in the spring, after course work is complete. These tests are only required by a handful of elite colleges, so most students don’t need to worry about them. However, if your child is in an honors-level course, she should consider taking the test. Two or three good scores are all that are required.

Test Prep – Studying for a test either through practice tests, a class or private tutors. Think about your child’s schedule, needs, preference and personal motivations when deciding how best to prepare.

Yield – Two all-important ratios: applications to admissions and admissions to enrolled students are used by college ranking publications to rank colleges, so colleges take these numbers very seriously. For example, an elite college will admit less than 10% of applicants and over 70% of those admitted will enroll. A large public university might accept over 80%, but the students who choose to enroll will be closer to 25%.

Other Make It Better articles on college admissions:

College Apps 101: Quality vs Quantity

Countdown to College: Planning a Stress Free College Visit

Is ACT and SAT Test Prep Right for Your Child?

Gap Year Guide

Books and Publications

Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College

The Hidden Ivies: 50 Top Colleges from Amherst to Williams

Fiske Countdown to College: 41 To-Do Lists and a Plan for Every Year of High School