Vocabulary & Key Terms

This page contains definitions and explanations of key terms that you might encounter when completing Common App. The terms are arranged alphabetically.

ACT – The ACT is an entrance exam administered by ACT and used by many colleges and universities to make admission decisions. Most colleges that accept standardized tests accept the SAT or the ACT interchangeably.

Advisor – An “advisor” is a person with whom you can share your application to get their feedback. It can be a parent, a community-based organization, or a college counselor. If you invite an advisor on Common App, that person will be able to see your application but will not be able to make any changes to the application. Colleges cannot see the names of any advisors.

AP Exams – Some high schools offer AP, or Advanced Placement, courses. These are college-level courses in a variety of subjects. AP exams, typically offered in May, test student learning in AP classes. Students may take AP courses without taking the exams. Students may also take AP exams without taking the courses. If students do take AP Exams, they may report their scores on Common App, but they are not required to do so unless the college states that they must report it. If a student is accepted at a university and chooses to attend, they might be asked to send official scores to verify what they reported in their application or to gain college credit for their scores.

Associate of Arts (AA)  An Associate of Arts degree is an undergraduate degree earned after two years of study in the liberal arts. These are typically awarded by a Community College for study.

Associate of Science (AS) – An Associate of Sciences degree is an undergraduate degree earned after two years of study in the sciences. These are typically awarded by a Community College.

Bachelor of Arts (BA) – A Bachelor of Arts is a common degree earned from a four-year college program. The coursework for this degree tends to focus on the study of liberal arts courses. If you went to college and majored in English, you would graduate with a “BA in English” at the end of four years.

Bachelor of Science (BS) – A Bachelor of Science is a common degree earned from a four-year college program. The coursework for this degree tends to be focused on sciences, mathematics, or engineering, A student who majors in biology would, at the end of four years of study, graduate with a “BS in Biology.”

CBO – Community-Based Organizations are organizations that work in schools or communities to provide educational support or other services for free.

Class Rank – Class rank is a way to compare a student’s grades to those of their classmates. Some schools do not rank students. If a school’s rank is Exact, that means the school gives students a numerical ranking based on the strength of their GPA in comparison to their classmates. Decile means the school ranks students according to the top 10%, top 20%, top 30%, etc. Quintile means the school ranks students according to the top 20%, 40%, 60%, or 80% of the class. Quartile means the school ranks students according to the top 25%, 50%, or 75% of the class.

CSS Profile – The CSS Profile is an additional application for financial aid required by approximately 175 colleges and universities for students applying for financial aid.

Doctorate (Ph.D.) – The Ph.D., or Doctorate of Philosophy, is one of the highest degrees that is awarded by a graduate school in the academic field a student has chosen to pursue. This degree usually takes anywhere from three to five years or more of graduate study after the Bachelor’s degree. Even though the title says Philosophy, a Ph.D. will be in the field the student has chosen to study.

Early Action (EA or EA I) is an admission plan where you apply with an earlier submission deadline and receive the college’s admission decision earlier. Early Action is non-binding, meaning that you can apply to other colleges and, if you are accepted to an EA university, you are not promising that you will attend this university.

Early Action II (EAII) is an admission plan with the same rules as Early Action but the submission date is later and the college’s admission decisions arrive after EA I, but usually before regular decision results.

Early Decision (ED) is a binding agreement between you and a college in which you agree that you WILL attend that college should they offer you admission. You can only apply to one college ED. If you’re accepted, you have to withdraw all of your other applications to other colleges. When applying Early Decision, you can still apply to other colleges using the Early Action plan because Early Action is non-binding, but if you are accepted to the ED school, you would have to withdraw the EA applications to other colleges. If you have applied ED to a college, you can still apply to colleges Regular Decision but again, if you are admitted to the ED college, you would need to withdraw your RD applications. ED applications usually require you, your parents, and your school counselor to sign an agreement that you will attend if you are accepted. You should speak with your school counselor and your parents before selecting this admission plan.

Early Decision II (ED II) has the same rules as Early Decision but the submission dates are later and the decisions arrive after ED I.

EFC – Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is the amount of money that a student’s family is expected to contribute to college costs for one year.

FAFSA – The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is an application that must be completed annually by students in order to receive need-based financial aid. Almost every college uses FAFSA information to calculate the student’s eligibility for need-based aid. The FAFSA will be changing for the upcoming 2023-2024 Application Cycle. The new form will be available in December 2023.

FairTest – To find out what colleges are test-optional, test-flexible, or test-blind, the best source of information is the college’s admissions page on their website, where they will list their specific application requirements. Another source for this information is the website FairTest.org.

Fee Waiver – A fee waiver lets you apply to college without paying an application fee. Common App contains a section where students who qualify for a fee waiver may check a box indicating that they qualify for a fee waiver.

FERPA – is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Before you can access the section of Common App related to Letters of Recommendation, you must complete the FERPA Release Authorization process. Under FERPA, when you ultimately attend a specific college, you have the right to read your application to that college, including any letters of recommendation written for you by teachers or others. The Release Authorization is asking whether you want to waive this right. Waiving your FERPA right would mean that once a letter of recommendation is sent to a college, you have no right to view it. That letter of recommendation will remain a private communication between the letter writer and the college.

Grants – A grant is a form of financial aid that doesn’t have to be repaid.

Honors College or Honors Program – Many colleges and universities offer students the ability to apply and/or be automatically considered for their “Honors College” or “Honors Program.” These are special academic programs for high-performing, motivated students who are looking for special learning opportunities. Often there are perks that come with admission into these programs including special housing, earlier registration for classes, access to faculty and special academic advisors, special research opportunities, and more. Students in honors colleges/programs may also have special requirements that they have to fulfill. Often there are minimum GPA requirements that students have to meet in order to be eligible for consideration for admission into the honors college/program. To learn more, you can read about the entrance requirements, the benefits of being part of the honors college or program, and the requirements you will have to meet in order to be part of the honors college on the college’s website. In addition, Public University Honors is a website where you can learn more about honors colleges at a number of public universities.

IB Exams – The IB Program, or International Baccalaureate Program, is an international program focused on critical thinking and global awareness that is offered at some high schools.

Letters of Recommendation – Many colleges require applicants to submit one or two letters of recommendation from teachers as part of their application. The purpose of the letter is to provide a college or university the opportunity to learn more about you, the type of student you are, and how you contribute in the classroom, school, or community. Many colleges also request a letter of recommendation from your high school counselor. The counselor’s recommendation is used to understand your school and its curriculum and how you as a student fit into the school community. Many colleges also accept recommendations from “other” recommenders, which can include an employer, a coach, or another person who knows you well and can speak to your accomplishments or character. Each college where you will apply states how many letters of recommendation they require. Be sure to go through these requirements and identify the people who will provide the letters of recommendation. Some high schools use Common App to manage their recommendation process while other high schools use different platforms such as SCOIR, Parchment, or Naviance. Talk to your high school counselor to learn how your school handles the recommendation process and be sure to follow that process.

Loans – A student loan is money that you borrow to help pay for college. You must repay the loan as well as the interest that accrues.

Major – A major is a specific subject that you will choose to focus on while getting your college degree. In general, between one-third and half of the courses you take in college will be in your major or related to it. Examples of majors include Anthropology, Biology, Communications, Chemical Engineering, Business Administration, and Public Health.

Master of Science or Master of Arts (MS, MA) – A Master of Arts or Sciences is a degree given to a student by a college or university usually after one or two years of additional study following a Bachelor’s degree. Students applying to college or university with Common App are not applying for a Master’s degree, but Common App does ask what your future plans are after you get your Bachelor’s degree. Some colleges and universities offer 3+2 or 4+1 degree options where you can get your Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in 5 years. If this is something that appeals to you, read more about it on the websites of the universities on your college list.

Merit aid – Merit aid is non-need-based financial aid that is awarded based on achievements related to things like academics, athletics, music, or civic participation. Merit aid awards are not based on a family’s ability to pay.

Minor – A minor is a secondary area of study that you can focus on at college. A minor requires fewer classes than a major to complete. You can choose a minor that complements your major, or you can choose one that is unrelated, or you can choose not to have a minor at all.

Need-based aid – Need-based aid includes scholarships and grants, work-study, and subsidized loans that students may receive to help pay for college. Need-based aid is awarded based on a family’s financial need.

Net Price – The total cost of attendance minus all grants and scholarships. Grants and scholarships are free money that does not have to be paid back.

Regular Decision (RD) is the traditional admission plan and the final date that applications can be submitted to many colleges or universities. Under this plan, you will receive your admission decision in the spring – usually around mid to late March or early April.

Restricted Early Action (REA) or Single Choice Early Action is a very specific admission plan offered by a few universities. The rules of this type of plan are specific to each university that offers it, so it is important that you visit that college’s admission webpage to read the decision plan’s limitations and descriptions. Generally speaking, this type of plan is a form of Early Action but you are limited in how many other early applications you may submit. You should speak with your school counselor and your parents before selecting this option.

Rolling Admission – This admission plan means that the college evaluates applications as they receive them. They release admissions decisions regularly – sometimes daily – as opposed to sending them all out on one specific day. Often under a Rolling Admission plan, colleges will continue to accept applications later into the academic year than under other plans.

SAT Subject Tests – SAT Subject Tests are subject-matter tests that were formerly administered by College Board to test learning in specific subject areas. These tests are no longer being administered but students can submit scores if Subject Tests have been taken in the past.

SAT – The SAT is an exam administered by the College Board and used by many colleges and universities to make admission decisions. Most colleges that accept standardized tests accept the SAT or the ACT interchangeably.

Score Choice – Score choice is a policy where the student who has taken the standardized test more than once may decide which test date to send to their colleges. For example, if the student took the SAT twice, they could choose to send only their best score. Although many colleges/universities accept score choice, they may still recommend that students send all of their test scores. Each college might have different policies for what scores a student should send as part of their application. The college’s website will explain its testing policy and what scores students need to submit. Students can also ask their school counselor for advice if they have questions. Students can choose to submit scores to some colleges and not to others.

Self-Reporting scores – Some colleges allow students to “self-report” their test scores and other colleges require “official” scores. “Self-reporting” means that the student may enter their scores into Common App and they are considered reported. If a college requires that students submit “official” scores, the student must contact the testing agency, which is either the College Board (SAT) or the ACT, and request that scores be sent to each college that requires them. There is a fee to send official scores, but qualifying students can get a fee waiver from College Board or ACT if they meet certain criteria.

SRARSSAR – Self-Reported Academic Record – Some colleges and universities require students to complete the Self-Reported Academic Record along with the Courses & Grades section of the Common App.

Standardized Tests – When Common App or universities or colleges refer to “standardized tests,” they are most commonly referring to the ACT and the SAT. When colleges or universities are called test-optional, test-flexible, or test-blind, these terms refer to whether applicants are required to submit either an SAT or ACT score as part of their application. Please review the testing requirements at each college and university on your list. There are additional tests that include AP Exams, IB Exams, TOEFL, and others. These test scores may be reported on Common App.

Student Aid Index (SAI) is a replacement for Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and is a calculation of the amount of need-based financial aid a student is eligible to receive.

Superscoring – Some colleges and universities have a “superscoring” policy. This allows students who have taken the test more than once to pick the highest individual score for each subject and combine them into one super score. For example, a student who took the SAT twice could choose to send the Math score from the first sitting and the English Based Reading and Writing score from the second sitting. Another variation is that some colleges will only look at a student’s highest score from a single sitting.

Test-Blind – A small but increasing number of colleges and universities have adopted “test-blind” or “test-free” policies, which means the college or university will not consider test scores at all in their application review (even if scores are reported).

Test-Flexible – Some colleges allow students to report scores from alternative tests to the SAT/ACT, including Advanced Placement (AP) tests or International Baccalaureate (IB) tests. Students should review each college’s website for details about its testing policy.

Test-Optional – Recently, a growing number of colleges and universities have allowed students to choose whether or not to report SAT or ACT scores in their applications. These institutions are called “test-optional” and for these schools, it is the student’s choice whether or not to take the SAT or ACT and whether or not to report scores that were received.

TOEFL Exams, PTE Academic, IELTS, Duolingo English Test  These are tests taken primarily by international students for whom English is not their first language. Applicants should check with each college to see if these tests are required.

Total Cost of Attendance – The total “sticker price” of a college. The Total COA includes tuition, fees, room and board, books, transportation, and personal expenses.

Unweighted GPA (Grade Point Average) – An unweighted GPA is a calculation of your GPA based on the grades you have received in your classes at your high school. An unweighted GPA does not award any extra points for Honors or AP classes. Check with your school counselor or school administrator if you are unsure of your unweighted GPA.

Weighted GPA (Grade Point Average) – A weighted GPA is based on adding an extra point or percentage of a point for Honors, Advanced Placement, college, or dual enrollment courses you have taken in high school. Check with your school counselor or administrator about whether your high school calculates a weighted GPA.

Work-Study – Work-study is a type of financial aid that provides part-time jobs for undergraduate and graduate students with financial need, allowing them to earn money to help pay education expenses.


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