I want to go over the basic terminology necessary to understand college applications. So many of us—college consultants, high school counselors, teachers, parents, university admissions departments—take it for granted that our students are completely aware of all the terms and lingo, even though the terms are rarely actually taught. If you’re trying to be a first-generation college student, came to this country recently and are new to the system, and/or go to a high school that doesn’t emphasize college preparedness, then some (or a lot) if this may be understandably new.
In my own practice I tend to talk about three main types of colleges: “liberal arts colleges” (I say “liberal arts schools” just as often), “big state schools,” and “national private universities.” There are no clear lines between the three, there’s plenty of overlap, and I’m leaving out some (like trade schools, art schools, and other specialized schools). But those three get me through most of my conversations just fine.
One of the most commonly used terms is liberal arts college. What does that mean?
The first time I heard a student tell me he was taking a gap year, I got the completely wrong idea. Having never heard the term before, I thought he was trying to find a way to say that he didn’t finish college applications and was going to have to try again the next year. Kind of like “in between jobs” is sometimes a euphemism for “unemployed,” I thought “gap year” was a euphemism for “didn’t get into college.” But I was wrong. Very wrong.
Gapping is an informal financial aid term. It has to do with colleges offering less financial aid than they believe you need. After you fill out your FAFSA form (and possibly your CSS Profile), you will get a dollar amount called your E.F.C., or Expected Family Contribution. This is how much the government formula says your family should be expected to pay for college. The cost of a university, minus the EFC, is your need. If a university offers you less than your need in financial aid, then there is a gap. They’ve gapped you. You’ve been gapped. This is what gapping is all about.
Soon you’ll see two more entries in The Glossary: “gap” (verb, related to financial aid) and “gap year” (noun, related to the space between high school and college).
Are there other college terms you’d like to see defined in a casual, readable way? Let me know in the comments!
Your Expected Family Contribution, or EFC, is the amount of money you and/or your family are expected to pay for your college education per year. The U.S. Department of Education, using the financial information submitted on your FAFSA, runs the numbers though a complicated formula and determines the "official" amount of money you can afford to pay for college. The formula they use is publicly available, and it is not negotiable.
Undermatched is the term for students who go to a college that is less selective and elite than what they could get accepted to. If you could get into one of the 20 most selective colleges but don't apply to any of them, then you are undermatched. If you probably would not get accepted to any of those (and most of us can't), but could still be accepted to one of the 200 most selective colleges but don't apply, then you're still undermatched. It has to do with the difference between where you could be accepted to versus where you actually apply.
Summer melt refers to the students who graduate high school planning on going to college in the fall...but don't make it. It's hard to count exactly how many people this includes--it depends on who you ask, and how you define "planning on going to college"--but most estimates for high school graduates who change their plans over the first summer are between 10% and 40%. That's a lot of melting students! The majority of students affected by summer melt are low-income and/or first-generation, but it happens to some extent across the board.
Rolling admissions means that universities assess your application on a first-come, first-served basis when they get it. There is usually no final deadline to apply. You just send in your application when it's ready, they have a look, and they get back to you fairly soon--usually around four weeks. Most--but not all--of the schools that have rolling admissions are large, state schools. They are large and robust enough to just look at each application as it comes in and decide if you're admissible or not without trying to "craft a community" or compare you to their other options. Some of the universities with rolling admissions are places you've probably heard of, like Penn State, Michigan State, and Arizona State. If you're looking at a college that has rolling admissions, especially if you're looking for a college because it has rolling admissions, there are a few things to understand.
There are currently around 100 colleges and universities in the U.S. that claim to offer need-blind admissions. Need blind sounds really great, but what exactly does it mean?
Need blind means that the school's admissions staff don't take your financial situation into account when they consider whether to accept or deny you. Your ability to pay isn't a factor. It does not mean that they don't know anything about your financial situation.
Early Action is just like regular admissions...only you do it earlier. You have an earlier deadline, and you get an answer back early. Whereas most regular application deadlines are somewhere around January 1, most Early Action deadlines are around October 1. And instead of getting a decision back in March, you get it in December. It's not Early Decision--you aren't committed to going to the school if you get accepted. You have until May 1 to make your decision, and you're welcome to turn them down even though they accepted you Early Action.
Not all universities offer an Early Decision option, and each one might have its own fun little stipulations and rules. But the basic idea of Early Decision is that you turn in your application early, you get a decision from the school early, and if you get accepted you agree to go there and withdraw any other applications you may have also sent. This requirement that you enroll if you're accepted is why Early Decision is usually referred to as "binding." Early Decision is often confused with Early Action, which I'll write about separately next week. But for today, remember that Early Decision is exactly what it sounds like: you decide early that you really want to go this school; they decide early if they're going to accept you; if they do, then it's decided--early--that you will definitely go there.
Most American universities use some form of holistic admissions to determine who they will invite to enroll at their school. "Holistic" means that they look at the whole applicant and the whole application, and it usually means they look at the whole application together. There are no cut-off test scores; there is no formula for how to score and weight each portion of the application; there is no "magic bullet" that will earn you admission or get you rejected. This means that you can't necessarily make sense of the results by only looking at a part, because they take the whole into consideration. So a person may get accepted while someone with lower test scores does not. A person who writes a really crappy essay may still get accepted if the other parts of the application look great.
Demonstrated interest is a term you'll hear often when people talk about college admissions. It means, well, exactly what it says: you've demonstrated that you're interested in a college you've applied to.
It seems like it should be obvious that you're interested if you've applied, but that's not necessarily the case. University admissions staff know that you may have applied because you really want to be there. They know that you may have applied because it's your safety school and not actually someplace you want to be if you can help it. They know that you may have applied because your boyfriend, girlfriend, or best friend applied, and you're actually kind of secretly hoping that you don't get in. They know that your family may have pressured you to apply. They know that you may actually have no idea why you applied--that happens all the time.
So what makes the Ivy League schools so special? A few things. One is that they're old, so they've had a lot more time than many universities to differentiate themselves. Harvard is the oldest college in the U.S., founded in 1636. Cornell is the young one of the league, founded in 1865. The other six were all founded in the 18th century.
College is expensive. Very expensive. Which is why most students receive some form of financial aid to help them pay for it. There's all kinds of terminology for all kinds of different financial aid, but let's first look at two broad categories.
Merit aid. This type of aid isn't based on financial need. It's a school's way of trying to entice you to enroll by lowering the cost for you.