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.
There are also lots of students who don’t fit that description but still have questions and are embarrassed to ask. So here are the basics, with brief descriptions. Leave a comment if there are other terms you’d like to see covered in The Glossary.
College/University. When we’re dealing with admissions, everyone uses “college” and “university” interchangeably. They mean the same thing.
GPA. Stands for “Grade Point Average.” As it sounds, this is simply the average of all your grades in high school. Except it’s often not so simple at all, since the way your classes are graded look different than how your GPA is expressed. What exactly does a 3.8 GPA mean if your high school grades are letter grades, or on a 1-100 scale?
Let’s start with the most common, college-style GPA. It takes letter grades, like A and C, and converts them into a number. An A is worth four points, a B is worth three points, a C is worth two points, and a D is worth one point. You convert the grades into those points, and then you average them, giving you a GPA between zero and four. A student with a 4.0 has all As. A 3.4 indicates mostly As and Bs.
Not everyone uses letter grades, or a four-point scale. I’ve seen high schools use a four-point scale, a five-point scale, a six-point scale, or a twelve-point scale. Lots of schools also give extra weight to more rigorous classes. They don’t want to encourage you to take too many “easy classes” to keep up a high GPA, so they’ll give an extra point for upper-level classes. These classes with extra weight then lead to a Weighted GPA, where it’s possible to get over a 4.0 on a four-point scale or use a five-point scale that reflects the extra weight.
When colleges get applications from all over the country, they get high school transcripts (the official list of all your classes and the grades you got in those classes) with GPAs on different scales. One of the first things they do is convert all those different GPAs into a common scale they use. Not all colleges do this the same way, and they don’t tell us how they do it.
Class rank. This shows how your GPA compares to the other students in your high school class. If your rank is 47, then 46 people have a higher GPA than you. Of course, being number 47 in a class of 500 means something very different than being number 47 in a class of 50. So a transcript that includes your class rank will also say how many students there are total. It will read #47 out of 500, or #47 out of 50.
Not every high school ranks their students. Some do rank, but don’t give your exact place in the rankings. Instead, they say which quartile you’re in (as in top 25%, top 50%, bottom 50%, or bottom 25%). They may say which quintile your in (divided into five groups instead of four) or which decile (10% groups). Some schools are doing quirky things like naming every high-achieving student as the top student.
Honors classes. Many, but not all, high schools designate some classes as “Honors.” What does this mean? That depends on the school district. There’s no national standard or definition for “honors,” except that it’s supposed to designate a higher-level class for higher-achieving students. Some give honors classes more weight in a GPA, some don’t. Honors is one of those things that sounds good…but may not mean a lot.
For example, I taught several years at a high school where every junior took English III. However, I had four different types of English III: the “sheltered” class had the same curriculum as a regular English III class, but had extra support for English Language Learners. The “honors” class had the same curriculum as the regular class, but had an extra major reading assignment and an extra major writing assignment each six weeks. The “honors” class gave you up to five points on the four-point GPA scale. If you didn’t keep up high grades in the honors class, you were kicked out and went back to the regular English III class. The AP class followed a completely different curriculum to prepare students for the AP English Language exam. It was also a five-point class, and students also had to maintain a B to stay in the class. So the honors class was seen as more difficult and more rewarding, but not as difficult as the AP class. The honors class was a lot more popular: hundreds of juniors took Honors English III, but only about 50 took AP English. There were lots of reasons for this, but a popular reason was “I can get the same weighted grade in an easier class.”
Strength of schedule. Colleges look at your grades, and they also take into account the context of those grades. If you have a really high GPA, but took regular-level classes at a school that offers Honors, AP or IB classes, they’ll notice that and give your GPA less importance than someone who took the more challenging classes—even if they got lower grades. On the other hand, colleges also notice if your school doesn’t offer the more challenging classes. If you didn’t take any AP classes at a school that doesn’t offer AP classes, then the fact that you didn’t take AP classes isn’t held against you. Selective colleges want to see that you took the most rigorous classes available to you, and "strength of schedule” is a way of assessing that. They know that successful college students are the ones who challenge themselves and push themselves to achieve, so they look for high school students who have already done this. But they also recognize that not every student has the same opportunities, and they account for that.
Letter of Recommendation, often called rec letters. Many, but not all, universities will ask you to submit letters of recommendation. Typically they ask you to get a recommendation from your school counselor and at least one teacher. This is a chance for someone who knows you and has worked with you to tell the school more about you as a person and as a student. You’ll need to ask them to write a letter for you, and you’ll probably never see the letter—they send it directly to the colleges.
Advanced Placement. Usually just called AP. Advanced Placement (which I’m supposed to tell you “is a trademark owned by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this site.” Same goes for Pre-AP, SAT, and SAT Subject Tests) is a program of exams and courses that are nationally recognized. The exams are given each spring, and they’re the same exam at the same time no matter where you are.
AP courses at high schools are supposed to be college-level classes, and many colleges will give you college credit for high scores on AP exams. Even if a university doesn’t give you college credit, they still want you to take AP classes if they’re available, because of the strength of schedule context. So here’s the annoying part: the more elite and prestigious a university is, the less likely they are to give you credit for high AP scores…and the more important it is for you to take AP exams in order to get accepted.
Pre-AP. Lower-level courses meant to prepare you for AP courses. Some people take Pre-AP Chemistry before taking AP Chemistry, as an example, but some don’t.
International Baccalaureate. Usually just called IB. International Baccalaureate is a world-wide organization and curriculum offered by some schools. IB classes, like AP classes, are generally recognized as rigorous, and there are also IB exams you can take in high school for credit, much like AP exams. Unlike AP, though, IB is rarely available on a class-by-class basis. You’re either in the program (if it’s available) or you’re not.
SAT. SAT is one of the two major college entrance exams. It’s a standardized test, given around the world several times a year. Although many colleges are now making it optional to send test scores, you’ll probably want to take the SAT or the ACT (or both). The SAT has several components: reading, writing & language, math , and an essay. SAT used to stand for “Scholastic Aptitude Test,” but they dropped that and now SAT just means…SAT. It joins KFC, IBM, and ESPN as brands that hope you’ll just forget about what they initially stood for.
SAT Subject Tests. On top of the general SAT, there are also 20 specific subject tests. 12 of them are language tests, like Spanish and Korean. Few colleges require you take any, but you should look that up for any school you’re considering.
ACT. The ACT (which also dropped its original meaning a long time ago) is the other major college entrance exam. Colleges will accept SAT or ACT—or neither. Which is the more popular test mostly depends on what geographic area you live in. It’s becoming more normal for students to take both the ACT and the SAT, which is sad.
Test Prep. Test prep refers to a course of study mean to help you get higher scores on the SAT or ACT test. You can do test prep by yourself using a book or online program. You can hire a private tutor. There are test prep classes available. Pro: almost everyone gets higher scores after spending time doing test prep, and almost all college-bound students do at least some test prep. Ignore test prep at your own peril. Con: your SAT or ACT scores have absolutely zero use or meaning once you’re in college, so it’s a lot of preparation for a benefit that doesn’t last long.
TOEFL. Test of English as a Foreign Language. Virtually every student outside the US or Canada applying to a college in the US or Canada will be asked to take this test. Virtually no student within the US or Canada apply to a college in the US or Canada will be asked to take this test.
CEEB Code. This is a code that you have to put on a lot of standardized test registration forms and college applications. It’s the unique ID number for your high school. You’ll probably never memorize it, because you have to use it so rarely. Your school counselor, on the other hand, probably knows it as well as their middle name. So if you need it in a setting where it’s not provided, ask your counselor or look it up.
Common Application. The Common Application, or Common App, is a single college application accepted by over 800 colleges. The Common App makes it much easier to manage your applications and apply to more schools. Watch out, though: most schools still charge an application fee too apply. So it’ snot like you can use the Common App to just mass-apply to 800 universities at once.
Coalition Application. Like the Common App, the Coalition Application is accepted by a lot of schools. They’re only up to around 140 right now, but it’s growing. The Coalition App is much more focused on increasing college access, and it has a lot of college search tools along with the application itself.
State (public) college or university. A state or public university is one owned by the state government with some government oversight. They’re usually much less expensive than private colleges, because state tax money is used to help pay the cost. Because state universities are supported by the taxpayers of a single state, applicants from other states usually have a much higher price. You can’t really tell if a university is public or private by the name alone, so you have to look carefully. Texas State University: public. University of Texas: public. Penn State University: public. University of Pennsylvania: private. See what I mean?
Private, non-profit college or university. A private university, usually a non-profit organization, may be independent or affiliated with a religious organization. Being affiliated with a religious organization doesn’t necessarily mean that the religious aspect of the school is prominent, and none discriminate on the basis of religion. But you may want to check out how religiously-oriented a school is if that’s important to you one way or another. Religious affiliations are also not always clear from the name. Southern Methodist University is obviously associated with the United Methodist church, but so are Duke, Boston University, and around 80 other colleges.
Private, for-profit college or university. These schools are private businesses. They are usually associated with technical training and trade schools. Be extremely careful looking at for-profit schools. They rely a lot on students taking out loans, and tend to have small graduation rates. Nobody is going to say that every single for-profit school is shady, but your odds of getting what you want without debt trouble is low.
Community college. Like state colleges and universities, community colleges are usually supported, more-affordable schools. They tend to be run at the county or city level rather than the state level. Most community colleges are two-year programs, meant to give you an Associate Degree, which can help secure a better job or get you into a four-year university for a Bachelor’s Degree. The median pay for someone with an Associate degree is higher than for those without it, it’s not until you get to a Bachelor degree that the big jump in pay and job security comes.
Selectivity. Selectivity just means how many people who apply to go to the college are actually accepted. While most colleges accept most applicants, most of the news and fame goes to schools that accept very few applicants. Schools get more selective not because they accept fewer people, but because more and more people apply for the same number of available spots.
Financial Aid. College is expensive, and most colleges have an office of financial aid to help you afford college. Aid primarily consists of need aid, merit aid (scholarships), and loans.
Price. Also known as full price or sticker price. This is the full price of tuition and fees that a university charges to attend. Even at more-affordable state schools, it’s usually a large number. But remember that not all, or even most, of the students actually pay that full price. Most people get some kind of financial aid.
Net Price. This is the price you actually pay. It’s the full price minus your financial aid. A few things to keep in mind: you never know what a school’s net price will be for you until after you apply and are accepted; schools are required to provide a Net Price Calculator, which gives you an estimate of what your net price will be, but they’re often not very good estimated; you should never assume you can’t afford a school until you apply and they tell you.