Important College Admissions Terms

Simple explanations for all the jargon

529 Plan

An education savings plan operated by a state or college/university. There are two types of 529 plans – prepaid tuition plans and college savings plans. These plans allow for tax-free withdrawals and growth. Click here for more information.


This standardized test is a “national college admissions examination that consists of subject area tests in English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science.” Students needing or wanting to submit test scores to colleges generally take either the ACT or the SAT. Click here for more information.


A company working to level the college admissions playing field, providing families with a host of resources. Examples include free tools (the College List Builder, predictions of your chances of admission at the schools on your list, and the What If? Engine, which helps you to determine your best strategy for admission) and affordable services (Essay Reviews, personalized Admissions Advising, and Tutoring and Test Prep). There’s also a great bookstore to check out, complete with unbiased reviews of college admissions books, a informative blog that covers all things college-admissions, and a calendar of upcoming important dates.


Look for colleges and universities that are accredited, as this means that the school has met minimum academic requirements (recognized by the U.S. Department of Education) and is therefore eligible to participate in federal student aid programs.

Affirmative Action

Positive discrimination in college admissions, favoring members of a disadvantaged group or groups. Most often, it refers to the use of race and ethnicity in admissions decisions. Today, the debate surrounding affirmative action rages on, with people standing firmly on both sides of the fence as to whether it’s a very good thing or a terrible policy.

Associate Degree

This is an undergraduate degree that is earned after two years of study, generally awarded by community colleges.

Bachelor’s Degree

This is an undergraduate degree that is earned after four years of study, awarded by colleges and universities.

College Abacus

This site is a resource worth checking out, providing “a free service that allows users to compare their projected cost of education across schools and to identify schools within their budgets.” Click here for more information.

Coalition For Access, Affordability, and Success

A coalition of more than 80 colleges and universities that are “working to develop tools and processes that will help to address many of the barriers that prevent students from attending college or successfully earning a degree.” Click here to learn more.

College Destination Index

An index compiled by the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) that provides detailed information on 75 of the top-ranked college towns and cities in the country. Click here for more information.

College Rankings

There are many different college ranking systems out there, all of which are designed to rank colleges based on a number of different attributes and factors. Click here for more information.

CSS Profile

This form is completed by students in order to “apply online for non-federal financial aid from almost 300 colleges and scholarship programs.” Click here to learn more.

Early Action

Students applying to a school using the early action option will usually submit their completed applications by mid-November and hear back from colleges by January. However, being accepted via early action does not commit the applicant to that particular college or university, and students usually don’t need to inform the college of whether to expect them at orientation or not until May 1st. You can apply via early action to more than one school. Click here to learn more.

Early Action II

Early Action II is very similar to Early Action – using Early Action or Early Action II, a student may apply to more than one school and, unlike Early Decision or Early Decision II, it is not binding, should the student be accepted. The main difference is the timing in terms of when the student can expect to hear a response from the various schools to which he/she applied. Click here to learn more.

Early Decision

As is the case with early action, an early decision applicant applies to his/her dream college in the fall. However, there are crucial differences to note between early action and early decision! For instance, you can only apply to one school using the early decision option, and you should only apply to this one school if you really want to go there, because if you’re accepted then you’re committed to attending. Click here to learn more.

Early Decision II

Early Decision II is no different than Early Decision, in terms of the student applying to only one college and it being a binding commitment should the school accept him/her. The main difference is that students who applied using Early Decision learn in December whether they’ve been accepted, and with Early Decision II they hear admissions decisions before the spring, usually in February. Click here to read more.

Educational Tax Credits

A tax credit specifically for college expenses. For instance, to read about the American Opportunity Tax Credit, click here.


This is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, which helps you to determine your eligibility for federal student aid. Based on the information in your FAFSA form, Federal Student Aid may offer you a Pell Grant, a Stafford Loan, participation in the Federal Work-Study Program, or a Federal Perkins Loan. Click here for more information.


This planning tool is essentially a financial aid calculator that will give you a free estimate of how much financial aid you are likely to receive. Click here for more information.

Fair Test

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing. These guys are your best resource for the most up-to-date and comprehensive list of test-optional schools. Click here for more information.

Federal Work-Study Program

The program provides part-time employment for students while they’re in school. The work-study component on your college financial aid award letter lets you know the most that you can earn working on campus in a year. Click here for more information.

Financial Aid Award Letter

An award letter from a school that tells you the amount and types of aid that will be granted to you by that institution if you accept their offer of admission. Click here to learn more.

First Generation Student

A student whose parents have little or no college experience. Click here for more information.

Fly-In Program

A program through which a college (looking to diversify its student body, to recruit first generation students, and/or to provide opportunities for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds) will pay your transportation and accommodation costs so that you can come and visit for a few days. You must be selected to participate in a fly-in program, and different colleges have different selection criteria and different application deadlines. Click here for more information.

Gap Year

Time taken by a student after leaving high school and before starting university, usually spent working or travelling. Click here to read more about it.

Good-Fit Matrix

The “fit” of a school is crucial to consider when thinking about where to apply to college. Students should make sure that the colleges on their list are good fits in terms of academic, physical, financial, and social/cultural fit. Click here to learn more.


Like scholarships, grants are free money (i.e. you don’t have to pay it back) awarded to a student in order to help pay the cost of his/her undergraduate education. Grants are generally awarded based on financial need.

In-State vs Out-Of-State Tuition

Differing tuition costs for different students at public universities, depending on which state they hail from and where they’re enrolled. To learn more, click here.


A type of financial aid that must eventually be repaid, usually with interest. Click here to learn more.

Merit-Based Financial Aid

This is precisely what it sounds like – financial aid awarded to a student based on his/her merits! These funds are awarded without any consideration of financial need and, rather, are based on the personal attributes of the student.

National Association for College Admission Counselling

A member-directed organization offering students, parents, counselors, and admissions professionals a wealth of information related to college admissions. Click here for more information.

National Collegiate Athletic Association

For those of you interested in being involved in athletics during your undergraduate days, the NCAA is a non-profit association that “safeguards the well-being of student-athletes and equips them with the skills to succeed on the playing field, in the classroom and throughout life.” Click here for more information.

Need-Aware Admission

Also known as ‘Need-Sensitive Admission’, this admissions policy is in place when schools may consider the amount of financial aid a prospective student would require in order to attend, factoring this information into admissions decisions. Click here to learn more.

Need-Blind Admission

An admissions policy whereby the college/university does not consider an applicant’s personal financial situation when considering whether or not to admit the prospective student. Click here to learn more.

Net Price

The college’s sticker price (tuition & fees) minus aid & benefits (grants, scholarships, and education tax benefits). In other words, the net price is what you will actually be paying for your education. Click here to learn more.


The newly-designed SAT test, coming to testing centers in March of 2016. Click here for more information.

Pell Grant

A federal grant (like scholarships, grants do not need to be repaid) which depends on such factors as your financial need and the cost of attendance at your college or university. For more information, click here.

Perkins Loan

These are low-interest federal student loans for students who demonstrate financial need. Unlike grants and scholarships, loans must be repaid. For more information on Perkins loans, click here. For more information on other low-interest federal student loans (both subsidized and unsubsidized), click here.


A loan for parents to help them contribute to the cost of their child’s undergraduate education. For more information, click here.

Reach Schools

Those colleges and universities where your chance of admission is relatively slim (that is, less than 35%).

Rolling Admissions

An admissions policy whereby colleges/universities will accept applications at any time, up until a final deadline OR until all of their available spots are full – the window for applying is usually more than six months long. Click here for more information and here for a list of schools that offer rolling admissions.

Safety Schools

Those colleges and universities where you have a strong likelihood of admission (that is, 75% or greater). These are schools where your academic profile is significantly higher than the average entering student, or where you are being recruited for a specific purpose (e.g. to play sports).

SAT and SAT Subject Tests

These standardized tests are “designed to assess your academic readiness for college.” Students needing or wanting to submit test scores to college generally take either the SAT or ACT. Click here for more information.


Free money awarded to a student in order to help pay the cost of his/her undergraduate education. To give but a few examples of great scholarship resources, check out, Fastweb, and/or FinAid.

Score Choice

If you take the SAT, SAT Subject Tests, or ACT more than once, Score Choice allows you to determine which scores you send to colleges (by testing date for the SAT and ACT, and by individual test for the SAT Subject Tests). Keep in mind, however, that some colleges will require you to submit all of your test scores, thereby eliminating the element of choice. For more information Score Choice, click here.

Sticker Price

A school’s sticker price is the total cost of tuition, room, board, and other fees, before financial aid. Never rule out applying to a school based on its sticker price! Click here to learn more.

Student Need

A student’s need is determined by a college using a simple formula, namely, Student Need = Total Cost – Expected Family Contribution. To learn more, click here.

Subsidized Stafford Loan

A loan from the U.S. Department of Education for undergraduate students with financial need. In this case, the student is exempt from paying the interest on the loan while they’re in school, during the first six months after graduating, and during any periods of deferment. Click here to learn more.

Super Score

Some colleges will consider the best of your standardized test section scores across multiple test dates, adding them together for your super score. Not all colleges and universities partake in super scoring, however, so know ahead of time if your dream colleges are super scorers or not. For a list of SAT score use practices at different colleges and universities, see here. And the colleges on this unofficial list will super score your ACT. To learn more, click here.

Target Schools

Those colleges and universities where you have a good chance of being admitted (that is, between 35% – 75%). At these schools, your academic profile (i.e. grades, test scores, and extracurricular profile) is similar to the average entering student.

Test-Blind School

A college or university that will not allow students to submit SAT or ACT scores when they apply. Click here for more information.

Test-Flexible School

A college or university that does not require students to submit SAT or ACT scores when they apply if their high school GPA meets a certain minimum requirement. Students who meet the minimum GPA requirement can decide for themselves whether or not to submit test scores.

Test-Optional School

A college or university that does not require students to submit SAT or ACT scores when they apply. Click here for more information.

The College Board

A non-profit organization that, among many other things, develops and administers the SAT and SAT Subject Tests. It also oversees the Advanced Placement (AP) Program. Click here for more information.

The Common Application

The Common Application, affectionately known as The Common App, is an undergraduate admissions application that allows students to apply to a number of different member schools (and there are over 500 of them) using one application. Be aware, however, that individual colleges and universities will often ask for supplements to The Common App. Click here for more information.

The 2968 Series

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are 2,968 four-year colleges in the United States. Most of us would struggle to name more than 25 of them! The 2968 Series is an initiative undertaken on The Edge, Admitster’s college admissions blog, to introduce readers to some of the wonderful schools out there that they’ve perhaps not heard of before! To learn more, click here.

Turning The Tide Report

The full title of this report, released in January 2016 by the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, is Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern For Others And The Common Good Through College Admissions. The report “includes concrete recommendations to reshape the college admissions process and promote greater ethical engagement among aspiring students, reduce excessive achievement pressure, and level the playing field for economically disadvantaged students.” Click here to learn more.

Unsubsidized Stafford Loan

A loan from the U.S. Department of Education for undergraduate students. Unlike the situation with a Subsidized Stafford Loan, students do not need to demonstrate financial need in order to qualify for this loan. In the case, the student is responsible for paying the interest on the loan. Click here to learn more.

UTMA Account

Uniform Transfers to Minors Act account is a custodial account in which funds are held in the child/teenager’s name. Be aware that the money in this account can have an impact on the financial aid for which a teenager is eligible, as it is viewed as an asset (and the beneficiary can use the funds for any purpose, not only education). Also, contributions to an UTMA Account are not tax deductible.