A key part of the college experience is finding a school that fits your needs. While this sounds simple enough, the phrases associated with the whole admission process can seem complicated and overwhelming. That’s why it’s helpful to know the definitions of some of the most important and commonly used terms to help you stay on track with your higher education goals. To help you feel more comfortable with this new process, here’s a handy glossary of frequently used admission terms organized by the types of schools, people, applications, and deadlines you need to know.
Throughout the college admission process, there will be a number of different people with whom you’ll interact. Here’s a short list of titles you might come across and how they can help you on your college journey.
An academic advisor or college counselor works with you throughout high school to develop your academic portfolio. During ninth and 10th grade, they may advise you on which classes to take and recommend that you add or drop certain classes based on academic rigor. During 11th and 12th grade, your college counselor might give you target scores for the PSAT, SAT, and/or ACT should you choose to apply to colleges with standardized test requirements. They’ll also recommend schools based on your grades or goals and can help you with the college application process. Be sure to reach out to them early and often!
Throughout high school, you may have the opportunity to attend college fairs or information sessions. In most cases, the people speaking on behalf of each school are college representatives. They work closely with the college to give information to prospective applicants and answer questions that students and parents may have. Many college reps are also admission counselors or administrators at the college, so engaging with them will show your interest in the school outside of your application.
An admission counselor is a representative of a college who is specifically assigned to your geographic region to review applications. Before you apply, they may reach out to you with information and resources provided by their school and encourage you to visit the college website and schedule a campus visit. During the application process, they can answer any questions you have and, should the need arise, advocate for you to the entire admission committee. Admission counselors will often hold interviews with student applicants and may even write letters of recommendation.
Many colleges and universities use interviews to gather information and gauge the personality of their applicants. If you choose to apply to one of these schools, you will receive an email from an admission interviewer to schedule an interview in your area. Interviewers can be anyone associated with the college: an alumnus, a board member, an admission counselor, etc. After the interview, they’ll give their notes and findings to the admission committee, which will become a part of your application.
Once you’re accepted to a college or university, you’ll receive an admission and financial aid package detailing key dates and costs before you decide to attend. These are often sent by the registrar, an administrator at the college who handles all things related to enrollment. When you choose to attend a university, the registrar will help you set up your class list and manage payments to your school.
Types of schools
There are many different types of higher education institutions out there that are unique in their own way. To help you find which kind is best for you and your goals, here’s a list of schools you can choose to attend and their distinctions.
Community colleges offer two-year associate degrees and help students prepare to transfer to four-year colleges for a bachelor’s degree. They may also offer degree and certificate programs that prepare you for certain careers that don’t require a bachelor’s. Community colleges have low tuition and are generally more affordable than other colleges.
Four-year colleges and universities
Colleges and universities can help you prepare for careers in a wide variety of fields; the main difference is that colleges focus on undergraduate education, while universities also offer graduate or doctoral studies. Both types of schools award four-year bachelor's degrees to undergrads and may also offer associate degrees, certificates, and other training. Universities tend to be larger schools with a wide variety of study and degree options for both undergrads and graduate students. They are usually made up of smaller, subject-specific schools and colleges (e.g., Stanford University School of Humanities and Science).
Public or state colleges and universities
Public schools are usually funded by the state they are in through taxes. While this means they offer lower tuition for residents and perhaps even students from neighboring states, they’re also larger and usually have a bigger study body than private schools.
Private colleges and universities
Private colleges and universities are funded primarily by tuition and donations from students and alumni, not by the state, leading most of them to be smaller and more expensive. Typically, these schools will offer a four-year track to a bachelor’s degree in a variety of majors across subject areas.
Liberal arts colleges and universities
Liberal arts schools focus on gaining an understanding of the liberal arts or humanities. They tend to be smaller, four-year private schools that offer broad courses across literature, history, language, math, and science.
There are many colleges that specialize in a certain field or have a specific mission and focus. These include vocational schools, technical (tech) schools, art schools and conservatories, single-sex schools, religiously affiliated schools, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), and more.
Ivy League and the Seven Sisters
There are eight schools in the Ivy League: Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania (Penn), and Yale University. In addition, there are also the “Seven Sisters”—private liberal arts schools that are historically women’s colleges and noted for their prestige, low acceptance rate, and setting in the northeastern US. These include Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, Radcliffe College (now part of Harvard), Vassar College (now coeducational), and Wellesley College.
Types of applications
Once you’ve chosen which schools you want to apply to, what do you do next? You have a few different options! Here are the most commonly used college application platforms and their benefits.
Created in 1975, the Common App partners with over 900 colleges and universities across the US. You simply create an account, fill in your information, choose up to 20 schools, upload your required materials, and submit. This application portal has a rollover feature that allows students to save data for up to a year, giving you more time to work on your applications. Most college counselors are very familiar with this platform, so you may be able to get more help if you choose to use it. Because the Common App is more commonly used than other application platforms, there may be a longer wait and more bottlenecking at technical support spaces.
The Coalition App was founded in 2015 and partners with 150 colleges and universities across the US to streamline the application process. It was originally designed to help students from historically underrepresented backgrounds apply to college, and the platform only partners with schools that either offer generous financial aid packages or have lower tuition. One of its key features, “Locker,” allows students to store essays, videos, and projects that may be useful to their applications. While the Coalition App is not as, well, common than the Common App, its technical support may be more readily available around application deadlines if you encounter any roadblocks.
While most colleges and universities in the US use at least one of the two platforms mentioned above, it’s important to note that some colleges have their own application systems that you can access through their websites. In addition, every school has its own admission requirements, so even if you apply to several schools through the Common or Coalition App, be sure to review their individual checklists and make sure every requirement is filled before you send in your application through any system.
Application deadlines and decisions
There are many important dates surrounding college apps. Here are all your choices of when to send in your application for each admission cycle (note that the timing may differ from year to year).
Early Decision (ED)
Applying to a school Early Decision means you contractually agree to attend if you get accepted. As a result, you can only choose ED for one school, and this decision is binding. Applications for ED normally open just before the school year starts (around mid-August) and close around November. Admission decisions may be released as early as December and as late as February.
Early Action (EA)
For those who want to receive their admission decisions early but don’t want to be forced to attend a certain school, Early Action might be a better fit. The deadlines are typically the same as ED; however, they are nonbinding. Theoretically, you could apply EA to as many colleges and universities as you like, though it’s suggested that you choose your top two or three schools for this admission period.
Regular Decision (RD)
A majority of your college applications will be sent within the Regular Decision admission period. Applications usually open in mid-August, but RD doesn’t close until January; this gives students more time to gather materials and prepare their essays. Decisions are usually announced in March, and if you’re accepted, you’ll have until May 1 (National Decision Day) to decide where you are enrolling. ED and EA applicants can be deferred to the RD cycle, meaning you may be accepted later once all applications have been received.
Colleges with rolling admission will accept applications any time of year, though they may still have suggested or priority deadlines. Should you choose to apply to programs or schools with a rolling admission policy, they will reach out to you with their decision as soon as they’re finished reviewing your application—typically anywhere from one to three months.
Some colleges may want to accept you but find they don’t have enough space after initial acceptances are announced. In this case, they will put you on a waitlist and, once students send in their decisions, they will let you know if they have the space for you. Acceptances from waitlists can be announced as late as July but are typically announced around May or June. If you have your heart set on a school that has waitlisted you, it’s highly suggested that you make a deposit at another school by May 1; you can then unenroll if you’re accepted from the waitlist later.
Related: How Are Admission Decisions Made?
Now that you know these key terms, you’ll be ready to conquer your college search and application process. It may have seemed intimidating before, but with your newfound understanding, you can see the endpoint of your journey. Good luck!
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