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Articles / Applying to College / Terms for The Uninitiated

Terms for The Uninitiated

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Nov. 26, 2015

There are many specialized terms associated with college admissions. If you are an observer of or participant in College Confidential’s discussion forum, you have no doubt encountered a few strange terms about which you may need to know more. So, today I thought that I would attempt to cover some of the language of college admissions.

If you’re an old pro and have been through the loop of applying to college, either yourself or with your children, you may not learn much from what follows. My intent, though, as noted in the title of this post, is to offer some explanations for those who have not been initiated into the world of the higher education process.

The brief list of terms that follows is hardly exhaustive but should provide some basic understanding. For greater depth on any of these, search for it on the Web via your favorite search engine.


Adcom: Short for “admissions committee.”

Common Application: A standardized, Web-based college application format accepted by many colleges. Using the Common Application has certain time advantages by allowing the applicant to apply to multiple colleges without having to physically repeat entering his or her basic application information. Many colleges have a college-specific supplement for the Common Application that adds information and writing requirements. See www.commonapp.org for more information.

CSS Financial Aid Profile: A financial aid application form and process administered by the College Scholarship Service. Most private colleges and universities require the CSS Profile. Unlike the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), an application fee required. A FAFSA must always be filed in order to be considered for financial aid, regardless of whether or not a CSS Profile is required.

Deferral: A disappointing outcome of Early Decision or Early Action applications where the acceptance decision for the applicant is not made early but “deferred” to be made with all Regular Decision applicants in the spring. Deferral does not mean rejection and in many cases merely delays acceptance from December-January until March-April.

EA: See Early Action.

Early Action: A type of early application process whereby the applicant submits his or her application usually by early November and receives notification of acceptance, deferral, or rejection by mid-December. Early Action (EA) applications are non-binding. That is, applicants may choose to accept or reject a college’s EA acceptance decision. Applicants usually have until May 1 to advise colleges of their enrollment decisions. There are several versions of EA plans, known mainly as “EA 1,” EA 2,” “EA I (or II),” etc. Multiple EA programs allow applicants to apply beyond the usual early-November regular-EA deadline but still receive a decision before the college’s standard Regular Decision (RD) response date. In many cases, applicants may apply EA to more than one college. However, if the applicant has applied Early Decision, s/he usually may not apply to other colleges EA, although there may be exceptions to this rule. Always check your candidate college’s application instructions and/or Web site for the specific EA/ED policies that apply.

Early Decision: Another type of early application process whereby the applicant submits his or her application usually by early November and receives notification of acceptance, deferral, or rejection by mid-December. Unlike EA programs, however, the Early Decision (ED) process is binding. That is, applicants sign a document pledging to enroll if the college to which they are applying accepts them early. If the applicant is deferred to the Regular Decision applicant pool, then the pledge to enroll is nullified. Usually, if an applicant applies under ED, the ED college will prohibit the applicant from applying early elsewhere, although there may be exceptions to this rule. Always check your candidate college’s application instructions and/or Web site for the specific ED policies that apply. Certain colleges may have multiple ED programs available that offer applicants more than one ED deadline but under the same binding-enrollment policy.

ECs: Short for “extracurriculars.” Extracurriculars include a high schooler’s activities that fall beyond the scope of purely academic (classroom) endeavors. Examples include sports, clubs, volunteer work, community service, jobs, personal hobbies, and so forth. The quality and depth of extracurriculars are a crucial part of elite college applications.

ED: See Early Decision.

EFC: Short for “Expected Family Contribution.” This is the amount a family is expected to contribute toward their child’s college costs. The EFC is calculated (for public schools) according to a federal-government methodology (via the FAFSA) and/or (for private colleges) by an institutional (college-specific) methodology (via the CSS Profile and, possibly, the college’s own financial aid form). The EFC amount is the difference between the college’s total annual student budget (tuition, room and board, and any ancillary costs) and any school-provided financial aid (grants, loans, scholarships, work study, etc.).

Elite College: An imprecise colloquial term used most often to refer to America’s most selective colleges and universities. Many times, “elite” refers to those national colleges and universities appearing in the top 25 positions of the annual (and controversial) U.S. News Best Collegesrankings. Also, some observers may consider a college or university that accepts (considerably) less than half its applicants to be “elite.”

FAFSA: Short for “Free Application for Federal Student Aid.” The main vehicle for students and families to obtain college financial aid. There is no application fee required to submit a FAFSA form. FAFSAs may also be submitted via the Web. See www.fafsa.ed.gov for more information.

First Tier: Most commonly refers to the annual U.S. News Best Colleges rankings. The top 50 national colleges and universities are considered to be “first tier” (and many of those are referred to as an elitecollege).

Ivy League: A sports league. The term, however, has become synonymous with the highest prestige in American (if not world) higher education. The eight schools comprising the Ivy League are: Princeton University, Harvard University, Yale University, University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College, Columbia University, Cornell University, and Brown University. The term “Ivy” is also used colloquially to refer to some so-called elite colleges although, technically, there are only eight Ivy League schools.

Merit-Based Aid: Financial aid (sometimes referred to as a “scholarship”) awarded by a college irrespective of a student’s financial need. Merit awards are sometimes made as a result of high SAT scores, high class rank, GPAs, or similar academic achievements. Merit aid is granted in addition to need-based aid and can significantly improve a financial-aid package. Merit awards can also come from a high score on the PSAT/NMSQT, resulting in the student becoming a National Merit® Scholar. Some colleges and universities offer significant merit scholarships to students who become National Merit® Semi-Finalists.

Need-Based Aid: Financial aid awarded according to a student’s/family’s financial need as assessed by various methodologies (see EFC). Some top colleges and universities (most notably most Ivy League and U.S. News Top-10 schools) offer to meet 100% of a student’s/family’s financial need. In general, financial aid packages from these schools provide aid that covers 100% of the difference between a family’s EFC and the total annual student budget. The aid packages comprise grants, scholarships, loans, and work-study. Some Ivy League and elite schools have amended their financial aid policies and, for incoming students, have replaced student loans with school-provided grants.

Personal Statement: Another term for the application essay. Personal statements are one of the most crucial parts of elite college applications and are required as part of the Common Application and colleges’ Common App supplemental information.

PSAT/NMSQT: Short for “Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.” Most often taken by high schoolers in October of the junior year, this slightly simplified version of the Scholastic Assessment Test provides most students with an introduction to standardized testing administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). Scores from the PSAT also enter the student into competition for the nationwide National Merit® Scholarship competition.

Recs: Short for “recommendations.” Applicants to highly selective colleges and universities are usually required to submit two teacher recs along with their counselor’s rec. Many applicants sometimes submit an additional rec from people who know them well and can speak compellingly about the applicant’s personal qualities.

Regional Representative: The person in a college’s admission office who has responsibility for applicants from a particular geographical area. When applicants need to communicate with admissions, the regional representative is most likely the best person to contact.

Regular Decision: The application option attracting the heaviest number of college applicants. At elite colleges, Regular Decision (RD) applications are usually due January 1-15 and admission decisions are usually rendered from mid-March through early April. Unlike Early Decision, RD is not binding. Accepted RD applicants are not obligated to enroll.

SAR: Short for “Student Aid Report.” This is the form all FAFSA filers receive after they fill out their FAFSA information. Generally, it merely verifies the information that is submitted, but in some cases the filer may have to update some information or correct something that has been mistakenly input. It is very important to be certain that the information on the SAR is correct because your financial aid award (if you qualify for aid) will be based on this information.

Short Response: A relatively brief written response prompted by a question on the college application. Many elite-college applications have three or more of these short responses required on their supplemental forms. They require careful consideration and should not be dismissed with a lackluster effort because of their briefness.

Student Profile Marketing: The systematic process that applicants should use to present themselves in the best and fullest light to admissions committees. Some aspects of profile marketing include knowing how to reveal the widest-possible amount of personal information in specific application responses, selecting the right kinds of materials to augment written responses, understanding the importance of follow-up and regular communication with the admissions representative, among other tactical and strategic strategies.

Top-25: See Elite College.

Wait List: A kind of admissions twilight zone reserved for applicants who are neither accepted nor rejected. Applicants are assigned to the wait list when final acceptance and rejection letters go out. Although every year students gain admission to top colleges from the wait list, it can be a very agonizing process with no promises of admission. As a general rule, waitlisted applicants at more highly selective colleges have a relatively lower chance of acceptance than waitlisted applicants at less highly selective colleges.


Be sure to see my other college-related articles on College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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