When My Oldest Started Applying, I Was Lost in College Lingo

confused parent

If I had a dollar for every time I nodded along in confused silence when I heard a bizarre college admissions term in a webinar, Facebook group, or blog post when I first went through this process a few years ago, I couldhave paid a good chunk of tuition. The process of helping my oldest child navigate the path to higher education felt like being dropped in a foreign country without a phrasebook!

Terms like “early action,” “deferred decision,” and “holistic review” just made my head spin. I smiled and tried to piece together meanings from context clues, but I often felt like I was the only one who didn’t understand and ended up even more overwhelmed and feeling like I was all alone in this process.

There’s no need for any parent (or student) starting out in the college planning process to feel this way.  At College Aid Pro, we know that college planning is a huge undertaking for so many reasons. So let’s get you started off on the right foot. We’ve put together the top 25 college admissions terms that every family should understand before diving into the process.  Think of this as your vocab list for College Admissions 101.  In the upcoming months, you’ll advance to College Admissions 102 and we’ll share the advanced vocabulary list.

Top 25 College Admissions Terms Every Family Should Understand

  1. Activity ListAn activity list, also known as an activity resume or college application resume, is a document that lists all of the extracurricular activities, awards, honors, and achievements that a student has been involved in throughout their high school years. It is used for college applications and scholarship applications to showcase the student’s involvement, dedication, and accomplishments outside of the classroom. This is something that students should start working on the summer before the freshman year of high school and build on it so when they apply to colleges and scholarship opportunities the list is already built.
  2. Admission Rate – this is the percentage of applicants who are admitted to a college or university. It is calculated by dividing the number of accepted students by the total number of applicants.
  3. Admission Requirementsthe criteria that a college or university sets for students to be eligible for admission to their institution. These are the standards or qualifications that applicants must meet or exceed in order to be considered for acceptance. Some common requirements include:
    High School GPA
    – Standardized Test Scores (SAT/ACT)
    – High School Course Requirements
    – Extracurricular activities
    – Essays/Personal Statements
    – Letters of Recommendation
    – Auditions/Portfolios
    – Interviews
  4. Admissions TestAn admissions test, also known as a college entrance exam, is a standardized test designed to measure students’ skills and readiness for college-level work. These tests help colleges evaluate applicants and make admission decisions. Examples of admissions tests in the United States include the ACT and the College Board’s SAT. The term “standardized” means that the test measures the same skills and knowledge in the same way for all test-takers.
  5. Application FeeThe term “application fee” refers to a fee that is required when submitting an application to a college or university. It is a non-refundable fee that covers the administrative costs associated with processing the application. The amount of the fee can vary depending on the institution, and it is separate from any tuition or other fees that may be required if the student is accepted.
  6. Class Rank – A student’s position or place based on a rank ordering of students in a class by their grade point average (GPA). It is a measure of how well a student performs academically compared to their peers in the same class. While colleges consider factors like course rigor and GPA, a high class rank indicates that a student is likely to perform well in college-level classes.
  7. Common Application – also known as the Common App, this is the most widely used online college admission application used by over 900 institutions in the U.S. and abroad. allows students to apply to multiple colleges and universities using a single application. It consists of a basic application and a personal statement, and students can also submit additional materials required by each school. The Common App simplifies the college application process by streamlining the submission of applications to various institutions.
  8. Coalition Application – This is another online college application that allows students to apply to over 150 member colleges & universities. It was launched in 2015 as an alternative to the Common Application. Member schools include public and private institutions across the U.S., including all Ivy League universities.
  9. College Decision DayThe deadline by which admitted students must officially accept or decline an offer of admission to a college or university by submitting an non-refundable enrollment deposit. This binding commitment reserves the student’s place in the incoming class for the upcoming fall semester. The national College Decision Day is observed annually on May 1st for students admitted under regular admissions plans and deadlines. Students may commit to only one college.
  10. College ListA list of colleges or universities that a student is considering applying to or attending. It typically includes a range of schools that the student is interested in, including reach schools (where admission is more competitive), target schools (where admission is more likely), and safety schools (where admission is highly likely). The college list is created based on factors such as academic programs, campus life, financial aid, and personal preferences.
  11. Deferred DecisionA deferred decision in the college admissions process occurs when an early decision or early action application is redirected to the regular decision candidate pool. It means that the college needs more time to review your application among other candidates in the larger pool. Being deferred is neither an acceptance nor a rejection, but rather a delay in the final decision on admission until later in the admissions cycle. During this time, your application will be reevaluated and considered during the regular decision timeline for the school.
  12. Demonstrated Interest – The active steps an applicant takes to show their genuine interest in attending a particular college or university.  Some colleges track demonstrated interest as part of their admissions process.
  13. Early Action – A non-binding college admissions plan where students apply earlier than the regular deadline, usually in October or November, to receive an admissions decision well before the spring, but have until May 1 to decide if they want to attend if accepted. Early action is a good option for students who have strong academic records and have completed all application requirements early.
  14. Early Decision – a BINDING college admissions plan where students apply to their first-choice college earlier than the regular deadline. It is important to note that early decision plans are binding, meaning that if a student is admitted and offered a financial aid package that meets their needs, they are obligated to enroll in the college immediately. This is different from early action, where students can apply early to indicate their interest in a college without any obligation to attend if admitted.
  15. FERPA – stands for the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act. It regulates the privacy of student records and academic information. When you fill out college applications (Common App, Coalition App, and possibly individual school applications) you will be asked to waive your right to review any letters of recommendation that you include.
    This lets colleges know that you will not read the recommendation letters that are submitted on your behalf. This allows your letter writers to provide a candid assessment without fear that you will read their private comments and recommendations about you. It protects the integrity and honesty of the letter of recommendation process. Some recommenders may decline to write a letter for you if you do not waive your rights.
    It is highly encouraged to waive your FERPA rights for letters of recommendation AND choose recommenders who think highly of you and will write great letters recommending you.
  16. GPAGrade Point Average or GPA, is a numerical representation of a student’s academic performance. It is calculated on a scale that typically ranges from 0 to 4.0, with variations such as weighted GPAs that account for the difficulty of courses. A GPA of 4.0 is considered perfect and implies straight A’s across all courses.
    Each letter grade is assigned a numerical value, with A being 4 points, B being 3 points, C being 2 points, D being 1 point, and F being 0 points. Some schools may use a different scale, such as a 5.0 scale for honors or Advanced Placement (AP) courses.
    Many colleges will recalculate your high school GPA with their own system to assess all applicants on an even playing field.
  17. Holistic Review – An admissions process that evaluates the full student profile beyond just grades and test scores, considering factors like extracurriculars, essays, recommendations, and personal background.
  18. Letter of Recommendation – Commonly referred to as a recommendation letter, is a letter written by a teacher, school counselor, or other individual who assesses and endorses a student’s qualifications, character, and suitability for college admissions. It provides an external perspective on the student and aims to offer insights into their strengths, capabilities, and overall character to support the decision-making process of the admissions committee.
  19. Need-Awarerefers to a policy followed by some schools where they take a look at the overall financial need statistics of the current applicant pool. They may use this data to shape the incoming class in a way that limits too much strain on the financial aid budget. An individual’s financial situation is not scrutinized during the admissions review.
  20. Need-Blindrefers to a policy followed by certain colleges where they do not consider an applicant’s financial need when making admissions decisions. Regardless of whether a student can afford to pay full tuition or requires financial aid, need-blind schools focus solely on the applicant’s academic qualifications and other factors, without taking their financial situation into account.
  21. Need-Sensitive – refers to a policy where an applicant’s ability to pay the full cost of attendance could be considered when making admissions decisions.  This means that a student’s financial need can potentially impact their chances of being accepted into a particular college. However, it’s important to note that each college has its own policies and practices regarding need-sensitive admission, so it’s always best to research and understand the specific policies of the colleges you are interested in.
  22. Regular Decisionan application option for college admissions where students apply by a deadline usually in December through mid-February and receive an admission decision in the spring, generally between mid-March and early April. It is a non-binding process, meaning that students are not obligated to attend the school if they are admitted.
  23. Rolling Admissionan college admissions policy used by colleges where applications are considered as soon as all required information, such as high school records and test scores, has been received. Instead of having a set application deadline, colleges with rolling admission review applications on a continuous basis. This means that applicants can receive admission decisions quickly. 
  24. Priority Date or Deadlinethe deadline set by a college or university for submitting financial aid applications, such as the FAFSA, the CSS Profile, or school specific financial aid forms. It is important to meet this deadline to ensure that your application is considered for the maximum amount of financial aid available. However, it is important to note that meeting the priority date does not guarantee receiving more financial aid than if you were to submit your application later. 
  25. Transcript – the official record of your coursework at a school or college. It includes information such as the courses you have taken, the grades you have received, and any other relevant academic information. Transcripts are usually required for college admissions, as well as for some financial aid packages or scholarship applications.

Having this vocabulary at my fingertips could have saved me (and my kid) so much confusion and guesswork back when we were just freshman applicants. Simple concepts like explaining the differences between early action, early decision, and regular decision deadlines were a struggle. And don’t even get me started on how long it took me to comprehend FERPA rights about recommendation letters!

So do yourself a favor—study up on this glossary now before the college admissions roller coaster kicks into high gear. Having this foundation will help the whole process feel less foreign and overwhelming. Knowing the lingo gives you a big head start in feeling prepared and informed as a family from day one. Trust me, your future self will thank you.