Admissions

Admissions Lingo for Newbies

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The following lingo primer is for college admissions newbies. This would include high school students eager to learn as much as possible about the challenging process of getting into college. It also includes the parents of ultimately college-bound students who may want to prepare themselves well in advance of their progeny’s entrance into the college admissions merry-go-round.

Like most other fields of endeavor, college admissions has its own specialized terminology. These terms appear often for applicants as they begin to weave their way through the various curves and straightaways of applying to college. It pays to know what they mean and how they can affect the application process.


If you are an observer of or participant in the College Confidential discussion forum, you have no doubt encountered a few strange terms about which you may want to know more. So today I thought I would attempt to cover some of that language. 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, if anything, 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 below is hardly exhaustive but should provide some basic understanding.

Adcom: Short for “admissions committee.”

Common App: 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 App that adds information and writing requirements.

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), below, an application fee is required. The 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 is “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.

Early Action: A type of early application process whereby the applicant submits his or her application before the usual deadline and receives notification of acceptance, deferral or rejection in December or January. Early Action (EA) deadlines are typically in early or mid-November. EA applications are non-binding. That is, applicants have until May 1 to advise colleges of their enrollment decisions. Some EA plans are “restrictive” and forbid EA applicants from applying elsewhere via any Early options before receiving a verdict. Some restrictive EA colleges, however, do allow students to apply to other EA schools concurrently if they are required to do so in order to be eligible for merit scholarships.

Early Decision: Another type of early application process, whereby the applicant submits his or her application usually by early-to-mid 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. But if an admitted ED candidate has also applied for financial aid and did not receive an adequate aid award, this student can withdraw from the binding commitment without penalty, as long as it’s done promptly.  Many colleges now offer a second round of ED with a January deadline and February notification.

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 most college applications.

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 often calculated according to a federal-government methodology (via the FAFSA) and/or by an institutional (college-specific) methodology (via the CSS Profile and, possibly, the college’s own financial aid form).

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 Colleges rankings. 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 internet.

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 elite colleges.

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 percent of a student’s/family’s financial need. In general, financial aid packages from these schools provide aid that covers 100 percent 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 among the most crucial parts of elite college applications and are required as part of the Common Application and colleges’ Common App supplemental requirements.

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. Applicants sometimes submit an additional rec from someone who knows 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 rep is most likely the best person to contact.

Regular Decision: The application option attracting the most college applicants. At elite colleges, Regular Decision (RD) applications are usually due in early- to mid-January 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 entered. 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 on their supplemental forms. They require careful consideration and should not be dismissed with a lackluster effort because of their brevity.

Student Profile Marketing: The systematic process that applicants should use to present themselves in the best 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.

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

If most of the information above managed to sink into your brain and is accessible to you when you begin your college process, you will have graduated from “Newbie” to “Rookie” as you begin to fill out applications and do essays. By the time you have finished everything and sent off those applications, you’ll be a “Veteran.” If you get into any of your top-choice colleges, you have my permission to call yourself an “All Star.”

Finally, it’s up to you to do your best in college. That’s when you become a Most Valuable Player. Here’s to your climb to MVP status!