College Terms & Definitions Made Simple

by | 19/05/2020

A GOOD KIND OF CHEAT SHEET

This is just as important as it sounds boring. I promise!

These terms and definitions in some way are a whole language map to a new international student-athlete. They will help you navigate throughout the unexplored American academic territory as well as the recruiting journey.

We’ve gathered some of the most popular American college terms & definitions and described them in a way that makes sense to a non-American student. Read them, use them, and return to them whenever things get blurry.

Take this post as a good kind of cheat sheet (here is another term you might need one day in your future university). At a minimum, if you skim them over a few times now, when you hear them again, they will ring a bell in the back of your mind. This will save you from unnecessary confusion and time wasted during your first semesters in university.

Frequently used terms from American universities

Academic advisor: A member of a school’s faculty who provides advice and guidance to students on academic matters, such as course selections. Advisors help students choose classes and make sure you are taking the right courses to graduate.

Academic year: The annual period during which a student attends university, typically from August or September to May or June. The academic year may be divided into semesters, trimesters, quarters, or other calendar terms.

Accredited: The Official recognition that a college or university meets the standards of a regional or national association. Although international students are not required to attend an accredited university in the United States, employers, other schools, and governments worldwide often only recognize degrees from accredited schools.

ACT (American College Test): A standardized college entrance exam administered by the American College Testing Program. Four separate, multiple-choice tests measure knowledge of English, Math, Reading, and Science, and one optional writing test measures essay planning and writing skills. Most students take the ACT during their junior or senior year of high school, and most universities accept scores from either the ACT or SAT. Some schools may recommend, but not required, international students to take the ACT or SAT.

Affidavit of Support: An official document proving adequate funding from an individual or organization to cover an international student’s educational and living expenses while enrolled at a U.S. university.

AP (Advanced Placement program): A program offered by the College Board, a U.S.-based educational organization, that allows students to take college-level courses while in high school. Students can then take standardized AP exams; those with qualifying scores can earn credit at certain universities.

Assistantship: A financial aid award granted to a graduate student to help pay for tuition that is offered in return for certain services, such as serving as a teaching assistant or research assistant.

Associate degree: An associate’s degree is typically awarded by community colleges (junior colleges), and it usually takes two years of full-time study.

Audit: To take a class to gain knowledge about a subject, but without receiving credit toward a degree.

Bachelor’s Degree: An undergraduate degree awarded by a university upon successful

completion of a program of study, typically requiring at least four years of full-time study.

Common degree types include a Bachelor of Arts (B.A. or A.B.) and a Bachelor of Science (B.S.). A bachelor’s is required before starting graduate studies.

Campus: The grounds and buildings where the university is located.

Coed: Open to both men and women (often used to describe a school and a dormitory that admits/houses both sexes).

College: A postsecondary institution that typically provides undergraduate education, but in most cases, also graduate degrees. In the US, the term “College” is used interchangeably with “university” and “school.” Separately, “college” can refer to an academic division of a university, such as College of Business.

Commencement: A graduation ceremony where students officially receive their degrees, typically held in May or June at the end of the academic year, though some colleges and universities also hold August and December ceremonies.

Common Application: A standard application form that is accepted by more than 450 member universities for admissions. Students can complete the form online or in print and submit copies to any of the participating colleges, rather than filling out individual forms for each school. However, international students will typically need to submit additional application materials.

Community college: A public, two-year postsecondary institution that offers the associate degree. Also known as a “junior college.” Community colleges typically provide a transfer program, allowing students to transfer to a four-year school to complete their bachelor’s degree, and a career program, which provides students with a vocational degree.

Conditional admission: An acceptance to a college or university that is dependent on the student first completing coursework or meeting specific criteria before enrollment. For an international student, this can include a requirement to attain a certain level of English-language proficiency if the student’s TOEFL score does not meet the minimum required.

Core courses: These are the high school courses you must have collected prior to entering a sports program at an NCAA Division I and II schools. Although, the term Core Course is mainly used in the context of the NCAA Division I and II programs, the nature of academic requirements remains similar across all collegiate athletics organizations.

Core requirements: Mandatory courses that students are required to complete to earn a college degree.

Course: A regularly scheduled class on a particular subject. Each university offers degree programs that consist of a specific number of required and elective courses.

Course load: The number of courses or credits a student takes during a specific term.

Course Number: The number your college or university uses to classify a course. You usually need this number in order to register for a class.

Credit Hour: The number of hours assigned to a specific class. This is usually the number of hours per week you are in the class. The number of credit hours you enroll in determines whether you are a full-time student or a part-time student. Also referred to as “credits” or “units”.

Culture shock: Feelings of uncertainty, confusion, or anxiety that can occur when adjusting to a new country and culture that may be vastly different from your own. International students may also experience “reverse culture shock” upon returning to their home country after they have become accustomed to the new country and culture.

Curriculum: A program of study made up of a set of courses offered by a school.

Dean: The head of a division of a college or university.

Deferral / Deferred admission: A school’s act of postponing a student’s application for early decision or early action, so that it will be considered along with the rest of the regular applicant group. A “deferral” can also refer to a student’s act of postponing enrollment for one year if the school agrees.

Degree: A diploma or title awarded to students by a university after successful completion of a program of study.

Department: A division of a school, made up of faculty and support staff, that gives instruction in a particular field of study, such as the history department.

Discipline: An area of academic study.

Dissertation: An in-depth, formal writing requirement on an original topic of research that is typically submitted in the final stages before earning a doctorate (Ph.D.).

Doctorate (Ph.D.): The highest academic degree awarded by a university upon successful completion of an advanced program of study, typically requiring at least three years of graduate study beyond the master’s degree. Ph.D. candidates must demonstrate their mastery of a subject through oral and written exams and original, scholarly research presented in a dissertation.

Dormitories (dorms): Student housing provided by a college or university, also known as “residence halls,” which typically includes rooms, bathrooms, common areas, and often a kitchen or cafeteria.

Double major: A program of study that allows a student to complete the course requirements for two majors at the same time.

Drop: To withdraw from a course. A college or university typically has a period of time at the beginning of a term during which students can add or drop courses.

Dual degree: Program of study that allows a student to receive two degrees from the same university.

Early decision: A program offered by some colleges and universities that allows students to apply to their top-choice school early, typically in November or December, and receive the decision early, usually in mid or late December. If accepted, students are required to enroll at that school and withdraw all applications to other schools. Although some schools allow international students to apply via early decision, applicants who apply for financial aid may not receive a decision any earlier than those who apply through the regular decision process.

Electives: Courses that students can choose to take for credit toward a degree, but are not specifically required for the degree.

ESL/ELP (English as a Second Language/English Language Program): A course or program of study used to teach English to non-native English speakers.

Enroll: To register or enter a school or course as a participant.

Exempt: Not required to do something that other students may be required to do. For example, a school may require all students to take a freshman English course, but some students may be exempt based on their high scores on a college entrance exam or their previous coursework.

Extracurricular activities: Optional activities, such as sports, clubs, and organizations that students can participate in outside of academic classes.

Faculty: A school’s teaching and administrative staff who is responsible for designing programs of study.

Fees: An amount of money charged by colleges and universities, in addition to their tuition, to cover costs of services such as libraries and computer technology.

Fellowship: An amount of money awarded by a college or university, usually to graduate students and generally based on academic achievement.

Financial aid: All types of money offered to a student to help pay tuition, fees, and other educational expenses. This can include loans, grants, scholarships, assistantships, fellowships, and work-study jobs.

Fraternity: A student organization, typically for men, formed for social, academic, community service, or professional purposes. A fraternity is part of a college or university’s Greek system. Some fraternities, such as those with an academic or community service focus, may be coed.

Freshman: A student in the first year of high school or university.

Full-time student: A student who is enrolled at a college or university and is taking at least the minimum number of credits required by the school for a full course load (typically, at least 12 credit hours per semester).

GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test): A standardized graduate business school entrance exam administered by the non-profit Graduate Management Admission Council, which measures verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing skills. Some business schools accept either the GMAT or GRE.

General education classes: Classes that give students basic knowledge of a variety of topics. Students often must take general education classes in order to graduate. This set of classes includes different courses and is called by different names at various colleges and universities.

GPA (Grade point average): A student’s overall academic performance, which is calculated as a numerical average of grades earned in all courses. The GPA is determined after each term, on a 4.0 scale, and upon graduation, students receive an overall GPA for their studies. (Students can earn bonus units and increase the GPA score above 4.0)

Grade: A score or mark indicating a student’s academic performance on an exam, paper, or in a course. A “grade” can also refer to which year a student is in while at elementary, middle, or secondary school, but that usage typically does not apply at the university level.

Graduate school: The division of a university, or an independent postsecondary institution, which administers graduate studies and awards master’s degrees, doctorates, or graduate certificates.

Graduate student / Graduate studies: A student who already holds an undergraduate degree and is pursuing advanced studies at a graduate school, leading to a master’s, doctorate, or graduate certificate. A “graduate” can also refer to any student who has successfully completed a program of study and earned a degree.

Grant: A type of financial aid that consists of an amount of free money given to a student, often by the federal or a state government, a company, a school, or a charity. A grant does not have to be repaid. “Grant” is sometimes used interchangeably with “scholarship.”

GRE (Graduate Record Examination): A standardized graduate school entrance exam which measures verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing skills. The exam is generally required by graduate schools, which use it to assess applicants of master’s and Ph.D. programs. Some business schools accept either the GMAT or GRE; law schools generally require the LSAT, and medical schools typically require the MCAT.

Greek life / Greek system: A college or university’s collection of fraternities and sororities on campus, whose names originate from letters in the ancient Greek alphabet.

High school: A secondary school that offers grades 9 to 12.

Humanities: Academic courses focused on human life and ideas, including history, philosophy, foreign languages, religion, art, music, and literature.

Independent study: An academic course that allows students to earn credit for work done outside of the normal classroom setting. The reading or research assignment is usually designed by the students themselves or with the help of a faculty member, who monitors the progress.

Institute: An organization created for a specific purpose, usually for research, that may be located on a college or university’s campus.

IRS (Internal Revenue Service): The U.S. government agency that collects income taxes. International students who work on or off campus or receive taxable scholarships must pay taxes. A college or university’s international student adviser can provide further information, including on relevant tax treaties between the United States and specific countries that may allow certain benefits.

International student adviser: A school official who assists international students, scholars, and faculty with matters including orientation, visas, income taxes, insurance, and academic and government rules, among other areas.

Internship: An experience that allows students to work in a professional environment to gain training and skills. Internships may be paid or unpaid and can be of varying lengths during or after the academic year.

Ivy League: An association of eight private universities located in the northeastern United States, originally formed as an athletic conference. Today, the term is associated with universities that are considered highly academically competitive and prestigious. The Ivy League consists of the highly ranked Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University.

Junior: A student in the third year of secondary school or university.

Junior college: A two-year postsecondary institution that offers the associate degree. Also called a community college.

Letter of recommendation: A letter written by a student’s teacher, counselor, coach, or mentor that assesses his or her qualifications and skills. Colleges, universities, and graduate schools generally require recommendation letters as part of the application process.

Liberal arts: Academic studies of subjects in the humanities, social sciences, and the sciences, with a focus on general knowledge, in contrast to a professional or technical emphasis. “Liberal arts” is often used interchangeably with “liberal arts and sciences” or “arts and sciences.”

Liberal arts college: A postsecondary institution that emphasizes an undergraduate education in liberal arts. The majority of liberal arts colleges have small student bodies, do not offer graduate studies, and focus on faculty teaching rather than research.

Loan: A type of financial aid that consists of an amount of money that is given to someone for a period of time, with an agreement that it will be repaid later. International students are generally not eligible for U.S. federal government loans.

LSAT (Law School Admission Test): A standardized law school entrance exam administered by the Law School Admission Council, which measures reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and logical reasoning skills. There is also a writing section; although it is not scored, it is sent to each law school to which a student applies.

Major: The primary academic subject that a student chooses to focus on during their

undergraduate studies. Typically, students must officially choose their major by the end of their sophomore year.

Master’s Degree: A graduate degree awarded by a university upon successful completion of an advanced program of study, typically requiring one or two years of full-time study beyond the bachelor’s degree. Common degree types include a Master of Arts (M.A.); Master of Science (M.S.); and Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.).

Matriculate: To enroll in a program of study at a university, with the intention of earning a degree.

MBA: A Master of Business Administration degree.

Minor: A student’s secondary area of study. Fewer classes are required for a minor than for a major. Universities usually do not require students to have a minor. Many students’ minors are a specialization of their major field. For example, students who want to become a science reporter might major in journalism and minor in biology.

MCAT (Medical College Admission Test): A standardized U.S. medical school entrance exam administered by the non-profit Association of American Medical Colleges, which measures verbal reasoning and writing skills and physical and biological sciences knowledge.

Merit aid / Merit scholarships: A type of financial aid awarded by a university to students who have demonstrated special academic ability or talents, regardless of their financial need. Most merit aid has specific requirements if students want to continue to receive it, such as maintaining a certain GPA.

Midterm exam: An exam given after half of the academic term has passed and that covers all material studied in a particular course until that point. Not all courses have midterm exams.

Need-based financial aid: Financial aid that is awarded to students due to their financial inability to pay the full cost of attending a specific college or university, rather than specifically because of their grades or other areas.

Need-blind admissions: A university’s policy of accepting or declining applications without considering an applicant’s financial circumstances. This policy does not necessarily mean that these schools will offer enough financial aid to meet a student’s full need. Only a handful of U.S. colleges or universities offer need-blind admissions to international students.

Net price calculator: An online tool that allows students and families to calculate a personalized estimate of the cost of a specific college or university, after considering any scholarships or need-based financial aid that an applicant would receive. Most postsecondary institutions in the United States are required by law to post a net price calculator on their respective website.

Non-resident: A student who is not an official resident of the state where a public university is located. Tuition at public universities is less expensive for residents.

Nonmatriculated: Enrolled in a college or university’s courses, but not in a program of study leading to a degree.

Nonresident alien: A person who is not a U.S. citizen and is in the country on a temporary basis.

Notarized: Certified as authentic by a public official, lawyer, or bank. Universities often require international students to submit notarized documents, such as the Affidavit of Support or secondary school transcripts.

Open admissions: A university’s policy of accepting all students who have completed high school, regardless of their grades or test scores, until all spaces are filled. Many community colleges have an open admissions policy, including for international students.

Orientation: A university’s official process of welcoming new, accepted students to campus and providing them with information and policies before classes begin, usually in a half-day or full day event. Many colleges and graduate schools offer a separate orientation just for international students to cover topics such as how to follow immigration and visa regulations, set up a U.S. bank account, and handle culture shock.

Office hours: Time set aside by professors or teaching assistants for students to visit their office and ask questions or discuss the course they teach. Your professor or teaching assistant will tell you at the beginning of the term when and where office hours will be every week.

Online classes: Courses you take on a computer instead of in a traditional classroom.

Prerequisite: A class that must be taken before you can take a different class. (For example, Physics 100 may be a prerequisite for Physics 200)

Part-time student: A student who is enrolled at a university but is not taking the minimum number of credits required for a full course load (typically, less than 12 credit hours/semester).

Pass-fail: A grading system in which students receive either a “pass” or “fail” grade, instead of a score or letter grade. Certain college or university courses can be taken pass-fail, but these typically do not include ones taken to fulfill major or minor requirements.

Ph.D.: A Doctor of Philosophy degree. Also known as a „doctorate“.

Plagiarism: The use of another person’s words or ideas as your own, without acknowledging that person. Universities have different policies and punishments for students caught plagiarizing, but all can lead to expulsion.

Post-doctorate: Academic studies or research for those who have completed a doctorate degree.

Priority date: The date by which an application must be received in order to be given full consideration. This can apply to admissions, financial aid, and on-campus housing. After the priority date passes, applications may be considered on a case-by-case or first-come-first-served basis.

Private university: A postsecondary institution controlled by private individuals or a

nongovernmental agency. A university that is privately-funded. Tuition for a private university is usually the same for all students.

Probation: A status or period of time in which students with extremely low GPAs, or whose academic work is unsatisfactory according to the school, must improve their performance. If they are unable to do so, they may be dismissed from the university.

Professional school: A higher education institution for students who have already received their undergraduate degree to gain training in specific professions, such as law, medicine, and pharmacy.

Provost: The senior academic officer of a university who typically oversees all academic policies and curriculum-related matters.

PSAT: The Preliminary SAT, a standardized practice test which measures reading, writing, and math skills, giving students experience with the SAT. Students usually take the PSAT in their junior year of high school.

Public university: A postsecondary institution that is mainly funded by the government. Public universities are less expensive for residents of the state where they are located.

Quarters: Periods of study that divide the academic year into four equal segments of

approximately 10-12 weeks each, typically including the summer.

Registrar: The university official who is responsible for registering students and keeping their academic records, such as transcripts.

Registration: The process in which students choose and enroll in courses to be taken during the academic year or in winter/summer intersessions.

Regular decision: An admissions process used by universities that typically requires applicants to submit their materials by January 1. A decision by the university is generally received by April 1, and if admitted, students usually have until May 1 to respond to the offer.

Resident: A student who lives in and meets the residency requirements for the state where a public university is located. Tuition at public universities often is less expensive for residents in comparison to non-residents.

RA (Resident assistant): A student leader who works in campus dormitories and supervises issues and activities related to dorm life. RAs often receive free housing in the dorm in return for their services.

Rolling admissions: An admissions process used by some colleges and universities in which each application is considered as soon as all the required materials have been received, rather than by a specific deadline. Colleges and universities with this policy will make decisions as applications are received until all spaces are filled.

Room and board: Housing and meals. „Room and Board“ is typically one of the costs that universities will list in their annual estimated cost of attendance, in addition to tuition, fees, textbooks and supplies.

SAT: A standardized college entrance exam administered by the College Board, which measures reading, writing, and math skills. Most students take the SAT during their junior or senior year of high school, and most universities accept scores from either the SAT or ACT. In addition, students may choose to take the SAT Subject Tests in English, history, languages, math, and science to demonstrate their knowledge in specific academic areas. Most universities require international students to take the SAT or ACT test, along with the TOEFL test.

Scholarship: A type of financial aid that consists of free money given to a student by a school, individual, organization, company, charity, or government. „Scholarship“ is often used interchangeably with „grant“.

School: Any educational institution, including those that provide elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education.

Semesters: Periods of study that divide the academic year into two equal segments of

approximately 15 to 18 weeks each. Universities with this system generally have a fall semester and a spring semester. Many schools also offer a summer semester, which is shorter than the other two semesters.

Seminar: A course offered to a small group of students who are typically more advanced and who meet with a professor to discuss specialized topics.

Senior: A student in the fourth year of secondary school or university.

SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System): A computerized U.S.

government database used to track international students and scholars in the United States. Once an international student is accepted by a U.S. university, the school is required to mail the student a Form I-20, which is a paper record of the student’s information in SEVIS. A student must pay a SEVIS fee and use the payment receipt as well as the I-20 to apply for a visa.

Social Security number: A nine-digit number issued by the U.S. government to people who are authorized to work in the United States. Many universities use the Social Security number as the student identification number. International students who are in the United States and are authorized to work either on or off campus must apply for and obtain a Social Security number, which is then used to report their wages to the government.

Sophomore: A student in the second year of secondary school or university.

Sorority: A student organization for women formed for social, academic, community service, or professional purposes. A sorority is part of a university’s Greek system.

Syllabus: A description of a course which also lists the dates of major exams, assignments, and projects. A syllabus is usually given to students at the start of a course.

Standardized tests: Exams, such as the SAT, ACT, and GRE, which measure knowledge and skills and are designed to be consistent in how they are administered and scored. Standardized tests are intended to help admissions officials compare students who come from different backgrounds.

TA/GTA (Teaching Assistant/Graduate Teaching Assistant): A graduate student who assists a professor with teaching an undergraduate course, usually within his or her field, as part of an assistantship.

Tenure: A status offered to high-level faculty members at a university that allows them to stay permanently in their positions, after demonstrating a strong record of teaching and published research.

Term: Periods of study, which can include semesters, quarters, trimesters, or summer sessions.

Thesis: A formal written work on a specific subject, which may be required to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language): A standardized exam administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which measures English-language proficiency in reading, listening, speaking, and writing. Many U.S. universities require international students to take the TOEFL and submit their scores as part of the admissions process.

Transcript: An official record of a student’s coursework and grades at a secondary school or university. Translated and original secondary school transcripts are required for international students when applying to universities.

Transfer credit: Credit granted toward a degree on the basis of studies completed at another university. Students who transfer from a community college to a four-year college may earn some transfer credits. International students may also transfer credits from a university they attended in their country.

Trimesters: Periods of study that divide the academic year into three equal segments of approximately 10 to 12 weeks each.

Tuition: An amount of money charged by a school per term, per course, or per credit. Tuition generally does not include the cost of textbooks, room and board, and other fees.

Undergraduate student / Undergraduate studies: A student enrolled in a two-year or four-year study program at a university after graduation from secondary school, leading to an associate or bachelor’s degree.

University: A postsecondary institution that typically offers both undergraduate and graduate degree programs. „University“ is often used interchangeably with „college“ and „school.”

Visa: An official mark or stamp in a passport that allows someone to enter a country for a particular amount of time. Common visa types for international students and scholars in the United States include the F-1 (student visa) and J-1 (exchange visitor visa). To apply for a U.S. visa, student applicants must first receive a Form I-20 from the university they plan to attend, which is created by the U.S. government’s SEVIS database.

Waiting list: A list of qualified applicants to a school who may be admitted if there is space available after all admitted students have made their decisions. Being on a waiting list does not guarantee admission, so some students may choose not to remain on the list, particularly if the school is not their first choice.

Withdraw: To formally stop participating in a course or attending a university.

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