US Universities: Terminology – An A-Z Guide

Whilst those based in the US may be familiar with the various steps involved in American university application procedures, for those applying from abroad, it may initially appear perplexing. This blog entry is designed to help you decipher all the vocabulary and processes associated with US university applications. Here’s an A-Z guide to get you started!

ACT: The American College Test, an alternative to sitting the SAT. Either of these two types of tests can be sat as a means of gaining university admission. The main difference between these two is that the former offers a science component.

Bachelor’s Degree: As with UK universities, this is the degree undergraduates receive after studying in a US university undergraduate programme. However, unlike some UK universities, US universities require students to study over the course of four years in order to complete their undergraduate university programme. These four years are broken into a freshman year, a sophomore year, a junior year and their final senior year. Depending on their majors and specialisations during their studies, students can graduate with either a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or a Bachelor of Science (BS). Upon graduation, students may decide to go on to graduate school to receive a postgraduate degree related to their chosen career or opt to begin working full-time.

Common Application: Sometimes shortened to ‘Common App’, this is the online application platform designed to help prospective students manage their applications. This is where they can upload their admission test results, their academic and extracurricular information, as well as their personal statements, any supplemental essays and additional information. Most US institutions accept applications via this platform.

Early Action (EA) or Early Decision (ED): This refers to the process allowing students to apply to their first-choice universities early, usually in November of the year before the university course is set to start. The admission decision results for these early applications are usually released by mid-December. An offer from an EA university allows students to apply to other institutions in the regular application round and make their final decision at a later stage, however an offer from an ED university calls for a binding commitment to attend that specific university.

Financial Aid: Similarly to the UK, this is the term used to refer to monetary support which universities may provide to admitted students. For Ivy League universities and other top institutions, this aid is not a loan but rather a grant which is awarded to a successful applicant so that they are not financially burdened throughout their time at university.

GMAT: The Graduate Management Admission Test is designed to assess certain analytical, writing, quantitative, verbal and reading skills in written English. It tends to be required for admission to graduate programmes, mainly management programmes such as an MBA (Master of Business Administration).

GPA: A Grade Point Average refers to a student’s overall academic performance and is calculated in averages earned across a series of courses. Most US institutions grade on a 4.0 scale, with a 4.0 being the equivalent to an A or an A+.

GRE: The Graduate Record Examinations is a standardised test used to assess a person’s skills in analytical writing, quantitative reasoning, and verbal reasoning. It is usually required by most US graduate schools as well as by institutions in some other countries, for admission into master’s and doctoral degree programmes and courses.

Likely Letter: This is a letter which college and university coaches provide to prospective student athletes (recruits), indicating that they would like them to attend their institution. Essentially, this letter is a guarantee of admission, pending final approval by the institution’s admissions department.

Major: As opposed to a minor, a major refers to a student’s primary area of study at university and tends to be associated with the career path the student wishes to take upon graduating. US universities only require students to officially declare their major by the end of their second year at university, giving them plenty of time to try a variety of different courses and options prior to deciding on their main area of study.

Orientation: Taking place before classes commence, typically within the first week of September, this refers to a university’s process of welcoming new, accepted students to campus. As well as this, many institutions also have special orientation programmes designed specifically for international students, allowing them to familiarise themselves with US practicalities and customs, for example how to order a US mobile phone or open a US bank account.

Personal Statement: Also known as the ‘college application essay’, this is the essay all applicants are required to upload via Common App as part of their application. It tends to an essay about the applicant himself/herself and should have personal meaning to them, demonstrating their values and interests, and who they are as a person. As with UK applications via UCAS, the personal statement is an important component of the application, given weighty consideration by the universities’ respective admissions office; it should therefore be given due attention and diligent reflection on behalf of the applicant.

Recommendation Letter: Also known as an academic reference letter, this is the letter usually provided by an applicant’s teacher or other member of their school’s staff such as a counsellor or careers adviser. US universities can require submission of up to three recommendation letters from three different members of school staff per applicant. Applicants are responsible for approaching the members of staff at their secondary school who they think are best suited to write their recommendation letter(s). Nominated referees are emailed by the admissions office of each university and asked to submit their references for the student’s application.

Regular Decision: This is known as the application deadline on Common App for the bulk of most prospective university students. Each year, this deadline date tends to be set around early January (usually 1st January) and marks the day on which all of a student’s university applications, to every university of their choice, must be submitted by, via the Common App. The admission decisions results for these applications tend to be released towards the end of March or early April of the same year during which the university programme is set to begin.

SAT: The Scholastic Aptitude Test is a standardised university entrance exam administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). It measures reading, writing and maths skills. Most US institutions require students to submit their scores and results for this test (or alternatively the ACT, in some cases) in their application for admission. Most applicants will sit their SAT during the two years before the prospective university programme is set to start. Applicants are permitted to sit the test more than once.

Transcript: As with UK schools, a transcript is a summary of a student’s academic record (usually during the last four years of secondary school such as GCSEs and Sixth Form A-Levels) and must be uploaded to the Common App platform by the student’s secondary school, as part of the application process.

TOEFL: The Test of English as a Foreign Language measures a student’s ability to use and understand English at the university level. This test is designed to evaluate how well a student combines their reading, listening, speaking and writing skills to perform academic tasks. For applications to US universities, international students based in non-English speaking countries or those whose mother-tongue is not English may be required to submit their TOEFL results with their application for admission.

Wait list: Sometimes, universities and colleges do not accept nor reject an applicant for admission but instead place them on a ‘wait list’. Although this may be encouraging, being on a wait list does not guarantee eventual admission, therefore many applicants choose not to remain on the list – especially if the institution is not their first choice – and opt instead to accept another institution’s admission offer that they may have received.