USC’s Handy-Dandy Glossary of College Lingo

One of the hallmarks of the college application journey is the jumble of acronyms and random terms that are casually thrown around to describe the various stages of the admissions process. But the USC Office of Admission knows that many of these concepts will be brand new to students and may add an extra layer of confusion to an already complex process. We know this because we were once teenagers embarking on our college application journeys and were very confused too.

But worry no more! We have put together this handy glossary of terms to help any student feel like an expert when navigating their college applications:

  • Undergraduate: Students who are earning a Bachelor’s degree (the first four-year academic degree that you can earn after graduating from high school).
  • Graduate: Students who are earning a Master’s, Doctorate, or other advanced degree, after they have earned their Bachelor’s degree.
  • University: This term describes the overall institution, which is made up of an undergraduate population and a graduate population. The term also includes the individual colleges or schools within the institution. Universities, in addition to offering undergraduate programs, offer a broad range of graduate programs.
  • College or School: At USC, these terms are used interchangeably to describe each of the nineteen academic units on campus, ranging from the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences to the School of Cinematic Arts. You can find information on each of USC’s academic units at this link.
  • Public vs. Private: Public universities and colleges are predominately state government funded while private universities and colleges, like USC, are primarily funded through tuition and endowments. While private universities and colleges do receive some government funds, they are subject to less government regulation.
  • Major: This is the main field of study that a student will take most of their classes within. USC offers more than 150 majors for students to pursue and students can pursue more than one major at a time (also known as double-majoring). This admission blog talks a bit more about how to consider majors and how this choice fits within the admission process.
  • Minor: This is a secondary field of study that a student will take classes in, in addition to their major. USC offers more than 200 minors for students to pursue and students can add more than one minor to their educational plan.
  • Impacted Major: A major that has more students who want to take it than the major can accommodate, sometimes leading to delays in taking required courses, having larger class sizes or limiting qualified students from switching into that major. While admission into USC is competitive, none of our majors are impacted.
  • Fit: This is a concept that describes what types of students a college or university is looking for and what types of colleges or universities that a student is looking for. Students should learn about what individual schools offer (majors, clubs and organizations, research opportunities, residential life, etc.) to make sure that they would feel comfortable there and able to accomplish their educational and professional goals. Fit is something to explore throughout the admission process and this admission blog outlines some of the factors that students might want to consider.
  • High School Visit: College admission counselors visit high schools around the world to speak to students about different aspects of their school, including academic and extracurricular opportunities, campus life, the application process, tuition and financial aid, and so on. While this year, most visits will be virtual, this still is a great opportunity to meet the admission counselor who may be reading your application and ask them any questions you have about their school. Also, there are plenty of ways to get your questions answered! You can find the USC admission counselor assigned to your high school here or attend one of our virtual information sessions here.
  • College Fair: An event where multiple colleges and universities come together to provide students with information about their school. This allows students to learn about many different kinds of schools at one time. Check out our admission blog on college fairs to get some advice about these kinds of opportunities!
  • First-Generation Student: A student who will be the first in their immediate family to attend college. One in six students at USC is a first-generation student. You can learn more about the first-generation student experience and resources available on campus in this admission blog.
  • Legacy Student: When a member of a student’s immediate family (by USC’s policy, a grandparent, parent, or sibling) has attended the college or university that a student is applying to. One in six students at USC is a legacy student. This admission blog provides information for legacy applicants.
  • Early Decision: When a college or university has an early application deadline and students sign an agreement that they will attend the school if accepted early (this is considered a binding decision). USC does not offer an early decision deadline.
  • Early Action: When a college or university has an early application deadline, but students are not required to attend the school if accepted early (this is considered a non-binding decision). USC does not offer an early action deadline.
  • Regular Decision: All colleges and universities have a deadline by which students need to apply in order to be considered for admission. This decision is non-binding and the deadline for making a decision to attend the school or not is May 1st (a date commonly known as National College Decision Day). USC has two regular decision deadlines for first-year students– December 1st (priority scholarship deadline & some majors) and January 15th. The final transfer deadline is February 1.
  • Waitlist: When a student is not admitted or denied to a school, but their admission is put on hold in case a spot opens up for them in the admitted class. USC does not utilize a waitlist, but a small percentage of each year’s applicant pool will be admitted to the spring semester instead of the fall semester. This admission blog describes the difference between a waitlist and a spring admission decision at USC.
  • The Common App: This online application is used by more than 750 private and public schools around the world and allows students to complete just one application that can be sent to up to 20 schools they want to apply to. This application asks for personal information, high school classes and grades, standardized test scores, an essay, and a description of the activities that the student is involved in.
  • Supplemental Materials: In addition to the Common App, many schools ask students to fill out a shorter supplement (also included in the Common App website) that is specific to their school. At USC, this supplement includes two short-answer questions, the Quick Takes section and major-related requirements (some majors require an audition, portfolio, professional resume, letters or recommendation or additional writing samples).
  • Demonstrated Interest: Some colleges and universities track how many contacts a student makes with their school (i.e., campus visits, high school visits, phone calls or e-mails, etc.) to measure how interested a student is in their school. USC does not track the demonstrated interest of our applicants through these means, though we do assess interest and knowledge of USC through the USC Essay question in the USC Common Application Supplement. You can also search #USCAppAdvice on the USC Admission Twitter and Instagram page for more information on this subject.
  • Test Optional: At some college and universities, applicants can decide if they would like their SAT or ACT scores to be considered as part of their application. It doesn’t mean that the school isn’t interested in seeing the applicant’s scores but if an applicant doesn’t submit their scores, it won’t be considered in the application review. At USC, for this 2020-2021 application year, applicants can indicate on their Common Applications whether they would like USC to review their test scores. For more information, here is our current Test Optional Policy.
  • Superscore: If a student would like to opt in to submitting their test scores and has taken the SAT or ACT more than one time, some colleges will allow students to combine their highest subtest scores from two different testing dates. For example, at USC, we will accept your highest SAT Math subtest score and your highest SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing scores from different tests and add them together to give you a higher overall (or composite) score.
  • English Language Proficiency: International applicants to USC must demonstrate their ability to communicate effectively in English as part of their application. At USC, this requirement can be satisfied with minimum scores on one of the following tests: SAT (650 on the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section), ACT (27 on the English section), TOEFL (100), IELTS (7), or PTE (68). If students are unable to take these official exams, we also accept DuoLingo but, if accepted, a Duolingo score will not waive USC’s International Student English (ISE) Exam.
  • Official vs. Unofficial Transcript: An official high school or college transcript is sent directly by the high school or college/university to the school you are applying to or is provided to the school in a sealed envelope. A transcript is unofficial if it is provided directly by the applicant but is not in a sealed envelope from their high school or college/university. USC will review unofficial transcripts during the application process, but an official copy is needed for students to receive an admission decision.
  • Exam Credit: Many colleges will allow students to apply credits from classes they took in high school towards the number of credits they need to graduate from college. At USC, this can include credits earned from Advanced Placement (AP) tests, International Baccalaureate (IB) tests or Advanced Level (A-level) exams taken during high school. However, in order for these credits to be evaluated, official Score Reports from these exams must be submitted as soon as they become available. For further information, review our Exam Credit Policy here.
Tuition and Financial Aid
  • Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA): Free online financial aid application that students will fill out the year before and during each subsequent year of college to determine their eligibility for financial aid (grants, loans, and work-study). Loans comprise money that students need to pay back in installments after they graduate, while grants and work-study funds are considered “gift aid” that students do not need to pay back.
  • College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile: Paid online financial aid application that many private colleges and universities will require for students to determine their eligibility for school-specific need-based financial aid. Fee waivers for this application may be available to students who used an SAT fee waiver, are an orphan or ward of the state, or have a parental income at or below $45,000.
  • Tuition Free: An initiative that allows student to have access to a more affordable education. At USC, the Affordability Initiative allows students from U.S. families with an annual income of $80,000 or less with typical assets to attend USC tuition free. Tuition free does not mean a “full ride” or that a student will pay nothing for college. Room and board, student fees, and other non-tuition costs of attendance must also be accounted for (and how much of these costs are covered by financial aid depends on the family’s financial situation). See further details of USC’s Affordability Initiative here.
  • California Dream Act Application: Free online application for students who are not eligible to fill out the FAFSA, but are residents of California who have attended at least three years of high school in California or will graduate from a California high school. The California Dream Act application allows students to apply for California state financial aid.
  • Need-Blind Admission: When a student’s financial means are not reviewed as part of their application and have no bearing on their admission to a university. This means that there is no disadvantage in the admission process if a student also applies for financial aid. The USC Financial Aid Office published an admission blog that provides helpful instructions on how to apply for financial aid.
  • Total Cost of Attendance: The total cost of attending a college or university for one year, which includes tuition and fees and estimated costs for room and board, books and supplies, and miscellaneous expenses and transportation.
  • In-State vs. Out-of-State Tuition: Public universities and colleges will have a tuition amount (the cost of attending the school) for students who are residents of the state and a different/higher tuition amount for students who are not residents of the state. Private universities and colleges, like USC, have only one tuition amount that is charged to both state resident and non-resident students.
  • Expected Family Contribution (EFC): The amount, determined by the information on the FAFSA and CSS Profile, that a family will be expected to pay towards the cost of attendance for each year of college. Because each college’s financial aid office calculates need-based aid differently (they each have their own “institutional methodology”), families can expect to have different EFC’s at different schools.
  • Demonstrated Need: The difference between the total cost of attendance at the college or university and the student’s EFC. For students who apply for financial aid to help cover the cost of attendance, USC will put together a package of loans, grants, and/or work-study to fully cover 100% of a student’s demonstrated need.
  • Merit-based Scholarship: Scholarships that are based on a student’s academic record, extracurricular accomplishments, or other factors, but are not tied to demonstrated need. First-year applicants who apply to USC by December 1st or transfer applicants who apply to USC by February 1st will automatically be considered for a merit-based scholarship. In addition to USC merit-based scholarships, this scholarships list highlights additional sources of funding that students can apply for.

Now you are a college lingo expert! Go forward, flex your knowledge and conquer your application. We look forward to reading it!

Written by: Dylan Goodwill & Jaclyn Robbin