Undergraduate Admission Blog

Follow the Official USC Undergraduate Admission Blog for information, advice, and a behind-the-scenes look at our process

September 27, 2018

What Does That Even Mean? USC’s Helpful Guide to Navigating the Lingo of the College Application Process

One of the hallmarks of the college application journey is the alphabet soup of acronyms and random terms that are casually thrown around to describe the various stages of the admissions process. Many of these concepts will be brand new to students and may add an extra layer of confusion to an already complex process. With that in mind, the USC Office of Admission has put together a 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 and includes all of the individual colleges that are found on both campuses of USC (University Park and Health Sciences campuses).
  • College or School: At USC, these terms are used interchangeably to describe each of the nineteen academic departments 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.
  • 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: When a major has more students who want to take it than the major can accommodate, sometimes leading to delays in taking major classes or having larger class sizes. USC is committed to making sure that none of our majors is impacted by only admitting the number of students that we can serve in each major.
  • Transferrable Units: 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, Advanced Level (A-level) exams, or college classes taken during high school.
  • 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 try to learn about schools to see what they 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 consider 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. This 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. Find the USC admission counselor assigned to your high school 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 recent admission blog on college fairs to get some advice about these kinds of opportunities!
  • First Generation Student: When a student will be the first in their immediate family to attend a college or university. 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 (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 advice 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 and our Director of Admission explains why in this admission blog.
  • 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 – December 1st (priority scholarship deadline) and January 15th.
  • 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 every school 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 Application: In addition to the Common App, many schools ask students to fill out a shorter application (also included in the Common App website) that is specific to their school. At USC, this supplemental application includes two short-answer questions and the Quick Takes section. Here is a recent admission blog that describes what is on the USC supplement.
  • 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 page for more information on this subject.
  • ACT vs. SAT: Two different standardized academic tests that many schools require as part of the application review process. These tests measure reading, math, and writing skills. USC requires that applicants send one SAT or ACT score report with their application, though the writing section of each test is not required. Think only high school students take these tests? Two of our admission counselors describe their recent experience taking the SAT in this admission blog.
  • Superscore: If a student takes the SAT 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).
  • 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.

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.
  • 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. 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 one tuition amount (the cost of attending the school) for students who are residents of the state and a 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.
  • 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.

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