A Parent’s Guide to US College Terminology: SAT’s, GPA’s, AP’s

01 MAY 2019

As parents of Australian or New Zealand students, we are of course familiar with the educational vernacular surrounding our own education systems - HSC, VCE, ATAR, NCEA. Basically, we have it covered!

But wrapping our heads around the vocabulary associated with the US College system can feel like an exercise in hieroglyphic translation as a whole new universe of acronyms and abbreviations, familiar language used in unfamiliar ways and new terms with historical origins present themselves in a sea of terminological confusion.

However, when you break it down these terms actually make perfect sense in a system geared towards holistic admission and opportunity. Here’s an A-Z to get you started!


ACT: The American College Test is an alternative to the SAT, the main difference being that this test offers a science component. Students can sit either the ACT or the SAT as a means of gaining admission.


Bachelor’s Degree: The degree every undergraduate receives after studying for four years in a US University undergraduate program. Most university programmes offer either a Bachelor of Arts (BA or AB) or a Bachelor of Science (BS).


Common Application: The standard online application form accepted by most US universities. This is where students upload their test results, all of their academic and extracurricular information along with their personal statements and supplemental essays and more.


Dual Degree: Some colleges offer students the opportunity to receive two degrees from the same institution. One of the most prestigious is the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania’s competitive Huntsman Program which sees students graduate with a BS in Economics from the Wharton School and a BA in International Studies from Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences.


Early Action (EA) Or Early Decision (ED): Both of these programs allow students to apply to their first-choice schools early (many universities allow students to apply to their school - but only their school - in November with these admissions results being available in mid-December) - the difference between to the two being an offer from an ED school calls for a binding commitment to attend that university, while an offer from an EA school allows students to apply to other universities in regular round and make their decision later.


Financial Aid: This is the term US universities give to the monetary support universities provide to admitted students. In the case of the Ivy League and other top universities, this aid is not a loan but rather a ‘grant’ awarded to a student so that they are not burdened financially during their time at college..


GPA: A grade point average or GPA refers to a student's overall academic performance calculated in averages earned across a series of courses. Most institutions grade on a 4.0 scale with a 4.0 being the equivalent to an A or an A+.


Humanities: The ‘humanities’ as a broad area of study refers to courses focused on human life and ideas, including history, philosophy, foreign languages, religion, art, music and literature.


International Student: An applicant who is not from the US and requires a student visa (F-1) to study at a US College. All Australian and New Zealand students (if they are non-US citizens) study in the US under the F-1 student visa program.


Junior: A Junior is not a first year but somewhat confusingly a student in their third year of college.


K-12: This is the basic structure of the US education system - not unlike the Australian structure. The difference is, in the US, school blocks are broken into elementary school (K-5), junior high or ‘middle school’ (Years 6-8), and senior school (Years 9-12).


Likely Letter: This is a letter college coaches provide to prospective student athletes (recruits) indicating they want them to attend their university. A Likely Letter is basically a guarantee of admission, pending final approval by the university’s admissions department.


Major: This is a student’s primary area of study normally associated with the career path the student wishes to take. The good news is, students in the US do not have to ‘declare’ their major until the end of their second year at college, giving them plenty of time to try various courses and options prior to deciding on their main focus of study.


Need Aware vs. Need Blind Schools: This refers to the individual university’s financial aid/admissions criteria. Need aware schools take a student’s application for financial aid into account as part of their application process, while Need blind schools do not take any request for aid into account and rather admit students purely on merit (addressing any request for aid post admission offer.)


Orientation: This refers to a university’s process of welcoming new, accepted students to campus typically within the first week of September. Often orientation occurs a week before classes start and many schools have special orientation programs for international students so they can meet other international students and familiarise themselves with US practicalities - such as opening a US bank account or ordering a US mobile phone.


Personal Statement: This is the essay all students have to upload to their Common Application as part of their application process. This essay goes to every university the student is applying to. Essentially, it is an essay about the student themselves - not something Australian or New Zealand students are used to writing! Given the importance of this part of the application, it is a good idea to seek advice from experts such as Crimson Education as to how to craft a statement which is personally significant and creatively powerful.


Quarters: The US College academic year is broken into quarters - or two semesters (Fall and Spring) with a week’s break in the middle. Fall semester starts in September and Spring semester in January.


Regular Decision: This is the ‘deadline’ for the bulk of most applicants’ applications on the Common App. The regular decision deadline date (normally January 1) marks when all of a student’s applications - to every university of their choice - are submitted on the Common App. Results of this decision are normally released in late March or early April.


SAT: The Scholastic Aptitude Test is the popular entrance exam administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) on behalf of the nonprofit College Board, which measures reading, writing and math skills. Most Australian and New Zealand students sit their SAT (you can sit the exam more than once) during Year 11 or early Year 12.


Transcript: In Australia and New Zealand we call a student’s transcripts their school reports. Basically a transcript is a summary of a student’s permanent academic record from Years 9-12 and must be uploaded to the Common Application by a student’s school as part of the application process.


Undergraduate study: An undergrad is a student undertaking their first four years of study at a US college. These four years are broken into a freshman year, a sophomore year, a junior year and their final senior year. From here a student may decide to go on to graduate school to receive a degree related to their chosen career.


Visa: The F-1 student visa is the visa required by international students to study in the USA. Luckily, most universities guide an admitted student through this process which involves receiving a Form I-20 from the college, filling in forms on the US Immigration website and attending your local US consulate for an interview.


Wait list: Sometimes schools do not accept or reject a student for admission, but rather place them on a ‘wait list’. While this is encouraging, students have to remember that being on a wait list does not guarantee eventual admission, so many students choose not to remain on the list - particularly if the school is not their first choice - and accept another university’s admission offer.


Year: The US University academic year runs from early September until late May or early June after which students break for the Su

background image

Subscribe to our newsletter

Subscribe to our email newsletter to get the latest updates delivered in your inbox!