Understanding 10 Common Terms in College Admissions

If you or your child is applying to colleges this year, you may have come across some words and terms that you didn’t understand. We’re here to demystify ten of the most common terms in the college admissions process.



The college admissions process has its own kind of language, and if you’re not familiar with all of the common terms, it can be difficult to understand what exactly everything means. To help you understand some of these terms and what they mean for your own college application, we’ve broken down ten of the most confusing terms below.


1. What is the “holistic admissions process?”


As described by H&C counselor and former Dartmouth admissions Racquel officer in a recent blog post: “The holistic approach in college admissions refers to a variety of reading practices and context framing that allows admissions officers to admit a diverse pool of students. Since they cannot compare one student to another in order to fairly assess the competitiveness of their candidates, admissions officers think about how the applicant stands relative to the pool of applicants.”


Simply put, this means that all parts of the application — including demographic information — help inform their evaluation. So there’s not a cut-off GPA or a certain kind of extracurricular you should’ve done — rather, all parts of your application, from your essay to letters of recommendation and grades, will be considered.


However, not all parts are considered equally. Your grades and academic performance will still carry more weight than your extracurriculars in most circumstances, but that should assure you that working hard on your essays and short answers will not go unnoticed!


2. What is “yield”?


Yield refers to the percentage of accepted students who enroll out of the entirety of accepted students. Schools are always looking to improve their yield rates, so they are most likely to accept students who express enthusiasm for accepting their offer of admission if they receive it. This is also why Early Decision programs, which are binding if a student is accepted, are the best option for admission to your top choice school if possible — that’s a guaranteed boost to their yield rate.


Some top schools, like Ivy Leagues, consistently have yield rates over 80%, whereas most U.S. colleges and universities have yield rates between 50-80%. An improvement in yield rates can improve a school’s position on ranked lists like the U.S. News & World Report’s list. Thus, higher yield rates usually correspond with lower acceptance rates.


3. What are “test-optional schools”?


This is a term that has risen in popularity since the pandemic began, but it looks like it’s here to stay. Test-optional schools are schools that have foregone standardized testing requirements and made the submission of SAT and ACT scores optional for students, as the name suggests. Every school’s testing policy is different, so it’s important to double and triple-check your desired school(s)’ policies before you decide whether or not to retake standardized tests.


However, just because some schools are test optional does not mean that submitting test scores won’t improve your application. More often than not, this option is beneficial for students who are not particularly adept at standardized testing so that their performance in classes is more heavily considered. If you’d like to learn more about how test-optional policies may affect your application, check out our blog post about test-optional schools.


4. What is “demonstrated Interest”?


To quote Racquel's previous blog post on demonstrated interest: “Demonstrated interest is the process of showing a school that you are invested in their programs and offerings.” This can involve requesting information from the admissions office, taking tours of the campus, and communicating with your potential major’s department.


Some schools track demonstrated interest and figure it into the application evaluation process whereas some don’t — each school usually will state on their website whether or not they do, so be sure to double check as you start to make your college list.


5. What is “FAFSA®”?


The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) is the application that any student applying for financial aid at an undergraduate or graduate school in the U.S. has to complete. As the name suggests, it’s free to fill out online, but it isn’t required for students not seeking financial aid, sometimes including those seeking merit-based scholarships.


Financial aid is not the same thing as student loans, but you must fill out the FAFSA® to receive student loans. Curious how the recent debt relief plan possibly affects your student loans? Check out my most recent blog post on the subject.


6. What are “reach, target, and safety/likely schools”?


These are terms that college admissions counselors and consultants like us use to help students build their college lists. To determine these, a student’s statistics — like GPA and standardized test scores (if submitting) — are compared against the profile of the average accepted applicant at the school. This information is available through the Common Data Set and can be easily done through sites like Niche.


Reach schools are schools where the average accepted applicant has much higher statistics than the student or any place where the acceptance rate is about 15% or lower. Target schools’ accepted applicants have similar statistics to the student and usually caters to their academic interests more than other schools. Safety or likely schools are schools where the student’s statistics exceed those of the average accepted applicant.


While there is no perfect system for predicting a student’s chances of admissions, particularly given the increasing importance of subjective factors like essays and extracurriculars, designating reach, target, and safety/likely schools while building your college list can assure you that you’ll have great options once all of your college admissions decisions are out.


7. What is “regular decision” vs. “early decision/action”?


Regular Decision and Early Decision/Action refer to deadlines for submitting applications and the context in which an application is considered. Regular Decision, as the name suggests, is when most applicants submit their application and is usually later in the process, often in January. Early Decision or Action refers to an earlier deadline, but Early Decision is a binding process whereas early action is not. Early deadlines often fall in November.


For most students, Regular Decision is the best choice, but for extra competitive schools or a student’s first choice, the earliest option can improve your chances of admission. If you’d like to learn more about the ins and outs of early deadlines, check out this blog post.


8. What is “National Merit®”?


To quote my recent blog post about entering the National Merit competition: “The National Merit Scholarship Program, which began in 1955, offers one of the largest and most popular scholarship competitions in the United States. Students qualify by taking the PSAT/NMSQT in their sophomore or junior year, and if they become a National Merit Finalist, they could potentially win thousands of dollars in scholarships, making them a National Merit Scholar.”


Once you become a National Merit Finalist, there is no guarantee that your school of choice will offer you a scholarship, making you a National Merit Scholar. Many top private universities do not offer National Merit scholarships, but the achievement can still be added to your resume. However, at many state universities, National Merit scholarships can cover a significant amount of tuition, if not a full ride, and/or help you get admitted to an honors program/college.


9. What is “rolling admission”?


If a school has rolling admission, there is not a set deadline for all applications within a given time period. At these schools, you can apply time between the application opening and the application officially closing.


This doesn’t mean that submitting your application as early as possible isn’t beneficial to your chances of admission or your peace of mind, but it could be a good option for adding likely schools at the last minute.


10. What is “score choice” or “superscoring”?


Superscoring is a feature offered by standardized tests that allows applicants to submit a composite score made of all of their best scores on individual sections. Score choice allows students to have some control over which or how many of their scores are reported to a certain school.


Note that not all schools allow you to use score choice when submitting test scores and prefer that you submit just one test or all of your scores for a particular test. Be sure to check before submitting as the ACT and the College Board will not necessarily advise you of each school's policy before you send the scores.



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