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College Application Dictionary

Note: these definitions are NOT comprehensive and can include interpretations beyond what is defined here.

Academic interests

  • 1. topics that you want to learn about in an academic setting.

  • Generally, students’ academic interests revolve around career preparation, developing skills, giving back to their community, or pursuing personal passions (like learning a language or an instrument).

Background –

  • 1. Experiences and memories that are a part of your childhood or family history that inform who you are today.

  • 2. Recent experiences that are a part of you and inform who you will be in the future


  • 1. a life experience that was difficult or unexpected.

  • In the context of essays, it is a challenging experience where you can demonstrate agency, problem-solving skills, growth, and most importantly, something that’s important in contextualizing who you are.

Challenging coursework

  • 1. Take the most difficult classes for you that are readily available to you.

  • Taking challenging coursework also includes taking classes that demonstrate breadth AND depth. So, take classes in a wide range of topics at your maximum difficulty (general education requirements all 4 years & passion ECs), but also emphasize coursework in your field of interest with your class electives.


  • 1. A group of people who share something together and usually bond over this commonality.

  • Communities can bond over geographies, beliefs, perspectives, interests, hobbies, activities, backgrounds etc.


  • 1. a group of people where each person can bring something different to the table, this can include an identity, background, perspective, passion, thought, experience, etc.

  • 2. an underrepresented identity in a particular space.

  • Universities aim to admit students that are not all the same so that they can learn from one another.

Diversity Scholarship –

  • 1. Money that is competitively given to a student who adds to the diversity in their communities which generally includes students who are underrepresented minorities, LGBTQ+, rural students, disabled, women, and more.

  • Target groups for diversity scholarships will vary based on the scholarship. Generally, you have to apply separately for need-based scholarships.

Early Action –

  • 1. Earlier submission date for your application (early deadlines vary per school) to find out your admissions decision earlier (mid-December).

  • Note, the early action round is the most competitive as all applicants are extremely prepared with extremely good statistics. This means the acceptance rate is generally higher in the early round, but not because it’s easier to get in (depending on how competitive the university is to begin with).

  • Note, some schools have conditional scholarship, program, and honors college deadlines that students may only be considered for if they apply by the early action deadline.

Early Decision –

  • 1. Earlier submission date for your application where you sign a contract that if the school admits you, you will attend (unless there are significant circumstances preventing this like a financial aid discrepancy). You will find out your admissions decision mid-December.

  • Students who apply early decision are confident that this is the school that they want to spend their college career attending and that they’ll be able to afford the costs the school states in the net price calculator. The acceptance rate during this time is higher, generally for yield protection, i.e., the school knows you have to go and have to pay if you’re admitted so they’re more inclined to admit tons of highly qualified students who apply ED.

Early Decision (II) –

  • 1. Earlier submission date for your application where you sign a contract that if the school admits you, you will attend (unless there are significant circumstances preventing this like a financial aid discrepancy). You will find out your decision mid-February.

  • Students who apply ED II have either missed the primary ED deadline or have received a rejection from their first EA or ED school. See Early Decision for other stipulations about applying early decision.


  • 1. Something you do outside of school including but not limited to school clubs, volunteer work, family or home responsibilities, mentorship, hobbies, work/job experience, internships, summer programs, summer coursework, competitions, initiatives, campaigns, passion projects, personal endeavors, community engagements, etc.

Financial aid –

  • 1. Money offered by the government or university that is based on how much you may need to study at the school.

  • Many schools have net price calculators on their websites to determine how much financial aid you may be able to receive.


  • 1. Generally, a student whose parents did not graduate from a four-year university. However, this definition varies per school.

  • Search at schools you’re applying to and look here for a short list of some definitions.

Hobby –

  • 1. an activity that you do for fun in your free time that is not formally organized through school, work, sport teams, etc.


  • 1. an achievement including but not limited to winning stuff, selective memberships, publications, distinctions, promotions by name but not in responsibility (i.e., Tutor of the Month), formal presentations, accolades, etc.

Identity –

  • 1. A community, background, or passion that creates a strong sense of belonging for you (ex. scientist, artist, researcher, explorer, musician)

  • 2. A racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, geographical, gender, sexual identity or other social construct that is part of how you present.

Intersectionality –

  • 1. A new identity created by the intersection of two or more identities (ex. woman in STEM, LGBTQ+ and Jewish, men in nursing, African American skiier)


  • 1. A role where you oversee a group of people

  • 2. A role where you are responsible for a specific task by yourself or with other people.

Learn –

  • 1. Obtain information about a topic from an educational resource like a course, mentor, books, videos, etc.

Letter of Recommendation –

  • 1. A letter from a teacher, counselor, supervisor, mentor, coach, etc. that can attest to your academic, extracurricular, professional and/or personal achievements and skills.

Low income –

  • 1. A student whose family income is below a specific income bracket.

  • Depending on the scholarship or school, the cutoff to be defined as low income will vary and is usually defined by your family’s combined annual income.


  • 1. A person who shares resources, opportunities, advice, inspiration, etc. on a somewhat regular basis with you because they know you well and are rooting for you.

Merit Scholarship –

  • 1. Money that is competitively given to a student based on their grades, test scores, extracurricular achievements, and other accolades specifically requested by the scholarship organizer.

  • Generally, you have to apply separately for merit scholarships.

Need-based Scholarship –

  • 1. Money that is competitively given to a student who is low-income and has attained high academic or extracurricular achievement. Requirements for need-based scholarships will vary.

  • Generally, you have to apply separately for need-based scholarships.

Obstacle – See challenge.

Passion –

  • 1. Something you like to do so much that you spend your time doing it.

  • 2. A skill or area of thought that you naturally gravitate toward when given the opportunity.

  • 3. Something that fascinates you.

Passion project –

  • 1. An activity that is independently organized. It can be organized by a strict schedule with deadlines, explicit goals, and/or with a self-started team.

Personal statement –

  • 1. A 650-word essay submitted via the Common Application or Coalition Application that is the personality piece of your application.

  • It’s your introduction to the admissions officers so they learn what makes you, you, and ultimately is an essay at the forefront of your profile for you as a person that shares “this is me”.

Perspective –

  • 1. a viewpoint that is informed by a lived experience, value, or acquired knowledge.

Regular Decision –

  • 1. Submit your application by the school’s standard deadline to be considered for admission.

  • Most applications are sent in during this time because you will have the most time to prepare for these applications and find new schools to add to your list if decisions during the early round did not work out for you. All applications are viewed equally no matter what point in time the application was submitted before the deadline.

Research –

  • 1. Conducting research, data analysis, or a literature review to answer a specific hypothesis-driven question.

Rolling Admissions –

  • 1. Students are admitted to a university on a first-come, first-served basis. See this list to see some schools that do rolling admissions.

Scholarship –

  • 1. Money competitively and/or conditionally provided to a student to help fund their education. Scholarships can be given by local/national organizations, the university itself, or the government.

Supplemental essay –

  • 1. Additional questions unique to each school that allow you to contextualize more about yourself, your interests, and your activities.

Test optional –

  • 1. not submitting your ACT or SAT scores to colleges when you apply

  • Submit test scores if you can and if they demonstrate that your academic ability is good enough to succeed in those schools' classes. A competitive score is one above the school's median.


  • 1. something that is personal to you.

  • 2. something that very few people do or have.

Volunteer –

  • 1. A person who dedicates time to helping others that is not compensated in payment nor a grade. Generally, volunteer work is community-centric.

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