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Common College Terms Explained

Friday | March 25, 2016 | by WES Advisor

Female student does schoolwork

It can be an overwhelming process when researching and applying to a college or university as an international student, especially when the terminology seems foreign to those new to the academic world. We’ve compiled a list of terms and definitions specifically for international students to help direct you toward the right path.


  • Academic year: An annual period when students attend an institution. In the U.S. and Canada, academic years tend to begin in August/September and end in May/June.
  • Accredited: Describes a college or university that meets general academic standards.
  • Commencement: This is graduation day when degrees are issued to students once they have successfully completed their degree requirements.
  • Course: A set number of classes in a particular subject at a college or university led by a professor.
  • Elective: An optional course chosen by a student that counts toward a degree program.
  • Full-time student: A student enrolled in at least the minimum amount of credit hours (usually 12) required by the university or college to receive full-time status.
  • Grade Point Average (GPA): A student’s overall academic performance on a 4.0 scale.
  • Dean’s list: A list of students who are recognized for their academic success during the school year.
  • Junior college: Also known as a community college, a junior college is a two-year institution that offers associate degrees.
  • Major: A primary area of study.
  • Matriculate: To enroll or become a student at a college or university.
  • Online classes: Courses that are held online instead of in a traditional classroom setting.
  • Part-time student: A student who is enrolled in less than the required credits for full time, usually 6 to 12 credits. The number differs depending on the institution.
  • Pass-fail: A grading system for a class or course that institutions use for students rather than a letter grade.
  • Prerequisite: A required class that must be completed before the student can enroll in a more advanced course.
  • Private university: A privately funded institution where all students pay the same price for tuition.
  • Professor: A faculty member who teaches at a college or university.
  • Public university: An institution funded by the state government that is usually cheaper for residents of that state.
  • Registration: Process in which students enroll in classes for the upcoming term or semester.
  • Resident: A student who meets the requirements to be considered an in-state resident.
  • Semester: Also known as a “term,” is one of two divisions of an academic year, usually lasting 15 to 18 weeks; one occurring in Fall and one in Spring.
  • Seminar: A college class in which a specific topic is discussed throughout the course.
  • Syllabus: A comprehensive outline of a class that lists exams, projects, holidays, and other due dates and assignments.
  • Thesis: A detailed paper involving research analysis, usually written for a master’s or Ph.D. program
  • Transfer student: A student who has previously enrolled in classes at another university and transferred their credits from one institution to another.
  • Undergraduate student: A student studying to earn a bachelor’s degree.


  • Conditional admission: Also known as provisional admissions, this may be offered to international students who are academically qualified for admissions to a university but who need to make improvements with their English proficiency. Once the outstanding requirements are fulfilled, students are offered full admission.
  • Early action: When certain colleges and universities offer high school seniors the option of submitting their application early, usually before a November 1st deadline.
  • Early decision: Students apply early, usually in November and receive an admission decision usually by December. Note that early decision is binding. If a student is accepted through early decision, they must attend that college or university.
  • Letter of recommendation: A letter written by a teacher, counselor, mentor, or supervisor that validates a student’s qualities, characteristics, and skills. Three letters of recommendation are usually required as part of the college application process.
  • Visa: An endorsement on a passport that allows entrance into another country for a specific period of time.
  • Waiting list: A list of students to a school that may be offered admittance to the university depending on the space available or if they qualify. There is no guarantee that the student will be granted admissions based on the waiting list.
  • Withdraw: A student can choose to drop a class during the semester. Certain rules and penalties apply to each university.


  • American College Test (ACT): A standardized test for high school students consisting of math, English, science, and reading sections. This test is required for admittance to many colleges and universities.
  • English as a Second Language (ESL): An English course offered to international students who are non-native English speakers.
  • Law School Admission Test (LSAT): A standardized law school entrance exam.
  • Midterm exam: A test given halfway through the semester based on the material covered in class.
  • Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT): A standardized entrance exam required for most undergraduate programs.
  • Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL): A standardized exam that measures your English Language proficiency.


  • Degree: An academic diploma given to students by a college or university upon completion of study.
  • Associate’s degree: A two-year degree program offered by a college or university.
  • Bachelor’s degree: A four-year degree offered by a college or university.
  • Doctorate: Also known as a Ph.D., this the highest level of degree for academics.
  • Graduate student: A student who has earned a bachelor’s degree and is now working toward a master’s or Ph.D. degree.
  • Master’s degree: A course of study that takes one to three years to complete after undergraduate studies.
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA): A specialized graduate degree that provides training to help graduates better understand business management functions.
  • Minor: A secondary area of study chosen by the student.


  • Financial aid: Funding offered to students to help pay for school costs such as tuition and housing.
  • Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA): The application that U.S. citizens and permanent residents must fill out to be considered for federal and state funding.
  • Fellowship: A kind of financial aid usually offered to graduate students who conduct research or teach at the university.
  • Grant: A type of financial aid that doesn’t have to be paid back.
  • Loan: A type of financial aid that must be repaid and typically accrues interest.
  • Merit aid: Type of financial aid awarded based on talent or ability.
  • Need-based aid: Type of financial aid given based on a needs assessment.
  • Scholarship: Type of financial aid awarded to students based on academics or skills. Scholarships do not need a repayment.
  • Tuition: The cost charged by a college or university for courses and other expenses.
  • Work-study: An on-campus job that allows students to earn funds to help pay for tuition or other costs.

Institution Facilities and Services

  • Advisor: The college or university assigns an academic advisor to every student. The advisor is there to assist students to help them decide on courses and ensure they are on track to graduate on time.
  • Dormitories (dorms): Student-reserved housing offered by institutions.
  • Extracurricular activities: Clubs, organizations, and sports groups that students can participate in outside of school hours.
  • International student advisor (ISA): A counselor that provides assistance and guidance to international students in their academic and personal matters.
  • Orientation: The process of welcoming incoming students to a new school.
  • Room and board: Housing arrangement along with meal plans that institutions may offer as part of tuition.
  • Virtual visit: An alternative to an in-person visit on campus with the use of the Internet and a computer. Students take a tour online to see the campus.
  • Work-study: An on-campus job that allows students to earn funds to help pay for tuition or other costs.

Work Experience

  • Internship: A temporary job, paid or unpaid, in a student’s field of study. Internships can sometimes be used as college credit.

Did you see something on this list that you have questions about or have other terms that you would like explained? Let us know below in the comments!

WES Advisor is an initiative of World Education Services, a non-profit organization with over 45 years of experience in international education. We provide advice and resources for international students and skilled immigrants to help them make informed decisions about education, employment, immigration, and integration opportunities in the U.S. and Canada.