The U.S. higher education system uses some specialized terms. This listing will help familiarize you with them.
academic year: The period of formal instruction, which is usually September to May. It may be divided into terms of varying lengths, such as semesters, trimesters, or quarters.
accreditation: Approval of colleges and universities by nationally recognized professional associations or regional accrediting bodies. Learn more here.
ACT: A curriculum-based multiple-choice assessment that tests reading, English, mathematics, and science, with an optional essay section. The ACT is widely accepted at accredited two and four-year colleges and universities in the United States, and hundreds of institutions around the world.
add/drop: A process at the beginning of a term whereby students can delete and add classes with an instructor's permission.
advance registration: A process of choosing classes in advance of other students.
affidavit of support: An official document proving a promise of funding from an individual or organization.
assistantship: A study grant of financial assistance to a graduate student that is offered in return for certain services in teaching or laboratory supervision as a teaching assistant, or for services in research as a research assistant.
associate degree: A degree awarded after a two-year period of study; it can be either terminal or transfer (the first two years of a bachelor's degree).
attestation: Official affirmation that a degree or transcript is genuine. Usually signed by a recognized expert or witness.
audit: To take a class without receiving credit toward a degree.
authentication: Process of determining whether something is, in fact, what it is declared to be. Incoming students are often required to provide a document of authentication for academic transcripts or previous degrees when applying to a program of study in the United States.
CGFNS: Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools.
class rank: A number or ratio indicating a student's academic standing in his or her graduating class. A student who ranks first in a class of 100 students would report his or her class rank as 1/100, while a student ranking last would report 100/100. Class rank may also be expressed in percentiles (for example, the top 25 percent, the lower 50 percent).
coed: A college or university that admits both men and women; also refers to a dormitory that houses both men and women.
college: A postsecondary institution that provides an undergraduate education and, in some cases, master's and doctorate degrees. College, in a separate sense, is a division of a university; for example, College of Business.
college catalog: An official publication giving information about a university's academic programs, facilities, entrance requirements, and student life.
community college: A postsecondary institution that offers associate degree programs, as well as technical and vocational programs.
core course: Courses that provide the foundation of the degree program and are required of all students seeking that degree.
course: Regularly scheduled class sessions of one to five hours (or more) per week during a term. A degree program is made up of a specified number of required and elective courses and varies from institution to institution.
credits: Units that most colleges and universities use to record the completion of courses (with passing grades) that are required for an academic degree.
degree: Diploma or title conferred by a college, university, or professional school upon completion of a prescribed program of studies.
department: Administrative subdivision of a school, college, or university through which instruction in a certain field of study is given (such as English department or history department).
designated school official (DSO): A Designated School Official (DSO) is the person on campus who gathers and reports information on international students to the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and assists international students in the visa and employment authorization process. Your DSO's name will be listed on your I-20 or DS 2019.
dissertation: Thesis written on an original topic of research, usually presented as one of the final requirements for a doctoral degree (Ph.D.).
doctoral degree (Ph.D.): The highest academic degree conferred by a university to students who have completed graduate study beyond the bachelor's and/or master's degree. Students should demonstrate their academic ability through oral and written examinations and original research presented in the form of a dissertation.
dormitories: Housing facilities on the campus of a college or university reserved for students. A typical dormitory would include student rooms, bathrooms, common rooms, and possibly a cafeteria. Also known as “dorms” for short.
ECFVG: Educational Commission for Foreign Veterinary Graduates.
electives: Courses that may be chosen from any field of study. Electives give students an opportunity to explore other topics or subjects of interest.
ERAS: Electronic Residency Application System for obtaining a residency position in the field of medicine in the United States.
extracurricular activities: Nonacademic activities undertaken outside university courses.
fees: An amount charged by universities, in addition to tuition, to cover costs of institutional services.
fellowship: A form of financial assistance, usually awarded to a graduate student. Generally, no service is required of the student in return.
final exam: Often referred to as a “final,” a final exam is a cumulative exam on a particular course subject encompassing all material covered throughout the duration of the course.
financial aid: A general term that includes all types of money, loans, and work/study programs offered to a student to help pay tuition, fees, and living expenses.
fraternities: Male social, academic, and philanthropic organizations found on many U.S. campuses.
freshman: A first-year student at a secondary school, college, or university.
full-time student: One who is enrolled in an institution taking a full load of courses; the number of courses and hours is specified by the institution.
Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT): A standardized test for MBA applicants that measures basic verbal, mathematical, and analytical writing skills that have been developed over a long period of time through education and work.
grade/grading system: The evaluation of a student's academic work.
grade point average (GPA): The combined average of a student's grades for all academic coursework completed.In the United States, grades are usually assigned in letters and are based on a 4.0 GPA scale.
A 4.0 (excellent)
B 3.0 (good)
C 2.0 (satisfactory)
D 1.0 (needs improvement)
F 0.0 (fail)
graduate: A student who has completed a course of study, either at secondary school or college level. A graduate program at a university is a study course for students who already hold a bachelor's degree.
Graduate Record Examination (GRE): A standardized test of verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing that measures readiness for graduate-level study.
higher education: Postsecondary education at colleges, universities, professional schools, technical institutes, etc.
honors program: A challenging program for students with high grades.
International English Language Testing System (IELTS): An English language proficiency examination of applicants whose native language is not English.
international student adviser (ISA): The person at a university who is in charge of providing information and guidance to international students in areas of government regulation, visas, academic regulations, social customs, language, financial or housing problems, travel plans, insurance, and legal matters.
Law School Admission Test (LSAT): A standardized test that provides a standard measure of acquired reading and verbal reasoning skills that law schools can use as one of several factors in assessing applicants.
lecture: Common method of instruction in college and university courses; a professor lectures in classes of 20 to several hundred students. Lectures may be supplemented with regular small group discussions led by teaching assistants.
liberal arts and sciences: Academic studies of subjects in the humanities, the social sciences, and the physical sciences with the goal of developing students' verbal, written, and reasoning skills.
living expenses: Expenses such as housing and meals, books and supplies, transportation, personal expenses, health insurance, etc.
major: The student's field of concentration. Major courses represent 25-50% of the total number of courses required to complete a degree. Most students pursue one major, but some pursue double majors.
major professor/thesis adviser: For research degrees, the professor who works closely with a student in planning and choosing a research plan, in conducting the research, and in presenting the results. The major professor serves as the head of a committee of faculty members who review progress and results.
master's degree: Degree awarded upon completion of academic requirements that usually include a minimum of one year's study beyond the bachelor's degree.
Medical College Admission Test (MCAT): A standardized, multiple-choice examination designed to assess problem solving, critical thinking, writing skills, and knowledge of science concepts and principles prerequisite to the study of medicine.
midterm exam: An exam administered after half the academic term has passed that covers all class material up until that point.
minor: The student's secondary field of concentration. Students who decide to pursue a minor will usually complete about five courses in this second field of study.
Massive Open Online Course (MOOC): An online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. In addition to traditional course materials, such as filmed lectures, readings, and problem sets, many MOOCs provide interactive courses with user forums or social media discussions to support community interactions among students, professors, and teaching assistants (TAs), as well as immediate feedback to quick quizzes and assignments.
notarization: The certification of a document (or a statement or signature) as authentic and true by a public official (known in the United States as a “notary public”) or a lawyer who is also a commissioner of oaths.
NRMP: National Resident Matching Program.
Optional Practical Training (OPT): Optional practical training is one type of work permission available for eligible F-1 students. It allows students to get real-world work experience related to their field of study. Learn more here.
placement test: An examination used to test a student's academic ability in a certain field so that he or she may be placed in the appropriate courses in that field. In some cases, a student may be given academic credit based on the results of a placement test.
plan of study: A detailed description of the course of study for which a candidate applies. The plan should incorporate the objectives given in the student's “statement of purpose.”
postdoctorate: Studies designed for those who have completed their doctoral degree.
postgraduate: Usually refers to studies for individuals who have completed a graduate degree. May also be used to refer to graduate education.
prerequisites: Programs or courses that a student is required to complete before being permitted to enroll in a more advanced program or course.
qualifying examination: In many graduate departments, an examination given to students who have completed required coursework for a doctoral degree, but who have not yet begun the dissertation or thesis. A qualifying examination may be oral or written, or both, and must be passed for the student to continue.
residency: Clinical training in a chosen specialty.
resident assistant (RA): A person who assists the residence hall director in campus dormitories and is usually the first point of contact for students who need assistance or have questions about campus life. RAs are usually students at the college who receive free accommodation and other benefits in return for their services.
Responsible Officer (RO): A Responsible Officer is the exchange program staff person who gathers and reports information on exchange visitors to the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and assists in the visa process. The RO's name is listed on the DS-2019.
rolling deadline: Institutions accept applications and admit students at any time during a specific time period until all available spots are filled.
SAT: A test that measures critical reading, writing, and mathematical abilities. The SAT Subject Tests measure knowledge in specific subject areas. The SAT is widely accepted at accredited two and four-year colleges and universities in the United States, and hundreds of institutions around the world. (Please note that an updated SAT made its debut in March 2016 and impacts students in the class of 2017 and younger.)
SAT subject test: A multiple-choice test that measures your knowledge in specific subject areas.
scholarship: A study grant of financial aid, usually given at the undergraduate level, that may take the form of a waiver of tuition and/or fees.
school: A term that usually refers to elementary, middle, or secondary school. Also used in place of the words “college,” “university,” or“institution,” or as a general term for any place of education; for example, law school, or graduate school.
semester: Period of study lasting approximately 15 to 16 weeks or one-half the academic year.
seminar: A form of small group instruction, combining independent research and class discussions under the guidance of a professor.
senior: A fourth-year student at a secondary school, college, or university.
Social Security Number (SSN): A number issued to people by the U.S. government for payroll deductions. Anyone who works regularly must obtain a Social Security Number. Many institutions use this number as the student identification number.
sophomore: A second-year student at a secondary school, college, or university.
sororities: Female social, academic, and philanthropic organizations found on many U.S. campuses.
special student: A student who is taking classes but is not enrolled in a degree program.
Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS): An Internet-based system that maintains records of foreign students and exchange visitors before and during their stay in the United States. It is part of the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) managed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
subject: Course in an academic discipline offered as part of a curriculum of an institution of higher learning.
syllabus: An outline of topics covered in an academic course.
tenure: A guarantee that a faculty member will remain employed by a college or university until retirement except in the case of very unusual circumstances. Tenure is granted to senior faculty members who have demonstrated a worthy research and publication record. Its purpose is to preserve academic freedom.
terminal program: Associate degree program leading to a specific career upon graduation.
Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL): An English language proficiency examination of applicants whose native language is not English.
thesis: A written work containing the results of research on a specific topic prepared by a candidate for a bachelor's or master's degree.
transcript: A certified copy of a student's educational record.
transfer: The process of moving from one university to another to complete a degree.
transfer program: Associate degree program allowing the student to transfer into the third year of a four-year bachelor's degree program.
tuition: The money an institution charges for instruction and training (does not include the cost of books).
USMLE: U.S. Medical Licensing Examination.