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College Terms You Need to Know: A Complete Guide



As parents, we understand that sending our students to college for the first time can be a bit intimidating.  From financial aid and the application process to academic credits and on-campus life, there are a lot of new terms and concepts to learn.

If you’re the parent of a first-generation college student, the many terms associated with the college experience may be even more difficult to navigate, which can make it hard to reassure and guide your student.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the terms being thrown around at orientation, on college websites, and on applications, look no further.

CollegiateParent exists to help parents of college students in their journey through higher education. That starts by helping you understand all the terms you and your college student might come across leading up to freshman year and beyond.

Here is our must-read glossary of the college terms you should know, in alphabetical order.

Academic Advisor

An academic mentor who guides your student through their degree, making sure they are taking the right courses and helping them make important academic decisions.

Academic Probation
A status colleges give to students who are struggling to pass courses. Academic probation is used to warn students that they need to improve their performance. Students on academic probation may lose scholarships or become ineligible for university sports.

An accredited university or college is certified to provide a high-quality education in the United States. Most employers and graduate programs only consider degrees from accredited schools.


A standardized test used by schools to help determine if they will admit your student or not. The ACT is typically taken in the spring of the junior year of high school, and/or the fall of the senior year of high school.

Add/Drop Period

A grace period at the beginning of each semester during which your student can decide to add or drop a course with no penalty. 

AP Course

An advanced placement (AP) course is a class your student can take in high school, usually during their senior year, that could earn them credit toward their college degree.


This is the term for all the materials your student will fill out and submit to apply for admission to a college.

Associate’s Degree

A degree you can earn in 2-3 years, typically from online or community colleges. The credits earned from this degree can sometimes be transferred to a 4-year Bachelor’s degree. 


A way for a student to take a course they’re interested in without earning credit, or without having the grade affect their GPA.

Bachelor’s Degree

A 4-year degree, usually in the form of either a Bachelor of Arts (in a Liberal Arts program) or Bachelor of Science (in an applied learning program such as engineering).

Campus Visit

When you and our student visit campus, you usually go on a tour to see all the facilities. This is also a chance to meet faculty and ask questions.

Career Services

Most universities have a career services department where your student can get career advice and assistance in finding internships and beginning the job hunt for after graduation.


Refers to any program, dormitory, or activity that includes all genders. This term is typically used to describe dorms that have both boys and girls living on the same floor.

College Career Coach

A person who personally guides your student in choosing a career to work toward after college. They also help your student choose the right courses, degree, internships, and more to reach that goal. A college career coach may be made available on-campus at the career services center, or your student can hire one privately.

College Fair

Where high school students can go to meet with representatives from different colleges and learn about what each school has to offer. College fairs are typically held at high schools, community facilities, and conference centers, and are usually in the spring.

A graduation ceremony for high school or college students.

Community College

A school that typically requires only a high school degree to attend, with no further requirements. Students can take one-off courses or pursue Associate’s degrees at community colleges. Often, credits from a community colleges can be transferred to a 4-year university.

Course Load

The number of courses, or total credit hours, your student takes in any given semester.

Credit Hour

Each course is assigned a certain number of credit hours, usually corresponding to how often class occurs and how long classes are, as well as the course difficulty. Many classes earn a student 3 to 4 credit hours.


The head or president of a college or university.

Dean’s List

A regularly issued list of students who have achieved high academic excellence. Qualification for the Dean’s List varies from school to school.


A degree is the final result of a college education. It’s awarded when a student earns a certain number of qualifying credit hours. Examples of degrees include Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Arts, Master of Business Administration, a PhD, Associate’s, and more.


Refers to a certain section of a university. Departments are usually aligned with degrees or areas of study within a college, such as the engineering department, English department, etc.


Usually refers to a doctoral dissertation, and is typically required for a PhD. A dissertation is the result of academic research that results in an original contribution to the student’s chosen field of study. Sometimes referred to as a thesis.

Distance Learning

Also known as long-distance learning, this term refers to classes taken remotely, away from the college which offers the classes. These often include online classes.

Doctorate (PhD)

PhD stands for Doctorate of Philosophy. This doesn’t just apply to students studying philosophy — a doctorate is part of a post-graduate program, which means it can be pursued after a student has received a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree. A doctoral dissertation is typically required to receive a PhD.


On-campus student living facilities — not required but commonly used by freshmen and sophomores. Most dorm living is connected with a meal plan, and is covered by a room & board payment.


When a student leaves a course during the Add/Drop grace period, it’s referred to as dropping. There is no penalty for dropping a course during the grace period. Students may decide to drop because they are overwhelmed by their course load or want to take a different class. This is different than withdrawing, which comes after the add/drop period is over.


Most Bachelor’s Degrees require a student to complete a combination of specific courses and electives. Electives are courses the student chooses to take from a list of offerings that fulfill general education requirements.


The staff of professors and instructors at a university.


Stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This is the first step in applying for financial aid, and most universities require incoming students to complete the FAFSA form.


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Stands for Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act. This act gives college students the right of privacy over the school records, even if they’re under 18. This means you, as their parents, cannot access their academic information, such as their grades. There is an exception for health and safety information: If a college feels it would be important to share that sort of information with you, they are allowed to.


Exams at the end of a semester that test a student’s knowledge on everything covered in a course. Finals are usually weighted more heavily than other exams and coursework.

 Financial Aid
Refers to any type of student loan, scholarship, or grant your student receives to help pay for college.

Financial Need

This is determined by the difference between the cost of college and the student’s ability to pay for it. Typically, this takes into account the ability of the student’s parents to help pay for school, as well. 

First Generation College Student

A student who is the first in their family to attend college. The term first generation college student typically refers to a student whose parents didn’t earn a college degree. 


A social organization for college men. Many fraternities operate their own houses where members live and host events. 

Full Time College Student

A student who is taking a full course load, typically 12 or more credits.

Gap Year

A year-long break between high school and college.

General Education Requirements

Most 4-year college programs come with a set of general education requirements, intended to ensure all students receive a broad education, with knowledge of topics outside of their chosen field of study.


Stands for grade point average. This is a reflection of your student’s academic achievement at school. The GPA is updated after each semester’s grades are finalized and reported.

Graduate School

A school attended after a student has received a Bachelor’s degree. Graduate school is where students can receive a Master’s degree. Many universities offer graduate programs in addition to Bachelor’s programs. Graduate school typically takes 2 years to complete.

HIPAA Release Form

The Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) gives your student a right over the privacy of their medical records when they turn 18. A HIPAA Release Form gives you, as their parent, the ability to access their medical records, and make important medical decisions for them in the case of an emergency.


A term for the emotional stress our students undergo when they miss being home. Homesickness is most common in the beginning of freshman year, when many students live away from home for the first time in their life. Homesickness can be associated with college depression.

Independent Study

A type of non-traditional course that allows students to work outside of the classroom. Independent study is usually not heavily supervised, and the student develops the topic they wish to pursue.

In-State Student

A status conferred onto students who have established residence in the same state as the college they’re attending. In-state students pay much less in tuition than nonresident students.Internship

An internship is a short-term job, usually for the summer or a semester, that your student takes to get experience in their field of interest. An internship can sometimes lead to a job offer.


The term for a class that does not entail lab work.

Letter of Recommendation

A letter written by your student’s high school teacher, employer, or mentor, explaining to a college admissions department why the student would be a good fit for their school. 

Liberal Arts
Refers to non-technical, vocational fields of study, including literature, art, mathematics, philosophy, and social and natural sciences.


The primary focus of study in a 4-year degree. For example, your student might major in biology, philosophy, or aerospace engineering.

Master’s Degree

A degree received in graduate school, post-undergrad. Master’s degrees usually take two years to complete. 


Stands for Master of Business Administration. An MBA is a type of Master’s degree, and typically requires a Bachelor’s degree to pursue.

Meal Plan

The plan that dictates how many meals a student can eat at on-campus dining facilities. Some meal plans also include a discretionary spending fund that can be used as cash at campus restaurants or snack shops.


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Exams that occur in the middle of a semester, to test a student’s grasp of topics covered in a course up to that point. Midterms are typically weighted more heavily than other tests and coursework, but not as heavily as finals.


A secondary focus of study, typically earned in tandem with a major. Your student, for example, might graduate with a major in biology and a minor in chemistry. 


Status applied to students who do not live in the same state as the university they’re attending. Nonresidents usually pay much higher tuition than in-state students.

 Off Campus Living

Your student doesn’t have to live in a dorm. Off campus living refers to any living arrangement not facilitated by the college. It could be in a rented house, apartment, or at home with you.


College orientation is a chance for your student to go to their college before freshman year begins to get a tour of the campus and ask questions.

Part Time College Student

A student who does not have a full course load. A student taking fewer than 12 credit hours in any given semester is typically considered a part time college student. 

Pass/Fail Course

A class in which no grade is given — a student simply passes or fails. 


Copying some or all of someone else’s work and claiming it as your own. Plagiarism is taken seriously in college and could result in an F, academic probation, or expulsion. 


A course a student must complete before taking another specific course. For example, Calculus 1 is a pre-requisite to Calculus 2 — a student can’t take the latter without having passed the former.


Stands for Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test. It’s a Pre-SAT, which serves to give high school students a chance to practice for the real deal. It’s typically taken in the sophomore or junior year of high school. 


The period in which a student can sign up for the classes they wish to take in a semester.

Resident Assistant (RA)

An older student, usually a junior or senior, who lives in a section or floor of a dormitory and oversees student relations. RAs are often expected to be mentors and advisors, and they also organize events and activities for dorm residents.

Room and Board
The price paid to cover on-campus living and meal plan expenses, usually paid for a semester or year at a time.


Most dorms are shared by two students. A roommate is the other person your student shares their dorm with.


Stands for the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Like the SAT, it is used by many schools to determine a prospective student’s eligibility. It is usually taken in the spring semester of the junior year of high school, and can be retaken in the fall of the senior year of high school.


A financial award to help your student pay for college.

A half year of college. There is a fall semester and a spring semester. Most courses are one semester long. 


A social organization for college women. Many sororities operate their own houses where members live and host events.

Student Essay

A personal essay submitted as part of a college application, typically written on the subject of why a student believes they should be accepted to the school.


Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. STEM is used to refer to this general field of study.

Study Abroad

Many programs offer the ability to study abroad for a semester, in which your student can live in another country while attending school there. 


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A general summary of a course handed out to students at the beginning of a semester.

Teaching Assistant (TA)

Many large classes employ teaching assistants to help the professor. A TA will usually teach recitations outside of a lecture, in which smaller groups of students review the material covered in the lecture. A TA may also hold office hours where students can come ask questions. 


Similar to a dissertation, a thesis is often required at the end of a graduate program, and sometimes an undergraduate program. A thesis is a paper summarizing a student’s finding on their chosen topic of research.


A transcript is an overview of a student’s academic progress — it usually includes their GPA and total credit hours.

Transfer Credits

Credits that can be transferred from one school and applied toward a degree at another. 


The amount paid to attend a college.


An undergraduate is any student pursuing a 4-year Bachelor’s degree. 

Virtual Tour

When you can’t do a campus visit, a virtual tour is often an option. This is a tour hosted online, either through an interactive website or as part of a live video stream presented by the university.

Wait List

A list of prospective students who have not been officially accepted to a university, but could still be in the coming months. Being put on a wait list is a way for a college to tell a student that they may be accepted in the near future, depending on if they still have openings as the beginning of the school year nears. Being waitlisted is not a guarantee of an offer. In fact, it is often the opposite — many schools only admit a small percentage of waitlisted students.


If your student leaves a course after the add/drop period is over, it is called a withdraw. While withdrawal does not affect a student’s GPA, it is shown on their transcript. Withdraw can also refer to term withdrawal, in which a student stops taking all their courses for the rest of a semester.

Work Study Program

A federal program which provides universities with funding to hire students for part-time jobs to help them pay for school while they attend. 

Don’t Stop Now — Keep Getting Prepared for College!

First generation students and their parents are likely to have a lot of questions about the college experience, even after reading this list of terms. CollegiateParent is here to help you on your college adventure, with curated information for parents of college students.

Take a look at our road map for first generation college students >

CollegiateParent supports you on your own personal journey during your student's college years. We answer questions, share stories and connect you to life on campus. Reach out to us at any time!
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