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College Terms

Is a Common App really that common? What is an a-g and what is required? When is a college a college and not a university? What the heck does selective mean? What's a WUE and will they take my weighted GPA?

Rememeber to breathe. Sit back and read on to answer those questions and more.


The Common App is available online and is accepted by 600 public and private colleges and universities. It allows a student to send applications to a number of different schools. Each school may have its own essay or supplemental information requirements. The App can be saved and worked on over time. Different schools charge different application fees ranging from $0 for online submission up to $90.


In general a college does not have or offer a graduate degree. Universities offer bachelor degrees, masters, and PhDs. However, it is not that simple. Boston College is actually a university with nine schools and colleges. Out of its 13,783 students, 4868 of them are graduate students. In general, colleges are 4 year institutions.


A liberal arts college is not the bastion of left-wing English and history majors. LACs focus on undergraduate study. They provide courses in arts, humanities, social science, math, and natural sciences. Many LACs have excellent science programs. Others have arrangements with other colleges to provide dual degrees such as engineering through a 3-2 system. For example, at Lewis & Clark in Portland, Oregon, a student studies 3 years at Clark, then an additional 2 years at USC, Columbia, or Washington University, St. Louis, earning a degree from both institutions.

LACs are dedicated to developing general intellectual capacities, critical thinking and writing, and broadly based knowledge as opposed to a business, profession, vocational or solely technical curriculum. Because of the focus on undergraduate study, the professors concentrate on teaching and introducing the students to their research. There is an opportunity for hands-on research in all fields.


In contrast to the LAC where the emphasis is on teaching, at a research university the emphasis is on research and producing graduate and doctoral students. Yale, UCLA, MIT, Berkeley, Columbia, New York University, and Duke, are all research universities. This does not mean that they do not provide an excellent undergraduate education, but it does mean that it is not their primary focus. There is more likelihood that some lower division courses will be taught by graduate students and labs run by teacher’s assistants instead of the professor. In research universities with a smaller number of graduates, for example UC Santa Cruz has around 2,000 graduate and 15,700 undergraduate students, undergraduates have more of a possibility of doing hands-on research with the professors. At UCLA the total enrollment is 39,000; with 11,700 graduate students, and 27,360 undergraduates.


No the colleges are not covered with ivy, nor are they the oldest or necessarily the “best” colleges in the country. The Ivy League is an athletic conference of schools in the northeastern US. The 8 colleges are: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania (Penn), and Yale. They are widely considered among the most “prestigious” colleges and are very highly selective. The acceptance rate in the Ivies is below 15%, and in single digits for most schools. Harvard accepted under 6% of this year’s applicants.


This is not like the difference between prime and choice with beef. Selective refers to the acceptance rate of the school compared to how many applications the school received. For instance, Harvard accepted 5.9% of the 34,300 applicants; UC Berkeley accepted 18.1% out of 78,000 applicants; UCLA accepted 18.6% out of 112,000; UC Santa Cruz accepted 59.9% out of 45,500.

Before you start freaking out, the statistics say that 75% of students are accepted by their first choice colleges. There is more to that statistic than meets the eye which will be discussed in a later article. Determining just how selective a college can be is somewhat subjective. Usually Highly Selective means an acceptance rate of 25% and under, Very Selective is an acceptance rate of 50% and under, Selective is an acceptance rate of 75% and under. Only community colleges do not have a selectivity rating as they will take all qualified students that apply and that they have room for. Other terms are: Dream School, High Reach, and “Safety.” Others prefer Far Reach, Reach, and Likely as acceptable terms. “Safety” is not what it used to be due to the onslaught of applications. Smart students apply to a variety of schools in all categories.


Private schools are either for-profit or non-profit. The difference is that for-profit colleges and technical schools are focusing on making money and paying their expenses. They offer technical or vocational courses designed to be finished in 2 to 4 years. There have been recent scandals involving for-profit institutions based on their expense, and their low graduation rate. De Vry and ITT Tech are both for-profit institutions.


Community Colleges are open to any student with a high school degree. They provide 2 year associate degrees and a few are now beginning to offer 4 year bachelor degrees. Many of them, like Santa Monica College, focus on preparing students to transfer after two years to a traditional 4-year college. Course offerings vary from school to school. Some students who have a specific 4 year college in mind, prefer to take their general education or core requirement classes at the community college, then apply to transfer to pursue their major area of study.


The General Education or gen ed requirements vary tremendously from school to school and is intended to introduce students to a “core of knowledge that every educated person should possess.” (Fiske Guide to Colleges) In general this defines a required number of courses that a student must take in the humanities, social sciences, fine arts, English, Math, and sciences. Some school have a wide variety of courses that fit the gen ed or core requirements. Others require that all students participate in freshman seminar or first-year programs.

Some schools do not have requirements such as Brown University in Rhode Island. At Brown the only university-wide requirement is to demonstrate competency in writing. At many schools students who have taken certain AP classes, and who have gotten a 3 or better on the AP test can get credit for introductory courses, or in the case of a foreign language the college’s foreign language requirement. Search on the school website for AP credit to find out that school’s policy.


AP or Advanced Placement courses are classes of college level rigor taken at the high school. These intensive classes culminate in national AP tests during the beginning of May. A 3 out of 5 is considered passing for the AP tests as far as possible college credit is concerned. The value of taking AP courses lies in telling the colleges that the student is willing to take college-level courses. Some colleges, such as University of California, Santa Cruz; give excellent credit for AP courses where the student scores a 3, 4, or 5. At other institutions credit may only be given for a 4 or in some cases a 5 only. The standards for AP credit can be checked on each college website.


The a-g requirements cause a great amount of confusion and anxiety. Relax. It is not that confusing. At many high schools, such as Culver, the graduation requirements closely mirror the a-g courses. While the a-g requirements are specifically for the UC and Cal State system in California, they are generally applicable for most colleges as proof of college-readiness. The a-g are simply a way of identifying which subjects (a-g) and how many courses in each subject a student should take to be ready for college. They are considered the minimum courses that a freshman should have taken for admission to both the UCs and the Cal States

Subject Cal State UC

a History/Social Science 2 years 2 years

b English 4 years 4 years

c Mathematics 3 years 3 (4 recommended)

d Laboratory Science 2 years 2(3 recommended)

includes physical science, biology, chemistry, physics

(does not include geography and earth science)

e Language other than English 2 years 2 (3 recommended)

2 years of same language

f Visual and Performing Arts 1 year 1 year

dance, music, theatre, drama, photography, ceramics, art

g College preparatory electives 1 year 1 year

1 year of an additional a-f subject

1 year of an additional a-f subject

Courses must be completed with a C or better. Courses with a D/F must be repeated for UC. ;


GPA or grade point average is an average of the grades A-F received in high school classes. A=4, B=3, C=2, D=1, F=0. The decision to weight or add points or fractions of points to grades for honors, AP, or IB (International Baccalaureate) courses varies by school. An A when weighted might equal a 5 if it is from an AP English or Honors Chemistry class. In fact, many of the colleges will recalculate the GPA based on their own rubric for what counts more or not, so high school weighting systems are less important for college applications.

There is a general concern among admissions officers about grade inflation. A school that turns out large numbers of students with 4.9 GPAs will be looked at more carefully to see if there is grade inflation.

In college admissions, having a high GPA is not as important as the student having taken rigorous courses. Rigor of courses is determined by looking at what the high school offers, comparing its graduation and college going rates, and comparing it to the average standardized testing results. Colleges also look at the diversity of the student body and the number of students who are socio-economically disadvantaged. GPA is only one factor among many in the application process. NEWSFLASH: UC campuses will start giving more honor's class grades a weighted status.

WUE and WICHE In the Western United States there is a group of 16 western states and territories (including Alaska and Hawaii and the Mariana’s Islands) that have joined the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education or WICHE (pronounced “Which ee”). Certain public colleges, community colleges, and universities in those states have joined the Western University Exchange or WUE (“Woo ee”). At participating WUE schools residents of the Western states can apply for a reduced tuition rate of 150% of resident tuition at 2 and 4 year colleges outside their state. The WUE applications are limited, so even if a school participates in WUE the tuition reduction is not a sure thing. The WUE “discount” is available at identified colleges, universities, and community colleges. Participating schools include UC Merced, many of the Cal States, U. of Colorado-Colorado Springs, U. of Colorado-Pueblo, Oregon Institute of Technology, Southern Oregon U., U of Alaska Anchorage, and more.

NOTE: the exchange may be limited to certain majors. There are tuition exchanges in other parts of the country particularly the mid-west, Atlantic States, Catholic schools, college employees etc.


A gap year is a year off between high school and college. HOWEVER, apply to colleges and get your acceptances first! It’s much easier to get transcripts and letters while you are still in high school. Once you are accepted to your favorite college, contact admissions and tell them that you are taking a gap year. They will save your spot for next year! Just don’t plan to watch TV and play video games for a whole year.

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