Just like attending college, the process of applying is a learning experience. Understanding common terminology is the first step in beginning your search for the right school for you. We’ve compiled a list of important terms to be familiar with as you start researching what different institutions have to offer.


Public vs private institution: The primary difference between public and private institutions is how they’re funded. Public schools receive most of their funding from state governments, while private schools are primarily funded by their own endowments and student tuition. Although the sticker price for public schools is often lower due to government subsidies, many private institutions offer generous financial aid programs that make them affordable regardless of a student’s financial circumstances.

Liberal arts college: Liberal arts colleges offer a variety of academic programs that span the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. These schools emphasize critical thinking and a broad approach to education to prepare students for their future. They typically offer small discussion-based classes, a wide variety of courses, and active campus communities.

Research university: Research universities are institutions dedicated to research and discovery as a central part of their mission. Fun fact: research universities can ALSO be liberal arts institutions! Hopkins is a great example of a school that falls under both categories.

First-generation student: First-generation college students are defined as students whose parents, guardians, or other custodial family members have not completed a four-year degree. Within the Hopkins community, first-generation students are considered part of the First-generation and/or Limited Income (FLI) community, as these student populations often have shared experiences and face similar challenges. FLI students at Hopkins are invited to join the FLI network, which provides resources, community, and other forms of support.

Engineering: Engineering is the application of science and math to create practical solutions to real-world problems. There are many types of engineering that focus on different areas of innovation, including biomedical, mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering.

Humanities: The humanities are the study of human culture and society. This discipline includes any field of study outside of professional training, mathematics, and the natural and social sciences, such as history, philosophy, languages, and classics. Studying the humanities helps students develop skills like critical thinking and moral reasoning, and provides us with tools to understand and interpret the human experience.

Natural sciences: Those who study the natural sciences are interested in understanding the physical and natural world or phenomena that occur in nature. Examples of natural sciences include biology, physics, chemistry, and environmental science.

Social sciences: The social sciences examine how people interact and relate to each other through the systematic and evidence-based study of human behaviors. Disciplines classified as social sciences include political science, economics, international studies, and public health.


Early Decision vs Regular Decision: Applying to a college through Early Decision means you are committing to enrolling at the school if you are admitted. Students submit a binding agreement with their application in order to be considered in Early Decision and typically receive an admission decision before they are released to the general applicant pool.

Most students apply through Regular Decision, which is the general, non-binding application. In Regular Decision, students can compare admission and financial aid offers from schools to which they are admitted and choose the best match. Admit rates tend to be lower in Regular Decision since a larger number of applicants utilize this option.

Need-blind admissions: Institutions that practice need-blind admissions do not consider an applicant’s financial need as a factor in the admission decision.

Activities list: College applications ask you to list your extracurricular activities so the admissions committee can understand how you engage with your community. For this section you should consider how you spend your time when you’re not in class, both in and outside of school.

Personal statement/college application essay: Shared with all schools you apply to on the same platform, this essay serves as the primary writing sample in your college application. Successful essays demonstrate how a student’s character and values align with those of the institutions they’re applying to and provide insight into what they would contribute to the learning community.

Supplemental essay(s): When colleges include supplemental essay questions on the application (not all do), the essay prompts have been crafted to reflect the principles of the specific institution. This allows the admissions committee to learn whether a student will be a good match for the school, but also informs the applicant about the school’s culture and values. Composing supplemental essays can be a helpful exercise in learning about each college you’re considering.


Need-based financial aid vs merit aid: Need-based aid provides financial support to students based on their level of demonstrated financial need. Financial need is determined through eligibility forms like the FAFSA and CSS profile. Merit scholarships provide funding based on a student’s academic excellence.

Full need met: Colleges that meet full need work with you and your family to determine how much you’re able to contribute toward the cost of attendance, then cover the rest with financial aid. The expected family contribution is calculated based on information you share in the financial aid application.

FAFSA: FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Students who wish to be considered for need-based financial aid are required to complete this form each year to determine their eligibility for federal student aid.

CSS Profile: The College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile is an online application that colleges use to determine a student’s demonstrated financial need. Information collected from this platform is often reviewed together with the FAFSA to create a more complete picture of a family’s financial circumstances.

Net price: Net price refers to the monetary amount a student and/or their family contributes towards their education after grants, scholarships, and other forms of funding have been deducted from the full cost of attendance. Net price calculators are available on college websites to provide prospective students with an estimate of their expected contribution prior to the release of their financial aid information. If you ever come across a term in your college search that you’re unsure about, you can always reach out to your regional admissions counselor to clarify! We also offer a variety of interactive workshops that break down the college search and application process, no matter what stage you’re at. We’re here to help you understand the process and help you compile your strongest application.