College Words--A Guide to Understanding What Your Guidance Counselor is Saying

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High School Terminology

So, you are a high school student determined to get through this process, graduate, go on to college and some successful career thereafter? Great. This is written for you!

So, how do you navigate these waters? You know that your guidance counselor is the one who is supposed to help you get there. So, who is this person anyway?

Guidance: the act of guiding, leadership, giving direction. Giving advice, counsel, especially for students.

Counselor: one who gives guidance.

So far, so good. As you are receiving guidance, it is assumed to a certain degree that you understand the language and the formulas. Maybe you do but many high school students do not. It's good to ask your counselor to explain terminology that you don't understand. If you don't let them know that this is foreign to you, (i.e. you're not getting it), then you may miss out on something that is really important to understand.

So, you have three choices:

1) You can speak up and let your counselor know that you don't get what they're talking about.

2) You can skip the whole thing and have a very rocky road to college.

3) You can learn the lingo yourself.

Pick #1 or #3, please? Here is a list of terminology from me to you that may help. It covers some of the basic words that will be used in describing the high school graduation process, including qualifying for graduation, reporting of grades to colleges, and the college admission process. Even the graduation ceremony itself. It won't answer every question that you may have but, hopefully, it will give you understanding of some of the words that you are about to encounter. Then you can look like a bigshot and help your friends...or, just send them the link!


High School Glossary of Terms

Grade Levels of High School:

  • Freshman: 9th grade. Newbie. Entry-level high school student. You're starting with a clean slate. Start out right!
  • Sophomore: 10th grade. Second year of high school. The term "sophomoric" comes from this. It's casual meaning is that many sophomores think they know everything. They can become overconfident, even conceited. But the fact is that they're still really new. Calm down and know you really don't know that much, yet.
  • Junior: 11 grade. Congrats. You are no longer new!
  • Senior: 12th grade. Final year of high school. You are part of the graduating class.

Under classmen: this classification includes freshmen and sophomores.

Upper classmen: encompasses the two older grades, juniors and seniors

Graduation Requirements: the types of classes you must take and pass in order to graduate and receive a high school diploma. Each state has its own requirements and some schools may add additional requirements. Basically you will have to take, and pass, several years of Math, English, Social Studies/History, Science, Foreign Language, Physical Education, Health and some electives.

Required Courses: these are course that you must take in order to qualify for graduation. Most often they will include English Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies/History, and a foreign language.

Electives: high school students have a bit more freedom in selecting these classes. There will be a certain number of credit hours of electives that must be taken, and probably some categories of classes they must come from, but the student will get some choices.

Grade Points: letter-grades are assigned numbers on a grading scale to facilitate computation of a grade point average.

GPA (Grade Point Average): grade point averages are derived by dividing the total number of grade points earned from the total of the credit hours of the courses. Resource: Calculate Your GPA.

Grading Scale: points assigned to equal a letter grade. A simple 4 point grading scale would look like this:

  • A=4.0
  • B=3.0
  • C= 2.0
  • D= 1.0
  • E or F= 0.0

Credits or Credit Hours: courses in high school and college have different impact on your overall grade point average. This is determined by how many credits each course is worth. An "A" in a four credit course will impact your GPA more than an "A" in a two credit course. Credits assigned to a course are most often determined by how many hours a week the class meets. It can also reflect the difficulty of the course.

Transcript: a cumulative report of a students grades over the four years of high school. Each year has its own GPA and the various years are averaged to report the cumulative GPA as well. Word to the wise: GPA's are easiest to change in your first two years of high school. Start out high and stay high. Even a brilliant senior year may not be enough to change your overall GPA if the first three years were low.

Rank or Class Rank: a list of students by their overall (i.e. cumulative) GPA. Rank is usually stated as "He was first in a class of 100" or "She placed fifteenth in a class of 350." or whatever. To say some "graduated at the head of their class" means that they were #1 over everybody else, according to their GPA.

Weighted Rank: some schools will "weight" the ranking based on honors or Advanced Placement courses. Since those courses are more difficult, even college-level, a grade in the class will be weighed more heavily when calculated in the GPA. So, a student getting a B in US History will earn 4 credit hours of credit. Another student getting a B in AP US History may earn 4.5 credit hours of credit. It impacts their overall GPA more heavily, as a result. Beneficial if their grades are high. It can work against them, if their grades are low.


Graduation Terminology

Graduate: (v) completing all courses, with passing grades, and receiving a high school diploma. (n) a person who has successfully completed their full course of study and earned a diploma.

Graduate with Honors: graduating high school with top grades and/or top grades in honors classes.

Commencement: another term for the graduation ceremony

Honor Cords: worn around the graduate's neck in a commencement ceremony alongwith the traditional graduation robes. Different colors of cords have a meaning. They may be indicating the type or level of diploma you received, such as an honors diploma, or the class rank you achieved. The top 5 students might wear a gold cord, the next 5 or 10 students silver, etc.

Mortarboard and Tassel: the square, flat topped graduation cap with its hanging tassel is the traditional headgear for high school graduations. The school should determine which side the tassel will start out on but everyone should wear it on the same side until they've received their diploma. Then, when the entire class has theirs, they will be instructed in unison to switch their tassels to the other side as a symbolic gesture that they've made it! The color of the tassel will most likely be associated with the school's colors, at the high school level. The collegiate coloring has more specific meaning.

Valedictorian: the honor granted to the student in the senior class of highest academic ranking. This person delivers a graduation speech representing his or her class.

Salutatorian: the second-highest student in academic ranking in the senior class is the salutatorian. They often also give a speech at graduation. It is commonly set earlier in the ceremony and is somewhat shorter.

Diploma: an official document issued by an educational institution signifying that the student has successfully completed all required courses of study. The diploma is given to the student at a formal graduation ceremony.

Students, please note that this is a legal document. When asked by your school how you want your name to appear on it, do not use nicknames. Use your name as it appears on your birth certificate or driver's license.

GED or General Educational Development: students who do not complete high school can at a later time enroll in a GED program. Five subject-test exams are given to the student to prove high school efficiency and therefore granting them the status of a high school graduate.

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College Admission Terminology

College Admissions Tests: these are most often the ACT or SAT exam, although some colleges and universities may have their own.

College admissions tests are standardized tests which are taken while a student is in high school. The scores are reported to colleges of your choice. Both the ACT and SAT are scheduled by the companies who originate the exams. Students must apply for, and pay to take, these exams. It is possible to retake them, for a fee, if you are not pleased with your first results. The exams are taken at official testing sites, usually local high schools, on a Saturday. Juniors, get application materials from your guidance counselor as soon as school begins in the fall and send your registration in early.

Matriculate: to enroll in a college or university with the intent of studying and earning a degree.

College: a single school that offers 2 to 4 year degrees in higher education.

University: a much larger establishment that is a collection of colleges under the same umbrella name. Universities offer 4 year bachelors degrees as well as high levels of masters or Phd's.

Trade School: a vocational school that teaches a specific skill or trade to a person in order to qualify them to secure a job in that field. Example: welders, beauticians, mechanics or electricians can learn their professions by attending trade school.

About the Author ...

Sinea Pies is a former high school guidance counselor, a freelance writer for a popular parenting magazine and professional blogger for Ducks 'n a Row. Please feel free to leave a comment or subscribe to her RSS feed to be updated on new hubs and articles that she publishes. Click for more: Sinea's profile

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Comments 4 comments

dallas93444 profile image

dallas93444 5 years ago from Bakersfield, CA

Great introduction for the student. Your "caring" shows! Flag up and useful!


Sinea Pies profile image

Sinea Pies 5 years ago from Northeastern United States Author

Thank you so much for your kind words, dallas93444. I was a high school guidance counselor for many years...guess it never leaves you! :)


dallas93444 profile image

dallas93444 5 years ago from Bakersfield, CA

I was a former science instructor and high school Assistant Principal... I recognize your "nurturing intent."


randomcreative profile image

randomcreative 5 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

This is a great resource for anyone just entering this world. When you are immersed in academia every day, it is easy to take it for granted that everyone knows this terminology, but obviously that isn't the case.

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