25 American High School Terms that Expat Parents need to Learn

EXPAT LIFE IN AMERICA: Probably lots of people around the world outside the USA, have learnt the most about American culture via TV shows and movies. American high school life is no different, with movies regularly released showing high school backdrops and teenager conversations. Some things though are not fully explained in detail through TV, probably because some of it is just too damn boring to be included in a storyline. There is more to American high school than cheerleaders, jocks, romances and the prom – there are acronyms aplenty for you to learn.

If your kids are going to attend American high school, it’s time to expand that skin-deep knowledge, even if it is just to avoid appearing ignorant as a parent (always a preferable situation). To do that though, you at least should have an idea what some of these concepts mean. So hopefully this short-list will help.

25 Common American High School Terms

ACT: A standardized test completed by high schoolers that examines Mathematics, English and Science, used for college entry applications. The ACT exam provides an ACT score which ranges from a low of 1 to a max score of 36. This test system is now more popular with colleges as a measurement tool versus the SAT score, a competing standardized test program.


Advanced Placement (AP) course: a high-level high school course available across various subjects ranging from English, Math, Science, History, to many others including Music Theory. AP courses are equivalent to college-level work, and are taken by high schoolers, usually juniors and seniors wishing to increase their college application success. The courses are taught by AP-trained teachers and aim to prepare students to sit for the annual AP exam in their topic. AP teachers are often a cut above lower level course teachers due to ability, training, motivation etc.

AP Test: One standardized test on the AP subject is held at the course completion in May every year. A schedule of the exams held is provided ahead of time. Developed and operated by the College Board, a third-party private organization, the test provides a score out of 5.0 which is also used by colleges as part of their entrance requirements.  A 4.0/ 5.0 is considered very good, while 5.0/5.0 is excellent, though usually hard to achieve. Students do not have to complete the school’s course to sit for the test, but all have to register and pay a standard cost per exam ~$100.



Clubs: These are a common co-curricular activity organized usually by the high school, run by teachers after school hours with student participation. Clubs can cover any topic that includes interests, hobbies, sports, social topics and more. Club participation is heavily encouraged by schools as an important element of college applications. A demonstrated ability to participate in life outside academic interests, is seen as a key part of a student’s contributions to society and a desirable dimension to be encouraged. Some examples may include art, chess, robotics, drama, cinema, photography, LGBTQ or community volunteering. Often there are many more.

Co-curricular: Activities taken through high school at the same time as academic courses. Examples include sports, cheerleading, clubs and volunteering activities. 

College Board: A non-profit educational organization that developed the SAT standardized test system for college admission in the USA. Even though a non-profit, the College Board charges a reasonable fee for students to sit for the SAT, many of whom sit multiple times to try and get a better score. Over time, the College Board has widened its product offering and provides schools with the pSAT and AP systems as well. There are many associated materials with these exams including sample exams, preparation guides for students and teachers, all of which have to be purchased. The fact that the College Board is seen as a competitive business model, even though a non-profit is somewhat controversial.

College essay: Virtually all college applications require an essay to be written as part of the college application process. This is a daunting task for some and is considered one of the key application activities that students should take adequate time to prepare. These take a while to do, so start early like the vacation before senior year begins.

College Level Examination Program (CLEP): An additional program offered by the College Board that includes standardized tests across many subjects, that offer college level credits prior to enrolment, based on passing the exams at a minimum level, defined as 50-60 out of 80. In comparison to the AP test, these are considered somewhat easier and more flexible but are not accepted by all colleges for credits, whereas AP scores are. These are less well-known than AP but are increasing in popularity with high schoolers. Some students may not be able to sit the AP exam in May (only time held) so this is an alternative option. Despite its limitations, CLEP courses are considered helpful for a US college application.

Commencement: Graduation ceremony where diplomas or degrees are conferred on graduates of high school or university.


High School commencement speaker-Montclair NJ

Commencement Speech: Keynote speech given by special guest speaker at high school and college public graduation ceremonies directed to new graduates, often giving advice, thoughts and wishes for their future success. Many famous people have been asked to deliver these speeches. Some of these include celebrities or previous students who have returned as successful alumni with special words of wisdom for the graduating class.

Counsellor: In high school most often refers to guidance counsellor, an important school employee that can provide course advice, help with applications to college, and advocate on a student’s behalf when changes in courses are needed. They can play a very important role for students, particularly in later high school years.

Freshmen:  students in 9th Grade at high school or first year in university/college.

G.P.A: Stands for Grade Point Average. This is an average of all the marks from a student’s high school courses. This can be calculated for different periods of time. Colleges are more interested in recent years e.g. Junior and Senior years than Freshmen usually. See also Weighted GPA.


High School Transcript: Refers to a student’s academic record in a US high school, showing grade levels, as well as subjects taken. This is needed by colleges and universities as part of your application.

Honors Class: This is a higher level or more academically challenging class than the Standard or regular high school class for a particular subject. Standard classes are intended to provide basic information on a topic.

Juul: An electronic vape cigarette popular with high schoolers although usually banned and illegal to purchase.

Juniors: Students in 11th Grade in high school or 3rd year university/college students.

Junior High School: equivalent to Middle School in the US education system. Not used very much currently, as Middle School is a more common term. ‘High school’, as a term, is usually used to refer to senior American high school, that encompasses 9-12th grades.


pSATs: A set of two preliminary SAT exams (see SAT below), that is compulsory for all high school students, usually taken in 9th Grade (first exam) and 10th Grade (second exam). This gives students an idea of how their academic performance is shaping up to the eventual goal of sitting for the SAT exam for college entrance.

SAT: A standardized test that is primarily used as a college entry exam, focused on Mathematics and English only, that provides a total score out of 1600 (as in 2018). Although it is not compulsory nearly all students take this test to assess their college entry chances. Some schools are looking to use this as an exit exam to replace existing systems. Other individual subject SAT tests are available for specific areas outside math and English such as science. 

Seniors: Students in 12th grade in high school or final year of university/college.

Sophomores: Students in 10th Grade in high school or 2nd year students in university/college.

Summer school: Refers to school courses run during the summer vacation that are available for students to recover credits due to too many absences from class of failure in the subject involved. Summer school also provides options for students to gain extra credits, above those that they would normally earn during traditional school terms. The advantage of this may be to reach their credit target earlier or lower the subject load in the upcoming terms.

Unweighted GPA: an average of a student’s grades that does not take into account the impact of taking harder classes i.e. the grades of a student completing Standard level courses will be comparable to a student completing AP level courses, even though the AP courses are significantly more difficult.

Vocational school: These are public schools, usually high schools that focus on particular skill developments.

Weighted GPA: This is also the average of a student’s courses over a set period but using higher weights for harder classes such as Advanced Placement and High Honors. The weighted GPA takes into account the difficulty of the student’s classes along with their grades

This can all be a lot to take in if you are new to American high school or even the US school system. However, it is very important for you and your child to get a good understanding of the basics before then learning how the process of high school completion is linked in with university applications.  Knowing what the terms mean is just the start, but a good start.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title="" rel=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.