Unofficial Explanations of Typical College Vocabulary
Also available as a PDF download.
The vocabulary used at the college level can be confusing and intimidating. High schools can do all students a favor by introducing and explaining these terms. Doing this can help students by letting them know about elements of the college experience of which they should be aware, such as the idea that they may have to complete a final project in order to graduate. (Students might want to search for a college that doesn’t have such a requirement; there are plenty out there.) The explanations provided here are not dictionary definitions and should not be considered official, but are provided simply to help demystify the terminology.
add/drop – students who start taking a class and discover they don’t like it or need a different class can “add” or “drop” them during the add/drop period. Students who drop but don’t add a class may have to do so by a certain deadline in order to get their money back for that class. They may only be allowed to add a class during a certain period at the beginning of the term (colleges may not want students to take a course when they have missed a lot of classes by adding it late). If students leave a class after the add/drop deadline, their transcript may say “W/P” meaning that they were passing when they withdrew from the class, or “W/F” if they were failing it at that time.
associate’s degree is the name for the typical two-year college degree
bachelor’s degree is the name for the typical four-year college degree
blue book exam – in a variety of liberal arts classes, professors may give students one or two essay questions to answer in a two-hour exam – students write their responses in these notebooks with blue covers
core (distribution) requirements – many colleges have a list of kinds of courses students have to take in order to graduate (look for these online). These often include one or two composition (writing) courses, and they may include two classes in social science, two in humanities, two in science, etc. There are often a number of classes to choose from in order to satisfy these requirements. Students should look online for class rating sites (like ratemyprofessors.com) to see what other students say about different courses at their school so that they can have some information to help them choose from the options available.
course (or learning) management system – this is the system students access on a computer to view information for their classes, such as the syllabus, and may have to upload their papers there (instead of handing a physical paper to the professor), post a response to a reading (and possibly respond to another student’s post), etc.
credits (credit hours) – for every class students take, they earn credits (some schools assign one credit per class, other assign more than one). Students have to earn a certain number of credits in order to complete a degree.
culminating academic experience – in order graduate from some colleges, students may have to complete a large final project or take a test. Schools may dictate what this final experience is, or they may allow students to choose from one of these kinds of options:
- capstone project – in order to graduate from some colleges, students may have to complete a large final project related to an area of interest in order to graduate – this is outside of any classes they’re taking
- comprehensive exam – this test may cover a wide range of topics from students’ major or area of interest
- portfolio/dossier – a collection of completed works that show that students have achieved competence in different standards relevant to the profession they want to pursue
- thesis – final long-term paper that some schools require students to complete in order to graduate – this is not part of a class and is usually focused on a topic from students’ area of interest
dean – an administrator at a college who may have responsibility for one department (or school, such as a school of architecture) or for the whole college. Students are unlikely to interact with the dean, unless there is a reason why the dean of student affairs or academic affairs contacts them.
disability services is the office (sometimes it’s just a person) who arranges accommodations and services for students with disabilities. Instead of “disability,” this office’s name may include “access” or “equity” or it may be part of an academic support center or an office called “Instructional Services.”
enroll is the term for when students who have been accepted by a college complete their paperwork and pay a deposit to indicate that they want to go to school there. If students fail to pay their bill by a certain deadline, commit a behavior or honor violation, or if their GPA drops too low, their college may tell them they’re not eligible to be enrolled there anymore.
grade point average (GPA) – each grade students earn in a class is worth number of points (an A may be worth 4.0, an A- may be 3.7, etc.) and these get averaged together to give a GPA. At many colleges, students have to be at or above a certain minimum GPA in order to stay enrolled at that school.
graduate students – students who have already earned a bachelor’s degree and are pursuing a further degree, either a master’s degree or Ph.D.; graduate (“grad”) students sometimes serve as teaching assistants (TAs) in college classes
graduation requirements combine both the core (distribution) requirements that everyone at a college has to complete in order to complete their degree plus the requirements for students’ major. Students have to successfully pass all of these in order to earn a bachelor’s degree.
intent to graduate – students may have to fill out this form when they are seniors and have it signed by their advisor. They often have to indicate what their desired degree is
liberal arts – traditional courses of study such as literature, philosophy, economics, political science and others (many colleges focus on these, while universities may also offer degrees in professional areas like engineering or nursing)
major – the topic or area students will focus their classwork on (e.g., Economics) and in which they will earn their degree – students usually have to “declare” their major at the end of their sophomore year (they may have to submit a form for this)
master’s degree – after they earn a bachelor’s degree, some students will go on for another year or two in order to earn this advanced degree. Most jobs don’t require a master’s degree (which is why most people don’t have one), but people sometimes earn one in order to make more money at their current job. (If you want to get a master’s in order to make more money in the job you have now, first make sure that your company actually pays you more if you have a master’s. And ask whether they might pay some of your tuition for you to earn a master’s – some will.) Some people earn a master’s degree in order to get a different job that requires more advanced training. Sometimes people earn a master’s degree as part of the process of earning their Ph.D.
minor – a second topic or area on which students can focus as part of earning their degree – this requires fewer classes than a major does (earning a minor may be optional at some schools but not at others)
pass/fail option – sometimes, students can take a challenging class they need to without worrying about the grade affecting their GPA – they can choose this option and simply have to pass the class in order for it to count for credit – students may have to choose this option when they register (i.e., they can’t wait to see how they’re doing and then decide to go pass/fail). This option may not be available for courses required to complete the college’s core requirements or the requirements for students’ major or minor
Pell Grants and other grants give students money for college tuition. Unlike student loans, these typically do not have to be paid back. Students should always check the conditions that come along with any money they are offered for college. If they don’t understand the terms, students should ask the organization offering the money, or ask a guidance counselor at school (or get help at the public library, where a librarian may be able to use the Internet to find them some helpful resources).
Ph.D. stands for Doctor of Philosophy. This is the highest degree students can earn after college.
placement tests – all students at certain colleges (typically two-year schools) may have to take placement tests in math, reading, and/or writing to determine whether they have the foundational skills required to take classes. Sometimes, students who earned a certain score on the SAT or ACT don’t have to take these tests. Students who don’t “place out” by achieving a certain score on a placement test may have to take a remedial course.
pre-requisites are classes that students have to take before they are allowed to take a certain higher-level class or enter a program to pursue a certain major. For instance, students who want to enter an engineering program might have to take (and earn a certain grade in) physics.
probation – students may be put on “probation” if their grade point average (GPA) falls below the college’s required point; this typically means that they have one more semester to get their grades up to a certain level. If they don’t, they get dismissed from the college (meaning that they can’t study there any more). Once students are put on probation, many colleges will give them another semester to get their GPA above the cut-off (they may also be required to meet weekly with a tutor or dean). Students who do not raise their GPA may be dismissed from the college, meaning that they are no longer enrolled there.
provost – an administrator at a college who may have responsibility for several departments or the whole college (a college may have a provost instead of a dean, or both). Students are unlikely to interact with the provost.
recitation/precept – these may be part of the schedule for large classes – once a week, students may meet in smaller groups with the TA for further explanation of concepts taught in class (they meetings are typically required as part of overall class attendance
release – because students enrolled at college are considered adults, colleges are not allowed to communicate with anyone – including students’ parents – about anything related to students’ academic performance, housing situation, and tuition bills. Students may (or may not) wish to sign releases that colleges offer to allow certain college offices to communicate with their parents, though they should know that this means that school officials or office staff members can respond to parent inquiries, not that they will reach out to parents if there is a problem (unless there is a serious emergency).
remedial courses – students who don’t “place out” by achieving a certain score on the colleges’ placement test (or enter college with certain SAT or ACT scores) may have to take and pass remedial courses in order to be allowed before they are allowed to take other college classes (though they may be allowed to take some types of courses). These are not “special education classes” – anyone who doesn’t earn the cut-off score typically has to take them. Students should ask whether there are practice tests or classes that they can access to prepare for these exams, especially as these classes tend not to count toward credit for graduation or their major; they just have to pass them (and pay to take them) in order to move forward with taking other classes.
syllabus (syllabi is the plural of syllabus) – for each class, students should receive (or be able to office download from the course management system) a sheet with the professor’s contact information and office hours and a list of topics and assignments for each week of the term
teaching assistant (TA) – some classes will have a TA in addition to the professor. TAs are typically graduate students who are studying to get their Ph.D.; they may help teach the class, grade papers, or run a recitation group. TAs can be a good resource for help in addition to professors or tutors at an academic resource center.
transcript – document that lists all classes students have taken at college and their grades (these do not indicate that students used disability services and accommodations)
transfer – students can transfer to another college if they want to for any reason. They may decide that they like another college better, want to move closer to (or farther away from home), or may want to pay lower tuition. They might also choose another college because they like the requirements for graduation or for their major better at the other school. Transferring typically involves filling out a shorter application for the new college than they had to complete when they applied to college for the first time. Students should contact the school they want to attend to see whether their credits from their current college will “transfer,” meaning that if, for instance, they already took two math classes, those will count toward their new college’s core requirements and they won’t have to take more math classes in order to graduate (this will take more time and money).
TRIO programs are designed to help students who are from disadvantaged backgrounds and/or are the first in their family to attend college. They may offer tutoring, counseling, and help in finding scholarships.
tuition is the name for the fee students pay to attend classes at a college. Students’ tuition bill may also include other fees, such as a student activity fee. Students’ tuition bill may include their room (meaning whatever college-owned housing they live in) and board (meaning the fee for their meal plan to eat at dining halls or cafeterias on campus). Students who don’t live at college will not be charged for room and board (though they may be able to choose to be on a meal plan, if they wish to eat at the available places on campus).
undergraduates – students who are in college to earn a bachelor’s degree
withdrawal – after the add/drop period is over, students can still drop out of a class (so that they can stop attending and doing the work), but they may receive a W/P (withdrew passing, meaning that they were passing the class when they dropped it) or W/F (withdrew failing) grade on their transcript. If they withdraw after a certain deadline, they may get charged for the class.
work-study – some colleges offer students financial aid in this way – students have to take a job on campus in order to get this money for their tuition (they typically don’t have to pay the money back if they have a work-study grant). Students may be able to choose their desired work-study job from a list, so students who want a better choice at their preference should ask early about the opportunities available and sign up.
difference between a college and a university – a college only serves undergraduate students and typically offers degrees in the liberal arts; universities serve both graduate and undergraduate students