Glossary of Confusing Words

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Friday, March 11th, 2011 at 11:19 am

We realized that many of the words and terms you’ll encounter when looking into study abroad can be confusing. Some words have different meanings in different English-speaking countries, and others are unique to the American education system.

We’ve started a glossary to help you figure out some of these words, but we need your help! What other terms should we add to this list? Add your suggestions using the form at the bottom of this page.

Many of you have also asked for help defining words that are important, but not related to studying abroad. To see our definitions of those words, click here.

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z

A

Accreditation - A university that is accredited has been acknowledged to meet certain standards by an accrediting agency that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). A full list of accrediting groups currently recognized by one or both of those entities is available on the CHEA website.

For more information on accreditation, and how to know if a school is accredited, see our original Glossary post on this topic.

Adjunct (or Adjunct Professor) – Someone who teaches at a university but is not employed full-time by the institution; often a scholar/practitioner who is contracted to teach a course.

Alumni – Students who have graduated from a university. If you’re talking about one student, you would say they are an alumnus (for a male) or alumna (for a female).

Assistant Professor – One of three ranks for a regular faculty member at a university, along with Associate Professor and Full Professor. This is the lowest of the three, and indicates that the professor has not received tenure (protection from being fired).

Associate’s Degree – A two-year undergraduate degree, typically awarded by community colleges and junior colleges. Some associate’s degrees are typically used as transfer degrees, meaning that after completing the two-year degree, the student would transfer their credits towards a four-year bachelor’s degree. Other associate’s degrees are career-oriented and “terminal,” meaning they train a student to pursue a certain career.

Associate Professor – One of three ranks for a regular faculty member at a university, along with Assistant Professor and Full Professor. This is the middle of the three, and indicates that the professor has received tenure (protection from being fired).

Audit – To take a course for your own knowledge, rather than for credit towards your degree.

B

Bachelor’s Degree – This is the degree awarded by an undergraduate college or university. The most common type of bachelor’s degrees is a BA (Bachelor of Arts – sometimes abbreviated AB), which is the standard degree awarded by liberal arts colleges. Some schools also offer a Bachelor of Science for students in science and engineering fields.

Bachelor of Arts – The Bachelor of Arts degree (abbreviated BA or AB) is the most common degree awarded for undergraduate studies in the U.S. It can be awarded for any academic discipline – not just the creative arts.

The term “arts” in this case is used in the sense of liberal arts, not creative arts.

C

Catalog – A university catalog (or college catalog) is an official publication that contains all the information a current or prospective student might need about academics and student services at a university.

Certificate – Recognition for completing a non-degree program. Some colleges or universities also allow you to pursue a certificate while studying for a degree in another field.

Class – See “course.” It can also describe one single meeting of a course.

College – In the U.S. the word “college” is used fairly interchangeably with the word “university.” There’s no official difference, and the fact that one school is called a college while another is called a university doesn’t necessarily mean there is a difference between them.

The most common difference between schools called college and schools called university is that a college is usually an undergraduate-focused institution, whereas a university includes graduate-level and research components. Hence the reason why an undergraduate attends Harvard College, which is the undergraduate component of Harvard University.

In everyday conversation, college is the term used to describe the level of education after high school (“After I graduate, I’m going to college.”).

You might also hear the word “college” used to describe academic subdivisions within a university (the Washington College of Law is the law school of American University).  And the word college is also used in the term “community college,” which is a school that offers two-year degrees as opposed to four-year degrees.

Community College – A community college is a 2-year institution. Students who attend a community college can then transfer to a four-year college or university to complete their bachelor’s degree. Community colleges typically also offer career-focused associate degrees (two-year undergraduate degrees).

Community college and junior college refer to the same type of education. Junior college typically refers to a private institution and community college to a public one.

Course – A course is a regularly scheduled class. Courses typically last one term and meet for several hours each week.

Credit – Credits are units used to measure the contribution that an academic course makes towards attaining your degree. Universities require you to take a certain number of credits to graduate, and each course offered by a university is assigned a value in credits, usually based on how much time you’re expected to spend on it (hence credits are also often called “credit-hours”).

D

Dean – The head of a collection of departments or of an administrative division (ex: Dean of Admissions, Dean of Student Life)

Doctor – A doctor can be someone who has graduated medical school with an M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) degree or someone who has received a Doctorate (like a Ph.D.) in their academic discipline.

E

Elementary school – The first level of mandatory education in the US, covering grades 1-5 (ages 6-11)

Emeritus (or Professor Emeritus) – Someone who has retired but still teaches part-time. It is often an honorific title, indicating that the professor achieved excellence during their time as a tenured faculty member.

Extracurricular activity – An activity that happens at school but are not part of the coursework, like clubs or sports.

F

Faculty – The professors and instructors of a university.

Freshman (or frosh) – The four years of undergraduate education are called (1) freshman year, and someone in their first year is a freshman; (2) sophomore year, and someone in their second year is a sophomore; (3) junior year, and someone in their third year is a junior; (4) senior year, and someone in their fourth year is a senior.

These same terms apply in the same way to the four years of a standard high school: 9th grade is freshman year, 10th grade sophomore year, 11th grade junior year, and 12th grade senior year. They are not used for graduate school.

Full Professor (also just Professor) – One of three ranks for a regular faculty member at a university, along with Assistant Professor and Associate Professor. This is the highest of the three, and indicates that the professor has received tenure (protection from being fired) and achieved further recognition of achievement.

G

Grade – Your grade on a test or exam describes how well you did. In the U.S. it is more common to use the word “grade” than “mark” or “score,” although any of those words may be used.

Your grade can also describe what year you are in school. This term typically only applies to elementary (primary), middle, and high school. It is not used for college or graduate school. The grades go from 1 (called first grade) to 12 (called twelfth grade or senior year). Most students are 6 or 7 years old in first grade, and 17 or 18 years old in twelfth grade.

Gymnasium (gym) – A building where athletic activities take place. Most colleges and universities have a gym for students to use for sports and athletic activities.  The gym will usually have a fitness center where students can work out.  In everyday English, that fitness center is also called a gym. The building where indoor varsity sports are played may also be called a gym.

H

High school – The last level of mandatory education for a U.S. student, covering grades 9-12 (ages 14-18).

Honor code – A set of principles, typically related to academic integrity, that students at some universities must pledge to uphold.

I

Institute – An institute is usually an organization devoted to research. In practice, this can mean three things in the context of an American university:

(1) Most commonly, something called an “institute” is a research group or think tank. Sometimes these are housed within or affiliated with a university. They don’t offer classes, but they probably offer seminars and internship opportunities for students. The Georgetown Health Policy Institute is a group of faculty and staff of Georgetown University who conduct research on health policy. The Quinnipiac University Bioanthropology Research Institute is housed within Quinnipiac’s School of Health Sciences and conducts research in various fields of biology and anthropology.

(2) Institute can be used in the name of a university, and in that context is just a synonym for “college” or “university.” The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (better known as MIT) is one example of this.

(3) Institute can be used in the name of an academic department, and would describe an area of study you could major in. For example, the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies is an academic department with the Johns Hopkins University.

J

Junior – The four years of undergraduate education are called (1) freshman year, and someone in their first year is a freshman; (2) sophomore year, and someone in their second year is a sophomore; (3) junior year, and someone in their third year is a junior; (4) senior year, and someone in their fourth year is a senior.

These same terms apply in the same way to the four years of a standard high school: 9th grade is freshman year, 10th grade sophomore year, 11th grade junior year, and 12th grade senior year. They are not used for graduate school.

L

Liberal arts college – A “liberal arts college” refers specifically to a small school that only teaches undergraduates, emphasizes a well-rounded education and usually requires students to take courses in several major disciplines, and prefers to teach using discussion-based courses rather than lectures.

Library – Holds the university’s collection of books. At most universities libraries also include spaces to study.

M

Master’s Degree – The degree awarded by a graduate school for completing postgraduate study (postgraduate = after the bachelor’s degree). Most master’s degrees take one or two years of full-time study to complete. Like bachelor’s degrees, there are many specialized types of master’s degrees, but the most common are the master of arts (M.A.), master of science (M.S.) and master of business administration (M.B.A.).

Middle School – The second level of mandatory education for a U.S. student, covering grades 6-8 (ages 11-4). Some school districts have a junior high instead, covering grades 7-9.

P

Ph.D. (Doctorate) – The highest academic degree awarded by a university. A Ph.D. usually requires at least 3 years of graduate study beyond the last degree received, and completion of oral/written exams and a dissertation of original research. Someone who receives a Ph.D. is called a doctor, and can be referred to as “Dr. + last name” just like a medical doctor.

Post-graduate – Someone studying in a graduate program. Also called a graduate student.

Provost – The senior academic position at a university, and usually the second highest office after the president or chancellor.

S

Scholarship – A scholarship is one type of financial aid that a student can get. It is free money to cover some portion of tuition, fees or other expenses. A scholarship does not have to be repaid, but can come with conditions, such as maintaining a particular grade point average.

School – In the U.S. a “school” is any educational institution. Places of elementary, secondary, higher and graduate education can be called schools (and are!).

School of EducationSome colleges and universities have a “school of education” within them. This would be the department of the university that trains you to become a teacher or to have another career within the field of education.

Seminary – An institution of higher education, usually a graduate school, focused on the theology (religious study and practice).

Senior – See definition for “sophomore” below.

Sophomore (or soph) – The four years of undergraduate education are called (1) freshman year, and someone in their first year is a freshman; (2) sophomore year, and someone in their second year is a sophomore; (3) junior year, and someone in their third year is a junior; (4) senior year, and someone in their fourth year is a senior.

These same terms apply in the same way to the four years of a standard high school: 9th grade is freshman year, 10th grade sophomore year, 11th grade junior year, and 12th grade senior year. They are not used for graduate school.

T

Transcript – A transcript is an official record of the courses you took and grades you received in high school, college or graduate school.

Tutorial – A session or set of instructions for learning a specific skill. Also, a small discussion session intended to reinforce the material taught in class; at many universities students meet outside of their class sessions in smaller groups, often led by a teaching assistant, to talk about the class material or get additional practice.

U

Undergraduate - someone studying for their associate or bachelor’s degree. A college student.

Underway – Underway means “currently in progress,” and is often used when people were waiting for something to start. So, “the application process is underway” means the application process has started and is currently ongoing.

University – See “college.”

W

Webinar – A seminar, workshop or lecture that happens online. It’s a combination of the words “web” (like internet) and “seminar.”

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Glossary of Confusing Words

Find definitions of confusing words and terms about studying in the U.S. in our Glossary of Confusing Words.

All the words were submitted by YOU, so visit the glossary to see the words that have been defined already and to suggest your own.