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The basics
THE USA: Applying to University

Understanding American university terms and definitions

Confused about the different terms and phrases used by universities in America? Here's a guide to popular, everyday phrases relating to assessments, term cycles and individuals.

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College life in the United States is varied according to each University campus. For international students the chance to study abroad in the USA presents once in a lifetime memories, opportunities and experience. Although each university is special in its own way, there are a set of words that are unique to the higher education environment. Our student editor Ashley covers this college lingo guide.



Seasons & events terms

It depends on the university, but one academic year will be made up of one of three ways:


  • Four ‘Quarters’ – Fall, Winter, Spring and Summer. Summer Quarter is optional and at extra cost
  • Three ‘Trimesters’ – Fall, Winter and Spring. Summer term is optional and at extra cost
  • Two ‘Semesters’ – Fall and Spring. Summer semester varies in length, is optional and at extra cost


Quarter – a term length of 12 weeks

Semester – a term length of 16-18 weeks

Trimester – a term length of 14-16 weeks

Finals, Final or Finals Week – usually the week before term ends, where final exams are taken and final essays are due

Winter Break – a two to three week break after the fall term has ended, spanning over Christmas and New Years

Spring Break – a one week break after winter term ends and before spring term begins. Also known for being a time of partying for many students, who travel to coastal resorts to do this, before they return to school for end of year exams.

Homecoming – a celebration towards the end of the first term, usually resulting with an American football game between local rivals. It’s a time for alumni to come back and reminisce about their ‘college days’.



Exams, assignments and grading terms

G.P.A. – Grade Point Average, the standard form of grading used in the USA using a scale of 0.0 – 4.0, with 4.0 being the top mark

Paper/Term paper – correct term for ‘essay’

– the lowest possible grade earned, a 0.0 on the G.P.A. scale, no academic credit is earned



Students and faculty terms

Freshman – a student in their first year of study

Sophomore – a student in their second year of study

Junior – a student in their third year of study

Senior – a student in their fourth or final year of study

Professor – a scholarly teacher that teaches course material in class/lectures

Advisor – a qualified professional who provides advice to students in regarding to what major to choose, where to live, what classes to take and any other questions. They can be found in major, financial and international departments.

T.A. – a Teaching Assistant is usually a postgraduate student currently studying for their Master’s degree. They can lead their own classes as well as provide support to a professor during their classes.



Course terms

Class – a term used to describe a ‘lecture’, usually taught by a Professor, T.A. or guest lecturer

Syllabus – an outline of assignments, test dates and expectations for a class. Each class will have their own syllabus as determined by the T.A. or Professor.

Prerequisite – a required class that must be taken and passed with a certain grade in order to formally apply for acceptance into a major. Prerequisites will vary by university, with some required before declaring a major. All must be passed with acceptable grades in order to graduate.

Major – academic focus of degree study for an undergraduate degree. A student must formally commit to the subject by applying for entry and successfully completing the course results in an undergraduate degree.

Double Major – a duel-programme where the student formally commits to two academic focuses

Minor – a formally declared secondary focus of study which usually takes less time and course hours to complete



Qualification terms

Associate’s degree – an academic degree that takes two years and is earned whilst attending community college

Bachelor’s degree – an academic degree that takes four years and is earned whilst attending a college or university

Master’s degree – an academic degree that takes two to four years (depending on the subject) and is earned whilst attending a college or university

PhD – a Doctorate of Philosophy, an independent research academic degree that is earned whilst attending a college or university. The duration varies on subject and higher institution.



University terms

Community college – a more affordable alternative to university education, community colleges (also known as junior colleges) offer two year courses at the end of which, students receive a diploma, certificate or associate’s degree. Graduates may pursue university afterwards to complete their Bachelor’s qualification. Community colleges are excellent alternatives for those who cannot move far away from home, or for adults returning to education after many years. Subjects may be more vocational.

College/school – both terms which are widely-used terms for 'university', usually used more commonly than 'university' itself which is usually saved for when referring to a specific institution



Other terms

Resume – a document which lists an individual’s experience, skills and achievements for when they are applying for jobs (also known as a CV).

Social security number – this is a personal identification number; every American citizen is required to have one due to tax reasons. International students can request a temporary number in order to work.

Sorority – a social organisation for female undergraduate students, who may live together in one large accommodation together. There is usually some form of initiation to become a member.

Fraternity – a social organisation for male undergraduate students, who may live together in one large accommodation together. There is usually some form of initiation to become a member.

Honor Society – a scholastic organisation which recognises students with a high G.P.A



Read more:

'The US education system...simplified'

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