Academic Terminology Differences
One of the first things you will probably notice when you register for classes in the US is the difference in the terminology used to describe certain aspects of academia.
For instance, the US term “course” actually has the same meaning as the British term “module.” So when an American student asks about your “courses,” they are really asking what classes/modules you are taking. Similarly, in the US, one does not “read” a subject, rather they “major” in a field of undergraduate academic study.
Before departing for study in the US it may be useful to familiarise yourself with the following list of American terms.
- Class: Has the same meaning as “module” or “lecture” in the UK.
- College: Has the same meaning as “university” in the UK. The abbreviation “uni” for university is not used in the US.
- Course: Another way of saying "module".
- Credit or Credit Hour: Many universities operate on a credit or credit hour system, which assigns a certain number of credit (generally related to the number of hours spent in class per week) to each class. Universities define full-time and part-time students based on the number of credit hours for which they are enrolled. Some universities put an upper limit on the number of credit hours a student can take in one semester. Usually, one undergraduate class is worth 3 credits. Typically, full-time undergraduate students take between 15-18 credit hours (5-6 classes per week.)
- Electives: Under the liberal arts philosophy, there is much more flexibility in the courses students may take. Electives are courses that the student may take simply because they are fun and interesting rather than because they help you specialise within your major or help you work toward a minor.
- Elementary School: School attended for US grades 1-5 or 1-6, ages 5-11 or 5-12.
- Freshman: Is the same as “Fresher” in the UK, a first-year student.
- GPA: Grade Point Average. This is one cumulative, representative number of all marks you have earned during your course of study. See our Grading page for more information on how to calculate your GPA.
- Grade: Has the same meaning as “mark” in the UK. “Grade” also refers to year in university. Example: What grade are you in? – I am in my second year. See the page on grading for more information.
- High School: Secondary school; includes US grades 9-12, ages 14-18.
- Junior: Third year student.
- Liberal Arts: A general term that covers all courses in humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. The liberal arts philosophy is common in the US and aims to provide undergraduate students with a well-rounded education in numerous fields before specialising in their selected major field. Generally during the first year or two years, students enrol in a variety of general education courses in the liberal arts fields. Once they have selected their major, usually by the end of their sophomore year, they will concentrate on study in that field.
- Major: The subject one is primarily studying at university, similar to “course” in the UK. This choice is required and is called “declaring” a major. Some students also choose to “double major” (similar to joint honours in the UK), in which case they complete the requirements for two separate degrees at the same time. These two degrees do not have to be in related fields.
- Minor: Many US students at the undergraduate level also choose a field to “minor” in. This is optional and will involve taking 4-5 classes in one subject. One can “minor” in a subject in addition to a doing a major, but one cannot do a minor instead of completing a major.
- Middle School: A school attended for US grades 6-8 or 7-8, ages 12-14 or 13-14.
- Pre-Professional Programmes: Such as pre-med and pre-law. These are undergraduate tracks of study that involve students taking the prerequisites for postgraduate law and medical programmes. However, these tracks are not required to apply to law or medical school. One can take the prerequisite classes as either electives or for another major.
- Preschool: Any schooling a student received before they entered kindergarten; analogous to nursery in the UK.
- Private School: An independent, privately funded school, akin to independent schools in the UK.
- Professor: You should refer to all of your university teachers as professors rather than lecturer or tutor. If they have obtained a PhD, you should call them Doctor followed by their surname.
- Public School: A publicly-financed school; state school in the UK.
- School: Any institution at which one has studies, including university. If someone asks you about “school”, they will be referring to your university life.
- Semester or Trimester: Are analogous to “term” in the UK. Semester is used when there are two terms per academic year, trimester for three terms per year.
- Senior: Fourth and final year student.
- Sophomore: Second year student. Students generally declare a major no later than the end of this year.
- Study: Similar to “revise” in the UK. American students use “study” to refer to all academic work, including reading, problem sets, lab reports, homework, writing papers and revision.
- Transcript: An official record of all courses you have taken and marks you have earned throughout your time at university. When applying to internships or jobs, most employers will require an official copy of your transcript, which you can request from the Registrar’s Office.
- Upperclassman: Student in any year of university other than the first year.