Undergraduate Terminology Differences
The cultural adventure of spending four years of my life in a foreign country was also extremely exciting for me, and something I definitely do not regret. Dominic, University of Pennsylvania
One of the first things you will probably notice as you begin researching study in the US is the difference in the terminology used to describe certain aspects of academia.
For instance, the US term “high school” actually has the meaning of the British term “secondary school.” So when an application or US university website talks about your “high school,” they are really asking about your education in secondary school. Similarly, in the US, one does not “read” a subject, rather they “major” in a field of undergraduate academic study.
Throughout the US application process, it may be useful to familiarise yourself with the following list of American terms:
- ACT: One type of undergraduate admissions test. It is a curriculum-based test with sections covering English, Mathematics, Reading and Science Reasoning, with an optional Writing section. For more information, see ACT.
- Advanced Placement (AP): Level of study or exam taken by US students in the last two years of secondary school. Similar to A-levels, American students complete higher level AP courses and exams that may award them advanced credit for university.
- Associate's Degree: Associate of Arts (AA), Associate of Science (AS) or Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degrees are offered at two-year colleges (also known as community or junior colleges). Associate degrees focus on vocational or technical skills, such as IT or nursing, or general education with a view to transfer to a four year bachelor's degree.
- Bachelor’s Degree: Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BSc) degrees are usually four years in length. Bachelor’s degrees in the US follow the liberal arts philosophy described below and generally include core required courses, a major and electives.
- Class: Has the same meaning as “module” in the UK or used to mean "lecture."
- College: Has the same meaning as “university” in the UK. The abbreviation “uni” for university is not used in the US. The UK term "college" is roughly the equivalent of the final two years of a US high school.
- Community College: Also known as two-year colleges, they offer Associate of Arts (AA), Associate of Science (AS) or Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degrees and prepare students to pursue a bachelor's degree by transferring to a four-year university in a two-plus-two arrangement. Community colleges are often a low-cost option and have less competitive admission requirements than a four-year university.
- 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 credits (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. Many universities put an upper limit on the number of credit hours a student can take in one semester. Typically, full-time undergraduate students take between 15 and 18 credit hours, and full-time postgraduate students take 9 credit hours.
- Degree Program: Field of study, expressed as your major subject.
- Double Major: Similar to joint honours in the UK, in which case a student concurrently completes the requirements for two separate majors. Unlike in the UK, these two majors do not have to be in related fields. Because classes for the second major typically take the place of elective classes, students are usually able to pursue a double major and graduate on time.
- Early Action: A type of application procedure where you apply early to several US universities and receive admissions decisions well before the usual spring decision date. You have until spring to make a decision on a university and are not required to attend the university that accepts you under Early Action. The advantage of Early Action is that you are competing with a smaller applicant pool and are more likely to be accepted if you have the proper credentials. (Note: There are two types of Early Action options, Restrictive Early Action (REA) and Un-restrictive Early Action. Under Restrictive Early Action, applicants are only allowed to apply to one university as Restrictive Early Action and none under Early Decision, but are welcome to apply to as many as they want under Regular Decision. Under Restrictive Early Action...Universities such as Yale and Stanford offer Restrictive Early Action. If a student wanted to apply to both universities early, they could not. Rather, the student must choose either Yale or Stanford as their first choice and then the rest of their university applications are lodged under Regular Decision admission.)
- Early Decision: A type of application procedure where you apply early to one US university and receive the admissions decision well before the usual spring decision date. Early Decision is legally binding, which means you must withdraw all other applications to US universities and commit to attend that university if they offer you a place. The advantage of Early Decision is that you are competing with a smaller applicant pool and are more likely to be accepted if you have the proper credentials.
- 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.
- High School Diploma: Document awarded upon completion of US high school, rather than a particular qualification as in the UK.
- Junior: Third year university student.
- Lecturer: 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.
- 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, they will concentrate on study in that field.
- Major: The subject one is primarily studying at university, similar to “course” or “degree programme” in the UK. For most programmes, this choice is not required at the application stage (although you may be asked for an "intended major"). Instead, you must "declare" your major, usually by filling out a form by the end of your second year. Some students also choose to “double major" (see above).
- 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.
- Report card: Document given to each student by the school, listing his/her marks (grades) at the end of a quarter, semester or year.
- SAT: One type of undergraduate admissions tests. The SAT Reasoning Test is designed to measure critical thinking and analytical skills, with sections on Critical Reading, Math, and Writing. See SAT for more information.
- School: Any institution at which one has studies, including university.
- 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 university 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.