Education Glossary

Glossary of Education Terms


Academic adviser (AA): A member of a college faculty who helps and advises students solely on academic matters.

Academic year: The period of formal instruction, usually September to May; may be divided into terms of varying lengths — semesters, trimesters, or quarters.

Accreditation: Approval of colleges and universities by nationally recognized professional associations or regional accrediting bodies.

Add/Drop: A process at the beginning of a term whereby students can delete and add classes with an instructor’s permission.

Assistantship: A grant of financial assistance to a graduate student that is offered in return for certain services in teaching or laboratory supervision as a teaching assistant, or for services in research as a research assistant.

Associate degree: The degree awarded after a two-year period of study; it can be either terminal (vocational) or transfer (the first two years of a bachelor’s degree).

Audit: To take a class without receiving credit toward a degree.


Baccalaureate degree: The degree of “bachelor” conferred upon graduates of most U.S. colleges and universities.

Bachelor’s degree: Degree conferred by an institution of higher learning after the student has accumulated a certain number of undergraduate credits. Usually a bachelor’s degree takes four years of full-time study to earn, and it is a prerequisite for studies in a graduate program.


Campus: The property on which the buildings of a college or university are located.

Carrel: Individual study area usually reserved for graduate students in a library; available on a first-come, first-served basis (sometimes for a fee).

CGFNS: Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools.

Class rank: A number or ratio indicating a student’s academic standing in his or her graduating class. A student who ranks first in a class of 100 students would report his or her class rank as 1/100, while a student ranking last would report 100/100. Class rank may also be expressed in percentiles (for example, the top 25 percent, the lower 50 percent).

College: A postsecondary institution that provides an undergraduate education and, in some cases, master’s level degrees. College may also refer to a division within a university, such as a “College of Business”.

College catalog: An official publication giving information about a university’s academic programs, facilities, entrance requirements, and student life.

Core requirements: Mandatory courses required for completion of a degree.

Course: Regularly scheduled class sessions of one to five hours (or more) per week during a term. A degree program is made up of a specified number of required and elective courses and varies from institution to institution.

Credits: Units that universities use to record the completion of courses (with passing grades) that are required for an academic degree. The catalog defines the number and kinds of credits that are required for the university’s degrees and states the value of each course offered in terms of “credit hours” or “units.”

Cut: An unauthorized absence from a class.


DAT: Dental Admission Test required of applicants to dental schools.

Day student: A student who lives in accommodations that are not administered by the college and are off the campus grounds. He or she commutes into campus every day for classes.

Dean: Director or highest authority within a certain professional school or college of a university.

Degree: Diploma or title conferred by a college, university, or professional school upon completion of a prescribed program of study.

Department: Administrative subdivision of a school, college, or university through which instruction in a certain field of study is given (such as English department, history department).

Dissertation: Thesis written on an original topic of research, usually presented as one of the final requirements for the doctorate (Ph.D.).

Doctorate (Ph.D.): The highest academic degree conferred by a university on students who have completed at least three years of graduate study beyond the bachelor’s and/or master’s degree and who have demonstrated their academic ability in oral and written examinations and through original research presented in the form of a dissertation.

Dormitories: Housing facilities on the campus of a college or university reserved for students. A typical dormitory would include student rooms, bathrooms, common rooms, and possibly a cafeteria.

Drop: See “Withdrawal.”


ECFMG: Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates.

ECFVG: Educational Commission for Foreign Veterinary Graduates.

Electives: Courses that students may “elect,” or choose, to take for credit toward their intended degree, as distinguished from courses that they are required to take.

ERAS: Electronic Residency Application System for obtaining a residency position in the field of medicine in the United States.


Faculty: The members of the teaching staff, and occasionally the administrative staff, of an educational institution. The faculty is responsible for designing the plans of study offered by the institution.

Fees: An amount charged by schools, in addition to tuition, to cover costs of institutional services.

Fellowship: A study grant of financial assistance usually awarded to a graduate student. Generally, no service is required of the student in return.

Final exam: A cumulative exam, taken at the end of a term, encompassing all material covered in a particular course.

Financial aid: A general term that includes all types of money, loans, and work/study programs offered to a student to help pay tuition, fees, and living expenses.

Financial assistance: A general term that includes all types of money, loans, and part-time jobs offered to a student.

Flunk: To fail an examination or a course.

Fraternities: Male social, academic, and philanthropic organizations found on many U.S. campuses

Freshman: A first-year student at a high school, college, or university.

Full-time student: One who is enrolled in an institution taking a full load of courses; the number of courses and hours is specified by the institution.


GMAT: Graduate Management Admission Test, usually required for applicants to business or management programs.

Grade/Grading system: The evaluation of a student’s academic work.

Grade point average (GPA): A system of recording achievement based on a numerical average of the grades attained in each course.

Grading system: The type of scale – that is, letter grade, pass/fail, percentage — used by schools, colleges, and universities in the United States. Most institutions commonly use letter grades to indicate the quality of a student’s academic performance: “A” (excellent), “B” (good), “C” (average), “D” (below average), and “F” (failing). Work rated “C” or above is usually required of an undergraduate student to continue his or her studies; work rated “B” or higher is usually required of a graduate student to continue. Grades of “P” (pass), “S” (satisfactory), and “N” (no credit) are also used. In percentage scales, 100 percent is the highest mark, and 65 to 70 percent is usually the lowest passing mark.

Graduate: A student who has completed a course of study, either at the high school or college level. A graduate program at a university is a study course for students who hold bachelor’s degrees.

GRE: Graduate Record Examination, often required of applicants to graduate schools in fields other than professional programs such as medicine, dentistry, or law. Both a GRE general test and subject tests for specific fields are offered.


High school: The last three or four years of the twelve-year school education program in the United States. The U.S. term for secondary school.

Higher education: Postsecondary education at colleges, universities, junior or community colleges, professional schools, technical institutes, and teacher-training schools.

Honors program: A challenging program for students with high grades.


Institute of technology: An institution of higher education that specializes in the sciences and technology.

International student adviser (ISA): The person at a university who is in charge of providing information and guidance to foreign students in areas of government regulation, visas, academic regulations, social customs, language, financial or housing problems, travel plans, insurance, and legal matters.


Junior: A third-year student at a high school, college, or university.


Language requirement: A requirement of some graduate programs that students must show basic reading and writing proficiency in one other language besides their own to receive their degree.

Lecture: Common method of instruction in college and university courses; a professor lectures in classes of 20 to several hundred students. Lectures may be supplemented with regular small group discussions led by teaching assistants.

Liberal arts (or “liberal arts and sciences,” or “arts and sciences”): A term referring to academic studies of subjects in the humanities (language, literature, philosophy, the arts), the social sciences (economics, sociology, anthropology, history, political science), and the physical sciences (mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry).

LSAT: Law School Admission Test required of applicants to professional law programs and some postgraduate law programs in American law schools.


Maintenance: Refers to the expenses of attending a university, including room (living quarters) and board (meals), books, clothing, laundry, local transportation, and incidentals.

Major: The subject or area of studies in which a student concentrates. Undergraduates usually choose a major after the first two years of general courses in the arts and sciences.

Major professor/thesis adviser: For research degrees, the professor who works closely with a student in planning and choosing a research plan, in conducting the research, and in presenting the results. The major professor serves as the head of a committee of faculty members who review progress and results.

Master’s degree: Degree conferred by an institution of higher learning after a student completes academic requirements that usually require a minimum of one year’s study beyond a bachelor’s degree.

MCAT: Medical College Admission Test required of applicants to U.S. medical schools.

Midterm exam: An exam administered after half the academic term has passed that covers all course material studied up to that point.

Minor: A subject in which the student takes the second greatest concentration of courses.


NCLEX-RN: A licensing examination for registered nurses. It is required by each state and must be passed before a nurse can practice in that state.

Non-resident student: A student who does not meet the residence requirements of the state. Tuition fees and admission policies may differ for residents and non-residents. International students are usually classified as nonresidents, and there is little possibility of changing to resident status at a later date for tuition purposes.

Notarization: The certification of a document (or a statement or signature) as authentic and true by a public official (known in the United States as a “notary public”) or a lawyer who is also a commissioner of oaths.

NRMP: National Resident Matching Program for applicants to U.S. Medical schools.


Placement test: An examination used to test a student’s academic ability in a certain field so that he or she may be placed in the appropriate courses in that field. In some cases a student may be given academic credit based on the results of a placement test.

Plan of study: A detailed description of the course of study for which a candidate applies. The plan should incorporate the objectives given in the student’s “statement of purpose.”

Post doctorate: Studies designed for those who have completed their doctorate.

Postgraduate: Usually refers to studies for individuals who have completed a graduate degree. May also be used to refer to graduate education.

Prerequisite: Program or course that a student is required to complete before being permitted to enroll in a more advanced program or course.

President: The rector or highest administrative officer of an academic institution.

Professional degree: Usually obtained after a bachelor’s degree in fields such as medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, or law.


Qualifying examination: In many graduate departments, an examination given to students who have completed required coursework for a doctoral degree, but who have not yet begun the dissertation or thesis. A qualifying examination may be oral or written, or both, and must be passed for the student to continue.

Quarter: Period of study of approximately 10 to 12 weeks’ duration.

Quiz: Short written or oral test; a quiz is less formal than an examination.


Recommendation, letter of (also called “personal recommendation,” “personal endorsement,” or “personal reference”): A letter appraising an applicant’s qualifications, written by a professor or employer who knows the applicant’s character and work.

Registration: Process through which students select courses to be taken during a quarter, semester, or trimester.

Resident assistant (RA): A person who assists the residence hall director in campus dormitories and is usually the first point of contact for students with problems or queries regarding dorm life. RAs are usually students at the college who receive free accommodations and other benefits in return for their services.


Sabbatical: Leave time with pay granted to a teacher or professor after serving for six or seven years on the same faculty. Its purpose is to give faculty members an extended period of time for concentrated study.

Scholarship: A study grant of financial aid, usually given at the undergraduate level, that may take the form of a waiver of tuition and/or fees.

Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT): A primarily multiple-choice test of mathematics and English abilities that is required by many U.S. colleges and universities for admission into an undergraduate program.

School: A term that usually refers to elementary, middle, or secondary school. Also used in place of the words “college,” “university,” or “institution,” or as a general term for any place of education; for example, law school, graduate school.

Semester: Period of study lasting approximately 15 to 16 weeks or one-half the academic year.

Seminar: A form of small group instruction, combining independent research and class discussions under the guidance of a professor.

Senior: A fourth-year student at a high school, college, or university.

Social Security Number (SSN): A number issued to people by the U.S. government for payroll deductions for old age, survivors, and disability insurance. Anyone who works regularly must obtain a Social Security Number. Many institutions use this number as the student identification number.

Sophomore: A second-year student at a high school, college, or university.

Sororities: Female social, academic, and philanthropic organizations found on many U.S. campuses.

Special student: A student who is taking classes but is not enrolled in a degree program.

Subject: Course in an academic discipline offered as part of a curriculum of an institution of higher learning.

Survey course: A course that covers briefly the principal topics of a broad field of knowledge.

Syllabus: An outline of topics covered in an academic course.


Teachers’ college: Institution of higher learning that confers degrees in teacher education and related areas, or a college within a university that offers professional preparation for teachers.

Teaching assistant (TA): A graduate student who acts as an instructor for an undergraduate course in his or her field, in return for some form of financial aid from a university.

Tenure: A position granted to senior faculty members who have demonstrated a worthy research and publication record. Its purpose is to preserve academic freedom.

Test: An examination; any procedure measuring the academic progress of a student.

Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL): An English language proficiency examination required of applicants whose native language is not English.

Thesis: A written work containing the results of research on a specific topic prepared by a candidate for a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

Transcripts: A certified copy (see “Notarization”) of a student’s educational record.

Transfer: The process of moving from one university to another to complete a degree.

Trimester: Period of study consisting of approximately three equal terms of 16 weeks during the academic year.

Tuition: The money an institution charges for instruction and training (does not include the cost of books).


Undergraduate studies: Two- or four-year programs in a college or university after high school graduation, leading to the associate or bachelor’s degree.

University: An educational institution that usually maintains one or more four-year undergraduate colleges (or schools) with programs leading to a bachelor’s degree, a graduate school of arts and sciences awarding master’s degrees and doctorates (Ph.D.s), and graduate professional schools.

USMLE: U.S. Medical Licensing Examination.


Withdrawal: The administrative procedure of dropping a course or leaving an institution.