Words to know for your first year of college

Career & Education

Words to know for your first year of college

Sunday, September 08, 2019

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A student's first year of university or college can be an exciting but also intense time of transition. There's a new campus to get used to, friends to make, passions to discover, and new words to learn.

The first degree-awarding college was founded in 859 AD ... so the higher education system has loads of terms that are used to describe its workings. Knowing these words before your first day will give you a leg up in navigating this new world. Here are a few:


OK, you might already be familiar with this one due to the college application process. A transcript is a document that outlines your academic career. It contains the subjects you studied each year, the grades you received, your academic standing, and any honours.

An official transcript is a reproduction of your transcript that is notarised by your institution. You can use it to apply to other schools; sometimes it is a required document for applying to internships and jobs, too.


It's important to know where to locate your college's catalogue. This is a document you'll be referring to throughout your time there. The catalogue not only outlines the majors, minors, and courses offered, but also contains other important information like your school's history, ethical philosophy, and extra-curricular activities.

The catalogue is typically found online, but you can also visit your advisor to ask questions about its contents.


While looking at all the cool classes and majors in the catalogue, you'll come across the word 'prerequisite'. It is particularly important, as the first two years of college are largely made up of these prerequisite courses.

Think of the prerequisites as background knowledge needed for your major. You'll need to take these in order to get into specialised courses for your major or to apply to a specific academic programme. For example, a prerequisite to a nursing major would be 'Introduction to Biology'.

Unit | Credit

Units are for measuring, and a college unit is a number assigned to each class that measures its level, time commitment, and intensity of the work. They are also called credits. A certain amount of them will be required to complete your degree.

The majority of the college courses are three or four units, which indicates a normal workload. Electives tend to be two units, and upper level courses and labs tend to be five units. When you're scheduling classes, make sure not to overload yourself on courses with too many units — because a lot of units means a lot of work too.


It's possible to sit in a class without receiving a credit for it. If you wish to audit a class, you'll be allowed to sit in and listen to the professor's lectures. This can be especially helpful when considering which major to choose, or if you decide to change majors later on down the road. If you choose to audit a class, you can visit your academic advisor to fit it into your schedule before the first day.

Blackboard | Canvas

Both of these systems utilise wordplay on words from those old wooden schoolhouses that used things like chalk. Depending on your college, you'll use either Blackboard or Canvas to manage some of your classroom materials online.

Professors use these systems to upload assignments, announce important classroom goings-on, and keep track of due dates. It's especially helpful to download the apps to your phone; push notifications will make sure you never miss an assignment or exam.

Summa cum laude | Magna cum laude

These Latin honorifics are determined at the end of the year, but they are a culmination of your work in college. The phrase “cum laude” means “with distinction”, and there are two levels.

“Magna cum laude” translates to “with great distinction”. This distinction is given to a larger group of people who had exceptional academics.

“Summa cum laude”, translating to “with the highest distinction”, is usually given to only a few people. Think of it as the college equivalent to the high-school valedictorian.


After your first class, you'll probably be thinking about when you'll get to walk the stage. This ceremony is known as commencement.

A commencement is the beginning of something; graduating college is thought to be the commencement of your adult life. That's also when you'll need to learn another word: adulting.

— dictionary.com

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