British University Jargon Explained

So you’re thinking about going to study in the UK – excellent! If you’re anything like I was then you’re probably assuming it will be relatively similar to college in the US. While there are some ways in which that’s true, in many other ways the UK university experience is very different.

One key way that this is true is in terms of their terminology.

For starters, in the UK the terms schoolcollege, and university (or uni for short) all mean different things and are not interchangeable. In the UK, school most commonly refers to what Americans would call high school (‘secondary school’ in the UK).

Although the term ‘high school’ is used in some parts of England, and British people will know what you mean if you say it, the term ‘school’ by itself is never a substitute for ‘college’ or ‘university’.

To a British person, a college is a type of secondary school, similar to a technical college or community college in the US. British colleges may offer vocational courses in addition to academic subjects, or might focus solely on certain trades/vocations.

The term for what Americans would call college is university or, much more commonly, uni. So if you want to know where someone goes to college, ask them where they go to uni.

The differences don’t stop there, though. At UK universities there are no majors or minors, instead, the degree you study for is known as your course. An individual class is known as a module and when you go to class you go to a lecture. Although you might refer to the person teaching the class as a professor, it’s much more common to refer to the professor as a lecturer, regardless of whether or not they are a full professor.

Moving right along, although the term ‘grades’ would be understood in the UK, it’s much more common to speak of your marks. Most universities in the UK do not use letter grading (i.e. A-F) but rather a different classification system. Instead, UK universities use levels of classification.

The highest level is a First class or First (70%), followed by an Upper Second class, commonly called a 2:1 (read “two-one”) for 60-69%. Then comes the Lower Second class or 2:2 (read “two-two”) for 50-59% and the Third class or Third for 40-49%. Below a Third  is usually a fail. For more information on the British grading system, and on how it corresponds to American GPAs, see my post here.

As there are no A’s, B’s, or C’s, there is also no such thing as the GPA system (or if there is, I’ve never encountered it) in the UK. Instead, the marks across all of your modules will be averaged according to a formula set by your university or your specific department.

Usually there is some weighting involved, and typically you only need to pass your first year of uni, with those marks not being factored in to the overall classification of your degree. In other words – the first year doesn’t count! However it is still advisable to try hard in your first year as those marks will be on your transcript and many employers look for evidence of consistent strong performance. In other words make sure you do lots of revision (the UK term for studying) in first year, and every year.

One last bit of terminology: the terms freshman/sophomore/junior/senior are meaningless in the context of UK higher education. In your first year of uni you’re called a first year or fresher; in your second year you’re a second year; and so on. As a typical UK undergraduate degree is only three years this keeps things pretty simple.

To recap:

  • A major is a course
  • A course is a module
  • A class is a lecture
  • A professor is a lecturer
  • A college isn’t a school or a college, it’s a university

Good luck! Be sure to have a browse of my other posts on making the transition to studying in the UK and leave a comment below if you have any questions.


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