Words To Know For Your First Year Of College

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

The first degree awarding college was founded in 859 a.d. … 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.

Whatever your field of study, these are the words you’ll encounter during your first year at college.


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 honors.

An official transcript is a reproduction of your transcript that is notarized 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 catalog. This is a document you’ll be referring to throughout your time there. The catalog 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 catalog 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 catalog, you’ll come across the word prerequisite. This word 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 specialized courses for your major or to apply to a specific academic program. 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 3 or 4 units, which indicates a normal workload. Electives tend to be 2 units, and upper level courses and labs tend to be 5 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. If you choose to audit a class, you can visit your academic advisor to fit it into your schedule before the first day.

This can be especially helpful when considering which major to choose, or if you decide to change majors later on down the road.


This word comes from the Latin word for “list.”The syllabus you’ll be getting on your first day of class is a bit more detailed than a list though. It will contain things like an overview of what you’ll be learning, how you will be graded, and a rough schedule of when you’ll be learning different topics. Your professor will also likely include classroom policies and their contact information.

It’s important to have your syllabus in a place that can easily be referenced. And, a little dictionary fun fact since you’ll be getting one for every course you’re taking: the plural for syllabus is either syllabi or syllabuses.

office hours

Were you looking over your syllabus and noticed that your professor has office hours? Make a note of these, and definitely go to them!

Office hours are designed blocks of time when your professor will be, you guessed it, in their office. You can go to them with any questions on material, concerns about your grade, or just to have a chat. Building relationships with your professors will help you feel more at home in your program. It will also help secure letters of recommendation you can use for internships …

Blackboard | Canvas

Both of these systems are 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, to announce important classroom goings-on, and to 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.Summa cum laudetranslating 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.

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


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

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