Guide To College Lingo

By Sean | May 22, 2013

Going to college means dealing with a lot of changes. You may be moving to a campus far away from your home. You may be living with someone who’s not a family member for the first time. You have to get used to new food, new ways of going to school, and new expectations. Even if you stay at home and go to college (or go to school online), you’ll still have to get used to a whole new way of living than you were used to before.

But one of the biggest changes? A whole new vocabulary.

The institution that we call “college” has been around for hundreds of years, and when something’s been around that long it tends to develop a language all its own. But even on top of the accumulation of linguistic weirdness resulting from being around for centuries, colleges and universities also have policies, procedures, positions, and rituals not often found in the outside world. And if you haven’t grown up in an academic family or had a lot of exposure to the academic world, a lot of these terms can be intimidating or confusing. Worse yet, not knowing what some of them mean (and not asking when you need clarification) could actually result in you missing important deadlines, dealing with the wrong offices, or not knowing where to go when you need help.

But never fear! Academbot is here to clear things up with a list of some of the top College terms you need to know.

Baccalaureate: A religious service honoring a graduating senior class, often held within a few days of the graduation ceremony itself. If you go to a public college (or a secular private school) you probably will never experience one of these services…they’re typically reserved for colleges with a religious foundation, especially those associated with the Catholic church.

Bursar: The Bursar is the top person at the college responsible for student accounts…basically the person who heads up the office where you pay tuition and other bills. Typically you’ll never actually deal with the Bursar, but you probably will become quite familiar with the Bursar’s Office…the division of the school that deals with student billing and payments.

Course Catalog: This one seems pretty obvious, but it’s often confused with the Schedule of Classes (see below). What’s the difference? The Course Catalog lists all the classes offered by your school, regardless of whether or not they’re being offered that term. The Catalog also serves as a legally binding document, outlining the courses necessary for you to complete your degree as well as the official descriptions of the courses including content, prerequisites, and requirements. While most schools publish a Schedule of Classes each term, usually they only publish a Course Catalog once per year (at the most).

Commencement: Just another name for graduation (and we’re sure you know what that means!). For the most part, your Commencement/Graduation ceremony is purely…err…ceremonial, meaning that you don’t usually receive your actual diploma when you “walk” and, in some cases, can even participate in Commencement even if you need to finish one class before you officially graduate.

Convocation: This one can get confusing because it means different things at different schools in different parts of the world. At some schools “Convocation” is synonymous with “Graduation.” At others it refers to a ceremony held at the beginning of the academic year to greet the incoming Freshmen. At other places “Convocation” refers to the entire body of alumni of the school who provide guidance to the institution. Finally, at some places it is used to describe a kind of college-community-wide meeting held on a regular basis to discuss certain topics. Check with your school if you don’t know how they’re using it!

Dean: At most schools, a “Dean” is someone with authority over a specific academic unit, usually a college or a school (as part of the overall University). You can basically think of a “Dean” as the “boss” of the faculty in their division, though this isn’t necessarily true at all institutions, especially those where the faculty are responsible for governing themselves. Deans usually report to the Provost (see below), the Vice President of Academic Affairs, or the President of the University.

Department Chair: The Department Chair (sometimes referred to as the Chair of the Department) is the person in charge of the administration and academic direction of a particular academic program. How is this different than a Dean? Deans are usually heads of major academic divisions (often referred to as schools or colleges) while Department Chairs are the head of a particular program within a Dean’s college or school.

ECA or ETC: These acronyms stand for “Estimated Cost of Attendance” or “Estimated Total Cost” and refer to amounts that colleges now have to divulge to prospective students. Rather than just an amount for tuition (which was often reported and easily “fudged”), this number is supposed to reflect the total cost of going to the school full time including room and board, books, fees, transportation, etc. Because so many of these costs vary, the ECA or ETC is usually just a guess based on averages, but it does help you figure out the relative affordability of various colleges in a way that’s more “real” than just looking at tuition and room & board numbers.

Incomplete: Occasionally circumstances will come about that make it impossible for you to finish the coursework for a particular class. Maybe you got injured. Maybe you have to care for a sick family member. Maybe you just had a “big idea” for a final paper that you weren’t able to get enough information about in time to finish before the end of the semester. What an incomplete lets you do is (with your professor’s approval and usually the approval of a senior academic official) sign a contract that states what you will do to finish the work and when you will hand it in. In the meantime your transcript includes an “I” (instead of a grade) and the course is not counted in your grade point average calculation. Beware, though: in most schools if you don’t complete the work for your incomplete by the agreed-to date, you’ll receive a failing grade for the class!

Professor: While you might be thinking “duh!” Who doesn’t know what a professor is!” the answer might not be as obvious as you think. At the base level, a “professor” is someone who’s teaching you and it’s the safest way to refer to them when you need to address them by name. “Doctor” and “Professor” are not the same! In some fields where the “terminal degree” (the highest degree you can attain in that field) is a Master’s Degree (such as in Fine Art, Design, Creative Writing, or many other creative fields), people can become “professors” without having a doctorate (Ph.D., MD, etc.). Calling someone with an MFA “doctor” won’t necessarily insult them, but it does show that you may be a little green. Stick with “Professor.”

Provost: In most colleges and universities, the leadership at the top usually consists of a President (who’s in charge of the whole institution) and a number of people with titles such as “Executive Vice President of…” or “Chief Something Office” or variations of those themes. A Provost is the person at that same “cabinet” level (reporting directly to the President) but is usually the person who is in charge of all the academics at the college or university. Deans (see above) usually report to Provosts. You probably will never need to talk to a Provost, but you should know that if you have to escalate an academic matter, they’re usually the person at the top who can resolve it.

Registrar: The Registrar is the person responsible for scheduling classes at your college or university as well as being the person who oversees the people who register you for classes or deal with schedule changes. Students rarely need to interact with the actual Registrar, but you’ll become pretty familiar with his or her office over the course of your studies when you need to deal with registering for classes.

Schedule of Classes: As we noted in the entry on Course Catalog (see above), the Schedule of Classes is the actual document (printed on paper or, increasingly, published online) that lists all the courses being offered for a specific term. Occasionally a school might publish a Schedule of Classes for an entire year, but this is rare because it makes it hard to accommodate last minute changes due to changes in professors, classes cancelled for various reasons, etc.

Withdraw: Many colleges and universities will allow students who feel that they are doing poorly in a class to withdraw from the class by a certain date. In most cases, if you do this early enough in the semester you can switch to another class or simply not take the class at all without your actions showing up on your transcript. On the other hand, if you wait until later in the semester to drop a class you could end up with a “W” on your transcript indicating to anyone who sees your transcript that you bailed out of a class before completing all the work. Check with your school for your exact policies but remember this: even a “W” is better than an “F” if you think you will be able to take the course again another time and do a better job.