The guide to college academic lingo


July 31, 2021

Since the semester starts in around a month, I thought I’d write a student-oriented post this week! When I first started college, I realized that there were a lot of academic terms and words that were new to me – we just didn’t use them in high school. We didn’t have recitations, office hours, or an add/drop period in high school! I thought that it might be helpful to do this post for any incoming freshman or anyone who is looking to learn some of the basic terms about college academics.

Add/Drop Period

This is the first couple of weeks at the beginning of the semester where students can still change around their schedules. You’ll normally register for classes well before the start of the semester, but during add/drop you can add new classes to your schedule if a space opens up or drop a class if you find you don’t really enjoy it. This is a time where if you drop a class it doesn’t go on your record. Basically just a time to ensure that the schedule you have for the rest of the semester works for you.

Class Waitlist

In my high school we didn’t register for our own classes, we just submitted our preferences and an online program would automatically assign us to classes that worked with our schedule. In college it’s different because you actually create your own schedule and sign up for the classes and professors that you want. Because of this, it’s first-come first-serve, that means that if you have a later registration slot you sometimes won’t get a place in the class you want. This is why class waitlists exist! Just like any other waitlist, you can put your name on this and if someone drops the class or the professor expands the class you’ll be able to get a place. This usually runs until the end of the add/drop period. It’s something that I didn’t really know existed until I started college!


The college commencement ceremony is basically just the graduation ceremony – I’m not sure why it has a fancy name. This is the ceremony at the end of your degree when you get to receive your dimploma!

New Student Convocation

This is the ceremony at the beginning of the semester/year where new students are welcomed into the university. There’s usually speeches, presentations, and performances.

Courses & Sections

A course is the subject you’re taking and the level of difficulty. For example, you could be taking Econ 101 which is the general microeconomics course that most colleges teach. However, this is not the same as your section, which is your specific cohort of the course with a specific professor and your group of peers. Basically, a section is a cohort of a course. Everyone in the course will generally be learning the same information even if you don’t have the same professor. This was just something that I thought was a little confusing to get the hang of at first.


At my high school we generally organized our schedules according to how many courses we were taking, however it’s a little different in college. Credits are a number assigned to each course depending on how much time and effort the course takes. A normal course is 3 credits, but if there’s a course that meets more times a week or has more homework it can be 4, 5, or even 6 credits. Instead of saying “I’m taking a schedule of 5 courses this semester” at college you generally say “I’m taking a schedule of 15 credits.”


I think some high schools have deans, but mine didn’t so this term was completely new to me. A dean is a person who has academic authority in the institution or who supervises a section of the college. For example, there is a dean of the university who oversees everything, but there are also advising deans who help students work out what courses to take and what major would be a good fit for them. They’re basically a person who is there to support you at your college.

Midterms & Finals

I think this one is pretty self-explanatory, but I thought I would still include it just in case. A midterm is the exam that you have halfway through the semester, assessing everything you’ve done so far. Some courses might have more than one midterm, so you might have two midterms, each at one third through the semester. Your final is your exam at the end of the semester covering everything you learned that semester – let me just say, finals week is the worst week of the semester.

Office Hours

Office hours are a time in the week where your professor or TA is available to answer questions or walk you through a paper/assignment. During this time you can just drop by, you don’t normally need to make an appointment, and it’s a great opportunity to make the most of. I’ve been to office hours a lot to go through a question I’m not sure how to answer, to talk about an outline for an upcoming paper, or just to ask general questions about a course.


In high school we just had regular class time, so when I got to college and I saw separate timings for lectures and recitation I was confused. Recitations are basically a part of the course which you have in addition to the regular lectures and discussions. They’re kind of like a weekly review session of the course, a TA will normally go over the content you’ve learned that week and give you some practice questions to go through. They’re normally optional, but I think they’re super helpful. I normally review my course material at the end of every week anyway, so this is perfect for me as it’s already built into my schedule. It’s also a great opportunity to ask questions about any of the course material you don’t understand.

Teaching Assistant (TA)

You normally have a TA for most of your classes, and they are someone who is there to help out with the class. Sometimes they’ll lead recitations, grade papers and exams, or just help facilitate discussions in class. They’re great people to ask questions to; if you’re confused in a course, you can ask the professor for help, but normally you’d ask a TA if it’s just about a homework question or if you want to go over an exam!

These were the college academic terms that I could think of and I thought would be useful to know. Let me know if there’s any more you can think of by leaving a comment below. Maybe in the future, I’ll do another post like this one for general college lingo!

See you next week

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