It's a confusing world out there when university jargon is thrown around like everyone knows what it means. Source: Shutterstock.

Like virtually every other sector, the higher education world has its own unique set of terminologies. For those just navigating university life, the lingo can get a little confusing.

But fret not, we’ve got you covered. From the basic to the not-so-basic words and phrases you’ll encounter, here’s what it all means.


An undergraduate degree is the first level of degree study at university which could be a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BSc) depending on your degree type. This will be listed on your university’s website.

You are also called an undergraduate (or undergrad) student if you are studying for your first degree at university. 


You are a graduate if you have already finished university and been officially awarded your degree. Most students attend a graduation ceremony where they go from graduands (those who have completed their studies but not yet graduated) to graduates during the ceremony.

Graduands commonly move the tassel on their cap from the right side to the left to signify when they become graduates. Source: GIPHY.


A postgraduate award is for students who already have an undergraduate degree. It is often referred to as “grad school” or a “postgrad course”.

Postgrad courses allow students to further knowledge gained in their undergrad course by more advanced studies. Usually, your postgrad studies will be related but different to your undergrad course, whether this is a different area of a similar subject you wish to explore or tailored to a specific job like teaching.

Similar to undergraduate, if you study a postgraduate course you will be referred to as a postgraduate or postgrad student.


See above. A Masters degree course is exactly the same as a postgraduate course. Some institutions will use the term “Masters” more commonly whereas others prefer “Postgraduate”.

PhD/Doctoral degree

PhD is an abbreviation of Doctor of Philosophy, which is the next – and highest – level of degree study. It takes at least four years to complete and requires huge amounts of independent original research working directly with a supervisor. 
PhDs are also considered postgraduate courses – as they occur after your undergraduate degree – but are a different qualification to a Masters.

Domestic student

You are a domestic student if you study in your home country.

International student

You are an international student if you study in a foreign country.

Did you move abroad for your studies? Congrats – you’re an international student! Source: Shutterstock

Mature student

The exact definition of a mature student varies from university to university but commonly you are considered a mature student if you begin your undergraduate course aged 21 or over. Not as “mature” as you may think in some cases!


A subject is a particular area of study. In most countries, you must decide what area you would like to study in before you attend university. This could be a very specific subject like Forensics or more broad like Literature.

Your subject could also be referred to as your course or programme. In the United States, you do not choose your course before you begin studying but select it as you go. This is called selecting your “major”.


A part of your course dedicated to a specific aspect of the subject. For example, if you studied History, you may have a module specifically on Ancient Greece. Typically students take between six and eight modules a year but this will vary depending on your course and university.

Credit points

No doubt you have heard this phrase and thought: “What on earth are credit points and how do I get them?”

Credit points? Nope, no idea. Source: GIPHY.

Every university must have a scoring system. At the majority of institutions, the course will have a point value of a multiple of 15 with commonly between 360 – 480 credits needed over the course of your degree to pass.

However, every university will have different requirements so make sure you check what your specific course needs. Each module will have a certain amount of credit points attached to it.

How do you get credit points? Enroll in enough modules, turn up, and do the work.

If you fail a module you will not gain the credit points and must pick up another module or retake it.

Admission/admission criteria

The admission criteria are what a university or course requires you to have before beginning your studies. This may be a certain level of study, certain grades, or other requirements. Always check your university website.


The faculty is the academic division in which research and teaching take place. For example, your university may have a department for English and another for Science – these are different faculties which can take care of many different courses in a similar area.

Contact hours

Your contact hours are the number of hours you are expected to be physically present at university and interacting with your professors and/or classmates.

Typically you will have the most contact hours in your first year, gradually decreasing in subsequent years as you are expected to become more independent. Source: Giphy

This time is commonly made up of the hours you spend in lectures, seminars, tutorials and practicals.

“What’s the difference”, you ask? Read on to find out.


Often held in large halls, lectures are usually made up of all students who take a particular module. The professor will stand at the front and teach while students listen and take notes. Sometimes, there will be interaction between lecturer and student but other times it will be just listening.


Seminars are similar to lectures but are often made up of much smaller cohorts of students. In a seminar, you are much more likely to be asked to interact with your peers and discuss certain texts or ideas. They typically take place in a smaller room, more similar to a classroom.


Not every course will have practicals but Science-based courses in particular will. In practicals, you will physically be doing something, whether that be operating on a dummy, pulling out a tooth, building a go-kart or sewing a garment.


Tutorials often comprise of one-to-one sessions with your personal tutor or the lecturer who takes the particular module your tutorial is for. You may be joined with one or two other students and it is a chance to gain constructive feedback on your work and to have any question you may have answered.

Personal tutor

Your personal tutor is the professor on your course who will be appointed to you at the beginning of your degree studies. He or she will be the first person you should go to with any problem, and is there to help and support you academically as well as in your personal life as you navigate being a student.

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