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University terms high school students need to know

True story: someone I know completed all of the courses (she thought) she needed for her degree. University had been a long and challenging road for her, and she was excited to graduate.

What she didn’t realize is that as part of her degree program, she was required to complete a certain course, and she didn’t take it. She had the required number of courses, but not one of the specific kind of courses.

Although she had been notified by the institution of the requirements, she somehow missed it, and was now unable to graduate on time. She had to go back, take the required class (and pay tuition, of course), so she could finally graduate with her degree. Doing so delayed her ability to gain full-time employment for several months.

I wish this were an isolated case, but it’s not. When I was an academic advisor I saw this situation (in various forms) many times. The university does a good job of making information available to students, but people are busy and things get missed.

Could at least some of these situations be avoided if students knew in advance more about what is expected of them? I think so.

In an effort to take the first step in helping with this problem, I’ve written this (very long) blog post explaining in plain English some of the more common university terms I think students need to know.

My “definitions” are highly simplified. This simplification is intentional to ensure the high school reader gets a general idea of the meaning of the word. It’s not necessary to go into detail at this point.

My goal is to give students enough information so they are not confused by the words university personnel tend to throw around, assuming high school students know what they’re talking about. This information will also help them to understand the words used on the university websites.

After working in academic advising for five years, and from working one-to-one with students for more than three years, it’s been my experience that many high school students don’t know what some of these terms mean, but they may not want to ask, so they let on they know.

The problem is, not knowing what some these terms mean can affect their success at university!

And that leads me to this next announcement, my proverbial disclaimer…

DISCLAIMER: the information I provide in this article is based on generalizations. Not all universities in Canada are the same, but many are similar, and this information is based on the way most universities in Canada operate most of the time. If you have a specific situation and you’re unclear about the regulations or procedures of a particular institution, you should contact the university directly to inquire.


Common University Terms:

1. Entrance Scholarship: education funding offered by an organization. Usually assessed on merit (applicants must meet certain criteria to be eligible). May vary in value from hundreds of dollars to a top value (currently in Canada) of $100,000.

2. Bursary: education funding offered by an organization. Bursaries are most often based on demonstrated financial need. They are usually valued in the hundreds of dollars, and are meant to augment other, larger forms of funding. Normally, bursaries are offered by the education institutions themselves after the student has been admitted and is attending the institution. Students should apply to the university for bursary funding early in the school term, e.g. October of first-year.

3. Undergraduate or Bachelor’s degree: a “first degree” or entry point for university. Generally, a 4 year structured program (if completed full-time).

Some undergraduate degrees are somewhat specialized pretty much from the beginning, like Engineering. Others are less specialized at first, then get more specialized as you progress through the program.

In a less specialized degree, like a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science, you take some general classes in your first year and then (either in the latter part of your first year or in your second year), you choose a major (see definition below) and you start to focus more—although not completely—on a specific area of interest.

First year level courses are usually enumerated using 1000 series, 2nd year level courses are indicated with 2000 series, etc., thus English 1000 is a first-year level course and English 2202 is a second-year level course. Normally, to take a 2000 level course, students must complete a 1000 level course as a pre-requisite. Any specific pre-requisites are indicated in the course descriptions.

Your class sizes will likely be quite large in first year general classes (say, between 100 – 400 people), but as you get into 2nd, 3rd and 4th year the classes will get smaller. It’s not uncommon to have 20 or fewer people in a 4th year class, even at most large universities.

Students usually must complete specific courses within their degree program. Although you will have some choice in the courses you take, you cannot just take any course you want. See more on this topic in the “degree requirements” definition, below.

With many degree programs, students can choose to take fewer than the full course load in any term or year, but it will mean you will extend the length of your degree, unless you take courses during the summer term (May – August) to make up the ones you didn’t take during the regular term.

If students take a degree with co-op, it normally takes 5 years to complete because of the way the work-terms are organized.

Examples of abbreviations for undergraduate degrees:

BA - Bachelor of Arts

BSc. - Bachelor of Science

BComm. - Bachelor of Commerce

BEng. - Bachelor of Engineering

4. Major: a group of courses that make up an area of focus for your undergraduate degree. To put it as simply as possible, you will take the majority of your classes in your major subject area. Again, using a simple example: if you are a full-time student, you will take 5 courses per year. If your major is Chemistry, you will take 3 out of 5 courses in Chemistry.

You will be required to take a certain number of courses in your major subject area. And within those courses, you will be required to take some specific courses. But you will have a choice for some of your major courses. In this way, you can select a narrow area of focus, or expertise, if you wish (provided the university offers the courses you desire).

Not all universities have the same majors, although most have common Majors such as Biology, Chemistry, English, Psychology, etc.

Note: not all degree programs have majors. Some, like a Bachelor of Engineering, have specializations called disciplines, e.g. Mechanical, Civil & Resource, etc.

Examples of undergraduate degrees with a major/discipline:

BA English

BSc. Biology

BEng. Civil & Resource

5. Minor: a group of courses that make up a sub-focus within your undergraduate degree. A minor is similar to a major, but with fewer courses. You will still be required to take some specific courses for a minor, and you’ll have a choice for others.

You cannot take a minor on its own; it must be completed along with a Major. And you cannot just take some courses and call it a Minor; the university designates Minors. Minors are only available in certain subjects, and they sometimes can only be combined with certain Majors.

If a student takes a Major and Minor, they will have many specific course related requirements to complete, and fewer electives (see definition, below). It will be very important to get regular academic advising (see definition below) to ensure you meet all of the requirements you’ll need to graduate.

Examples of an undergraduate degree with a major and minor:

BA English (Minor in Film Studies)

BSc. Biology (Minor in Psychology)

6. Honours: a more challenging way to complete your Major in your undergraduate program. A student must apply for an honours program, usually in 2nd year. Students must have a certain GPA in their Major subject area. Some honours programs require a thesis, which is an in-depth research project supervised by a professor.

Most graduate degree programs (see definition below) require an honours degree for admission, so if a student wishes to take a graduate degree, they should plan to apply for an honours program.

Example of a degree with honours: BSc. Psychology (Honours)

7. Certificate: a subset of courses in your degree program that designate a specialization in a subject area.

Example: BSc. Computer Science (Certificate in Cybersecurity)

8. Diploma: a group of courses in a subject area, often requiring two years to complete. Diplomas are more often offered at colleges rather than universities, although some universities offer diplomas, such as a Diploma in Engineering.

9. Graduate degrees: there are two kinds of graduate degrees – a Masters degree and a Doctorate of Philosophy degree. One must complete a Masters degree to be eligible to apply for a Doctorate degree.

A Masters degree is one that (usually) can only be completed following an undergraduate degree, and often a undergraduate honours degree.

Masters degrees usually take two years to complete. The degree has a highly specialized focus. Students take a few classes, but the majority of the work is independent research and writing, with support and supervision by one, or possibly two, professors.

Examples of a Masters graduate degree:

MSc. Oceanography - Masters of Science in Oceanography

MBA – Masters of Business Administration

A Doctorate of Philosophy degree is specialized further. Students do more research in their area of interest and develop an expertise. The degree usually takes 4 years to complete, and the student is supervised by one or more professors. Usually, by the time a person graduates with this degree, they have completed at least 10 years of university study. Most, but not all, professors who teach at universities have a PhD.

Example of a Doctor of Philosophy degree: PhD. Physics

10. Professional programs: often how people refer to degree programs such as Medicine, Dentistry, Law, Physiotherapy, Occupational Therapy, etc.

Although some professional programs are actually undergraduate degrees, very often they require at least one or more years of undergraduate work for admission. They are often highly competitive programs and most have additional admission requirements such as completion of a standardized test, e.g. MCAT for Medicine, plus references, an interview and prior work or volunteer experience.

11. Faculty: There are two ways the word faculty is used:

a) The name given to the specializations or divisions of a university, e.g. the Faculty of Business. In this way, it refers to everything associated with that body, e.g. students in the Faculty of Business means all students who are taking a degree program in business, whether it’s a BComm. or a MBA.

b) Another name for a professor, e.g. to ask a faculty member = to ask a professor

12. Professor: usually means someone who has completed a PhD, and who usually teaches a course at university in their specialty area. Some people who teach courses at university are professors with a PhD., and some are not (they may still be completing their PhD.).

If the person has a PhD, they may be called Dr., as in Dr. Jane Smith, PhD., which indicates they have a Doctorate in Philosophy.

Note this is different than a medical doctor, who is also called Dr. based on their degree as a Medical Doctor (MD), as in Dr. Sarah Brown, MD.

13. Credit: the unit of measure of a degree program, often used interchangeably with “course”, e.g. “I’m taking 5 credits this term.” = 5 courses.

14. Elective: a course/credit that is not required to meet your major or minor degree requirements. Students can take electives as they wish, as long as they meet the elective course's pre-requisites.

15. GPA or grade point average: basically, your GPA is made up of how many courses you take and the grade you receive in the courses. Your GPA is determined by other things as well, such as the course “weight” (credit hours), so it’s not as simple as just dividing your number of courses with the grades you received. For example, if you get a good grade in a course with higher number of credit hours, you will increase your GPA significantly. However, if you get a lower grade in a course with the same credit hours, it will lower your GPA significantly.

There is a sessional GPA (based on a term) and a cumulative GPA, based on all of the courses you’ve taken at that institution so far.

Your GPA will be used to determine things such as if you are eligible for an honours program, and if you are eligible to graduate (you must meet a minimum GPA to graduate).

16. Degree requirements: Each university has its own set of rules that students must follow to be granted a degree. Some universities believe students should have a somewhat “well-rounded” education, so they require students to take subjects from a variety of subject areas. For example, some universities require students in a Bachelor of Arts program to complete one course in a language other than English.

Students will often have overall degree requirements, and also have requirements to complete for their major. If you don’t complete your requirements, you will be ineligible to graduate. Even if you have the proper number of courses, if they don’t meet all of the requirements, you will not get your degree until you complete the requires course(s). For this reason, it’s very important you get academic advising each year to plan your courses.

17. Academic advising: advising provided by the university to help you plan your courses so you meet the requirements for your major and your overall degree program.


I hope this information is helpful. Part of the reason I wrote this blog is because of the questions I get asked by my student clients. One such Grade 12 student was grateful for the information…

If you have other terms you’d like added to this list, let me know! I’ll update the list as I discover more terms students want to know.

Want to learn more about how I can help you win scholarships? Please visit my services page.

Best wishes!

About the author

Janet MacDonald is a Scholarship Coach with mycampusGPS Education Consulting. She is a former Canadian university admissions officer. For seven years, she was the coordinator of a scholarship program at a major Canadian university. Janet has helped her student clients win hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships.

You can find her online at, and on LinkedIn.

Learn more about Janet MacDonald by visiting the About Page.

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