Chapter 5: Speaking The Language of College

Alise Lamoreaux

“Language is the dress of thought”

– Samuel Johnson

Getting started in college can seem like an uphill battle. One of the first challenges a student can encounter is navigating the college’s website. In the attempt to get as much information as possible into the hands of current and future students, college websites are crammed full of information and language that may be new to the first-time college student. Trying to figure out how to get started can be confusing, even when the website says, “Steps To Enroll.”  Registration, admission, enrollment… are they all the same thing? If you are registered, are you admitted and enrolled? Is enrollment in the college the same thing as enrollment in classes? And that’s just the beginning of the potential for confusion! How can a student know the answers to these questions?

Learning to speak the “language of college” can seem even harder than learning a foreign language because as a new student, you have no idea what words you need to learn. If you travel to a foreign country, there are core vocabulary words you will find most helpful – resources that will allow you to order the food you like and services you need. Basic needs like bread and water can be correlated among different languages. A dog is a dog all over the world and not confused with a cat. The vocabulary of college is not so straightforward.

One of the first decisions a student may need to make is whether to attend college as a credit or non-credit seeking student. Even more confusing, non-credit students can also be referred to as “continuing education” students. For example, a student wants to take a drawing class. One of the first questions that may be asked is whether the student wants to take the class for credit or non-credit? Both types of students can take drawing classes. If a student doesn’t know what a credit is or what one is worth, it’s hard to answer the basic question in order to register for the drawing class, and the registration process is very different depending on the answer to the question of credit or non-credit. How can a student know whether he/she wants to be a “credit student” or not?

Learning to speak the language of the college is part of learning the school’s culture. It is important to remember that not all colleges use the same words in the same way.

Commonly Used Academic Vocabulary

Below is a list of commonly used terminology. Without using the Internet or college catalog, see how many words you know the meaning of. Write the meaning in the space adjacent to the term.

Academic Year








Student Number




Credit Hour/Unit






General Education/Gen Ed








Career pathway


Financial Aid




Stafford Loan






Federal Work Study




Non-Credit/Continuing Education




Grade Options


Course Number


College Level Course


Pre-College Level Course


Lower Division Course


Upper Division Course






Learning Community




As a college student, you will need to come up with a strategy for learning lots of information, like the specific language of your school. Tim Ferris has a TED Talk about mastering skills by deconstructing them. When you deconstruct something, it means to take something large, and break it down into smaller parts. It also means to identify why you might fail before you start and make a plan to stop failure before it happens.

Video: Smash Fear, Learn Anything, Tim Ferriss at TED 2008

Based on the ideas of simplifying and deconstructing a task in order to learn it, think of how those ideas could be applied to mastering the language of college.

  • Can you see any ways to simplify the task of learning 30 words?
  • Are there any connections between the words that you can see?
  • Will you need all the words all the time?
  • Will you need some words more frequently than others?
  • When and where might you need each of the works?
  • Can you think of any words not included in this list that would be helpful to know in relationship to your college vocabulary?

License and Attributions:

CC licensed content, Previously shared:

A Different Road To College: A Guide For Transitioning To College For Non-traditional Students. Authored by: Alise Lamoreaux.  Located at:  License: CC BY: Attribution.

Adaptions: Reformatted, some content removed to fit a broader audience.

Time Ferriss: Smash Fear, Learn Anything. Authored by

Located at:

License: CC BY – NC – ND 4.0 International.


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Chapter 5: Speaking The Language of College Copyright © 2019 by Alise Lamoreaux is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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