college vocabulary, university vocabulary, college life words in english

English at University: 11 Words ESL Students Need to Learn

When you think about American college life, what comes to mind? If you’ve watched Hollywood movies about college, then you know what I’m talking about: living in a dorm, going to frat parties, joining a sports team, etc. If you plan to study in the US, or just want to know more about this, there are some important college life words in English that you should know. In this blog post, we have compiled some of the most important English university vocabulary, plus definitions and examples. Let’s begin! 

The American college experience 

I have always dreamed of going to college in the US. I was born and raised in Brazil, and there are many great universities here. But I knew that the college experience was nothing like the American one. So one day, I decided to apply for a scholarship to study at an American university — and I got it! Before packing my bags, I did a fair amount of studying. I was worried about not knowing specific words that were common in a college setting. I learned a lot about this topic, and now I’m sharing this essential vocabulary with you. 

Before we talk more about English at university, I just wanted to tell you a little bit about some things that surprised me when I studied there. The first thing I noticed is that students spend less time in class. The typical course load is 15 in-class hours per week. However, there is much more reading and homework to do, about 30 hours per week.

Professors have office hours, which is a time they are available to meet with the students and go over any questions they may have about the course and the assignments. When it comes to housing, most students live in dormitories — and they are very much like the ones from the movies, you know? The dorms are often located on-campus.  

english at university, university english vocabulary, college life words in English

My personal experience as an exchange college student in America was the best I could have asked for. If you ever get the chance to study abroad during college I highly recommend you to do so! Now, let’s have a look at some college life words in English, shall we? 

11 college life words in English 

First things first: Americans usually refer to college or university as just “school”. That’s something I had no idea before actually going there. So, instead of saying  “What college do you go to?”, most Americans just say “Where do you go to school?”  

Also, it’s important for you to understand the difference between “college” and “university”. We use the word “college” to refer to institutions that only offer undergraduate programs. If the institution also offers graduate degree programs, we will call it a university. Now that these common questions are out of the way, let’s keep going. Here are some words related to English at university that you should know:

Freshman, Sophomore, Junior & Senior 

Freshman is a term used to describe first-year students, the ones that are just out of high school. Second-year students are called sophomores, third-year students are known as juniors, and seniors are the ones that are in their last year of school.  

english at university, university english vocabulary, college life words in English

Minor & Major 

Every country’s school system is unique, but many students outside the US have to choose their main field of study (such as engineering, nursing, journalism, law, psychology, etc) before being admitted to college. In the United States, it’s different. Students spend their first two college years exploring different courses and then later they declare their major, which is the field of study in which they want to specialize. Besides that, they can also choose a minor, which is another academic discipline the student chooses to focus on. For instance, one can pursue a major in journalism and a minor in economics.  


GPA stands for “grade point average” and it is a way to measure academic achievement in college. The GPA scale typically ranges from 0.0 to 4.0. If you are an outstanding student it is very likely that you will have a perfect 4.0 GPA. Most colleges require at least a 3.0 GPA for entry, but some community colleges accept 2.0 GPA.  

This is how to pronounce different GPAs:

  • 4.0 = four-point-oh 
  • 3.5 = three-point-five 
  • 3.0 = three-point-oh 
  • 2.75 = two-point-seven-five 

101 classes and prereqs

Courses are usually indicated by a name and a three-digit number. If you decide to take a 101 class, such as Astronomy 101, for instance, that indicates that the course is a freshman-level class. The pronunciation of 101 is one-oh-one.

Some of the courses numbered 100-199 have high school-level prerequisites, which means the requirements you need to enroll in the course. The short way to say prerequisites is prereqs (pronounced pre-reks). Usually, the 200-299 courses have 100-level prerequisites, and so on. For example, if you want to enroll in English 201, you need to complete the English 101 first.

Fraternity and Sorority 

Greek life is a big part of college life for some people. Maybe you have seen the TV show Greek? It aired from 2007 to 2011. If you are interested in learning more about these social organizations, you should definitely check out this show. Greek life is all about fraternities and sororities.

Fraternities (or frats for short) are social organizations composed of male students and sororities are composed of female students. These organizations are often designed to bring people together who have similar interests. The names of all fraternities and sororities consist of a sequence of Greek letters, such as Alpha, Beta, Chi, Delta, and so on.

Many of the organizations are more social than anything else, but some are focused on career development or culture. In fact, Kamala Harris, the newly elected vice president of the United States, is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a historically black sorority. AKA was founded in the 1900s for Black women during a time of rampant racism against Black Americans. Its members dedicated themselves to community service, scholarship, and political advocacy.

Of course, if you watch movies about Greek organizations, often they are shown as being party houses. This is not untrue. It is common to hear something like “I’m going to a frat party tonight”. In order to be a part of a fraternity or a sorority, students must go through a recruitment process. The students who sign up for a Greek organization are called pledges. After they recruit, they become a brother or a sister of the organization.  

Meal plan 

When living in dorms, it is common for students to get a meal plan. Most college campuses have a few dining halls, which is where students eat their meals. If you have a meal plan, you swipe a card at the dining hall and then the value of the meal is deducted from your account. Dining halls usually have different stations, like a cereal station, a pizza station, a burger station, and so on. These options are often all-you-can-eat buffet style. 

Remember these words when you go off to college

In order to have a good college experience, you need to know what these 11 words related to university English vocabulary mean. Take a look at the table below:

FreshmanFirst-year student
SophomoreSecond-year student
JuniorThird-year student
SeniorFourth-year student
MinorAnother academic discipline the student choose to focus on
MajorThe field of study in which the student wants to specialize
GPAGPA stands for “grade point average” and it is a way to measure academic achievement in college
101 classA freshman-level class
FraternitySocial organizations composed by male students
SororitySocial organizations composed by female students
Meal planA program offering a certain number of meals per day

Are these college life words in English new to you? If so, we hope they help you understand English at university. We want to know, did you go to college in the United States? Do you want to go? Let us know in the comment section down below, ok? Make sure to check out more blog posts about American culture!