Vocabulary of Education

Many words discuss education, but they aren’t used consistently from country to country. If there’s one time where you don’t want to make a mistake, it’s when you are talking about your schools! Here are some common words and how they are used in Canada.

  • University: A school that gives a Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctoral degree. They may also grant certificates or diplomas.
  • College: A school that gives certificates or diplomas only. They cannot give Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctoral degrees.
  • Degree – a Bachelor’s (usually 4 years), Master’s (usually 3 years), or Doctoral (usually 3 years) course of study at a university.
  • Major – the subject that you study in the most detail. (Special note: Many students use the word ‘career’ to mean ‘major,’ but this is incorrect. Your career is related to your work only, and has no necessary connection to your studying.)
  • Minor – a subject that you study in less detail than your major, but more than your electives.
  • Elective – a course that you take that is not related to your degree, diploma, or certificate, but that is required by your school.

Example: I completed my Bachelor’s degree in Economics at the University of Victoria. My major was economics, and I completed a minor in business administration. I took electives in music, art history, and biology. After that, I completed a programming certificate at a college for six months. Now, I work designing games for the iPhone. My career is in game development.

  • Diploma – A program that is longer than one year, usually offered through a college or technical school. These programs often train people for a specific job, such as nursing, auto mechanics, legal secretary, or web design.
  • Certificate – A program that is less than one year of study. These programs can also prepare people for specific jobs, but often simply train someone in a general subject. You might find certificate programs for software training, for example.
  • Post-secondary: Any schooling that is completed after graduating from high school.
  • Undergrad – short for undergraduate. Refers to a Bachelor’s degree, or a person studying towards that degree.
  • Postgrad – short for postgraduate. Refers to a Master’s or Doctoral degree, or a person studying towards those degrees.
  • Postdoc – short for postdoctoral. refers to study that is taken after completing a Doctoral program.

Grades 1-12 – In Grade 1, a student is 6 years old, and goes to primary school. The grades progress upwards at a rate of one per year. The last year of highschool is Grade 12, when a student is typically 18 years old. These expressions are used for children and teenagers who are studying in primary (usually grades 1-6), middle (usually grades 7-9), and secondary (usually grades 10-12) schools only.

  • First-year: a person in the first year of their post-secondary education. In America, this person is called a freshman.
  • Second-year: a person in the second year of their post-secondary education. In America, this person is called a sophomore.
  • Third-year: a person in the third year of their post-secondary education. In America, this person is called a junior.
  • Fourth-year: a person in the fourth (or greater) year of their post-secondary education. In America, this person is called a senior. Note: The American names are not commonly used in Canada.

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