The A-Z Guide to University Life

Image shows two cups of tea next to a pile of books.

Going to university is an incredibly exciting time, but it’s also a big upheaval; life will be rather different for you once you get there.

From living away from your parents to adjusting to a new style of teaching, it’s all change! We’ve compiled this handy A-Z guide to help you get to know the new words you’ll be hearing around ‘campus’ to make it a bit easier for you to settle into your new way of life. Don’t be too worried about all the university jargon – it won’t be too long before you’ll have picked it up and begun confusing first years with your discussion of whether your bursary will stretch to halls and whether or not you picked up freshers’ flu from the vice-chancellor – or something like that. Read on for a translation and a gentle introduction to the dialect of university life.

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Image shows a formal dinner in a Cambridge college.
Alumni reunions and dinners are a feature of life after graduation, and one of the ways in which universities raise funds.

Alumni – the beginning of our guide, but the end of your university career: this is the fancy name given to those who’ve graduated from your university. It’ll be quite a while before you’re an alumnus, but you’ll probably notice events going on at university for alumni, as many universities like to make ‘old members’ feel that they’re still part of the community. Be aware though that traditionalists in the UK prefer ‘Old Member’ to ‘alumnus’, an American import, as in Latin ‘alumnus’ refers to a current student, not a former one.


Bursary – a bursary is a grant that may be available to you to help you out with the cost of living expenses while you’re at university. They can also cover expenses related to your course, such as the purchase of textbooks or the cost of flights to undertake fieldwork overseas necessary to the completion of your course. In your first week at university (if not before you arrive), you should have all the available grants and bursaries explained to you; if not, feel free to ask your tutor if there are any that you may be able to apply for if you’re struggling financially.


Campus – this term refers to the land on which your university’s buildings are located. While you once said “at school”, you might now say “on campus”. Collegiate universities such as Oxford and Cambridge don’t have campuses as such; their buildings are spread out across entire cities.

Image shows the interior of King's College Chapel, Cambridge.
Chaplaincy services are usually geared towards Christian students, but can offer valuable pastoral support to students of other faiths or none as well.

Chaplain – the Chaplain is a religious figure, such as a vicar, who is attached to the university, and to whom you can go for religious or other pastoral advice.


Department – universities are typically organised into departments for each subject area, such as English, Maths or Social Sciences. This will probably be where many of your lectures are held.
Dissertation – the dissertation is a long piece of research you may be required to conduct as part of your course. It typically takes the form of an extended essay, anything from 5,000 to 15,000 words in length, answering an original question or addressing a new problem.


Essays – these are an essential part of learning at university just as they are at school, but the number set per term differs hugely from university to university. At Oxford or Cambridge it would be realistic to expect to write two essays a week, while many other universities set only one or two per term.
Examinations – most courses are assessed with exams at various points in the course, usually at the end of the course but often also at the end of your first year. Exams will probably be combined with coursework and/or a dissertation to produce your final grade.


Faculty – this term describes a division of the university devoted to a particular subject or group of similar subjects, like a department. The phrase ‘teaching faculty’ can also be used to describe the university’s academic staff.
Fees – sadly nothing in life is free, and tuition and accommodation fees will rear their ugly heads at least at the beginning of every term. Tuition fees are paid on your behalf if you’ve taken out a student loan, but depending on how your university organises these things, you’ll soon get used to writing cheques at the beginning of each term to pay for your accommodation.

Image shows someone walking in red wellies on snow.
You’ll need the right equipment for fieldwork. First on the list is a sturdy pair of wellies.

Fieldwork – some courses may require you to complete a fieldwork element, either in the UK or abroad. Fieldwork is very common on courses such as geography or archaeology, and you can see it as a great excuse to travel! Your university may well have travel grants available to help you with the cost of completing your fieldwork.
Firsts – the degree equivalent of an A grade, a First is the highest class of degree and is followed by 2.1, 2.2, and third. This grading system may take a little getting used to when you’re used to the different mark schemes used by GCSEs, A-levels or the International Baccalaureate.
Freshers – an affectionate term for those in their first year at university (the word comes from the American ‘Freshman’).
Freshers’ Flu – with lots of people who’ve never met before mixing in confined spaces and not eating as healthily as normal, the dreaded ‘Freshers’ Flu’ is a common feature of your first week at university. Make sure you stock up on orange juice and cold medicine to get you through!
Freshers’ Week – this is your first week at university, before all your academic commitments start, when you’ll have a chance to get acquainted with your new surroundings, register and make new friends. Read more about what to expect during Freshers’ Week in our previous post on this topic.


Graduation – the end of your studies are formally marked by your graduation ceremony, during which you’ll officially receive your degree. It’s a time to get dressed up in a traditional academic gown and hood, and celebrate your achievements with family and friends.


Image shows a typical student bedroom.
You can bring posters and decorations from home to personalise your room.

Halls – university accommodation is typically in Halls of Residence – purpose-built blocks of student rooms with bathroom facilities and usually kitchens. This is where a lot of students make their closest friends during their time at university.


IT – it goes without saying that all universities will have extensive IT facilities available on campus and in university accommodation. You can expect to have free WiFi in your room, and the old-fashioned computer room of yesteryear hasn’t died out yet either. There should be an IT officer on hand to advise on virus protection, getting online and any other IT issues.


Joint Honours – when two subjects are studied alongside each other, the resulting degree is known as a Joint Honours degree. Common Joint Honours degrees include combinations of languages, such as French and Spanish. This isn’t the equivalent of doing two degrees; it’s roughly the same amount of work, but split between two subjects.


Kitchens – your accommodation should have a shared kitchen for you to prepare meals and socialise in. We advise labelling all your own kitchen utensils, pots and pans, as they can easily get mixed up with everyone else’s and go missing when the end of term comes round. Labelling your food in the shared fridge is a good idea too – then there’ll be no excuse for a yogurt going missing or that milk mysteriously being half empty!


Lectures – a university teaching method that you probably won’t be familiar with from school is the lecture. A fairly big percentage of your teaching is likely to be comprised of lectures, in which an academic talks to you for an hour about a particular topic and you take notes. You’ll often be given a handout to accompany the lecture, which will give you the key points and further reading. Some students try to get away with getting hold of the handout but missing the lecture, but we advise against this; the handouts usually only tell a fraction of the story!

Image shows a long wooden bookshelf in an old library.
Don’t skip the library tour in Freshers’ Week; knowing how to navigate university libraries is invaluable.

Library – you’ll be spending a lot of time in the library if you’re a good student, as it’s not only the place to find the resources you need to prepare for seminars and write essays, but it’s also a quiet place to study that’s free from the distractions of your room. Many individual university departments have their own subject-specific libraries with more in-depth collections.


Mature Students – not all the students at your university will be fresh from school like you. Anyone over the age of 21 when they start their course is known as a ‘mature student’. These are often adults who are taking a career break to pursue further study.
Masters – the Masters degree is the next level up from Undergraduate. Some students start out on Masters courses from the word go; these are usually four-year courses rather than the usual three. If not, the Masters is typically a year long and students often go straight onto these in the year after they complete their Undergraduate degree.


NUS Card – when you become a student, you’ll be able to get your hands on the brilliant NUS (National Union of Students) card, which will entitle you to a huge number of student discounts.


Image shows stalls at an Open Day at the University of Portsmouth.
Volunteer at Open Days if you can – it can be a route into a part-time job at the university.

Open Days – you’ll probably go on lots of Open Days when you’re deciding which universities to apply to, but they’ll be a feature in the background of your time at university as well. You’ll probably receive emails asking for help running these; current students are on hand to give tours to prospective applicants and answer questions. You’ll realise how far you’ve come when you see all those nervous school-goers in exactly the same position as you were a year ago!


Practical – if you’re a science student, you can look forward to practicals as part of your teaching schedule. These are lab-based sessions that allow you to learn hands-on rather than from books, and they’re typically mixed in with a programme of lectures and other learning methods.


Quality of teaching – during your time at university you’ll probably be asked to take part in surveys regarding teaching quality. As we’ve said recently in another post, this has come under increasing scrutiny following the recent rise in tuition fees, so you’ll probably be asked to comment on things such as how satisfied you are with the quality of teaching you’re receiving and with specific academics.


Image shows a green student card.
Get a photo you like for your student card; you’ll probably be keeping it for a while.

Registration – one of the first things you’ll do when you arrive at university is officially register as a student. Try to take some passport photos along with you for this, as you’ll almost certainly need them and it will save you a great deal of hassle trailing round an unfamiliar town trying to find a passport photobooth.


Seminars – this is another teaching method used by most universities, in which students are taught in small groups that facilitate academic discussion, led by an academic.
Student Union – this is the social hub of the university, and somewhere in which you can chill out with your friends. There’ll be a bar, and social activities such as pub quizzes will likely take place here.


Thesis – this is another word for a dissertation, or extended essay.
Tutor – tutors are the academics who teach you, though terminology may differ from one university to the next (‘supervisor’ or ‘professor’, for instance). You’ll also have a pastoral tutor, to whom you can go for advice on personal problems or anything else relating to your wellbeing.

Image shows people sitting around on comfy chairs in deep discussion.
The format of tutorials will vary. They could feel like an informal version of an A-level class, or like a focused debate.

Tutorial – a tutorial is typically a very small teaching group, though the word can mean different things at different universities, or have a different name (Cambridge calls them ‘supervisions’, for example). At Oxford, a tutorial is a one-to-one or one-to-two class involving intense academic discussion between tutor and student.


Undergraduate – you’ll be referred to as an undergraduate during your initial university degree; it refers your first degree, your undergraduate degree, which is usually three years (though if you wanted to you could technically do more than one undergraduate degree, one after the other, in different subjects). The undergraduate degree is followed by the Masters and then the PhD.


Vice-Chancellor – the most senior member of management staff at the university is known as the Vice-Chancellor, who is usually a senior academic. You probably won’t see them much during your time at university, except during your graduation ceremony at the very end.


Warden – at a collegiate university such as Oxford and Cambridge, this is a term for the head of a university college.


Image shows a Scrabble board.
In the bottom left-hand corner, you could play xi on a double word score.

Xi – a useful two-letter word for the fourteenth letter of the Greek alphabet that might just save the day if you get involved in an iPhone Scrabble contest with a fellow student (we admit it: we couldn’t think of a university term beginning with X).


Year – as with the school year, your university year will run from September to September. It will be split into three terms, and some universities have names for those terms (such as Oxford, which calls them Michaelmas, Hilary and Trinity).


Zoology – the study of animals. Because we couldn’t think of any university-related terms beginning with Z either… can you?

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Image credits: banner; dinner; chapel; wellies; room; library; open day; student card; tutorial; scrabble