Glossary: Canadian University Vocabulary

University has its own language and not knowing the terms can make it difficult to navigate the campus. Here are some terms you might come across, and hopefully the definitions will help!

This list is organized alphabetically, but Ctrl+F can help you find a particular word!

Am I missing something? Submit your questions about vocabulary here so I can add them to this page!

  • Academic Advisor: This is a person whose job is to help you navigate your degree and make sure you get all the right courses so you can graduate. They can help you navigate various university regulations like deadlines and procedures. Depending on the institution, they may also provide advice about picking elective courses and picking the right program. They may be centralized or in your faculty specifically.
  • Bachelors Degree: A four-year degree in post-secondary, usually at a university but some colleges have degree-granting ability.
  • Board: Many universities are overseen by a board and a senate. The board handles business decisions, and the senate handles academic decisions.
  • Bursary: This is a financial gift for a student that is based on need. Need can be determined in different ways, but typically a student will have to prove that their own or their family’s annual income is below a certain amount. There may be other requirements (certain grades, program, hardships, etc), but this is a financial amount given to a student that does not require repayment.
  • Career Advisor: These advisors are like career counsellors – they can help you explore different career options for your degree and plan to reach those career goals. They can probably also help you with your resumes and cover letters.
  • Certificate: Some universities have certificate programs – these are typically interdisciplinary, which means they involve courses from a variety of programs and/or faculties.
  • Chair: Also called a Department Chair, this is the faculty member who is the highest-level administrator in an academic department.
  • Co-operative work term: AKA co-op. This is a full-time work term that is organized through the university. Organizations hire students to help them build their work experience.
  • Cramming: Studying intensively for a short period before an exam. Cramming is not recommended! organize your semester so you are caught up and have ample time to study.
  • Credits: See “Units” below.
  • Dean: The faculty member who is the highest-level administrator in a faculty is the Dean. The Dean and their delegates will represent the faculty to the university and to any external stakeholders (such as in the community or to accrediting bodies).
  • Declare: In some programs, you have to declare your major at some point. You may start as an “intended” major, or you may be in a general program, and then at some point you will have to go through a process to indicate to the institution what your major will be. Some majors are competitive and will require that you apply, and some you just declare. If you’re not sure, an Academic Advisor may be able to help.
  • Degree: A university degree is typically a bachelors degree. In Canada, this is a four-year degree that you complete after high school. You can also complete a masters degree or a doctoral degree.
  • Double major: Some universities allow you to complete two majors – that would be a double major. This may require you to complete more than four years of studies. Check with your academic advisors.
  • Elective: This is a course where you get to choose what you take. You might be given a list or specific requirements (such as one science and one arts), but this is where you have some freedom to pick the courses for your degree.
  • Faculty: Canadian universities tend to be divided into faculties. These are the different parts of the university: Arts and humanities (which may have many names), Engineering, Business, Science, etc. These are administrative divisions, and they are often further divided into academic departments. For example, an English or Literature department would usually be within the Arts and Humanities or Social Sciences faculty, and a Mechatronics department would be within an Engineering faculty, etc.
  • GPA/Grade Point Average: This is the average of all your grades. Universities use different scales (a 4.0-scale, a 4.33-scale, percentages, etc), so you should take the time to look up what your university uses. There are also different GPAs that may be used: upper-division GPA (all your third & fourth year grades), program-specific GPA (just the grades for the required courses in your program), etc. Your specific requirements should be available on your university’s website.
  • Graduate/grad: Masters and doctoral (PhD) degree programs are referred to as graduate or grad programs, and students in these programs can be referred to as graduates or grads. This is in contrast to undergrad programs (bachelors degrees).
  • Interdisciplinary: A discipline is an area of study (like a faculty, program, or major), so interdisciplinary is when these groups work together and offer a program that has courses from different areas, it is interdisciplinary (for example, a business and science joint program would be interdisciplinary).
  • Internship: This is a work experience opportunity that is less structured than co-op. Some provinces require these to be paid as they don’t allow unpaid work, but some provinces allow unpaid internships. There are industries where these are standard, but make sure you do your research and don’t accept an unpaid internship if you have better options.
  • Joint major: This is when two majors are combined, and fit within a single degree. You are not completing two majors, so a joing major can be done in the same amount of time as a major.
  • Library: You know what a library is, right? The place with books! But university libraries can also help you with your research resources and conducting university-level research. Definitely check out your university’s library website to see what they can help you with – it’s a lot more than just giving you a book!
  • Major: This is the main part of your degree – the focus. This is what you will study for most of your degree, and it will depend on your degree. If you do a Bachelor of Arts, you might major in English or Sociology. In a Bachelor of Science, you might major in Biology or Physics. In a Bachelor of Commerce, you might major in Accounting or Finance. Each university has its own set of faculties, degrees, programs, and majors.
  • Masters degree: This is usually a 1-2 year university program that has a bachelors degree as a prerequisite. Some careers require a masters degree.
  • Minor: This is a small part of your degree that can complement your major.
  • Ombudsman/Ombudsperson: This person is a neutral party who can support students if they encounter issues while dealing with the university. You can go to them if you feel you’ve been treated unfairly and they can liaise between you and different offices of the university to ensure that an appropriate and fair protocol was followed (or support you to follow up if it was not).
  • Part-time work: Many students work part-time to gain experience and help pay for their expenses. If you will be working part-time, there may be on-campus options available.
  • Pomodoros: Study technique where you work for a timed period and then take a timed break. For example, you might work for 25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break.
  • Prerequisite: This is a course that you have to take before another course. If a course is listed as a prerequisite, you have to take it before you go into a higher-level course.
  • President: The university president is responsible to the board and oversees the university senate. Each president will take the role on differently, but basically they are the university leader.
  • Professor: There are different categories and levels of professors. There are sessional instructors, visiting lecturers, assistant professors, professors, professors emeritus… Make sure to check the appropriate title for your instructor so you can address them properly.
  • Program Assistant: Some programs have a Program Assistant who helps students instead of an Academic Advisor. This is the person who will respond to questions about course selection and enrollment as well as other administrative questions. This would usually be in smaller departments or faculties.
  • Recruiter: Universities often have recruiters who visit high schools, attend university fairs, and meet with students to tell them more about programs. In Canada, these people do not receive a commission or bonus for recruiting more students, so they will usually be upfront in providing information about the university they represent. These are not the same as agents, who are not usually affiliated with a specific university and charge money to help you with your application.
  • References: If you are applying for graduate school, jobs, scholarships or bursaries, and sometimes for exchange, you may need references from your instructors. This makes it important to build relationships with your instructors so that they get to know you well enough to provide references.
  • Registrar: The registrar is a staff member who has to sign off on your final degree. The registrar’s office may also be responsible for grading and graduation processes.
  • Scholarships and awards: These are financial prizes for students, based on different kinds of merit. Typically, scholarships are based on high grades, and awards are based on other experiences or requirements, such as community service. These can be quite prestigious and you can add them to your resume to indicate that you have excelled in university. Some will be provided through your university, but there are also external scholarships available.
  • Senate: Many universities are overseen by a board and a senate. The board handles business decisions, and the senate handles academic decisions.
  • Sessional instructor: This is an instructor, often from industry, who is hired on a semesterly basis. They are a contract employee of the university, and may or may not be continuously teaching. If you want to make connections in the industry you are studying, these people may be helpful connections!
  • Student loans: These are special loans administered through the provincial government (or delegated to another organization) that are specifically for students. They usually have lower interest rates and some other benefits for students (compared with a traditional bank loan or credit card). Canadians usually access student loans through their home province (even if they are attending university in a different province).
  • TA or Teaching Assistant: These are students who support the instructor of a course. They might help with marking assignments, or they might lead labs or tutorials. They are typically graduate students (masters or doctoral students), so you can expect them to have some higher-level knowledge to share.
  • Transferable skills: These are general skills that you can build in pretty much any undergraduate degree. Employers value these highly because they are necessary for almost any job you could go into, but are harder to learn than the technical details of how to do a particular job.
  • Undergraduate/Undergrad: A bachelor’s degree is also called an undergraduate degree, so students in these programs can be referred to as undergraduates or undergrads. This is in contrast to graduate programs (Masters and PhDs) and graduate or grad students.
  • Units (or Credits): A univeristy degree is typically broken down into units or credits. Each course you take is normally worth a certain number of units. Your degree may have requirements like “3 units of qualitative courses” or “25 units of electives” so make sure you understand how to calculate these and meet the requirements.
  • University Calendar: This is the formal document for most universities – the “bible” of regulations and programs. Basically, the university has to have a published document so you know which requirements to follow. The academic advisors can help you navigate this.
  • University senate: See “Senate.”
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