Here at Occam Education, we are immersed in the language of academics every single day. Our job is partly to be well-versed in the terms that higher education institutions use to talk about what they do, what they are like, and what they have to offer students. However, the terms that we use sometimes change. On top of that, these terms do vary in their usage from country to country.
It is very easy to get confused by terms that education professionals like us take for granted. Because we understand that the ambiguity of words can make it very hard to understand exactly what people like us are talking about, the "Defining the Terms" series is designed with parents and students in mind.
Between the usual American and UK universities we cover now, and the international institutions we will talk about in the future, how can you easily tell which term means what? To be honest, it will not always be immediately clear. And as in any profession, context is everything. What we can do, however, is provide some clarification.
Not only are some of these terms confusing, the college application process is a complex and often stressful one. We at Occam strive to make this process as clear, and dare I say it, as pleasant as possible. This is why we created Wend, our free app which helps you search for colleges, keep track of deadlines, and manage your application-related tasks.
This post will talk about three of perhaps the most fluid terms in American, Canadian, and UK higher education: major, course and class.
What is a major?
A "major" is a term common to American and Canadian higher education parlance.1 A student’s "major" refers to what their primary area of study is.2 For instance, a common question students in the US will ask one another is "what is your major?", to which students respond with what field they are working for a degree in.
A student who successfully completes the courses prescribed in a major qualifies for an undergraduate degree with the name of the major attached to it. For example, a student who completes an Arabic Studies major at the University of Notre Dame earns a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in Arabic Studies. Another term for a major is "specialization," a term used by Babson College.
Similarly, when people have earned their degrees or left university in the US, the questions "What is your degree in?" and "What did you major in?" mean the same thing.
What is a course?
This term has very different meanings in the US and UK higher educational systems. In the UK, a "course" or "course of study" refers to what subject a student is seeking a degree in.3 This is what US systems call a "major," as we talked about above. Oxford University, for example, encourages students to choose their course (not major) before they apply. UK universities do not use the term "major."
In the US, a "course" refers to an individual lecture or "class" offered in a given semester. The term "course" is also used to discuss individual Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) lectures in high school. (This is to emphasize the accelerated level of work required of students.)
The term "course of study" is often used with the same meaning as "major" in the US. This usage, however, is usually reserved for legal documents such as student visa applications and other immigration forms. However, it is occasionally used when discussing the series of lectures and examinations that American students take to complete their degree. (This is also called a "concentration.")
What is a class?
A "class" in the US is a more colloquial term for an individual lecture or semester-long course.5 Students often use the phrases "I am going to class" or "I am taking a class with Dr. Person this semester."
In the UK, this term is used similarly, but not nearly as often, and it is considered much more informal than it is in the US. For instance, US universities will sometimes use the word "class" in official blog posts and news releases, but UK universities rarely do. In general, the word "class" is reserved for high school/pre-baccalaureate lectures in both the US and the UK.
Students will often use the term "coursework" to refer to the things they must accomplish to earn their degree or pass a class/ lecture in both the US and the UK.
There is a further meaning of this term that has nothing to do with lectures or majors or courses at all in the United States. When someone says that they are in the "University of Chicago Class of 2016," they mean that they graduated/earned their degree from the University of Chicago in the year 2016. In a previous post on Harvard’s early action admissions, we used the term "Harvard College Class of 2021." This meant that the statistics matched the students who will graduate from Harvard in the year 2021. This particular usage of the word "class" is not common in the UK.
Disambiguation: "Hono(u)rs," "Concentration" and "Minor"
"Honours" (UK) and "minor" (US) are closely related but also vastly different.
In the US, a minor is a student’s declared secondary field of study or specialization. Minors and majors differ in that the former is subordinate to the latter. As with a major, the college or university in question lays out a framework of required classes a student must complete to earn the minor. This also varies greatly among schools.
For example, a student can be majoring in Religious Studies and earning a minor in Creative Writing at the same time. This means that a student will take a certain, but smaller, number of lectures in the subject of Creative Writing. The number and type of these courses is always far less than the major subject, and is either determined by the department offering the lectures or is agreed upon between department and student.
In the UK, the term "Honours" means the quality with which student has completed their primary (and sometimes secondary) course of study. While there are degrees of honours in degrees awarded by UK universities, most undergraduate degrees will use the term "honours" before the subject. However, earning honours in two subjects can mean that the student had either
- Two subjects in which they completed an equal amount of coursework, or
- A primary subject and a secondary subject that comprised at least 33% of the graduate’s coursework.
The term can also be used to indicate that a student completed a project with a high degree of quality or innovation.
"Honors" in the US means that a student was either enrolled in an honors program (which will have its own coursework requirements aside from the core courses for their major), or that they earned some kind of special distinction. It generally does not refer to the specific subjects they studied.
"Concentration" is where things can get truly confusing. A concentration is somewhere between a major and a minor in US parlance. Generally, this term refers to the kinds of classes/courses a student focuses on within their primary field of study.
For example, a Colorado State student majoring in mathematics in the US might be taking several classes in numerical analysis and computing. In this case, they would earn a B.S. degree in Mathematics with a concentration (or "emphasis") in Applied Mathematics. Similarly, an East London University student might enter a course in Psychology with a "focus," or "track" in Positive Psychology. Other terms for this include "path of study (UK)."
We know that the U.S. application system can be confusing, so feel free to use Wend's Q&A feature to ask our team of counselors any specific questions you may have!
- Synonyms: course (UK), course of study (UK, sometimes the US), degree course (France)] ↩
- Related terms: concentration, minor, track (US), program ↩
- Synonyms: major (US), program(me) ↩ 4.Related terms: class, lecture, series, subject, coursework ↩
- Related terms: course, lecture, examination, cohort (used in both US and UK graduate education) ↩