I was a first-generation student, but I didn’t register for any of the first-generation services offered by my college.
When they asked me if anyone in my family had attended college, I was already confused—and intimidated. Did my dad’s factory apprenticeship program count as “college”? Would I get in trouble if I answered incorrectly? Would my answer affect which classes or residence halls I got into?
When you’ve been working in higher ed for years, our specialized terminology begins to feel normal. It’s easy to forget that, for many students, we sound like we’re speaking a foreign language.
In a 2013 survey, 70% of student respondents said they were confused by the terminology on college websites.
Communicating effectively becomes even more critical as we welcome increasing numbers of first-generation students to our campuses—and as all incoming students prepare to tackle the myriad of challenges they must face between now and Day One of class.
With this in mind, here are 10 of the most common confusing phrases, according to student narratives and research into student experiences.
1. First-generation: As I shared above, this can be confusing for students who do not already self-identify as “first-generation.” A search for “Am I a first-generation student?” brings up thousands of hits on the CollegeConfidential.com message boards, and advocacy group I’m First lists this at the very top of their list of frequently asked questions.
3. MWF and TR: Course catalogues often use single-letter abbreviations to indicate which days of the week a class meets on (MWF or TR). But as one administrator shared with EAB, multiple students didn’t realize that “R” means “Thursday,” and they had missed several weeks of Thursday sessions.
4. FAFSA: According to one estimate, students lose out on billions of dollars in financial aid each year by not filling out this form. But narratives from first-generation students often cite the term “FAFSA” as one of the terms that confused them when they arrived on campus. On top of that, many students need to work with their family to fill out the FAFSA, and this can be even harder if their parents didn’t go to college or if their family speaks a language other than English at home.
5. Syllabus: Receiving a syllabus—and having no idea what that meant—was one of many bewildering experiences that one student faced on her first day of community college, she told the Detroit Free Press.
6. Credit hours: As many colleges look for ways to encourage students to take more credit hours per term, the first step may be explaining the phrase itself. Laurie Kattuah-Snyder, associate dean of advising and partnerships at Schoolcraft College, says many of her students don’t know what a credit hour is when they arrive.
7. Placement test: While researching college navigation skills, EAB heard from many students that they took the placement exam without knowing its significance. We also heard staff downplay the importance of the exam in an attempt to alleviate text anxiety—but this may lead students to underestimate the effect the exam can have on their academic future.
8. Librarian: As one student recounts, he had no idea how useful librarians could be to him as a student. He cites a study that found students mainly think of librarians as “glorified ushers.”
9. Orientation: “My family stuck around for all of freshman orientation because the paperwork about move-in day didn’t explicitly state when they should leave,” one woman recalls of her first day as a first-generation student.
10. Bursar: It can be hard for students to understand the difference between the bursar’s office and the financial aid office, as a blog post at The Bitter Student points out.
(Herrera, Miami Hurricane, 2/22; Rodriguez, The Bitter Student, accessed 2/28; Condis, Inside Higher Ed, 11/1/16; Weimer, Faculty Focus, 1/21/15; Jesse, Detroit Free Press, 2/25; Kolowich, Inside Higher Ed, 8/22/2011; Childress, Inside Higher Ed, 2/16/17; Pappano, New York Times, 4/8/2015).