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Translating the university "jargon" to understand the process better

I work with students coming from all different academic curricula and qualifications at the secondary school level--British A-levels, French Baccalaureate, Swiss Maturité, Spanish ESO, American AP (although not a “curricula”), New Zealand NCEA, German Abitur, …--who will go on to university most often in a country that is not their home or native one and, most often, in a country where their parents did not attend university. With strong foundations at the secondary level, my students are then “faced” with an entire world of higher education to understand as they research universities and programmes in myriad countries where they may become students. What’s a “Bachelor's” degree? Will I be going on to “undergraduate” or “graduate” studies? What’s the difference between a BA, a BS, a BSc, a BFA, …? Should I be concerned about credits when I look at a university’s programme for Art History and see that in semester 1 I need to take 30 credits? What’s a “dual degree”? …The questions are endless, as they should be at this stage, but they are plentiful and can cause a lot of confusion. And, it was here where we got “stuck” the other day—Annick and I—as we evaluated the programmes and campus life of a few universities she is interested in in three different countries.

When working with truly global citizens we can’t assume…anything. Remember, the entire world is these students' oyster. And, this is relevant to the student and her choice for higher education. Most of my students will have at least three different countries represented on their Long List as we start university research (and it can quickly peak to five or six) and will eventually apply to universities in two, three, sometimes four different countries. None of those countries has the same higher education system and this can be very confusing for the student—and family. (Not to mention the application processes! We’ll get to that later in the year once we start to tackle applications.) But, just because they are so different—and because it’s so confusing—we need to dig deeply and understand the systems and the “lingo” as we’re researching at this stage. If we don’t, the student is uninformed; and, I believe this comes through at the time of application, negatively affecting the applicant. So, time to get a grasp on some of these terms and questions.

Bachelor's Degree

All of my students will graduate with a secondary school diploma regardless of their curricula. My students for the most part are applying for Bachelor’s Degree at university. (Yes, there are others; for instance, some students in some countries apply for an Associate’s Degree, usually a two-year degree.) The time it takes to complete a Bachelor’s Degree will depend on the country awarding the degree, the university and the type of degree it is. (Who said this process was not complicated?) Most Bachelor’s Degrees will take between 3-4 years to complete.

Undergraduate Studies

My students graduate secondary school and will move on to undergraduate studies at university. A Bachelor’s Degree is an undergraduate degree. My students cannot graduate secondary school and move on to, say, a Master’s Degree. They must complete a Bachelor’s Degree before moving on to a Master’s. A Master’s Degree—while we’re here—is a graduate degree. Make sense?


Bachelor of Arts. Bachelor of Science. Bachelor of Fine Arts. These are the different types of Bachelor’s Degrees “awarded to” (“earned by”, I would say) the student upon completing their undergraduate studies, or Bachelor Degree requirements. This can get confusing because there’s no rule saying that, for instance, a student who studies Economics will get a BS because at his university, an Economics degree may be designated a BA. (And, to make this more confusing, some universities will use A.B. to signal a Bachelor of Arts Degree.) I ask my students not to get too into the weeds on this. It doesn’t matter. And, no, a BS is not “better” than a BA and a BA is not better than a BS or BFA and so on. Focus on the institution, the programme, the quality of the professors and student body and what courses you’re going to take, taught by whom. Don’t focus on whether you’re going to get a BS vs. a BA—the semantics. But, do understand the difference. For instance, I have students who are considering a BA vs. a BFA, say, in acting. These courses and programmes vary greatly and, as always, you’ve got to do the research and dig deeply to understand the difference. My point is this: don’t take your decision based on whether it’s a BA, AB, BSc, BFA, or so on. Base it on the nuts and bolts. Not on an abbreviation.


This can be really confusing. Every country has its own system for aligning a certain number of credits to a course within a programme of study. A History of Jazz course in the US may last a semester and carry 3 credits. A similar-looking course in the UK may last all year and carry 1.0 credits. At a university in Spain this course may carry 15 credits. It’s like currency. But, there is no one currency converter. So, what I tell my students here is to not worry so much about understanding the entire credit system of each university and country but rather to understand how many hours of class time each course is that they would have to take or have the option to take in the programmes they are investigating.

Dual Degrees, Bachelor’s-Master’s Programmes, ...

Depending on the university and the programme, my students may come across these types of degrees and opportunities. Dual degrees usually mean you specialize (also known as "majoring") in two different areas and come out with, indeed, two degrees. Perhaps there’s a university that offers a Dual Degree in Music (BFA anyone?) and Management (BS perhaps?). You would come out of your undergraduate studies with both a BFA and BS. Is it better?, I get asked. Only in context if it fits you better. Then, how about those Bachelor’s-Master’s degrees. This is where the student applies for and enters into undergraduate studies continuing on (usually for an extra year, but again depending on the course and programme and university) to a master’s programme without stopping, and usually at the same institution. Is it better?, I get asked. Good question. I’m quite opinionated on this one (and I'll save this for a separate post); but, for now, I say, “No. It’s not better. And, oftentimes it’s worse.” (Why would you go for a Bachelor’s Degree and lock yourself in—and at the same institution—for your Master’s Degree without having given yourself the opportunity to gauge your interests and passions and be open to new ones during your Bachelor’s? Universities created this “Bachelor’s-Master’s” considering their own P&L, not so much for your learning and career...)

I’ll leave you with that tidbit and we can discuss in a later post. For now, let’s get these terms figured out and get the student focused on what matters: her interests, her feedback and her own opinions on what she's finding as she discovers new universities, programmes and campus life around the globe.

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