I passed my exams!: words and phrases for talking about studying (1).

by Liz Walter​
Almost everyone needs to talk about education now and then, so this blog post looks at some useful words and phrases connected with studying. It describes the most typical systems in the UK and the US, and explains some important differences between UK and US vocabulary.

The very youngest schoolchildren have a reception year in the UK and a kindergarten year in the US. After that, Brits talk about year 1, year 2, etc., while US children are in first grade, second grade, etc. The word grade is also used in US English to talk about scores in exams or written work. British English uses mark: He always gets good grades/marks.

In general, the UK has primary schools for ages 5-11 and secondary schools for ages 11-16, followed by sixth form colleges for ages 16-18. In the US, elementary schools teach grades 1-5 or 1-6, middle schools grades 6-8 or junior high schools grades 7-8, and high schools grades 9-12.

Even the use of the word school is different – for Brits, the question ‘Where did you go to school?’ refers only to primary or secondary school (i.e. up to the age of 18), whereas for North Americans, it can refer also to any form of higher education including colleges and universities.

Another thing to remember is that speakers of British English talk about people being at school/college, etc. (My daughter’s at school.), while in the US they are in school (We learned that in school.).

The word college is also used in slightly different ways. In the UK, it most often refers to a place where students study practical subjects and which is less academic than a university, although confusingly it can also mean a place which is part of a university, such as King’s College, Cambridge. In US English, college means a place where you study for a degree, which can be a two-year course at a community college or a four-year course at a larger college or university.

In British English, you go to university to do, take or get a degree. In American English, you go to college to get or earn a degree. Students studying for a first degree are undergraduates, while Master’s degree or PhD students are postgraduates in British English or graduate students in American English. In British English, the verb graduate is used only for degree students, but in the US, students also graduate from high school.

To talk about the subject you are studying, you can say you are studying French, physics, etc.; you can also say you are doing (UK English) or taking (US English) a subject instead. In US universities, where students often study a wide range of subjects, students who focus on one subject more than others say they are majoring in that subject.

When talking about exams, it is important to know which verbs to use. We say that we take an exam (in British English we can also say do an exam): I’m taking my French exam tomorrow. Be careful with the phrase pass an exam. This means to be successful, not simply to take an exam: He worked hard and passed all his exams. If you are not successful, you fail.

This blog post has focused on very general words and phrases; in my next post I will provide some language to talk about the experience of studying.


25 thoughts on “I passed my exams!: words and phrases for talking about studying (1).

    1. Liz Walter

      There are lots of previous blogs on this site you can look at. Otherwise, remember to keep checking this site! My blogs and others appear regularly. Look at Kate Woodford’s posts too.

      1. Liz Walter

        That’s correct for UK – I’m not sure about US – do we have a US reader who can answer?

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  3. Gloria

    What kind of register does the verb “flunk” (meaning to fail an exam) belong to? I suppose it is an informal expression, but is it only used in American English or is it also heard in BrE? Is it a term only used by kids or is it more widely used?
    Thank yo so much for these wonderful post!
    P.S. I also endorse the idea of adding a searchable archive to the blog.

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  5. “Do you go to school in the morning or afternoon?” Does this question apply to university or college? I mean can I ask this question to a university or college student?

    1. Liz Walter

      Not in British English – see this part of my post: Even the use of the word school is different – for Brits, the question ‘Where did you go to school?’ refers only to primary or secondary school (i.e. up to the age of 18), whereas for North Americans, it can refer also to any form of higher education including colleges and universities.

  6. Hi Liz,
    Thank you for telling us all this. I’m happy to see words that have been confusing to me put properly.

    How come Brits and Americans tend to differ in words, not only in things related to studies but on many others? I thought English is a universal language- with same words being used in the same context every now and then.

    Some of us who are not native speakers find it very difficult and confusing because we cannot always be sure whether we are using a right word at a right place. Even the pronunciation differs. Something that has added to my confusion all the more.

    I want to learn English and master it if possible but I feel Iam caught between two opposite opposing forces.

    To be honest, I don’t know which English to use when Iam speaking. I may encounter a Brit or an American and because I have not mastered neither of them, I may not speak with confidence.

    Also, Brits and Americans both look a like to us ( thier skin color is white).

    It is equally difficult to speak knowing who you are talking to is a Brit or an American. Maybe they can easily identify themselves. But I personally cannot tell this is a Brit or an American unless they tell me thier nationality.

    And even though they do that, I still cannot speak with confidence because I have been confused all along-I have not mastered neither pronunciation.

    Please help.

    Thank you!

    1. Liz Walter

      Hi Manyel: I really wouldn’t worry too much about this. From your post, your English looks pretty good to me. The vast majority of words are the same, and Americans understand British accents perfectly well, and vice versa. So just have confidence and go for it!

  7. Mesmacque Christiane

    Thank you so much for this post! I have a question though,in UK English we say “to sit for an exam”, do we use the same expression in us English.
    Thank you

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