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A (North) American K-12 and University Primer

Tory Thorkelson

Just to be clear, I am a Canadian and so will include examples from both the United States and Canada (but not Mexico which is part of North America, but has a much different system of education – although not as different as you might think (1)). Now, let me offer an explanation of the basics of public education (K-12) and College or University in North America and the pesky jargon to go with it!

K-12, anyone?!

According to this chart (2), about the only thing the US, Canada (and the UK!) agree on is that the first two+ years of a child’s life involve a Nursery. Ages 3-4 are both called Preschool in the US and Canada (even though children attend a kind of daycare/organized program in many cases) and then titles apparently diverge with Canadian Kids in Ontario going to Junior (4-5) and Senior Kindergarten (5-6) and other Canadian as well as American kids continuing on in Preschool for another year (4-5) and then entering Kindergarten for a year (5-6) (3). From Grades 1-12 (Ages 6-18) both Canada and America use the same terms for grades for the  most part but where junior and senior high begins and ends may differ and they may be called junior high, middle school or senior public school (3).

While elementary school normally covers grades 1-5 or 6, middle (junior) high may cover 6-9, 7-8, 7-9 or even be non-existent with elementary school running from grades 1-8 and High school being from 9-12, for example(3). In Quebec, public school ends at Grade 11 and there is a pre-college program called CEGEP. While it ended a number of years ago, Ontario used to have a grade 13/OAC as well but it was phased out in 2003. This is still true in parts of Oregon and North Carolina in the US. This replaced the first year of college in some cases or at least could be transferred into college credits. (4)

Is a typical degree Two, Three or Four years?

A typical university degree is 4 years in length (5); although when I went to University in the mid-80’s a 3 year degree was the ‘norm’ at my university. While in Canada, a university degree is not the same as a college diploma or certificate from a Vocational/Trade College or community college where programs may last from a few months to a year or two. In recent years, Vocational and Technical colleges have offered Associate Degrees (AD) which allow students to transfer to a typical 4 year degree in the US. A University degree is synonymous with a College degree or Baccalaureate degree (5). The years at High School or University are labelled Fresh people instead of the old Freshmen (1st year students), Sophomores (2nd  year of University), Juniors (Grade 11 or 3rd Year University) and Seniors (Grade 12 or Final Year of Undergraduate degree).

What about Graduate school?

In North America, a Master’s degree is done after a Bachelor’s degree and is followed by a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy), Ed.D (Doctor of Education) or LLB (Law degree), for example, see here for more information on each level of degree (7) and a pretty exhaustive list of the various degrees at all levels(25). Incidentally, the number of students with a university degree of some kind has risen dramatically since 2000 in the US (8). While in Europe, for example, some degrees combine a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree into one and in Asia many students do their Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees (or even Master’s and Ph.D.’s) at the same university or even in the same department, North American students are expected to do all 3 degrees at different universities (or at least their Masters and Ph.D. at another university than their Bachelor’s degree) starting locally or near home with their Bachelor’s degree and then doing their Master’s and/or Ph.D. in other states/provinces or even overseas. According to IIE, “…332, 727 US students studied abroad for academic credit in 2016/17, an increase of 2.3% over the previous year” (9).

What is a GPA?

The GPA, or Grade  Point Average, is calculated based on a 1-4 point scale with the grades A-F roughly equivalent to 0-4 on the GPA scale (10). There are a few universities that use a 4.5 GPA scale apparently (and high schools may use a weighted 5.0 GPA; you can see a tool to convert your GPA here (12), but 4.0 is the standard in North America. For the UK equivalents, see (11).

Who are Professors, Instructors, Readers and Tutors?!

These terms are a bit confusing since, in North America, titles range from Instructor to Adjunct Professor to Assistant/Associate Professor and, finally, full Professor. In the UK, the terms Tutor (1 on 1 teacher/coach/mentor), Lecturer (classroom instructor and researcher) and Professor /Reader (Academic with teaching/researching) may be used (13) (14).

What are the exams to get into University?

American Universities require students to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or ACT test before they get accepted (and probably a TOEFL or IELTS test if you are a non-native speaker), and – while the GRE Exam is required for almost every graduate school program – if you want to get into Medical school or Law school, for example, you will need to take the MCATS or LSAT, respectively (15). Be aware that many universities also have their own tests and – in Canada – tests like the Can TEST (17)or the CELPIP test may be required as well(16).

What alternatives are there to traditional University programs?

Many students do internships during their roughly 4 month summer vacation, from May to September in the US and Canada. While it seems obvious to get practical experience in your chosen field, like articling for Law students or doing teaching practicums for prospective teachers, some majors may also incorporate on the job training (OJT) as part of their programs with a mixture of work experience and class work combined in order to get your diploma of degree. Business or Finance degrees are another area where this is common practice. Remember that this OJT may be paid but the more common internships widely advertised often are not (18).

What are Fraternities and Sororities?

In theory, fraternities (brotherhoods) and sororities (sisterhoods) are single sex groups of students who join together to promote common social or intellectual interests. However, they are also very powerful both nationally and internationally and many members of the so called “Greek system” (or “Greek Life”) go on to powerful positions in politics or business in the US. See this article for a decent overview of their pros and cons (19) and explanations of some of their more common practices (19). See here for a list of the best known Fraternities (20) and Sororities along with some background information (21).

What are Study week and March Break?!

While Spring break or March break is a common practice at public schools and universities in the US and Canada, some universities have a study week or reading week instead in February or early March instead. According to one of my University Professors, it was created to counter the spike in returning students feeling depressed after returning to university after the short vacation for Christmas and New Years that is common at North American Universities. See this article for an overview of research that suggests the peak is in the spring all around the world rather than in the winter (24).

What should I do with all my free time?!

Besides the aforementioned Fraternities, Sororities and Internship/OJT opportunities mentioned above, there are plenty of ways to fill your free time at college or university in North America other than just hanging out at the on campus pub or a café.  Most majors or departments have in house clubs or societies for their students but organizations like AISEC (Association Internationale des Étudiants En Sciences Économiques et Commerciales (French: International Association of Students in Economics and Management) offer an internationally recognized network of associations with a well-established history. See (22) below for more details about AISEC or this page for a list of many more clubs/organizations and associations for nearly every department/major (23).




(3) Quebec and Ontario have some rather unique features as do Newfoundland and Labrador. See:






















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