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University jargon is a whole language in and of itself. From the minute students start pursuing higher education, they’re bombarded with terminology that’s tough to decipher. What’s a provost, bursar, or TA?  What does FERPA or FAFSA mean? What are office hours, placements exams, and work-study programs? This secret language is everywhere. Even individual departments and fields of study have a set of terms and acronyms all their own.

There’s a notion that any sort of writing in an academic environment must be complex and intellectual enough to reflect the institution. Websites, syllabi, guides, and applications are chock full of wordy sentences and dense paragraphs that read more like a doctoral dissertation than instructions on how to add or drop a class. As a result, many institutions have a difficult time explaining complex jargon in a clear, concise way because such terminology is ingrained in their vocabulary. New students are expected to know what everything means as soon as they set foot on campus, and that’s just not possible.

First-generation & International Students

Among those most affected by college jargon are first-generation and international students. Growing up, most first-generation students weren’t exposed to the same college lingo their continuing-generation counterparts were. Therefore, the application and enrollment process is brand new territory for first-generation students and their parents.

Getting acquainted with the campus, stepping into the classroom, and navigating the whole system is another challenge when necessary information is unclear or hard to find.

International students or new U.S. citizens don’t always have sufficient knowledge of U.S. culture or language. A language or cultural barrier may prevent students from finding the right resources or interacting with faculty members. Customs, communication, and education practices differ among countries, and it takes time to adjust to a new environment. Wading through pages of confusing jargon only adds to the challenges international students already experience. Clear, simple, and concise information is always better.

It’s easy to feel like an outsider when terminology doesn’t make sense. Institutions must ensure any content produced is simple, intuitive, and concise, otherwise students are more likely to fall behind, question their sense of belonging, and feel underprepared. Can colleges and universities tear down this barrier and make college more accessible?

Ways to Fix the Jargon

Anytime a student needs help, they shouldn’t feel an immediate sense of dread. They should be able to find the right answers and information quickly without having to decode wordy web pages and help documents. By simplifying jargon, students have a better chance of completing applications, accessing the right resources, improving grades, developing a sense of belonging, and persevering through school.

  1. Ensure content is written with every student in mind. Who might not understand this? How can we rephrase it to make sense? Students all have different backgrounds and levels of exposure to the college system. Remember who the audience is.
  2. Use the active voice. For example, “When the form is completed by the prospective student…” vs. “When you complete the form…” The latter is much clearer.
  3. Use bullet points to simplify checklists and requirements, improve readability, and keep information concise.
  4. Explain acronyms in plain English.
  5. Learn to identify jargon when you see it.
  6. Focus on keeping it simple over scholarly. There’s a time and a place for academic writing, but university websites are not that place.
  7. Start small. Auditing multiple years’ worth of content is a big undertaking, and it doesn’t need to happen all at once. Starting with something is better than nothing.

Simplifying jargon means that college will become more accessible, enrollment will be smoother, faculty will spend less time translating the secret language, students will feel more prepared and confident, and the overall higher education experience will improve.



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