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Why are High School Students called Freshmen, Sophomores, Juniors and Seniors?

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When encountering the education system in the US phrases such as grade school, sophomore, elementary school and Principal are integral to the structure. Many are self explanatory, I had heard these titles in books and in movies but had never really grasped an understanding of what they mean. Why are Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior used to describe the years at high school and college in the US?

School Lockers

high school hallway with yellow lockers

high school hallway with yellow lockers


When students move from Middle School to High School they often encounter the title Freshman alongside being called 9th graders. What does this title mean and where does it come from?

One of the more obvious titles, Freshman is used at both high school and college level and it is used to denote someone in their first year of study.

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a Freshman as

1.someone who is starting a job or activity

2.a student in the first year of high school or college

suggesting it is a title that can be applied to many situations to denote some one new to the position, sport or career.

Historians link the use of the term Freshman to its use in Cambridge University in the 16th and 17th centuries. During that time debate was part of the curriculum, students were encouraged to argue and discuss points and views. Freshmen, first year students were not expected to participate in these debates and were considered novices.

Interestingly the use of the term is no longer an everyday occurrence in the UK.

Sophomore - 2nd year

Used in high schools and higher education, Sophomore refers to the 2nd year of study. The possible origin of the word is from two Greek terms - sophos meaning 'wise' and moros meaning 'foolish or dull'.

At Cambridge 2nd year students were expected to argue, or debate as part of their curriculum. They were assigned points or sides that they were instructed to debate, their arguments were called sophisms, the students being called sophisters, the second and third years being divided into junior and senior sophisters. In US schools today, Sophomore is typically the year students begin to prepare for college applications, consider their extra curricular activities and start to think about what they plan to do in their future.

High School Senior Graduation


Junior and Senior

Junior relates to the third year of study at both high school and further education, senior to the 4th and last year.

Merriam-Webster defines the word Junior as

younger in age

lower in standing or rank

designed for or done by young people

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and the word senior as

a person who is older than another person

a person who is of a higher rank than another person

a student in the final year of high school or college

The names are thought to come from the need to define the two levels of upperclassmen in Universities, junior and senior.

Emmanuel College, Cambridge

Emmanuel College attended by John Harvard

Emmanuel College attended by John Harvard

So Why Were the titles Adopted in the US education system?

The use of the terms in UK Universities did not catch on in other education institutions and is no longer used in Cambridge. The origins of their use in the US can be traced back to Harvard, the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Named for its benefactor John Harvard who had attended Emmanuel College Cambridge, it was originally based on the Cambridge model and the system spread to other American institutes of education.


Suzie from Carson City on January 28, 2016:

Interesting and it all makes perfect sense! Great information to have. Funny I should find this hub. Just in the time that my kids left school to now having my grand children in you may know....Soooo much has changed about school in general

I recall talking to my grand sons one day and I asked if so & so was a "Sophomore" unison, they both asked me, "What's that?" Since they're both little geniuses, I was shocked.

Seems "those titles" are not used by teachers & students any longer.....It's now strictly 9th, 10th, 11th & 12th, grade!

Why oh why must things be changed all the time??

Great Hub!....Peace, Paula

Ruthbro (author) from USA on January 28, 2016:

Thanks for reading!

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on January 28, 2016:

Interesting information. I love stuff like this. Ill be poking my little nose into your other informative hubs. Sharing and thanks.

peachy from Home Sweet Home on January 28, 2016:

here it is called juniors, always being teased by the seniors

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