The definition of a freshman is "a first-year student at a university, college, or high school." (from Oxford languages). Therefore, if a person is in middle school, but has one or more classes at the high school, it would be their first year in that high school. Would this make them a freshman? Same situation also applies if a student was in high school and was taking a class at a college/university (and had also been admitted for that college) for part or whole of the year.

If the answer to that was yes, if a person only has classes in the high school for part of the school year, would they still be considered a freshman?

I know that if you are considered a freshman by the school would vary based on where you live, but this question is whether the quoted definition entails that one would be a freshman under such circumstances.

This question falls under the "word choice and usage" category, so please don’t vote to close it

  • @jsw29 is there any way that I can improve my question? Commented Jan 11, 2021 at 2:43
  • As to improving your question, it is clear enough. Personally, I think it would be better to leave out the middle school/high school example because the high school/college example is sufficient..
    – ab2
    Commented Jan 12, 2021 at 4:13
  • Have they applied and been admitted to the college or are they just taking some courses non-matriculated?
    – Jim
    Commented Jan 12, 2021 at 6:01
  • @Jim I have updated my question to make that more clear. Commented Jan 12, 2021 at 13:24
  • 2
    If you say that someone is in high school then they cannot be a freshman in college. When you start saying that they are no longer IN high school and they are now IN college as part of a degree program then they can be classified as a freshman (or better depending on the level of classes they are taking and the expected time to graduation)
    – Jim
    Commented Jan 12, 2021 at 16:25

2 Answers 2


No. The use of terms first-year, second-year, third-year etc. in such contexts is normally based on the relationship of one's current enrolment status to the requirements of the degree/diploma/certificate one is pursuing; it is not based on the passage of time as such. One's being referred to as a first-year student, second-year student etc., or as a freshman, sophomore, etc., is intended to convey how much of the requirements one has completed rather than how many years one has actually spent there.

For example, a student who enrolled at a university, failed the required examinations at the end of the first year, and is now re-taking the same courses, would be referred to as a first-year student, even though it is now the second year that he spends at the university. It may happen that a person, for various reasons, spends seven years studying for a four-year degree, but nobody would ever refer to anybody studying for a four-year degree as a 'seventh-year student'. Conversely, it is sometimes possible for a person to complete in, say, two years, the work that is normally completed in the first three years of a four-year degree; in the year that follows, that person would be a fourth-year student, in spite of that being, so far as the passage of time is concerned, only the third year that he is spending in that school.

Because of this, somebody who is not enrolled as a candidate for any formal qualification at a particular institution, but is merely permitted to take a few courses there, would never be referred to as a ____-year student at that institution, and consequently not as a freshman, sophomore, etc. either.


I am going to ignore the middle school/high school part of the question, which I think is superfluous. In the high school/college part of the question, the student is a high school student who is taking some college courses. For example:

Jane is a math whiz. She is a junior in high school, but she is taking a freshman and a sophmore math course at MIT as a special student.

Suppose Jane graduates from high school at the end of her junior year, and goes to MIT, taking a full sophomore and junior class load, with perhaps a freshman humanities course. Then, although it is her first year at MIT, they might classify her as a sophomore.

Note: I am not speaking for MIT!

  • Thank you, but during Jane’s junior year (in high school), would she also be a freshman? Commented Jan 12, 2021 at 13:25
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    @Yay No she's not a freshman at MIT while she's a junior in high school. She is a HS student not a university student. MIT would classify her as a freshman only after she has been accepted by the university for the 4 year program during her first year. As to ab2's claim that she'd be classified as a sophomore, that may well be the case (I don't think so but I may be wrong), but that would be up to the university (and the student) to determine/stipulate - in general first year = freshman and all this other stuff is cavilling philosophically about rare edge cases.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 12, 2021 at 13:57
  • @Mitch My MIT carreer is long past, so I can't state with certainty what MIT would say about Jane in this case, but they would have to "promote" her fairly soon or this math-whiz-Jane would graduate as a sophomore. I knew first hand one person who graduated at the end of his second year at MIT.
    – ab2
    Commented Jan 12, 2021 at 20:30
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    @ab2 I would think that the formal designation is up to the institution (if there are any privileges or requirements for being assigned to a particular 'class'. But to the OPs question, if say a high school senior is not a full time student at a university (also) and is only taking a couple classes there as a 'special' non-university affiliated student, it would be very very strange to call that person a 'freshman' at the university even though it may be literally their first year taking classes there. It's not the first year of being a full university student.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 12, 2021 at 21:41
  • 1
    @Mitch, I don't think it's that highly correlated, and it's definitely not identical. These days many people pursue university degrees part-time, while also working part- or even full-time. Such people are still registered as, say, B.A. students, unlike the students who take courses without pursuing a degree, who may be registered as something like 'visiting' or 'special' students (the terminology differs from institution to institution). The latter usually don't have to satisfy as stringent admission criteria as the former.
    – jsw29
    Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 17:03

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