51 Sophisticated College Words Every Student Should Know

Author: Melissa Maypole / Reading Level: Grade 8 / First Covered: December 2021
Updates: 3

Once you’re in college, you may think your days of learning vocabulary words are over. Think again. Believe it or not, there is a certain vernacular associated with self-respecting individuals who are pursuing a college degree or have graduated from an academic degree program. You may think it unfair, but it’s nonetheless true—there are certain words every college student should know. In this list, we’ll feature fifty-one of the words you should make it a point to learn if you don’t know them already. These words are listed in alphabetical order.

#1: acquiesce

Official Definition: (verb)—to accept, comply, or submit tacitly or passively

The word acquiesce is an intransitive verb that makes our list of vocabulary words every student should know. Merriam-Webster defines acquiesce as “to accept, agree, or allow something to happen by staying silent or by not arguing.” Synonyms for the word include:

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  • assent
  • concede
  • accept
  • consent

The word’s origins can be found in Latin, specifically from the Latin word quiescere, meaning “to be quiet.” If your professor demands that you silence your phone for his or her lecture on the first day of class, it’s best to acquiesce. Take it from us.

#2: aesthetic

Official Definition: (adj. or noun)— of or relating to art or beauty; a particular theory of beauty or art

One of the college words on our list highlighting the importance of usage, aesthetic, can be used as an adjective or a noun. Here are the varying definitions, according to Merriam-Webster:

  • Aesthetic (adjective): of or relating to art or beauty; alternatively, pleasing in appearance or attractive
  • Aesthetic (noun): a particular theory or conception of beauty or art; alternatively, a pleasing appearance or effect

As a noun, the term is often used in the plural form. In Art History, for example, your professor may engage the class in a conversation about how aesthetics in fine art has evolved over time. Still, its primary usage is in the adjective form. For example, the same professor may point out an artist’s particular aesthetic technique when sculpting.

#3: antithesis

Official Definition: (noun)— the exact opposite of something or someone

As is the case for a lot of these college words, antithesis is a more sophisticated version of a term you already know. The term antithesis simply means “opposite,” but it makes a much better impression when used in writing and speech, especially in the classroom. Some acceptable synonyms include:

  • counter
  • contrary
  • opposition
  • obverse

To illustrate how the term antithesis can be used in everyday speech, consider how you might feel as you’re returning home from class one evening and notice that the campus has become littered outside a frat house. In anger, you might comment that such students are displaying the antithesis of responsibility.

#4: auspicious

Official Definition: (adj.)—showing or suggesting that future success is likely; propitious

Many of the important college words we’ve featured have interesting etymological roots, and auspicious is another one of these captivating terms. The word means “showing or suggesting that success in the future is likely,” and it comes from the Latin term auspex, meaning “bird seer.” In ancient times, clairvoyants used to birdwatch in order to detect patterns that could affect future events. Today, the word auspicious can be used to describe anything that portends success or good fortune. Synonyms include:

  • favorable
  • opportune
  • promising
  • encouraging

To imagine the word used in context, think about how opening a college acceptance letter may mark an auspicious moment in your life.

#5: banal

Official Definition: (adj.)—boring or ordinary

Another word you should add to your list of vocabulary words is the term banal. Merriam-Webster defines banal as “boring or ordinary; lacking originality or freshness.” For example, no matter how banal your professors’ lectures, it’s still advisable to pay attention if you want to pass your classes. Ironically, adding the term banal to your college essays will make them less boring, not more so. Synonyms for this word include:

  • insipid
  • flat
  • trite
  • prosaic

Banal is borrowed from the French language and has a few acceptable pronunciations, the most common of which is \buh-NAL\.

#6: brevity

Official Definition: (noun)—shortness of duration, especially shortness or conciseness of expression

The term brevity is one of the easiest college words to learn and use because of its similarity to the common word “brief.” You can think of brevity as the state of being brief. In fact, its official definition, according to Merriam-Webster is “shortness of duration, especially shortness or conciseness of expression.” Synonyms for brevity include:

  • succinctness
  • briefness
  • conciseness
  • terseness

To illustrate the meaning of brevity, recall a professor whose class always ran over because he or she lacked brevity. No matter how eloquent the lecturer is, you’ll most likely come to appreciate the quality of brevity over the course of your academic career.

#7: caveat

Official Definition: (noun)—an explanation or warning that should be remembered when doing or thinking about something

The word caveat is quite useful in academic speech and writing and is one we definitely recommend you add to your repertoire of college words. According to Merriam-Webster, caveat is a phrase literally denoting “an explanation or warning that should be remembered when you are doing or thinking about something.” The term has its origins in Latin and is derived from the word “cavere,” which means to be on guard. Exact synonyms for caveat are sparse, but there are some close matches, such as:

  • stipulation
  • admonition
  • restriction
  • caution

To illustrate the modern definition of the word, consider how you might feel upon discovering the one caveat of taking Fridays off from school: an 8 am Monday morning class. Ouch.

#8: conundrum

Official Definition: (noun)—a confusing or difficult problem

The origins of this college vocabulary are unknown, which is ironic when you consider its definition. Merriam-Webster defines a conundrum as “a confusing, intricate, or difficult problem.” For example, when choosing a path for their college career, many prospective students face a conundrum—to take courses online or in person. Synonyms for the term conundrum include:

  • enigma
  • problem
  • challenge
  • puzzle

The word conundrum is often used hyperbolically when exaggerating the difficulty of something. However, a secondary definition of a conundrum is an actual riddle—one whose solution includes a pun.

#9: cultivate

Official Definition: (verb)—to improve by labor, care, or study; to further or encourage

As you peruse our list of fancy words to add to your vocabulary, you’ll note multiple words that have basic meanings as well as higher-level definitions you can apply in your classes. Cultivate is one of these words. While it can mean to “foster the growth of,” as in plants and vegetables, the definitions we’re concerned with here are the more general: “to improve by labor, care, or study” and “to further or encourage.” In this sense, synonyms for the word cultivate include:

  • encourage
  • promote
  • develop
  • nurture

Hopefully, the school you choose to attend for your post-secondary studies will be an illustration of this word as it seeks to cultivate a supportive learning environment for students.

#10: debacle

Official Definition: a great disaster; a complete failure

One of the best college words on our list in terms of utility, the term debacle can be substituted for the more frequently used but less collegiate term, “disaster.” In fact, Merriam-Webster defines a debacle as “a great disaster” or “a complete failure.” Common synonyms for the word include:

  • calamity
  • tragedy
  • fiasco
  • catastrophe

In its early uses, debacle meant a certain type of disaster—a violent flood—but today, it has a more general meaning.

#11: didactic

Official Definition: (adj.)—designed or intended to teach

When you consider the meaning of the term didactic, you’ll understand immediately why we’ve listed it among the words every college student should know. Merriam-Webster provides the following formal definition of the word: “designed or intended to teach people something.” Certainly, everything you’re exposed to in a college classroom should be didactic—well, almost everything. Synonyms for the word include:

  • instructional
  • educational
  • preachy

As the final synonym in the above list implies, didactic can sometimes have a negative connotation, especially when describing something boring or condescending. Didactic comes from the Greek word didaskein, which means “to teach.”

#12: digress

Official Definition: (verb)—to speak or write about something different from the main subject

The word digress is also a term that is doubly qualified to appear on our list of college words since it’s something professors tend to do during lectures. The term digress means “to speak or write about something that is different from the main subject being discussed,” according to Merriam-Webster. This is an idiomatic expression that has been used since the 1600s. Synonyms of digress include:

  • deviate
  • ramble
  • stray
  • wander

Often, when speakers realize that they’re ranting about something tangential to the main topic, they’ll say, “but I digress” before returning to the point.

#13: egregious

Official Definition: (adj.)—very bad and easily noticed

Coming from the Latin word for “distinguished,” the term egregious makes our list of interesting words that every student should know because of its sophistication and great utility. Today, Merriam-Webster defines egregious as “conspicuous” or “very bad and easily noticed.” The word now has a negative connotation and is often used to describe errors or mistakes. For example, you may have failed your last term paper because your professor was unable to ignore your egregious errors in grammar and usage, (but hopefully not)! Some synonyms for egregious include:

  • blatant
  • obvious
  • glaring
  • pronounced

This is an interesting word because its definition hasn’t changed much, but its connotation has flipped from overwhelmingly positive to positively terrible.

#14: emphatic

Official Definition: (adj.)—uttered with or marked by emphasis; tending to express oneself in forceful speech or to take decisive action

Let’s face it—some words just sound more sophisticated than others. The term emphatic is one of those words that make you sound smarter the moment it leaves your lips. Merriam-Webster defines emphatic as “uttered with or marked by emphasis; tending to express oneself in forceful speech or to take decisive action.” Synonyms include:

  • resounding
  • definitive
  • vehement
  • dynamic

The English term emphatic was borrowed from the French word emphatique, meaning “forcefully expressive.” Wherever it came from, our editors were emphatic about its inclusion in this list of words every college student should know.

#15: eschew

Official Definition: (verb)—to avoid habitually, especially on moral or practical grounds

Having Germanic roots, the term eschew makes our contemporary list of words you should know, despite having been written off as nearly obsolete in the 1700s. According to Merriam-Webster, eschew means “to avoid habitually, especially on moral or practical grounds.” College students are advised to eschew late-night parties during finals, for example, though not all of them do. The word has some useful synonyms, such as:

  • shun
  • elude
  • evade
  • spurn

The word eschew remains in widespread use today, especially on college campuses or in a research paper or other college writing.

#16: formidable

Official Definition: (adj.)—very powerful or strong

Another of the sophisticated words every college student should know is formidable. This word comes from the Latin term formidare, meaning “to fear.” Today’s definition, according to Merriam-Webster, is “very powerful or strong; deserving serious attention and respect.” Synonyms include:

  • intimidating
  • daunting
  • fearsome
  • remarkable

Strong enemies and opponents are often described as formidable, though in academia, the most formidable force you may encounter is your end-of-term exam or research paper.

#17: fortuitous                                      

Official Definition: (adj.)—occurring by chance

You’d be remiss not to add fortuitous to your list of key vocabulary words to learn. Derived from the Latin word for “chance,” fortuitous means “occurring by chance,” according to Merriam-Webster. Though not originally used to describe things that happen by luck or good fortune, the word has come to be associated with the kind of serendipity associated with positive results. Some close synonyms for the term include:

  • fortunate
  • providential
  • incidental
  • lucky

To illustrate the meaning of fortuitous, consider turning in a college assignment just as your professor learns of receiving a departmental award. If you later receive an “A,” you might describe your timing as fortuitous.

#18: garish

Official Definition: (adj.)—vividly colored

Among the college words, you’ll need to know to hold your own in the world of academia is garish. Meaning “vividly colored,” according to Merriam-Webster, the word often has a negative connotation. In fact, secondary definitions of the term garish include “excessively or disturbingly vivid,” “offensively or distressingly bright,” and even “tastelessly showy; flashy.” Synonyms sometimes associated with the word include:

  • conspicuous
  • gaudy
  • flagrant
  • brash

If you attend college football games, you’re likely to see fans dressed in garish outfits. Whether or not that’s a positive or negative thing is up to you to decide since it’s a matter of personal preference.

#19: gingerly

Official Definition: (adj./adv.)—very cautious(ly) or careful(ly)

Though it shouldn’t be confused with the spice, gingerly is one of those college words that can add variety and substance to your vocabulary. According to Merriam-Webster, gingerly is defined as “very cautious or careful; with extreme care concerning the result of a movement or action,” and synonyms include:

  • wary
  • guarded
  • delicately
  • tentatively

Etymologists continue to debate the origins of the word gingerly, but one theory is that it came from the Old French term gensor, meaning “delicate. Still, the spice makes a good mnemonic device if you note that because of its strength, ginger should be applied gingerly, less it overwhelms your dish.

#20: gratuitous

Official Definition: (adj.)—not called for by the circumstances; not necessary, appropriate, or justified; unwarranted

If you don’t already know the word gratuitous, it’s one you’ll want to add to your list of words to know ASAP. This is a useful word that now has a negative connotation, though it didn’t start out that way. Originally, the word simply meant “free,” but now, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the more common definition of the word gratuitous is “not called for by the circumstances; not necessary, appropriate, or justified; unwarranted.” Synonyms related to this particular usage include:

  • superfluous
  • unjustified
  • wanton
  • unreasonable

 In your literature class, for example, the professor may refer to vulgar language in a particular short story as gratuitous rather than artistic.

#21: hackneyed

Official Definition: (adj.)–lacking in originality and freshness

Like many college words on our list, hackneyed has a negative connotation and is often used in a critical sense. Merriam-Webster defines the term as “lacking in originality and freshness” and lists common synonyms as:

  • trite
  • banal
  • commonplace
  • cliché

In academia, you might use hackneyed in a critical paper on a piece of literature, or you may use it in your own writing. In doing the latter, you may, ironically, make your own essay less hackneyed.

#22: implicit

Official Definition: (adj.)—understood, though not clearly or directly stated

You may have heard the phrase “it goes without saying” to describe something that is understood despite not being explained verbally. If so, you already comprehend the meaning of the word implicit to some extent. According to Merriam-Webster, implicit means “capable of being understood … though unexpressed: implied.” Synonyms include:

  • unspoken
  • inherent
  • tacit
  • wordless

As an illustration of the word’s definition, think about how you might feel if an advisor asks you if you’re serious about pursuing your college degree. You may be offended and clam up, presuming the answer is implicit in your enrollment.

#23: innate

Official Definition: (adj.)—existing from the time a person or animal is born; existing as part of the basic nature of something

The word innate is an essential addition to every college vocabulary list. This term means “existing from the time a person or animal is born; existing as part of the basic nature of something,” according to Merriam-Webster, and it shows up a lot in college writing and speech. You may even say its usage is innate to the postsecondary learning environment. Synonyms for innate include:

  • intrinsic
  • inherent
  • natural
  • inborn

The modern word innate comes from the Latin term innatus, meaning “to be born in.”

#24: intermittent

Official Definition: (adj.)—coming and going at intervals

Coming from the Latin word “intermittere,” intermittent makes our list of the top college words every student should know. Merriam-Webster defines intermittent as “coming and going at intervals; not continuous.” Often used to describe the weather (i.e., intermittent snow or rain), the word can be used in a wide variety of scenarios to signify something that occurs time and again, but not constantly. Synonyms include:

  • periodical
  • recurring
  • erratic
  • occasional

As an illustration of the word’s meaning, consider a professor who reprimands a student for his intermittent absences from class. The student may protest that the absences aren’t excessive, but the professor will retort that they are continuous enough to have a significant impact on the student’s grade.

#25: juxtaposition

Official Definition: (noun)—the placement of two or more things side by side for illustration

The unique word juxtaposition is not only fun to say, but it also has an interesting definition, which explains, in part, its inclusion on our list of words every college student should know. Merriam-Webster defines juxtaposition as “the act or instance of placing two or more things side by side often to compare or contrast or to create an interesting effect.” While there are few, if any, exact synonyms for the word, some closely related terms include:

  • comparison
  • coincidence
  • collocation
  • concurrence

The term has a wide range of uses, but in academia, it is often used to describe the effects of an artist’s or author’s media or stylistic choices. For example, your English professor may ask you to describe the effect of contradicting words in a certain stanza of a poem. The term juxtaposition was formed by combining the Latin word for near (i.e., “juxta”) with the English word “position.”

#26: meticulous

Official Definition: (adj.)—marked by extreme or excessive care in the consideration or treatment of details

The word meticulous should be on every student’s college vocabulary list. This word means “very careful about doing something in an extremely accurate and exact way.” One might argue that you not only need to know what this word means, but you’d also be well-advised to adopt a meticulous approach to your studies to be successful in your higher education journey. Some popular synonyms for meticulous include:

  • thorough
  • painstaking
  • conscientious
  • scrupulous

Meticulous comes from the Latin word metus, meaning “fear” or “dread.” When you’re meticulous about doing something, you’re often fearful of making a mistake.

#27: myopic

Official Definition: (adj.)—narrow in perspective

Though it also has a medical meaning, the more widespread usage of the word myopic, according to Merriam-Webster, is “lacking in foresight or discernment: narrow in perspective and without concern for broader implications.” This latter meaning is the definition that places myopic on the list of the college words you should know. In this sense, the term myopic has a negative connotation and is used to describe someone who is ignoring other details or facts of a situation while having tunnel vision about a particular focus. It’s not uncommon for students to complain that their professors are myopic when it comes to the importance of the discipline they teach while ignoring students’ other academic pursuits. It is difficult to pin down exact synonyms of the word, but some terms related to myopic include:

  • shortsighted
  • biased
  • intolerant
  • prejudiced

The origins of myopic can be found in the Greek words “myein” and “ops,” meaning “to be closed” and “eye, face,” respectively.

#28: myriad

Official Definition: (adj.)—a very large number of things

According to Merriam-Webster, definitions of myriad include “a very large number of things” and “innumerable,” and since we like this word a lot, we’ve included it on our list of college words every student should learn. Interestingly, a secondary definition of myriad is “ten thousand,” which is indeed a great number of things, but in most cases, myriad is used to describe a more general number of items. Synonyms for the term myriad include:

  • abundance
  • numerous
  • plenty
  • various

Myriad is more commonly used as an adjective as in: “There were myriad ways to solve the math problem.” However, it can be used as a noun as well, as in” A myriad of students filled the lecture hall.”

#29: nebulous

Official Definition: (adj.)—indistinct; vague

Though its literal meaning is related to an interstellar cloud, the meaning of the word nebulous that we’re including on our list of college words you should know is much more practical. According to Merriam-Webster, this pragmatic use of the word describes something “indistinct or vague.” Synonyms for this usage include:

  • enigmatic
  • opaque
  • ambiguous
  • hazy

The English term nebulous has evolved from the Latin nebulosus, which means “misty.”

#30: nuance

Official Definition: (noun)—a subtle distinction or variation

Nuance is a term that is not to be missed when it comes to college vocabulary words. According to Merriam-Webster, this word refers to “a subtle distinction or variation,” with synonyms spanning terms like:

  • hint
  • subtlety
  • gradation
  • tinge

This is a word that proves quite useful in introductory humanities courses since you’ll be asked to analyze works of art and literature with a fine-toothed comb, looking for nuances that separate them from comparable pieces.

#31: obfuscate

Official Definition: (verb)—to obscure or confuse

Among the college-level words students should be familiar with is the term obfuscate. As with many words, obfuscate’s etymology can give us a sense of its meaning. The word is derived from two Latin words, “ob” and “fuscus,” meaning “over” and “dark-colored,” respectively. The idea of coloring over something with a dark crayon comes to mind, which is quite similar to today’s dictionary definitions: “to throw into shadow,” “to make obscure,” and “to confuse.” Synonyms for obfuscate include:

  • befuddle
  • fog
  • conceal
  • mystify

To give an example of how this word might be used in a real-life scenario, think about a particular professor whose lectures you find complicated and mind-numbing. You may wonder if he or she is intentionally obfuscating the course material.

#32: obsequious

Official Definition: (adj.)—marked by or exhibiting a fawning attentiveness

One of the lesser-known college words on our list, obsequious means “marked by or exhibiting a fawning attentiveness, according to Merriam-Webster. The word tends to have a negative connotation and is often associated with someone who attempts to please an authority figure, akin to a teacher’s pet. Synonyms for obsequious include:

  • groveling
  • sycophantic
  • flattering
  • ingratiating

The word obsequious comes from the Latin root word sequi, meaning “to follow.” As a mnemonic device, you can imagine an obsequious graduate student who follows the professor around, hanging on his or her every word.

#33: ostracize

Though its pronunciation might make you think of a flightless bird, the term ostracize actually translates to the phrase denoting the concept “to exclude from a group by common consent,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. This definition makes ostracize a perfect addition to our list of words every college student should know since this concept often comes up in university classes like history, political science, and sociology, for example. Some synonyms for the word include:

  • shun
  • banish
  • alienate
  • exclude

Learn this word, and you may just prevent yourself from being ostracized by your well-spoken classmates.

#34: panacea

Official Definition: (noun)—a remedy for all ills or difficulties; a cure-all

In the age of Covid, everyone is looking for a panacea, so this is an apt word to add to your college vocabulary list. It is important to remember, though, that even as panacea refers to a “remedy” and “cure-all,” according to Merriam-Webster, its usage isn’t limited to medical ailments exclusively. Rather, panacea can refer to a perfect solution to a wide range of problems. Some synonyms associated with the term include:

  • cure
  • remedy
  • answer
  • elixir

A good way to recall the definition of the word panacea is to bring to mind the Greek goddess Panacea, who was known as the goddess of healing.

#35: pedantic

Official Definition: (adj.)—unimaginative; dull with respect to instruction

A list of college-level words wouldn’t be complete without the addition of pedantic. According to Merriam-Webster, pedantic means “narrowly, stodgily, and often ostentatiously learned” or “unimaginative; dull.” Synonyms for the word include:

  • nitpicking
  • fussy
  • quibbling
  • hypercritical

The term has a particularly negative connotation and is often used to describe a person who is a stickler for the rules or minute and unimportant details. Someone who complains about the height of their neighbor’s mailbox to the homeowners’ association could be viewed as pedantic, for instance.

#36: prodigious

Official Definition: (adj.)—extraordinary in bulk, quantity, or degree

Another one of the college words that you’ll want to add to your lexicon is prodigious. This term has various definitions, according to Merriam-Webster, including: “causing amazement or wonder,” “extraordinary in bulk, quantity, or degree,” and “befitting or resembling a prodigy.” In the 15th century, the term translates to the phrase literally denoting the idea of “being an omen: portentous,” but this definition has gone out of usage. Contemporary synonyms for prodigious include:

  • sublime
  • immense
  • phenomenal
  • wondrous

Challenges and accomplishments are often described as prodigious. For example, committing all of the college-level words on this list to memory may seem a prodigious feat.

#37: proliferate

Official Definition: (verb)—to increase in number or amount quickly

The term proliferate is one of those words every student should add to their college vocabulary. Its definition, according to Merriam-Webster, is “to increase in number or amount quickly.” This year, the word is particularly (and unfortunately) relevant as we’ve watched new cases of Covid-19 proliferate in America. Synonyms for proliferate include:

  • multiply
  • propagate
  • expand
  • spread

We borrowed the word from the French term prolifere, meaning “reproducing freely.”

#38: proverbial

Official Definition: (adj.)—resembling a proverb

The term proverbial has proven quite useful in postsecondary education settings, so it earns a place on our list of college vocabulary words. Merriam-Webster defines proverbial as “of, relating to, or resembling a proverb.” Synonyms include:

  • archetypal
  • legendary
  • axiomatic
  • cliched

The term proverbial comes in handy when a writer or speaker wants to make a connection between a topic and a relevant proverb or adage. For example, if you want to describe someone who seems out of place, you could say he or she is like the proverbial fish out of water. Proverbial is a derivative of the word proverb, which comes from the Latin word “verbium,” meaning “word.”

#39: qualitative

Official Definition: (adj.)—of, relating to, or involving quality or kind

The term qualitative isn’t the hardest or most sophisticated vocabulary words on this list but will prove useful in your college classes, especially those involving scholarly research. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, qualitative is an adjective that means “of, relating to, or involving quality or kind.” Precise synonyms for the word are rare, but some related terms include:

  • subjective
  • observational
  • comparative
  • phenomenological

You’ll often see the word qualitative alongside its counterpart, “quantitative,” which relates to numerical data and statistics.” Both qualitative and quantitative research methods are typically required in many college-level classes.

#40: quintessential

Official Definition: (adj.)—perfectly typical or representative of someone or something

Another must-know vocabulary word for college students is the term quintessential. Merriam-Webster defines this whimsical-sounding adjective as “perfectly typical or representative of a particular kind of person or thing.” For reference, here are a few synonyms for the word:

  • archetypal
  • model
  • prototypical
  • ideal

To further illustrate the meaning of the word quintessential, consider a student who opts to attend classes traditionally rather than online because they desire the quintessential college experience. The word’s roots can be found in Middle English, where it referenced a fifth element of the planet referred to as the quinta essentia.

#41: rapport

Official Definition (noun)— a friendly, harmonious relationship

An etymological analysis of the word rapport will uncover links to the more common English term “report.” Like many college words, though, the term rapport means something quite different today, however. Merriam-Webster defines rapport as “a friendly, harmonious relationship, especially one characterized by agreement, mutual understanding, or empathy that makes communication possible or easy.” Some close synonyms for rapport include:

  • understanding
  • bond
  • camaraderie
  • fellowship

Though a rapport with your college professors may or may not result in an extension for your mid-term assignment, it certainly can’t hurt. Neither can using college-level words such as this one in your final report once it is turned in.

#42: recalcitrant

Official Definition (adj.)—obstinately defiant of authority or restraint; difficult to manage or operate

The roots of college vocabulary words often have intriguing stories to tell, and recalcitrant is no exception. The term comes from the Latin word recalcitrare, which to Romans meant stubborn mules. At that time, the word meant literally “to kick back,” but in modern times, recalcitrant refers to behavior that is “obstinately defiant of authority or restraint” or “difficult to manage or operate.” Contemporary synonyms include:

  • uncooperative
  • unruly
  • defiant
  • insubordinate

To illustrate the meaning of this word, we encourage you to recall a classmate in one of your current or past courses who made everything more difficult for the instructor due to his or her recalcitrant nature. There’s a bad apple in every bunch, or so they say.

#43: supercilious

Official Definition: (adj.)—coolly and patronizingly haughty

One of the college vocabulary words on our list with the most negative of connotations, the term supercilious is an adjective that means “coolly and patronizingly haughty,” according to Merriam-Webster. Synonyms for supercilious include:

  • pompous
  • contemptuous
  • uppity
  • pretentious

An easy and fun way to remember the definition of supercilious is to think of its original meaning. The word is derived from the Latin term for “eyebrow”: supercilium. Imagining someone who is condescendingly judging someone else with a raised eyebrow in the person’s direction can solidify the modern definition of the word in your mind.

#44: superfluous

Official Definition: (adj.)—beyond what is needed; unnecessary

The term superfluous is an adjective that is synonymous with “extra.” According to Merriam-Webster, the formal definition of the word is “beyond what is needed; unnecessary.” According to this definition, something that is superfluous goes well above what is sufficient for the situation at hand. For example, bringing a corsage to your date for the prom is appropriate, but a dozen roses may be superfluous. The term comes from the Latin word “superfluus,” which means “running over” as a cup that has been overfilled with liquid. Some synonyms for the word include:

  • surplus
  • excess
  • redundant
  • supererogatory

The word superfluous tends to have a negative connotation, especially when used in reference to its secondary definition: “obsolete; marked by wastefulness; extravagant.”

#45: tautological

Official Definition: (adj.)—needlessly repetitive

Another of the college words you’ll hear and see often in postsecondary education is the term tautological. That’s because the word is often used in a rhetorical context. Tautological refers to a statement or sentiment that contains “needless repetition.” Clearly, the word has a negative connotation and is often used as a way to criticize or insult, especially in political realms. Synonyms for tautological include:

  • redundant
  • repetitive
  • superfluous
  • unnecessary

If you want to navigate proper speech and writing at the college level, you’ll want to learn the term, even though saying so seems tautological.

#46: tenuous

Official Definition: (adj.)—having little substance or strength

Like many of the vocabulary words we’re featuring, tenuous has its roots in Latin. The term is derived from the Latin word tenuis, meaning “fine-drawn, thin, narrow, slight.” The modern definition of the word isn’t far from its original meaning. According to Merriam-Webster, tenuous means “having little substance or strength: flimsy, weak.” Some synonyms include:

  • slim
  • fragile
  • shaky
  • questionable

To illustrate the definition of the word in context, imagine witnessing a classmate who is constantly checking her phone during an important lecture. You may conclude that your peer’s attention span is tenuous.

#47: ubiquitous

Official Definition: (adj.)—seemingly everywhere; constantly encountered

Among the vocabulary words that should be in your lexicon is the term ubiquitous. Merriam-Webster identifies the definition of ubiquitous as “seeming to be seen everywhere; constantly encountered.” For example, have you noticed that once you buy a certain type of car, like a blue sedan, for instance, they suddenly become ubiquitous? This term comes from the Latin word “ubique,” which means “everywhere.” Synonyms for “ubiquitous” include:

  • commonplace
  • everyday
  • pervasive
  • omnipresent

In terms of connotation, ubiquitous is relatively neutral and can refer to both good and bad things that have become widespread. This makes it a fairly useful word that could become ubiquitous in both your speech and writing!

#48: vacillate

Official Definition: (verb)—to waver in mind, will, or feeling

Despite its meaning, our editors have taken a firm stance on the fact that vacillate belongs on our list of vocabulary words every college student should know. According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of the word vacillate is “to waver in mind, will, or feeling; hesitate in choice of opinions or courses.” Synonyms include:

  • dither
  • fluctuate
  • equivocate
  • wobble

To illustrate, think of vacillate as a word you might use to describe a classmate who can’t commit to a regular time for study group meetings, despite insisting that everyone attend. In terms of etymology, vacillate comes from the Latin word vacillare, meaning “to be unsteady, totter, be weak or inconstant; waver.”

#49: visceral

Official Definition: (adj.)—coming from strong emotions and not from logic or reason

The term visceral is another one of the vocabulary words on our list that has both a clinical meaning and a practical one. Merriam-Webster lists this latter definition as “coming from strong emotions and not from logic or reason.” Synonyms of visceral include:

  • instinctive
  • intuitive
  • gut
  • primeval

Although this is the definition you’ll likely use in academic speech and writing, it’s helpful to remember that the medical definition of the word is “of or relating to the viscera or internal organs of the body.” With this in mind, you can think of a visceral feeling that is so strong you feel it in your physical body.

#50: zealot

Official Definition: (noun)—someone marked by fervent partisanship

One of the vocabulary words you’ll need to know for your classes, especially in History or Political Science, is the term zealot. Merriam-Webster defines the noun zealot as a person “marked by fervent partisanship for a person, cause, or an ideal.” There are a few close synonyms for the word, including:

  • fanatic
  • crusader
  • ideologue
  • extremist

The term zealot has a negative connotation and is often used to describe someone who makes rash decisions or uses poor judgment as a result of misplaced passion.

#51: zenith

Official Definition: (noun)— the strongest or most successful period of time

As is the case for numerous college words, Merriam-Webster lists both a technical and formal definition of the word zenith. While the term has a literal meaning that refers to “the highest point reached in the sky,” the meaning you’ll find more useful as a student is the formal definition: “the strongest or most successful period of time.” In this sense, the word is associated with synonyms such as:

  • peak
  • pinnacle
  • crown
  • capstone

It is not uncommon for professionals to reference a particularly successful moment as the zenith of their careers, for instance. As a college student, you may come to think of a specific project or test grade as the zenith of your academic experience.

In no way is this above list of vocabulary words meant to be an exhaustive one. Of course, innumerable college vocabulary words are good to have in your lexicon once you find yourself in the realm of academia. However, after much consideration, our editors have determined that these 50 are the top words every college student should know in 2022.


  • Merriam-Webster Dictionary