What school did you go to?
This always seemed like a straightforward question to me, and that’s still mostly true. After asking, Do you mean primary or secondary school? if it wasn’t not clear from the context, I’d then answer. But as I watched more television as a child, my certainty of the meaning of the word school wavered somewhat. Here’s my previously-secure conception of the stages of education:
school: where you go as a child or teenager, and you have to do what the teachers say
college: where you go after school if you want to continue your education, and you’ve more freedom
university: where your mother says you are when you’re at college, or a third-level institution with a firmly academic, rather than vocational, approach
But then, I noticed more and more that American characters who’d finished school would ask each other what school they were going to. At first I thought they were being punished and hate to stay in school. Soon though, I realised that they were referring to college, and they were using school as a slightly informal word for college, and that was ok. It still sounds strange to me, because I always associate school with being a child, and a lack of independence, and college with maturity and freedom. Why would someone coming of age want to say they’re going to school? Especially when they’re going to grad school!
I should say though, that school can be used to refer to a section of a college, particularly a large one. The School of Law, or Humanities, for example, with specific departments contained within them.
The words college and university are also interesting. While they’re generally taken to be synonymous, there are some differences in their usage. In American English, a college tends to be a university which offers a limited curriculum, or only Bachelor’s Degrees. In British English, it has a similar meaning, referring to an institute of further education, usually with a specialised, often vocational, curriculum. But it can also refer to one of the constituent parts of large universities, such as Oxford or Cambridge. And confusingly, it can also be used to refer to an exclusive private school, such as Eton College. And if that weren’t confusing enough, such schools are called public schools in the UK.
A university differs from a college in that it offers undergraduate and postgraduate courses, has a wide range of subjects, and is the site of research, as well as learning.
Of course, these are all general trends, and specific institutions are free to choose their own names. Many Irish secondary schools, for example, are named St. _______’s College. So don’t judge an educational institution by its name: who knows what you might learn!?