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In English, whether a person is studying in kindergarten or college, they are typically simply referred to as a student. Although we can say a phrase like "grade school student" or "college student" to be more specific, this isn't typically required in casual speech.

In other languages, like French, even in casual speech there are different words for students in grade school (élève) and university (étudiant).

Does the word estudiante in Spanish generally refer to a university/college student (like in French), or is it more general, like in English?

If there is a distinction, what are the words or phrases used? Are there any variations between different countries?

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English does have “pupil”. – Relaxed Sep 9 '14 at 9:31

Estudiante and alumno are both quite general and can refer to anyone from pre-K to doctoral candidates. In Spain, you'll have the following (all said as alumno/a — preferred term — or estudiante followed by the indicated terms,)

  • de infantil - pre-K to Kindergarten
    • more specifically, de X años where X is the age.
  • de primaria - primary school
    • primero/segundo/etc de primaria (1º = 1st grade, 2º = 2nd, etc)
  • de la ESO - obligatory secondary school
    • primero/segundo/etc de la ESO (1º = 7th, 2º = 8th, etc)
  • del bachillerato - (senior) high school
    • primero/segundo del bachillerato (1º = 11th, 2º = 12)
  • universitario1 - generic university
    • licenciando1, 2 or de grado - undergraduate student
    • de posgrado - generic graduate student
    • del máster - master's student
    • doctorando1, 3 or de doctorado - doctoral student

No doubt there is substantial variation between countries, which I'm sure others will fill in for the systems they're familiar with.

1 These terms can be used on their own as nouns instead of just as modifiers for alumno/estudiante
2 If you thought this sounds like it should be licenciante instead, you're absolutely right! Unfortunately, whoever came up with the term wasn't the brightest and no one thought to correct him/her.
3 If you thought this sounds like it should be doctorante instead, you're absolutely right! Unfortunately, whoever came up with the term probably was the same one who came up with licenciando.

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About your note 2: "licenciante" is whoever licenciates another person, and "licenciando" is the one that is about to get a license. These pairs of words are common in spanish, like "arrendatario" and "arrendador". – Envite Aug 7 '14 at 8:16
About "de la ESO" could simply be "de secundaria". – Envite Aug 7 '14 at 8:17
-ando is, as far as I'm aware, only used to make two nouns — the two here. The active participle should be the one used for someone in the process of doing something. Hence, el estudiante (not el estudiando), el presidente (not el presidiendo), etc. This is because the active participle, like the past one, is used as adjective, facilitating the transition to a noun. The present participle cannot be used as a noun, hence the illogic of any word "el —ando" or "el —iendo". – guifa Aug 7 '14 at 8:35
"El estudiante" is the one performing the action of studying. It is not the same as "el doctorando", because he is not the one performing the action. The University gives him the Doctor degree, so the university performs the action on him. "No es lo mismo estar jodido que estar jodiendo", C.J.Cela dixit. – Envite Aug 7 '14 at 11:31
Por cierto... También tenemos (el que es examinado), sumando (el que es sumado), sustraendo (el que es restado), desposando (el que está contrayendo matrimonio, osea, siendo desposado), etc. – Envite Aug 7 '14 at 11:38


  1. Educación preescolar (up to 5 years - guardería + "jardín de infantes" = kinderganten). They can be called "alumnos", but often simply are referred as "niños / niñas".

  2. Educación primaria (6-11 years): "alumnos"

  3. Educación secundaria (12-17 y) : "estudiantes" o "alumnos"

  4. Educación terciaria/univesitaria: "estudiantes" o "alumnos"

Regarding "alumno" vs "estudiante": they can be used more or less interchangeably, but "alumno" (pupil) is more used inside the teaching context, for example to oppose it to the "docente" (teacher). Outside that context, "estudiante" is more used; for example, to tell which is your occupation or role in society.

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For Spain:

  1. [Educación] Infantil (3 years, not mandatory), [E.] Preescolar (preschool, 4-5y, not mandatory): They may be referred as alumnos, almost never as estudiantes. You can use de Infantil or de Preescolar as specifiers.
  2. [E.] Primaria (6-11y): They are referred usually as alumnos, but also estudiantes. Again with a specifier de Primaria.
  3. [E.] Secundaria Obligatoria (ESO) (12-15y): They are interchangeably referred as alumnos and estudiantes, more commonly the second one. Again with a specifier de Secundaria or de ESO.
  4. Bachillerato (academic) or Formación Profesional (professional training), (16-17y, not mandatory): again they are interchangeably referred as alumnos and estudiantes, more commonly the second one. Specifier uses to be de Bachillerato or de Formación Profesional / de FP but also de instituto
  5. Universidad: This one is subdivided nowadays in

    5.1. Grado (Licenciatura does not exist anymore): as 4, with its own specifiers de Grado and de Universidad.

    5.2. Máster: as 5.1

    5.3. Doctorado: as 5.1, and also doctorando without specifier.

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I grew up in Costa Rica hearing alumnos and estudiantes interchangeably. In Peru (where my parents are from) they say alumnos for all students. I don't feel like there's a solid rule like there is in French.It varies by country.

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