“In College” Or “At College” – Easy Preposition Guide

Prepositions come before the noun or pronoun that serves as its object in the sentence and are sometimes difficult to master. The prepositions “at” and “in” can both refer to a time or a place. Here you will see how to decide which one to use before the word “university.”

Is It “In College” Or “At College”?

Both “at college” and “in college” are grammatically correct and can be used interchangeably in some cases. Typically you use “at” when referring to a person being physically present at the campus of the college and use “in” to indicate that they are enrolled or regularly attending there.

in college or at college

It is important to note that this phrase is typically found primarily in American English. In British English and for other English speakers throughout the world, the word “university” is most often used to refer to an institution of higher education, not the word “college.”

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When Should I Use “In College”?

You should use “in college” to indicate that a person is registered as a student (enrolled) at a college or university or that the person was registered as a student at some point. In this instance the word “college” is acting as a geographic location, so the preposition “in” is used appropriately.

In this context the name of the college or university is not important because the focus is on the status of what the person is currently doing or has done there.

See the examples shown here:

  • Since I’m in college right now studying to be a doctor, I can’t hold down a full-time job.
  • I can’t wait until I’m in college next fall! I’m going to love the new experiences.
  • When I was in college I would often stay up all night studying, but now I find it hard to stay awake past 10:00 PM.
  • Back in college I was a great tennis player but I haven’t picked up a racquet in years.

Notice how these examples all refer to the person being a college student either currently, at a previous time, or in the future.

When Should I Use “At College”?

Use the phrase “at college” when you want to emphasize physical location. However, you will also see it used at times to indicate that someone is enrolled at the learning institution. Both uses are correct and the choice comes down to your manner of style or preference.

Here are some examples:

  • My son isn’t available to come with me to the party, he’s away at college for the next six weeks.
  • I’ll be staying at college during the summer this year to take some extra classes to help me graduate early.
  • Everyone keeps asking what I’m going to study when I’m at college next year, but I haven’t made up my mind yet.

Notice that in the first two examples, “at college,” refers to the context of the physical location of the person-he or she is currently physically there on campus. In the third example, “at college” is a less concrete usage and implies that the individual will be enrolling at the college in the future but is not physically there at the current time.

Is “In College” Or “At College” Used The Most?

Currently, the phrase “in college” is more popular than the phrase “at college.” However, up until about the late-1860s, “at college” was the favored expression.

The Google Ngram Viewer here shows that after the late-1860s, the usage of “in college” surged and soon greatly surpassed the usage of “at college.”

in college or at college historical development

This trend continues to this day where you can still see a large gap between the two phrases and “in college” stands out as the obviously more used of the two. .

Is “In College” And “At College” Used Differently In The US And The UK?

In both the United States and the United Kingdom, “in college” is the currently more preferred terminology. In the United States, this trend has held on quite strongly from the late-1860s, whereas in the United Kingdom, the phrase only surged in popularity in the mid-1920s.

This Google Ngram Viewer graph shows the analysis for the two phrases in American English.

in college or at college American English

The Google Ngram Viewer here presents the same information for British English.

in college or at college British English

The data makes sense given that most people today in the United States use the word “college” to indicate all higher education establishments. Therefore, an American is more likely to say “in college” than someone speaking British English.

However, the fact that the expression has gained popularity in British English as well, especially in more modern times, suggests an adoption of American terminology in the language.

When Should I Use “On College”?

You can only use the phrase “on college” in a grammatically correct way if the word “college” is immediately followed by another noun. In this case, the word “college” would be acting as an adjective.

It is important to know that sometimes words can act as different parts of speech depending on how they are utilized contextually in the sentence. In certain cases, the word “college”, although ordinarily a noun, can be treated as an adjective if it describes something else.

These examples will help to clarify:

  • My mom always joked that I was still on college time when I came home for the summer because I slept in so late every morning.
  • On college break we are going to volunteer at an orphanage in Mexico.
  • Do not smoke anywhere while on college property or you will be written up and disciplined.

See how in these examples the word “college” describes the noun that immediately follows it – “college time,” “college break” and “college property”- so it acts more like an adjective. The instances when you will use or see “on college” used are much less than for the other two prepositions.

However, if you add “the” as a definite article in between the words “on” and “college” to read “on the college,” it expands your options for usage. When the word “the” is added, it serves as a marker for the noun “college” and the noun that comes right after it.

These examples will help to clarify:

  • The buildings on the college campus are all historical and very beautiful to look at.
  • After going on the college tour, I knew that it was where I wanted to attend next year.
  • On the college website it has a place where you can sign-up for housing.

Quiz: Have You Mastered Prepositions For “College”?

Let’s see if you have a good understanding of when and how to use the prepositions “at, in,” and “on” correctly with the word “college.” You can find the answers to the questions underneath the next heading.

  1. When he asked me what I did for a living, I told him that I was currently (A. at/ B. on/ C. in) college.
  2. I plan on staying (A. at/ B. on/ C. in) college that weekend so I won’t be able to make it to the party back home.
  3. My mother said that while she was (A. at/ B. on/ C. in) college she studied abroad three different times.
  4. It’s hard to be bored while (A. at/ B. on/ C. in) college property because there is just so much going on all of the time.
  5. I really miss my boyfriend when he is away (A. at/ B. on/ C. in) college. Hopefully I will be able to join him next year after I graduate high school.

Quiz Answers

  1. C
  2. A
  3. C
  4. B
  5. A

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