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During my freshman year of college, I had some academic difficulties and ended up switching programs. I then had to take a semester off, during which I visited a class as a guest. So, I am now in my fourth semester of calendar time, though my academic standing is that of a second-semester student.

My question is: what should I say when someone asks me how long I have been studying? I have been saying that I am a second-semester student, but this is not really true, and it seems likely I will be discovered and called out. Did I lie? If so, what should I do if I am called out? I do not want to lose my friends or lie to anyone.

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    Why do you think you have to lie? Stick to the truth and you won't make mistakes... – Solar Mike Sep 29 '19 at 20:01
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    I didnt want to tell them my whole life story when asked for how long I have been studying and how I didnt even manage to matriculate properly. – Dude1662 Sep 29 '19 at 20:13
  • Also I do not want to lie to my friends. I just dont know what to do or what to tell them. – Dude1662 Sep 29 '19 at 20:15
  • Welcome to Academia.SE. I found your question immensely confusing and tried to clean it up -- please feel free to edit your post if I got any of the details wrong. – cag51 Sep 29 '19 at 23:59
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    @Nobody how to present the truth does not need lies... – Solar Mike Sep 30 '19 at 8:29
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I'm not sure why you think this is an important issue.

"It's complicated" is enough of an answer if you want to be honest.

But small lies in this context do no one any harm and may ease social situations. Some simple questions such as the ones you get aren't worth the effort of composing a complete and complex answer. It's complicated. Say more to those you think need to know more or those you are closer to.

Don't sweat it.

If there were any issue at all in such a situation it would be overselling your skills to those you need to work with on a joint project. But you don't seem to be erring on that side here.

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    Thank you. This really helped alot. I was a bit stupid and couldnt think of it´s complicated as an answer. Now you have made a lot of social situations easier for me. – Dude1662 Sep 29 '19 at 20:31
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    Maybe add, "It's complicated, but the short answer is I'm finishing my first year [or whatever]." – Elizabeth Henning Sep 30 '19 at 0:27
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    Definitely what @ElizabethHenning said. Answering just "it's complicated" will come across as stand-offish, and will likely lead to more questions. – JBentley Sep 30 '19 at 13:17
  • I had an answer like this as well, due to having transferred from a community college to a university and then switching programs. I would reply with, "Well, I'm a senior by credits, in my junior year, and I'm taking a sophomore level course." It was only the one class that was sophomore level and only because that class ran once a year in the fall and I'd missed it when I changed programs the previous year. – Draco18s no longer trusts SE Sep 30 '19 at 15:14
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You are overthinking. Most people you meet do not remember or do not care about such an issue. No person I know in real life would "confront" you about such a trivial issue in the sense of "You lied! Tell the truth immediately!". They would rather ask you nicely if you went to the course before and then you can tell as much from your story as you want.

(Indeed, if you met somebody new, just tell them the parts of the story which are important -- do not tell them immediately this whole thing, this would be very weird and most likely to turn the person off.)

If somebody really gets "angry" (or similar) towards you for "lying", its them who do not understand social interaction, not you.

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Just say that you are doing second semester subjects and that you have been auditing other classes. Chatting and connecting on subjects tends to be the bulk of the conversation so you would still be able to socialize.

Remember those students that are inconsiderate and want to know more about your personal circumstances, you can refuse to say and deflect as others have said here "It's complicated" etc. However, since you have said that you are auditing or being a guest in subjects, most considerate people would appreciate that your story is more complicated and be sensitive to your difficulties. Not many people spend time as a guests or audit courses without a "complicated" reason. Students that are not thoughtful, you can deflect and talk about course material and feel free to cut them off.

There is stigma against mental health issues, academic or personal difficulties etc, so do not feel guilty about protecting yourself from judgement. Your story is yours alone and you have learnt a lot from your experience.

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To people you haven't know long and don't want to explain:

I've been on this course for 3-semesters

If you feel dishonest about it or want to clarrify, just add to that:

I am a second-semester student. Although I switched courses and then took some time out of formal study, so have been at he school 4 semesters now.

It's all about how much you want to tell the person. I doubt that there will be any negative impact to you being "found out" later down the line, because nothing that happened was wrong and your answer is just a shorter version of the truth.

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There are 2 reasons why you might get asked this question in a social setting (except for small talk):

  1. In early years, it is common to estimate age by asking the class you're in. At least in the communities I've been a part of, it was very common to avoid the question of "what age are you" and replace it with "what year you're in" or similar.

  2. This can set the level of discussion, if the subjects are shared. For example, it might be the case that you find out you're in the same class, and thus discuss subjects you share or complain about your teachers.

But, keep in mind that there is no shame in changing subjects. Everybody makes poor decisions at some point in life and everybody goes through difficult times that impact their academic or professional performance.

You could shortly describe "I've switched topics, now I'm second semester of xxx". Even if you decide to say just "second semester", any confusing situation that might arise can be easily clarified by additional detail. Keep in mind that this is not a lie, you are in the second semester of studying one subject.

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  • I can think of another reason to ask, which is that they're being sociable and trying to get a feel of how long your current studenting has been going on for, as part of their picture of you. But I basically agree, the trick here is to identify what they really want to know about, as opposed to just what they're asking, and give an answer that satisfies them while leaving out the detail the questioner doesn't want to give. – Steve Jessop Sep 30 '19 at 15:26
  • I mean, if they literally want to know the answer to the question "how long have you been studying here", then the answer is calendar time you've spent enrolled at the university. For instance they might want to know whether you could have been affected by the building works that plagued them 2 years ago, so the answer "2 years" would be right, and it would be irrelevant where you are academically. So, you just guess what will answer most people's curiosity most of the time. – Steve Jessop Sep 30 '19 at 15:29
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Know your audience and their purpose!
Are they more focused on your age or years of experience with the campus (in which case leading with the 4 semesters is better), or focused on how far you are in the program/estimating how long until graduation (in which case, stressing the 2nd semester level of classes is more important.)

Examples of the first (4 semesters) being a more useful metric: when you know a special place near campus with a discount only in spring semesters, or an interesting part of campus that's often overlooked, or some of the campus faculty/staff know you a bit more than expected -- when you need to establish you have stronger ties to the CAMPUS and COMMUNITY.

Examples of when the second (2 semesters) is more useful: If someone wants to know when you will graduate (often for internship/job interview purposes), when they want to get a sense of what parts of the program you know or don't know, if it's an upperclassman in the program trying to give advice about what's ahead.

Pick a script
For phrasing, you can say something like "Basically, I've been here 3 semesters already..." or "Basically, I'm in my 2nd semester..." -- the "Basically" (or "It's complicated, but..." as others have listed) indicates there's more to the story, but this should answer their question.

Source: for my Undergrad, I'm "Class of '95, graduated '96" (It's a very set program, but I had to take a calendar year off senior year... so my degree is 1996, but 3.5 years of classes were with the other class.) Also, due to a weird program I went to, I basically have no high school, but twice as long for college (just for the Bachelors). So I have experience with having the awkward academic experience that's not in lock-step with the rest of the world, and trying to explain it. Just knowing WHAT to say for a brief encounter made me feel more confident, kept the explanation brief, and I didn't feel like I was rambling with unneeded particulars all the time.

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Firstly, by definition of "friend", your friends aren't going to be upset by this. Not by you delaying your studies, and also not by you over-simplifying the details. It's just about plausible that some fairly petty people, who you temporarily think are your friends, would be put off by it, and this would be the way you find out what they're really like. But them's the breaks: you'd find out sooner or later anyway. I recommend just assume your friends will be friendly unless there's a strong reason not to be, and this is not a reason.

Secondly, your statement "I am a third-semester student" I guess isn't entirely accurate in every context, since it could be interpeted as a technical statement about your academic standing. Specifically it suggests you've already passed two semesters and are working on the third, when in fact you've passed one and are working on the second (apologies if I'm wrong on the details there -- my degree wasn't in the US and didn't use the same system). Not that many people deeply care how many course credits you have, but it's more likely to lead to confusion, when people make assumptions what courses you've done or can do next. So it might be sensible not to use those exact words.

Then again, if they asked how long you've been studying because they want to know, as a friend, how much of your time you have put into this so far, then "this is my third semester studying" is a truthful answer and it tells them what they were interested in knowing. Or, if they want to know, as a friend, when it was you first started university studies, then "I started two years ago" is a truthful answer in that context. Possibly they want to know all of these things, and are assuming that they're all the same thing because that's true for most people they know. Well, you're a very slightly atypical case, so there's no way to truthfully tell them a number: "my academic standing, and my time spent studying, and the time since I started studying, are all this number". If they're assuming that, they've made a little mistake, haven't they?

If I ask a simple question with no simple answer, and get back an approximate answer for the sake of avoiding a massive info dump, well, normally I'm going to thank you for not occupying my time rather than "call you out" for anything! But, unless this is all so painful that you want to completely hide it away for the time being, I suggest don't try to give that simple answer that fits into the "rules" they expect. One or two sentences is not too much to answer a question that expects a single number, but there is no single number.

If you are called out by someone you've already told, "I am a third-semester student", then I would suggest either go into the shallow details or else plead privacy and walk away. Likely it's better for you to choose the former. If someone cares that much about the details, you may as well take the time to spell it out. So maybe: "I started two years ago, I spent one semester on X; the next semester was a washout for reasons I don't want to go in to; then I spent a semester attending classes as a guest; and now I'm on program Y, in my second semester as a full student". If they're hostile and trying to trip you up or make you give them private detail you don't want to share, you might choose to give up on them and keep quiet, but that's a pretty extreme scenario.

Even if they're sympathetic, you don't have to go beyond the shallow details if you don't want to. It's none of their business really how it came to be decided you should guest for a semester. However, people are always curious, especially about those doing "the same thing" as they are (studying) but with minor differences from their experience (semester out, semester as a guest). So, if you're comfortable talking about it at all then maybe that's a fair second or third conversation, rather than the introductory "hey, my name's Dude" conversation.

For future introductions, and maybe to "correct" any misunderstandings with the people you've already talked to, focus on summarising the information that's actually important. If someone asks how long you've been studying, then they might be interested in all sorts of things about you. So, OK, it's a tiny bit complicated, but they're not actually asking why there was a gap in your study, so you don't need to get into your life story at all. You could say, "I started study in 2017, but I had a gap so I'm currently second-semester". If you really don't want to talk about the gap at all (or you want to justify saying "third" in the past and "second" now), you might want to gloss over the gap: "I've switched programs, and because of that I attended some classes that didn't count, so I'm officially second semester".

Oh yes, and although I've given example phrases, don't learn an exact formula what to say, because people will end up asking different versions of the question, or talking about other stuff where the same information is relvant, but your formula won't always fit and you sound like a politician trying to dodge a question. Decide what you want people to know. Think of at least one way to say that, so you're clear what you're going to focus on. Then don't mention the rest of it.

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