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The basics
THE USA: Applying to University

Differences in the US education system

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Studying abroad in America can be an exciting experience. Many things are new and there are loads of new opportunities and possibilities! However, the differences in the education system can take some getting used to, especially where English isn’t a student’s first language. Attitudes towards plagiarism and how assignments are graded can also vary and prove hard to understand at first. Our student editor Ashley covers the basics to the US education system:



Depending on the university, degree level and subject of the ‘class’, the structure will vary; however, there are a set of general set structure expectations that international students should be aware of. For undergraduate courses there are a couple of elements that make up the student’s grade. This includes a midterm and final examination test. But there are also smaller assignments that are required in between these major tests, which can include a group project, short writing assignments, essays, lab work or pop quizzes. For example, chemistry lectures will include tests, and writing labs solo and as a team. Class participation is also actively encouraged and may be noted for many courses. There are also other benefits to participating consistently and making yourself known to your tutor; for example, when you need a referee for reference letters, or if you have a family emergency and need an extension on an assignment.

Altogether, this means that final exams do not decide your ultimate grade alone; this is brilliant news for students who don’t do well under exam scenarios. You should still prepare thoroughly for exams but Together, this allows for the final exams to not be such a huge part of the term overall grade. The structure becomes more firm once a major has been established, as the lectures will be in the same department where critical for grading is generally similar along the staff.



Also declared ‘academic dishonesty’, plagiarism is not something that international students want to get caught doing. It’s taken extremely seriously by American institutions, especially in the last fifteen years with the proliferation of the internet. Increasingly more universities are using software such as Turnitin to catch cheaters. The punishments can be severe: whether a failing grade for the entire lecture/course, academic probation or even expulsion from the university (it will likely go on your academic record too). There is software for students too, from the creators of Turnitin, called WriteCheck that scans a student’s paper for areas of plagiarism before submitting; alternatively, students who think they may be accidently plagiarising existing material, can simply Google a line of text from their work to see if it has been published elsewhere.

How do international students avoid such issues especially if they weren’t as prevalent in their own country? Research your host university for plagiarism policies and if still in doubt ask your professor (usually these guidelines will be clarified during your first few weeks in orientation lectures/seminars, and these guidelines will be accessible anytime on the university’s website). It’s easier to bring up questions and clear implications before submitting the paper than after.

You should ensure that you are following the correct referencing style when writing essays. This can vary from one member of staff to another even within the same department; so it's probably best to ask your tutor which style they prefer when you meet them – making the experience of reading your work as pleasurable as possible will impact the mark that a professor gives it.



Grading in America is subject to the American numeral and letter grading system. The following is an example of how the University of Washington grades with A being the highest (letter grade = grade point average):

  • A = 4.0-3.9
  • A - = 3.8-3.5
  • B+ = 3.4-3.2
  • B = 3.1-2.9
  • B-= 2.8-2.5
  • C+ = 2.4-2.2
  • C = 2.1-1.9
  • C-= 1.8=1.5
  • D+ = 1.4-1.2
  • D = 1.1-0.9
  • D-= 0.8-.7 (lowest grade to still earn full credit)
  • F = 0.0 (No credit earned with this grade)

There are also other letter grades:

  • I = Incomplete
  • S = Satisfactory
  • NS = Not satisfactory
  • CR = Credit awarded
  • NC = No credit awarded
  • W = Withdrawal  (for academic emergencies)
  • HW = Hardship withdrawal (for non-academic emergencies)

The numbers range is more widely used through universities, and at the end of the term the grades are averaged to give a cumulative grade also known as a GPA. This can be a problem if a low grade such as a 1.0 is earned against a high grade such as a 3.5. To get the average it depends on the university, but for example, this is how a GPA would be calculated at the University of Washington:

  • Class A, 5 credits, 1.0 grade
  • Class B, 5 credits, 3.5 grade


5 credits multiple by 1.0 grade = 5.0

5 credits multiply 3.5 grade = 17.5

17.5 + 5.0 = 22.5

22.5/10 (total number of credits) = 2.25 or C+ GPA

The lower grade will significantly drag the higher grade down which can be a huge problem following the next term as GPA’s are averaged term after term. It’s very difficult to bring up a GPA than it is to bring it down. If you do get a bad grade, don’t be too discouraged; speak to your advisor for positive ways to correct your GPA positively for next term.


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