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The basics
THE USA: Applying to University

The US higher education system...simplified

Our breakdown of the higher education system in the US for international students...

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The American college experience is unlike any other. Host to a multitude of world-class universities and unique specialist institutions, there are a broad range of study options for both undergraduate and postgraduate students from around the world. However, getting your head around the particulars of the US higher education system can prove tricky.

There are a number of different higher education level institutions in America that vary depending on the type of qualification given, the study area and type of administrative control (i.e. public or private). Tuition fees vary accordingly. We’ve laid out the basics of the US system to help you plan your study abroad adventure.


Community colleges and institutes of technology

Also called ‘junior colleges,’ community colleges offer two-year programmes called Associate Degrees that may be used as a bridging qualification to a four-year Bachelor degree. Technical institutions award Associate Degrees for occupations that are considered semi-professional, such as a dental or medical technician.

After completing the two-year course, students may transfer their study credits to a college or university to complete a Bachelor degree programme within two or three additional years. Costs of studying at a community college also average to be less than half of those at a public university, and about one-tenth of those at a private university.

Community colleges may accept lower scores on English proficiency and language tests, and offer both Intensive English Programs (IEPs) and English as a Second Language (ESL) programmes. As well as offering bridging programmes towards a Bachelor degree, students may undertake remedial courses, services and non-credit workforce and training classes.

Hear from an international graduate about whether you should go to community college or straight into undergraduate study at university


State/ private college or university

The term ‘college’ usually references a student’s time completing their first undergraduate degree, which they will complete at either a publicly or privately owned university. Public institutions are state universities that are funded by that state’s government, and offer studies in most general areas. Tuition fees are lower for students from that state. Private universities are often pricier, more selective and offer more specialist subjects or facilities. 

Bachelor Degree

Bachelors degrees in America follow a general education model, meaning that students will complete a study in a general field within which they will specialize in a particular area that is called their ‘major.’ For example, a student may complete a Bachelor of Arts (B.A) in Journalism. The idea is for students to accumulate a wider berth of knowledge before specialising later in their study programme. Students must declare their major before officially entering into it as a mode of study, each of which will have a different set of requirements depending on the institution and study area. Some universities such as the Pennsylvania State University  list these requirements on its website.

Degree programmes are typically either a Bachelor of Science (B.S) or Bachelor of Arts (B.A). Less common degree programmes include, but are not limited to, a Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A), a Bachelor of Engineering (B.Eng) or a Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil). Professional qualifications such as medicine, dentistry and law are only offered at postgraduate level.

Completing a degree programme can take as long to complete as it takes a student to meet all the credit requirements. A standard US undergraduate degree is comprised of 120-130 credits, with most courses equivalent to 3 credits. International students must take at least 12 credits per semester to maintain their visa status. Most undergraduate programmes are designed for completion across four years for full-time students. The class levels, in increasing order, are called freshman, sophomore, junior and senior years.

Students are expected to maintain and monitor their own credit status and enrol independently each semester.

Learn more about maintaining your visa status

Major, Double Major, Minor

Students are typically required to select and declare their major at the start of their third year of study. You may switch majors at any time you choose, but will not be awarded your bachelors qualification until you have met all the course requirements of your major programme. Switching majors may result in extending the length of your degree, and subsequently cost you more.

Students also have the option to ‘double major,’ which means that they have elected to complete requirements of two separate major programmes. Students will still graduate with one bachelors degree, with qualifications of both majors attached to their title.

A student’s ‘minor’ is a secondary field of study that they nominated to complete with requirements less rigorous than those of their major. Not all institutions require students to complete a minor programme as part of their Bachelors Degree. All major, double major and minor requirements vary across institutions and department, and should be pursued directly with a student’s host university.


Graduate school

Study programmes at a graduate level offer a more sophisticated, advanced study within a field, or are geared towards a specific profession such as law or medicine. Entry requirements, course requirements and prices for graduate programmes vary significantly between institutions, and students are advised to research thoroughly before applying. There are a wide variety of Masters qualifications available, with the most common being a Masters of Arts (M.A) and a Masters of Science (B.S).

Masters degrees generally require completion of six-eight advanced courses, as well as an intensive study project and/or a thesis. Some programmes offer students the chance to complete internships that are credited towards their studies.

At postgraduate level, students only study courses directly relevant to their field. In some programmes students may not even have the option to choose any of their subjects. As with undergraduate programmes, a Masters may take as long to complete as it takes a student to complete all the credit requirements, but are typically designed for completion within two years for a full time student.

Hear from an international graduate who has complete graduate study in the US, including what it's like and what admissions tests you need to take


Academic culture

American academic culture is focused very much on participation, voicing your opinion and actively engaging with topics breached in class. Professors will generally set small tasks for completion at the end of every class to prepare students for the following class’ content. These tasks may range from a short worksheet to textbook readings to a small essay, and are not always graded. They are intended to prompt continuous engagement with course content.

Participation in class is a requirement and attendance is always marked. If you do not meet the attendance requirements, you are liable to fail the unit. Students will also often receive a grade for their level of participation in a class that will form a percentage of their final mark.

It is common for professors to give unannounced ‘pop quizzes,’ intended to gauge how students have been following the course content and to inspire them to continue to keep up with it independently. These quizzes seldom count heavily towards a final grade. Most subjects have an examination component both at the middle (‘mid-term’) and at the end (‘final’) of semester.

Professors expect students to voice their opinions, ask questions and participate actively in class discussions. Students are encouraged to make appointments with professors outside of class to discuss topics breached or for help with any assignments. Assessment is usually spread across a number of different assignments that may vary in nature (i.e. one may be a presentation, another a formal essay), as well as taking into account participation grades and exam marks.


Now that you have a clearer idea of how the US higher education system works, why not start browsing courses in the US now and start planning your study abroad adventure?


Read more:

'Tuition fees in the USA'

'Applying for a US student visa'

Study in the USA


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