The basics
THE USA: Essentials

A beginner’s guide to studying in the USA

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It’s not hard to see why so many international students love taking their study abroad adventure to USA. Unrivalled numbers of universities in the world’s top 100, 50 beautiful states to explore, the biggest university sporting network on the planet and stupidly big portions of food - what's not to like?! But it isn’t just those reasons why the USA has the highest number of international students of any country in the world. From international orientations all the way to life coaches, American universities make huge efforts to make you feel welcome. They call it the ‘Land of Opportunity’ for a reason, so get out there and make the most of it!

 

Use our handy skip links to read the section you’re most interested in:

 

 

 

Will studying in the USA help to further my career?

 

If you are looking for a study abroad adventure that will help you get a job after finishing your course, look no further than USA.

 

OPT:

 

Job retention for international students in the country itself are admittedly low due to difficulties with obtaining a work visa. However, American degrees are so highly thought of throughout the world that graduating with one will put you at the top of the pile in terms of job opportunities in any other country.

 

This is in part because of something called Optical Practical Training (OPT), which is a 12-month period that you can use to work and gain practical skills from a company in the USA for 12 months after graduation. With work visas being hard to get, we’d recommend using this OPT period as it will give you invaluable experience of working in America within your chosen field of study. Also, if you do well enough, the company you work for may offer you a full-time job, and help with your application process for a work visa in the United States. If that isn’t incentive to work hard, we don’t know what is!

 

If you want more information on OPT and finding a graduate career in the States, check out this article.

 

Reputation:

 

Melissa Mace, Assistant Vice President of Enrolment at Maryville University in Missouri, says, "Education in the United States is still regarded as overall the best education you can get in the world. If you’ve stayed for your Optional Practical Training after you’ve completed your study and you’ve gained some really valuable experience working in the United States, that makes you highly marketable as a new graduate."

 

That reputation of being the best education in the world is no lie. USA have 54 universities in the top 150 on the Times Higher Education World Rankings, which is way ahead of their nearest competitor, the UK, who have 23.

 

 

Teaching:

 

One of the reasons for USA having such a first-class education system is the high quality of staff that they employ at their institutions. Lecturers and researchers at the universities are often some of the best in their field and have had brilliant experience at the highest level.

 

Natalie Ingleby, who studied for a year at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County as part of her American studies degree from Swansea University, explained that this was particularly relevant for her experience of education in the US. "It was brilliant, I got to learn about the Vietnam War from a professor who worked at the CIA, and got weekly writing classes from journalists at the Baltimore Sun." Talk about lecturers in high places, eh?!

 

This is great for international students as they get to meet people with contacts at the pinnacle of their field of study, who could help them in their pursuit of a job in the country.

 

Career days:

 

Another unique reason why studying at an American university can help you to further your career, is that your institution will usually have very good relations with the big companies surrounding it. Universities in America will often host career days and job fairs where companies can meet students and see whether they have the right skills for a permanent job there. These days can work in favour of both parties. If the universities keep providing good candidates for the jobs, the companies are always going to come back for more.

 

What subject should I major in?

 

Decisions:

 

Interestingly, unlike most other countries, you do not study just one subject throughout your time at university. Although you may indicate a field of study you’re interested in during your application, known as your ‘major’, you can decide to study classes from other departments if they interest you. These are known as ‘minors’.

 

If you need more guidance on the application process, don’t worry, we’ve got a whole article dedicated to that. Here are our top tips for applying to American Universities.

 

However, you usually have to decide your major at the end of your second year in a four-year course, so roughly halfway through. That can change depending on where you study, though. So be sure to ask your institution when you should have decided your major.

 

Flexibility:

 

The idea is that you can go to your university, try different courses in your first and second year, to decide if you want to major in it. That way, if you go to university and don’t like your initial major, you can always change instead of just giving up and leaving the university.

 

"You can go to your college saying you wanted to study business, and finish your four years with a degree in English and Spanish studies." Says Callum, a British international student who graduated from Trinity University, Texas in 2017. "It really is that flexible, you aren’t tied down to one course at all. For example, I went over and ended up majoring in international sport management - which was a major that was unique to me."

 

 

A lot of students really enjoy this part of the American higher education system, as it really does give you the freedom to make the most out of your university life. You can finish your course having really enjoyed all the things you have learnt.

 

If you’re not sure what subject to study, you should have a look at our guide.

 

 

What is the student accommodation like?

 

 

Student accommodation in USA gives you a great platform to make friends as an international student, particularly because of the roommate system they have in place there.

 

Making friends:

 

Moving to a new country can be a daunting prospect, so it will probably come as a great comfort to always have one person that will be around to speak to. It is unlikely that you will be paired with another international student, but this may work in your favour in terms of making friends. Alongside a domestic student who may feel a little bit more comfortable in the opening weeks of term, it might feel less intimidating going out to make friends. Or, you may find that they are just as nervous as you and you can both slowly make your way out into university life as a team! Either way, the roommate system is something that works really well for a lot of students when they go for their studies in USA.

 

 

Having said that, Callum - who left the UK to study at Trinity University and play for their football (soccer) team - explains that international students have nothing to fear in the opening weeks. "Across the course of the first week, making friends was so easy" He says, "I found everyone to be very welcoming, specifically to international students."

 

"It is completely understandable to be nervous in your first week, that is always going to happen. But international students are integrated well into American universities, you will have so much to do in your orientation [introductory two weeks] that you won’t have much time to worry, really."

 

Facilities:

 

The norm with accommodation in the USA is to be in dorms for at least your first year at university, although it is becoming popular to go into apartment-style living in second year and beyond. The university accommodation is spacious, and the dorms always have more than enough room for two people to fit in there comfortably. Along with your flatmate, you will live on a corridor with other students and share bathrooms and a kitchen area. However, unlike other countries, most American universities have a meal plan where food is served in a cafeteria style format.

 

If you want to know more about food in USA, have a read of this article.

 

Callum was very impressed with the facilities he had available at Trinity University, "What I had in terms of accommodation at my university was very, very good. Luckily, they had just renovated the summer before I moved in - so that probably played a part. But even the worst dorms I saw out in America were still really good."

 

A lot of money is spent on campus accommodation and facilities for students, you should find that there is a gym, a lounge area with a TV and various other exciting things for you to explore.

 

 

Orientation

 

You will find out more details about all the facilities available at your halls in your orientation, which is an introductory two weeks where the university will put on different events and tours, so that you can get to know the campus a bit better and settle in quickly. Usually, there will be one domestic and one international orientation so that you can meet fellow international students if you’d like to as well!

 

Callum remembers orientation fondly, "There are events at the welcome week which help quite a lot. I remember one where we had to high-five everyone in our year group whilst running through a tunnel. It sounds cheesy, but at the end of the day, I made friends at those events that I still hang out with today."

 

What support services are there for international students at USA universities?

 

Moving to a different country is not always easy, so it will be a relief to hear that American universities have plenty of support services available for international students.

 

Support network:

 

If there was one recurring theme which kept on coming up when I spoke to international students from US universities, it was that if you are struggling with something, there will always be somewhere you can go for help.

 

Natalie said, ""I can’t fault the student support network. I still speak to the UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) team from my time there, and they go out of their way to make sure you’re settled and supported."

 

Services:

 

In dorms, you will have a resident mentor who will visit your room at least once a week to see if you have any concerns. There will usually be an international student services department that you can go to as well. Here, they might be a writing centre where you can take your work to be checked for mistakes if English isn’t your first language, there will be a careers service, counselling services for those struggling with mental health issues and most universities will have an on-site health service with a doctor’s office that is open up to six days a week.

 

 

We have a whole article dedicated to health & sickness abroad if you need it!

 

Melissa Mace from Maryville University’s admissions department says, "We have a life coaching model on campus and we are very individualised in working with our students to make sure they make the most out of their Maryville years. There are mentors, academic advisors, life advisors. They really help with every aspect of the student experience."

 

With this in mind, the one recommendation we would make in terms of support services is if you ever need help with something, do not be afraid to ask for help!

 

Should I join a university sports team?

 

If you think your country loves sport, you really haven’t seen anything yet. University sport in the USA isn’t just big, it is enormous. The pride felt by students about the school they attend is almost tribal, and as a result the crowds that turn up to university sport matches are unrivalled around the world. To put the fanfare behind university sport in USA into perspective, the average attendance at a Division One college football match in the States (43,612) is nearly 8,000 higher than the average attendance at a Premier League football (soccer) match in England (35, 822). Yes, you read that correctly. On average in America, more people watch amateur student athletes represent their universities than watch multi-millionaire footballers in Europe.

 

Check this article out if you want to read more about American Football culture in USA.

 

School spirit:

 

Now, not everyone reading this will go on to play American Football for their university team in front of thousands. But, the point still stands that university sport in America is more than just a game, it is an identity for college students - and a great way for you to feel involved in school spirit.

 

As Natalie says, "School pride is huge out there. Everyone is in school branded outfits and you pledge such loyalty to your school."

 

There is a real sense of belonging when you are cheering on your team against a rival university, and you really can feel like part of the school community when you are in the stands watching a sports match. Whether it’s basketball, hockey or even lacrosse, you will have a chance to watch your classmates battle it out throughout the school year.

 

 

Student athletes:

 

If you are lucky enough to play in these matches, you need to treat it as a real privilege and work hard to put in your best performance. Callum played for his university’s football (soccer) team, and knew that representing your university was not something to be taken lightly, "It really is seen as an honour to represent your school as an athlete. If you go around campus, you see people wearing their branded jumpers and that kind of thing, and they are really proud of the school they’ve gone to."

 

Callum was lucky enough to travel the country facing other universities and playing in front of some pretty big crowds, "The university I went to was quite small, but we’d still get 4-500 people coming to watch if we played on a Friday evening under the floodlights!" Considering that soccer is one of the smaller sports in America, that is quite something.

 

 

Intra Mural sport:

 

Interestingly though, there are also lots of sports teams that you can get involved in if you don’t fancy having the pressure of being a college athlete.  

 

They have the intra-mural programme, which essentially encompasses various competitive sporting leagues within the university. Through this, you can get a team together with some friends or course-mates and play sport with less pressure and time commitments, against other students within your university. Another great way to make new friends and make the most of the university’s facilities.

 

As Callum explains, "For a sports fan, America is a playground. You can get involved in so many different ways. You can play at intra-mural level, you can watch your own university at NCAA level and then you can also support your local NBA team or NFL team for your city."

 

So, there you have it. Whether you like playing sport casually, to a high standard or if you just want to watch, there’s plenty of opportunities to get involved at American universities!

 

Which state/city should I live in?

 

America is very unique in terms of providing variety for places to live, as it is just so big. Each state could easily be a country on its own, and each offers a different type of community for you to choose between. It is definitely worth doing the research into the state you are thinking of moving to, as they can differ quite a lot.

 

If you’re not sure what state to study in, have a look at our destination guides for USA.

 

Variety:

 

There is so much for you to discover in America. If you love drama and theatre, you can finally watch a play on Broadway. If you love food, you can try anything from meatloaf to ‘chicken-fried steak’. If you love nature, you can go to any one of America’s 58 national parks. The list really is endless.

 

 

As Callum says, "In the States in general, the opportunities are endless in terms of what you can discover. Whether that’s food, or different activities or events that you’ve never been too. I ate deep fried cheesecake and went to a rodeo, there’s very few other places in the world where you’d be able to do that!"

 

Natalie explained that there are some universities that have a bit of a party reputation too, if that is a factor for you. "I heard rave reviews about Knoxville, Tennessee, and also Columbus in Ohio. I think if you’re looking for a more ‘traditional American college experience’ like red cups and beer pong and dorm sharing, they’re where you should be looking."

 

The locals:

 

Overall, it seems that you will be welcomed with open arms wherever you choose to study in the United States. Callum explains that it is not just fellow students who can help make you feel that America is your new home, "The states is massively misjudged worldwide because of their politics, but when you ignore what happens with that and get out and meet the people, they really are wonderful - all across the country. They are very welcoming and friendly."

 

"Studying abroad can be the best experience of your life... Try to embed yourself and find things to make this place your new home. Four years ago, Texas meant nothing to me but now it is my second home and that is such a blessing."

 

Do you really need any more encouraging than that? Don’t wait around for your study abroad adventure to start, get searching for your dream course in USA now!

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About Author

Raif is a huge football fan and loves an infographic. He studied on the NCTJ-accredited University of Sheffield Journalism course, which has recently been voted the UK's number one for journalism in the Guardian's University League Table. Raif will look out for any mentions on social media, and will always be happy to help with any queries on your study abroad journey.

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