Study in the US
More than one million international students studied in the US last year. Here we look at why and how you can study in the US and answer all common questions about studying there.
For this article we invited the American student Michaela Lord as a guest writer. Most of the text below is written by her based on her own experience. We have then added some additional facts and topics to give a complete guide for international students.
So, are you interested in learning in the world’s most diverse country? Are you curious about the American educational system? While the United States is popular for its entertainment, culture and overall global persona, it is an ideal place for a foreigner to go to if they want to study abroad. Learn more here:
Why Study in the US?
The United States is arguably the place to go to if you want to study abroad and go to the Americas. While its power standing has been questioned numerous times in the past decade, it is known as the land of the free. Built on a revolution against Great Britain for independence in 1776, the United States has grown considerably for a young country, despite its history of being in wars. Having their own Civil War and then being players in the two World Wars, the United States earned its reputation from international involvement in these tragedies. It was post World War II when the country was able to experience a boom, and earned its title as a superpower.
The United States has its own unique culture and depending on the region you go to, one can have varying experiences, and their reactions will depend on the given area. In general, the United States are divided into the following regions: Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, West and Southwest. When studying, it is smart to research the area you will be living in. Due to the country being the fourth largest in the world, the climate is drastically different, and one can experience different climates by going a few states away. With different temperate zones, this also leads to various landscapes to view while studying abroad, making for interesting vacation ideas.
The United States has been experiencing many different movements and political changes. One of the best qualities about the US is the right to freedom of speech and assembly. Because of the ability to protest, the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement, along with LGBT rights, have successfully passed through their highest law-making body, Congress. Due to this, the United States is a popular destination for immigrants, especially those who were exiled by their communities due to politics, religion or even race/ethnicity.
Overall, the United States is a melting pot of different waves of immigration and migration, making it an ideal place for the international student. In cities like Los Angeles, Miami, New York City and Boston, the immigrant population is high enough that one can feel at home. Depending on your interests, you might find yourself in a large city, small city, the country or even in a college town (we’ll explain this later). You could be in an area that is dense with forests, hills, deserts, lakes, etc. The best way to decide what you will do next is to read the passages below, for the overall gist of the American Education system.
The US Educational System
To explain the US educational system, one must understand the way of the land. The United States makes it mandatory for students to go to school for 12 years of primary education (excluding kindergarten). Students are usually 18 years old when they graduate from high school. Those who drop out of high school can still earn their diploma by passing the GED-test. However, if you did not finish high school I would recommend taking a look at Seattle Central College's fantastic High School Completion Plus program that gives you a High School Diploma from Washington State AND an Associate Degree in only two years!
If you are applying for college in the states, make sure that you have the equivalent level of years met for requirements. In the US, there are the federal or general laws for the entire nation, and then there are state laws which differ depending on where you study. For college, the US allows the states to make the regulations, so check the school’s admission requirement for international students to make sure you qualify to apply.
The United States has two types of higher level education. There are community colleges (two-year colleges), and there are universities (four-year colleges). At a community college, people can obtain an Associate’s Degree, which is roughly 60 credits. It takes a full-time college student two years to obtain this degree, and it is much cheaper than studying at a university. At some community colleges, students can earn a bachelor degree in four years, which is also provided by all universities. Students with an Associate Degree can transfer directly into the third year of a university program with their credits being rolled into the bachelor degree, which is more specific and has other requirements. Read more about Community Colleges in the US for international students.
Universities, on the other hand, are larger and considered the “traditional” American college. Universities usually have research groups, various options for activities and an array of options to “major” and “minor” in. For an undergraduate (a student who is obtaining a Bachelor Degree, also known as a 4 year degree), a major is the subject matter they are obtaining the degree in. For example, I happen to be an American student who majored in psychology. This means that I took most of my classes in psychology. Now, I also minored in sociology, which means that I took multiple classes in this subject, but I did not concentrate on it. Depending on which university you attend and what you want to do, you can major, minor and even double major and minor in hundreds of subjects.
When you are majoring/minoring in a subject, you are trying to obtain a career related to this field; it is essential to know what you want to do. While you can change your major (I did myself. I was originally a political science major), it can be difficult to transfer old credits into your new program. Sometimes, people will have to stay in college longer due to the change, but don’t worry! Many go to school all over again, thanks to changing their mind. To me, this is the beauty of the American school system. Instead of being forced into a program, you can express your own interests and decide on subjects that you could want to be in for the future. For international students subjects such as business, international relations, it, tourism and even the social sciences are high-interest points thanks to their ability to convert easily back in one’s home country.
Here you can find all the most high ranking and popular schools and universities in the US.
When and how to apply?
The majority of American colleges/universities have a two semester year, and the semesters are usually 16 weeks long. The school year starts with the fall semester which begins in late August or early September and ends in December. From here, college students have a few weeks off for a break, and then they continue their education in the “spring semester” This lasts from early January to the end of April-early May. Unless you just du an exchange semester, it is better to start your studies in the US in the fall, so you follow the school year.
Some schools, primarily smaller colleges, have a quarter system where you can take up to four semesters (quarters) per year. Each quarter lasts 10-12 weeks so usually students only take three quarters per year and then have a break for one quarter.
So when should you apply? In the United States there is no central admission authority so each school set their own deadlines. The top universities usually has their application deadline already in November or December for courses starting in the fall and in March or April for programs starting in the spring. Other universities with good rankings usually have deadlines in March or April for the fall semester and July or August for the spring semester. Other universities and smaller schools such as Community Colleges often don’t close application window for the fall semester until June or July and October or November for the spring semester. However, as an international student you should keep in mind that you will need a couple of months to apply, arrange a visa etc so don’t apply too late!
Go to the schools website and look up the admission requirements to find out which documents you will need to fill in and prepare for the application. You will need to show that you have enough money for your studies and that your English level is good enough. American universities prefer the TOEFL-exam to prove your English level but most of them also accept the IELTS-exam.
How much does it cost to study in the US?
This is a sore subject to many Americans, thanks to the high costs to obtain a college education. In almost all states, it is more cost efficient to attend community college and then transfer to a university. For example, when I attended community college first for my Associate’s in arts, I was paying roughly $144 per credit hour. The majority of classes you take are three credit hours, so I was paying $432 per class. When I continued my studies at the University of Louisville, I paid $444 PER credit hour. More than three times the price I paid at Community College. What worsens this issue for Americans is when they decide to travel out of state to attend college. This increases the price of college tuition dramatically as well. To give you an example, I attended Louisville for two years, and I paid $16,000 per year for tuition. When my friend transferred to an out of state college in Indiana, she was paying roughly $40,000.
Now, I promise I am not trying to induce a heart attack. This is what many citizens have happen to them. However, many colleges in the states are tuition friendly and have fantastic study abroad programs. In fact, areas that are known to have higher levels of immigration are also well known to give great tuition rates for students! The United States does not give out financial aid to students who are not actual residents of the country, but you might be eligible for those from your home country. However, you can receive grants and scholarships from your college. The best part? If you receive grants and scholarships from your school you don’t owe anyone any money back from them! It’s a win-win: the college can educate you, and you essentially are being paid to go there. Look into your chosen school’s program, and know what you’d be getting yourself into before you decide.
Insurance for studying in the US
It is very important to have a good insurance when you study in the US. It can be extremely costly if you get sick or end up in a legal situation without an insurance. Many schools demand that you show an insurance policy the first day at school. We recommend Dr Walter's Protrip World insurance which provides good coverage for a good price. It is available for all nationalities.
You will need a separate insurance if you plan on driving in the US. Read more about study abroad insurances.
You will need an F-1 student visa to study in the US (unless you only go for a short language course with few hours per week). Once you are enrolled in a US school, they will send you an I-20 document that you need for the visa application. Read more in our guide about student visa to the US.
Working as a student in the US
You can work as a student in the US, but the requirements are strict. You need to have your student visa, and make sure you read into the regulations of your chosen job. In general, it is easiest to work on-campus. These types of employment opportunities are usually flexible for the student, but are also sparse in general and require you to not work for your first semester abroad. However, after your first semester, you can apply, and you can work up to 20 hours per week, which is a part time job. You can work full-time during the vacations if you will be staying at the university for the next semester
To work off-campus, you must either work at a location affiliated with your school or do work as an integral part of your academic program, for example, a paid internship. A student who experiences Severe Economic Hardship might also be allowed to work off-campus if they cannot find a job on-campus. Check with the international office at your school to make sure that your work is allowed.
The final option to work as a student in the US is with optional practical training (OPT). To do this, you will need approval from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. To apply, you must have studied at least nine months in the US and it will be granted at the earliest 12 months after you started your studies. Your OPT-work must be directly related to your academic major. OPT allows you to work full time in the US for 12 months after you have finished your studies. You can also work half time on OPT while you study but then each two months you work half time will shorten your work period after graduation by one month. Read more about OPT on Wikipedia.
Student housing is stereotyped pretty accurately in the states. In universities and colleges (not community colleges), most beginning students live in dorms. These differ in quality and style for each dorm. The majority require students to have a roommate or even multiple roommates. Some colleges allow for students to have their private dorm room, but they are not as frequent. College dorms are mixed gender, but your roommate will be the same gender as you. Many times, the bathrooms are either shared between the roommates or an entire floor. As the college student ages, they can move to apartments associated with the college and have more freedom.
While the American college life sounds like a death sentence thanks to the price, it is a great experience socially. In the states, Greek life is a huge part of campus culture. For males, this is a fraternity, and for women, this is a sorority. This showcases community, unity and being a part of an organization. Many colleges are also well known for their athletics. If you are an international student, you can be involved by attending games on campus and even being a part of the team, whether it is the college level or intermural for fun. Colleges are often based in towns that are populated by the students, making the experience even more fun with a plethora of things to do!