The American education system offers a rich field of choices for international students. There is such an array of schools, programs, and locations that the choices may overwhelm students, even those from the U.S. As you begin your school search, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the American education system. Understanding the system will help you narrow your choices and develop your education plan.
Prior to higher education, American students attend primary and secondary school for a combined total of 12 years. These years are referred to as the first through twelfth grades.
Around age six, U.S. children begin primary school, which is most commonly called “elementary school.” They attend five or six years and then go to secondary school.
Secondary school consists of two programs: the first is “middle school” or “junior high school” and the second program is “high school.” A diploma or certificate is awarded upon graduation from high school. After graduating from high school (12th grade), U.S. students may go on to college or university. College or university study is known as “higher education.”
THE U.S. HIGHER EDUCATION SYSTEM: LEVELS OF STUDY
A student who is attending a college or university and has not earned a bachelor’s degree is studying at the undergraduate level. It typically takes about four years to earn a bachelor’s degree. You can either begin your studies in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree at a community college or a four-year university or college.
Your first two years of study you will generally be required to take a wide variety of classes in different subjects, commonly known as prerequisite courses: literature, science, the social sciences, the arts, history, and so forth. This is so you achieve a general knowledge, a foundation, of a variety of subjects prior to focusing on a specific field of study.
Many students choose to study at a community college in order to complete the first two years of prerequisite courses. They will earn an Associate of Arts (AA) transfer degree and then transfer to a four-year university or college.
A graduate program is usually a division of a university or college. Graduate programs in pursuit of a master’s degree typically take one to two years to complete. For example, the MBA (master of business administration) is an extremely popular degree program that takes about two years. Other master’s programs, such as journalism, only take one year.
The majority of a master’s program is spent in classroom study and a graduate student must prepare a long research paper called a “master’s thesis” or complete a “master’s project.”
To gain admission, you will need to take the GRE (graduate record examination). Certain master’s programs require specific tests, such as the LSAT for law school, the GRE or GMAT for business school, and the MCAT for medical school.
It may take three years or more to earn a Ph.D. degree. For international students, it may take as long as five or six years. Many graduate schools consider the attainment of a master’s degree the first step towards earning a Ph.D. (doctorate). But at other schools, students may prepare directly for a doctorate without also earning a master’s degree.
For the first two years of the program, most doctoral candidates enroll in classes and seminars. At least another year is spent conducting firsthand research and writing a thesis or dissertation. This paper must contain views, designs, or research that have not been previously published.
A doctoral dissertation is a discussion and summary of the current scholarship on a given topic. Most U.S. universities awarding doctorates also require their candidates to have a reading knowledge of two foreign languages, to spend a required length of time “in residence,” to pass a qualifying examination that officially admits candidates to the Ph.D. program and to pass an oral examination on the same topic as the dissertation.
The U.S. academic calendar typically runs from September to May and can be divided into two academic terms of 16-18 weeks known as semesters. Alternatively, some schools may operate on a quarter or trimester system of multiple terms of 10-12 weeks. Basically, if you exclude the summer session, the academic year is either comprised of two semesters or three-quarter terms.
The majority of new students begin in autumn, so it is a good idea for international students to also begin their U.S. university studies at this time. There is a lot of excitement at the beginning of the school year and students from many great friendships during this time, as they are all adjusting to a new phase of academic life.
Regardless of the institution type, in the United States, students typically earn credits for courses they take and these credits count towards the completion of a program. Courses are often divided into “core” subject areas to provide the foundation of the degree program and “major” courses to provide specialization in a subject area. Students can also take “elective” courses to explore other topics of interest for a well-rounded educational experience.
The grading system and GPA in the U.S. can be confusing, especially for international students. The interpretation of grades has a lot of variation. You will have to submit your academic transcripts as part of your application for admission to university or college.
Therefore, there are some crucial things to keep in mind:
You should find out the U.S. equivalent of the last level of education you completed in your home country.
Pay close attention to the admission requirements of each university and college, as well as individual degree programs, which may have different requirements than the University.
Meet with Axiom educational advisor to make sure you are meeting the requirements.
Axiom Educational advisors will be able to advise you on whether or not you must spend an extra year or two preparing for U.S. university admission.
More than 4,500 accredited institutions make up U.S. higher education in the United States. Unlike many countries, U.S. higher education institutions are not centrally organized or managed but are accredited on a national or regional level by independent accrediting bodies.
State colleges and universities, also called “public universities,” were founded and subsidized by U.S. state governments to provide a low-cost education to residents of that state. Public universities generally offer access to research opportunities and classes in a wide variety of fields of study. These universities tend to be very large and generally admit a wider range of students than private universities. Each student’s interests will guide his/her choice among the many possibilities. Many of these public universities schools have the name of the state, or the actual word “State” in their names: for example, Washington State University and the University of Michigan.
Private colleges and universities are funded by a combination of endowments, gifts from alumni, research grants, and tuition fees. Private colleges and universities are usually smaller than public institutions and can have a religious affiliation or be single-sex schools. Tuition will usually be higher than state schools. Religiously affiliated universities and colleges are private schools. Nearly all these schools welcome students of all religions and beliefs.
Community colleges are another option and provide two-year associate degree programs to prepare students to continue studies for an undergraduate degree or help them gain occupational skills for immediate employment.
Community college graduates most commonly transfer to four-year colleges or universities to complete their degree. Because they can transfer the credits they earned while attending community college, they can complete their bachelor’s degree program in two or more additional years. Many also offer ESL or intensive English language programs, which will prepare students for university-level courses.
A variety of institution types offers higher-education degrees. Some have graduate programs, while others offer short-term courses. Liberal arts institutions, for example, offer courses in the arts, humanities, languages, and social and physical sciences. The majority of liberal arts institutions are private.
One of the most attractive features of the U.S. higher education system is the flexibility it provides through the number and diversity of institution types it encompasses.
This diversity offers students options to specialize in a variety of academic disciplines and even gain employment training.
Classes range from large lectures with several hundred students to smaller classes and seminars (discussion classes) with only a few students. The American university classroom atmosphere is very dynamic. You will be expected to share your opinion, argue your point, participate in class discussions and give presentations. International students find this one of the most surprising aspects of the American education system.
Each course is worth a certain number of credits or credit hours. This number is roughly the same as the number of hours a student spends in class for that course each week. A course is typically worth three to five credits.
A full-time program at most schools is 12 or 15 credit hours (four or five courses per term) and a certain number of credits must be fulfilled in order to graduate. International students are expected to enroll in a full-time program during each term.
If a student enrolls at a new university before finishing a degree, generally most credits earned at the first school can be used to complete a degree at the new university. This means a student can transfer to another university and still graduate within a reasonable time.
With the variety of available U.S. higher education options, students are sure to find the right fit for their academic, financial, and personal needs.