The USA is the number one destination for international students and it’s not hard to see why. Find out what it’s like to study in the ‘land of opportunity’
Spanning six time zones the USA is regarded as one of the finest education providers in the world and sees increasing numbers of postgraduate students flock to its universities each year.
Studying in the USA you’ll have the pick of thousands of institutions and degree programmes, as well as the opportunity to broaden your cultural horizons by experiencing American campus life. You can also give your CV a boost by getting involved in the huge variety of clubs and organisations on offer, including sports.
Popular student cities include Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco but if you’re sights are set on a less obvious destination you have 50 states to choose from.
The country has one of the largest education systems in the world with more than 4,500 institutions. While English is the main language in the USA, you’ll have to get used to the differing academic terminology. Universities are generally known as colleges, of which there are two main types:
- Public colleges – large, state-funded institutions that have lower tuition fees but more students. International students will pay higher fees.
- Private colleges – smaller universities funded by private donations, tuition fees and grants. The opposite of public colleges, they have higher fees but fewer students. Overseas students pay the same fees as state residents.
Five of the top ten universities in the world are US institutions according to the QS World University Rankings 2019. These include:
- 1st – Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
- 2nd – Stanford University
- 3rd – Harvard University
- 4th – California Institute of Technology (Caltech)
- 9th – University of Chicago.
Eight institutions also make up the Ivy League, a group of prestigious colleges:
- Brown University (Rhode Island)
- Columbia University (New York)
- Cornell University (New York)
- Dartmouth College (New Hampshire)
- Harvard University (Massachusetts)
- University of Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania)
- Princeton University (New Jersey)
- Yale University (Connecticut)
The academic calendar is split into two semesters; fall (autumn) runs from mid-August to December, and spring runs from January to May.
Degree courses in the USA
There are two types of undergraduate degree on offer in the USA:
- Associate degrees – take two years to complete and are usually studied at technical, community or junior colleges. Students can study for an associate qualification in a range of subjects and then transfer to a Bachelors programme to complete an additional two years of study to gain a Bachelors degree.
- Bachelors degrees – take four years to complete. They differ from UK undergraduate degrees in that students study a variety of subjects before deciding on which to focus on, known as a ‘major’. Students may also gain a ‘minor’ qualification by completing classes in an additional subject alongside their ‘major’.
For entry onto a Bachelors degree you’ll need at least five GCSE passes and two A-levels. To ensure that your chosen university recognises your qualifications you’ll need to contact the admissions office.
Known as ‘graduate degrees’ in the USA around 1,700 colleges offer programmes in a variety of subjects.
There are two types of graduate degree:
- Academic/research – usually completed in two years (some courses may only take one). Academic graduate degrees generally lead to a career in academia or research.
- Professional – these are designed to prepare students for particular professions. They take two years to complete.
Unlike in the UK there are no pure research graduate programmes on offer. Instead students learn through a combination of taught and research components. Students are also assessed on a more regular basis in the USA. Instead of undertaking a small number of large assessments you’ll face more frequent, smaller assessments.
Applying for a Masters degree follows a similar process to the UK. You will need a minimum of a 2:2 undergraduate degree from a recognised institution. It is worth remembering that there is no official conversion rate between UK A-level/degree results and US grades. Most institutions will have their own policy so it’s vital to get in touch before you apply.
You can search for US Masters degrees by field of study and location at International Student School Search.
A Doctoral degree is the highest qualification that a student can achieve in the USA. They typically take four to six years to complete.
To be awarded with a PhD you’ll need to pass comprehensive examinations and produce original research, usually in the form of a dissertation.
Commonly studied subjects include anthropology, biology, education, engineering, psychology and sociology.
UK students and graduates can apply for a range of exchange opportunities with the Fulbright Commission’s Fulbright Awards Programme. You can attend a US institution to pursue a postgraduate degree or lecture and conduct research in the USA.
Many UK universities are partnered with a US counterpart or are members of the International Student Exchange Program (ISEP). For example, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) is an ISEP member and has partners in the USA and other countries.
Studying in the USA is expensive, so any decision to study here should not be taken lightly.
Public universities charge two sets of fees: a lower rate applies to in-state students while a higher rate is charged for all out-of-state students. Private institutions don’t differentiate between out-of-sate and domestic students and charges the same rate for all, although fees will be higher than at public universities.
Fees for graduate programmes vary widely depending on your chosen subject and institution. For example, course fees and living costs at a top ranked institution could cost as much as $70,000 (£55,000) but there is financial help available depending on your circumstances. To find out exactly how much your postgraduate course costs contact your university.
While tuition fees are pricey the annual cost of living is generally much lower than in other countries such as the UK.
Funding to study in the USA
Each year international students receive a significant amount of financial help. Funding for overseas students does exist and generally differs between institutions. Some provide scholarships covering the entire cost of study, while others contribute towards the overall cost. Common sources of funding include:
- Needs-based financial aid – if your family income falls below a certain amount then many institutions can assist with tuition fees and accommodation.
- Merit scholarships – for those with outstanding talent or excellent grades in a specific subject.
- Sports scholarships – for talented sportsmen and women. You need the required grades as well as sporting excellence.
Around 20 scholarships are offered each year by the Fulbright Commission Award Programme. UK students looking to pursue a postgraduate degree are eligible, with awards varying from journalism to medicine. For a list of awards visit Fulbright Commission – Awards and Programmes for UK Postgraduates.
A number of institutions also set aside a significant sum to assist international undergraduates.
Any foreign national looking to enter the USA will need a visa.
The F-1 non-immigrant visa is the most common type for those wishing to study in the USA at an accredited college or university. You’ll need to have been accepted and approved on your course before applying for one. You will then register with the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and there is a $200 (£155) fee for this.
You will also need to make an appointment for a visa interview with the US embassy in your country. You’ll need to bring the following:
- your passport
- your visa application form
- financial documents.
The earlier you start this process the better – F-1 visas can be issued 120 days before your course start date.
US visa requirements can be complicated so for a complete guide visit the US Department of State – Student Visas.
Due to the current political situation in the US and the changeable nature of immigration laws, nationals of predominantly Muslim countries will need to keep a close eye on any rules or restrictions that may affect them entering the USA.
How to apply
It can take longer to apply to a US institution due to the various stages you must negotiate. It’s advised that you apply 12 to 18 months in advance. The Fulbright Commission recommends that you apply to no more than six institutions – this will allow you enough time to focus on each application while giving you an increased chance of success.
To study in the USA all students must apply directly to their chosen institution and sit a multiple choice admission exam. Most universities require students to sit SAT or ACT exams. They can be taken in test centres around the UK and cost roughly £50 each. Kaplan provides free SAT practice tools as well as SAT and ACT test preparation courses.
Additionally you’ll need to provide:
- an application form
- a personal statement
- transcripts of academic records
- two or three recommendation letters
- admission exam scores.
For graduate programmes you may have to provide a research statement and CV and also attend an interview.
All students must pay an application fee to each university, usually $50 to $100.
Application deadlines for postgraduate study vary but most fall between November and February.
Courses in the USA are taught in English. If English is not your first language then you will be required to sit an English Language Proficiency test. The TOEFL and IELTS tests are widely accepted.
Why Study in the USA
What would it mean to have an American university listed on your resume? Why would potential employers pause and take notice of your education credentials from the United States?
It would mean that you have advanced English language skills and valuable intercultural experience. It would show that you studied within one of the best higher education systems in the world, with access to advanced technology and research. They would know that you received in-depth instruction, learned to problem-solve and have knowledge of modern practices within your field.
It would mean that you have more opportunities.
Studying in the United States and abroad doesn’t just give you tangible degrees and certificates. Your experience says something about who you are. Living and studying in another country—especially where your language isn’t spoken—is challenging, requires courage and a positive attitude. Sometimes, these characteristics are more influential than your degree.
Life here, both as an international student and visitor, will probably be different from what you expect. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that the images from films and television programs are not always true. Americans come in a variety of sizes, colors and shapes and in general are very friendly and will be interested in learning about you and your country.
For any international student, the USA has a lot to offer: one of the most prestigious, top ranked higher education systems in the world, eclectic cities and beautiful natural parks, culture, history and a very multicultural population.
Diversity and Variety
The United States offers variety.
There is a wide range of schools, countless areas of study and specialty degrees. If you are interested in studying business, you are not relegated to just general study, but can choose from many concentrations: accounting, marketing, international business, business management, business administration, or finance. (There are many more!) This type of specialty study is available at the undergraduate, graduate and doctorate level, too.
One option you may not be aware of is studying at a community college, which is a two-year school in which you can begin your university study. You can complete the first two years of your bachelor’s degree at a community college and then transfer your credentials to a four-year university. This is extremely common in the USA. Community colleges offer lower tuition costs, smaller class sizes and more personal attention. Many community colleges also offer intensive English language programs.
Or, you can begin your studies at a four-year university or college. The variation and number of choices reflects the diversity and enormity of the U.S. You can study at a large public university or college. If you prefer a more intimate campus and a smaller community, you may choose a small private university.
The land and people of the USA are also incredibly varied. Wherever you choose to study, you will encounter a regional culture rich in history and local traditions. For instance, the West Coast region has many beaches, outdoor activities, the people have a relaxed attitude and you will probably find many local international communities. The Midwest has many large research universities and the people are known for their hospitality and kindness. The USA is a multiracial society that is still absorbing new immigrants, which makes it a very dynamic and exciting place to experience. While students must exercise caution in a few locations, streets and university campuses are generally clean and safe.
A Unique Higher Education System
U.S. universities and colleges may differ from those in your home country in several ways. For one thing, small class sizes are very common. There may be as few as 10 to 20 students in a class, giving you the personal attention you need in order to succeed. While in class, students are encouraged and expected to contribute to the discussion. Professors meet with students in their offices or even share coffee or meals with them. The close relationship between students and faculty serves to motivate students and fosters a personal approach to the curriculum. Studying in the U.S. gives you the opportunity to gain a mentor in your given career field, an invaluable resource.
You may be surprised at your professors willingness to challenge authority. Academic freedom is one of the hallmarks of a U.S. university. You will notice different perspectives on instruction. Here, students are trained to observe and analyze a problem, then solve it. You will be expected to listen to your classmates and challenge their points of view. The goal is pragmatic, so that you will gain confidence and the ability to organize and present an argument.
Most American university students live on or near the school campus. You will have many opportunities to join planned and informal activities with other students, such as hiking, skiing, museum visits, excursions to new cities, and local tourist attractions. Imagine visiting New York City and taking a ferry to the Statue of Liberty! Many schools have international student organizations and clubs that also plan activities. This interaction with other students will enhance your English language skills. Your fellow students will also teach you about American culture and about the diverse cultures represented on any U.S. university or college campus.
The Leading Edge
The United States is the leader in many areas of technology and research. While studying here, you will be exposed to advanced technology and research. You may be fortunate enough to meet, and even study, with the leading scholars in your chosen field. Why not study with the best?
Living and learning in the USA will exhilarate you. It will change the landscape of your life permanently. We guarantee that you will return home changed—more confident, more open and knowledgeable, making you a citizen of the world with a much broader perspective!
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