Our doors and our educational institutions remain open to all qualified students from around the world. The United States is proud of an educational system that attracts more than a half-million international students and scholars to our campuses... College and university campuses continue to welcome students from abroad. -- U.S. Department of State
When proceeding with your plans, first analyze your own individual academic objectives. Ask yourself questions that only you can answer. Then we will explore more general questions and answers about studying in the United States.
What is the difference between a school, a college and a university?
In many countries of the world a college is a secondary school and is very different than a university. In the United States, however, colleges and universities are quite similar. Often, both colleges and universities are referred to as "schools." Generally, both colleges and universities in the United States are four-year institutions that offer a Bachelor of Arts degree or a Bachelor of Science degree. This is commonly known as an undergraduate or bachelor's degree.
The main difference is that most universities also offer a higher level of study after you complete your bachelor's degree - resulting in a master's degree or doctorate.
What confuses many international students is that Americans use the words "school," "college" and "university" interchangeably in conversation. For example, someone may ask, "Where do you go to school?" In this case, they simply want to know what university you are attending.
Adding to the confusion, universities are often divided up into sections that are referred to as "colleges." The University of Idaho, for example, is organized into ten colleges, which include the College of Engineering, the College of Law and the College of Agriculture. No matter which of these colleges you attend, your degree will be issued by the University.
You will also hear the word "college" when people discuss two-year colleges. These colleges (also called community colleges or junior colleges) offer a degree called an associate degree. Many international students choose to get this type of degree and then transfer to a four-year college or university to study two more years to earn a bachelor's degree.
You will want to pay close attention when you read or hear information about a school, college or university, but recognize that all the institutions share the same basic principle -- providing a challenging and exciting place to study and earn a degree!
What is a major?
A major is your primary academic area of interest. If you are studying towards a bachelor's degree, there will be a time when you will be required to choose or declare a major field of study. This is a very exciting and important decision - one that can be fun to determine. Many international students will choose to attend a wide variety of classes or "courses" during their first two years to help them decide what they will study as their major. There are many major fields of study - journalism, art, forestry, computer science, business... the list goes on. It is a good idea to check what major fields of study are available at the college or university that you would like to attend. You very likely will be able to find a school that has many subjects which interest you. At some institutions, you will also be able to choose a "minor" field of study. Your major and minor fields of study may not be similar at all. The choice will be up to you!
Why do I have to choose a major?
Once you decide your major field of study, there will be a specific number and type of courses you must take to earn a degree for that particular major. These courses will be very interesting and specialized to help you master the details and skills of your chosen field.
Note: You can change your major before you graduate, but be careful! Often, you may have to meet different course requirements to earn a degree in your new field of study. This can be time-consuming and expensive.
What are credits?
When you sign up for classes at your college or university, you will notice that each of these courses will be assigned a specific number of credits or "credit hours." In order to graduate with a degree, you will need to complete a specified number of credits. Some courses will be given a higher number of credit hours than others. Sometimes this can be an indication of the difficulty of the class, but generally it means that you will be attending a class for this certain number of hours each week.
Typically, students studying toward a bachelor's degree in the United States will sign up for 12-15 credit hours each term. (Important! Check with your foreign student advisor in the United States to determine what is an appropriate amount for your college or university. You will also need to know information to legally maintain your full-time status as a student while in the United States.)
What is an academic year?
Each college and university determines its own academic year, so this will vary depending on where you study. The academic year in the United States usually begins in late August or early September and continues through May or June. Each year is divided into "terms." Typically, a school will have either two terms per academic year (semesters), three terms (trimesters) or four terms (quarters). Many schools divide the calendar year into four "quarters", then designate three of those quarters (usually fall, winter, and spring) as the "academic year."
What is a G.P.A.?
This refers to a Grade Point Average. At the end of a term, each professor or instructor will evaluate your work and your test results to determine a grade for the course. At most U.S. universities and colleges, you will be given a letter grade with a numerical equivalent. This number will be used, along with your other grades, to determine your Grade Point Average. Students in the United States work very hard to maintain an above-average G.P.A.
In many cases, they will be asked to supply G.P.A. information to potential employers after graduation. Graduate schools will also use the students' G.P.A.s when they consider candidates for a graduate degree program.
*If a student receives an "F" or failing mark for a class, the student will not be awarded credit toward a degree for that class. If the class is required for the completion of the degree, the student must repeat the class and earn a passing grade or higher.
The U.S. Network for Education Information features a comprehensive overview of the structure of education within the United States.