American Universities: Fact or Fiction

Matching your expectations with reality at university in the U.S.A.

What you see is what you get!

This phrase, which is used with some frequency in the United States, implies that direct experience is the best source for accurate information. However, when it comes to understanding higher education in relation to American culture, few international students are able to match their expectations with the reality they encounter. But uncovering these differences can be just as educational as anything found in a classroom. Take a look at a few common myths surrounding study in the United States, and get to know the difference between fact and fiction.

U.S.-based media are accurate sources of information from which to learn about American culture and society: Fact or Fiction?

The United States has given the world many products and services, from advances in technology to various forms of pop culture. With those exports has also come a portrayal of American culture that is anything but accurate at times. In this regard, you may be similar to other students who form their perspective of Americans from the news, movies, Web, and all of those television programs. What you may not know is that these sources suffer from deficiencies in perspective. None are meant to give you a holistic, inclusive portrayal of Americans; rather, each has its own biases. Television programs are known to focus on sensational, uncommon issues and exaggerate situations as a means of entertainment. Similarly, the film industry learned a long time ago that sales are related to themes and stories that are exceptional, from the unusual to the bizarre. Even news sources differ in their ideologies.

Bottom line: Taken as a whole, information that is biased or taken out of cultural context puts at risk your ability to properly understand American behavior.


The rank or reputation of a university is in direct correlation with its quality and should be your first consideration: Fact or Fiction?

This assertion appears to be true on the surface, but a little scrutiny will show a few traps. First, some of the best-known rankings come from sources that have nothing to do with higher education, and their methodologies may be subjective. Similarly, a university’s reputation is suggestive of a level of quality but should not be taken as definitive. Consider the university whose reputation is related to a specific discipline or level of study; a school can have a great engineering program, but that does not mean that it will have a similar quality program in business or history. Finally, consider master’s and doctoral programs that often enjoy a stellar reputation due to faculty presence and funded research that are not shared at the undergraduate level, even in the same discipline.

Bottom line: Rankings and reputation are not the best criteria for making a selection. Rather, they are suggestive of quality and should be taken in tandem with other considerations.


Private universities in the United States are not affordable: Fact or Fiction?

Many colleges and universities in the United States are private, meaning they are not government owned or supported. Unlike their public counterparts, private universities do not have government resources to lower tuition costs and related expenses. What many international students do not know is that all of those community colleges and state universities are supported by tax revenue; thus, the benefits in services and lower costs are intended for Americans who live in the United States. Since private universities are not tied to government support and public sensibilities, they may offer more awards and scholarships to international students.

Bottom line: Never look at total costs as a basis for making your college choice. You should always inquire into the scholarships and awards that are available to you. (Be careful with financial aid deadlines that differ from the requirements for admission.) You have nothing to lose—unless you choose to not make the inquiry.


U.S. universities require the SAT, TOEFL, or other test scores in order to determine admission: Fact or Fiction?

Higher education in the United States is as diverse as the international students who seek it. You should not be surprised to learn that admission requirements will often vary depending on the college’s profile and enrollment goals. While most colleges require the SAT or ACT of American nationals, there is a growing number that exempts international students from this requirement. Why? Colleges that have worked with international students know that academic preparation can be measured by in-country transcripts and national exam scores. There is also a longstanding concern that U.S.-based tests are culturally biased and do not properly assess students who have been educated in another country.

The TOEFL, or its many counterparts (IELTS and PTE to name two), will always be required on campuses that cannot provide training for English proficiency for academic purposes. On the other hand, colleges that have English as a Second Language (ESL) courses will usually waive the TOEFL requirement in favor of on-campus testing and placement into a level of ESL.

Bottom line: Do not assume that colleges will require the SAT, TOEFL, or other tests; instead, research the precise requirements for every school you are considering. However, keep in mind that taking the SAT or the TOEFL will increase your options, as many colleges and universities require them.


When transferring from one college to another, students should choose the school that accepts the most credits: Fact or Fiction?

This seems logical, and it has been a guiding principal for many transfer students. Unfortunately, a closer examination will show that not all courses transfer the same way—a painful lesson for many students. Courses typically transfer from one college to another based on four criteria: course content, the time commitment per course, the grade, and the accreditation (or an in-country equivalency) of the university. If all four conditions are met, courses will usually transfer.

At this point, the answer that you need is not whether the courses will transfer into the university, but how many courses will transfer into your intended degree or major. Twenty courses can transfer into a university, but only five of them may be counted toward the completion of your degree!

Bottom line: Do your research, ask plenty of questions, and do not be misled on general assertions regarding the transfer of credits.


Americans are too liberal in their relationships and secular in their orientation: Fact or Fiction?

When international students come to the United States for the first time, many of their preconceived notions and inferences are reinforced by the dress and casual customs of Americans, especially young adults. Your American classmate might share a hearty hello but will not stop and chat. These situations are examples of American behavior that differ from what is read or seen on the television. Boundaries separate the personal from the professional and from one social setting to another. The truth of the matter is that many Americans are quite sensitive about their personal relationships and are conservative in how soon or how far they become more deeply acquainted. Further, many Americans are deeply religious and committed to traditional values that are not always readily apparent; clothes, fashion, and personal preferences that are publicly shared are not always suggestive of one’s behavior and tendencies.

Bottom line: Be careful in your inferences and expectations of Americans. Take them on their own terms and you will enjoy the benefits of new relationships under a different cultural context.


The diversity in American culture is represented in its institutions, including higher education. Let your expectations be enriched—either validated or modified—by your experience. Your receptivity and flexibility will be rewarded with relationships that are genuine and activities that are relevant and meaningful. Above all, you will come to learn, firsthand, that American culture is defined by a diversity that includes you.

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