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A Simple Guide to US Colleges and Universities for International Students

The US offers many possibilities for obtaining an education that fits your needs, but how do you begin searching through thousands of schools? Start here!

If you’re an international student looking to study in the United States, deciding where to attend university suggests you even know where to start looking. Spanning over 3,000 miles of mountains, valleys, deserts, canyons, forests, and rivers, the States are as geographically varied as their citizens are diverse with more than 200 million residents comprising an assortment of cultures, ethnicities, religions, political views, and lifestyles. Such a variation means there’s also a lot of variation in educational opportunities. There are nearly 4,000 colleges and universities in the US—but what’s the difference between a university and a college anyway? And what does “liberal arts” even mean? Let’s slow down. Starting to sound a little overwhelming, huh? Below you will find a broad outline of the different types of institutions you can attend in the States and the opportunities they present.

Colleges vs. universities

Although the words “university” and “college” are often used interchangeably within the US, there are differences. Many people will say college to higher education in a general sense, but if they are referring to specific colleges, you should expect a smaller school with a more intimate campus atmosphere that primarily offers undergraduate programs; on the other hand, universities are larger, contain multiple colleges within them, provide more research and resources, and offer graduate programs.

While the difference between the two is straightforward, choosing which to attend may not be. Often, colleges provide a more individualized approach to learning with a lot of participation, one-on-one advising, and working relationships with professors. Universities have larger classes frequently held in lecture halls where there is less interaction between students and professors. These classes are often followed by seminars or tutorials, where a teaching assistant leads discussion within a smaller group. So which is better? It’s a simple question with a complex answer. Each institution is different, and the honest answer is you must take a good look at yourself to know which type of school is right for you. To figure that out, you need to dive a little deeper into the types of colleges and universities out there.

Related: What Kind of College Is Right for You?

Liberal arts schools

A liberal arts education is based on the philosophy that students who have a broad base of knowledge will be better prepared for the workforce because they can bring a variety of skills and understanding into any profession. These schools prepare you to be highly adaptable. Instead of focusing on a narrow path of study, liberal arts students spend about half of their time in classes about their major and the other half in what are commonly called “core” courses. Core courses focus on giving students that breadth of knowledge across disciplines—from history and art to language and communications to math and science and more. Students pursuing a liberal arts education are expected to be very engaged in debate and analysis in the classroom.

This educational philosophy is unique to the US, Western Europe, and Canada, and the majority of American students who choose to study at liberal arts schools do so because it allows them to explore many potential career paths. Students may choose their major before college, or during their freshman or sophomore year, giving them time to figure their goals out. For some students, this is the perfect path to discovering their interests and areas in which they excel. Others may already have a very specific plan for their educational and career path, and will therefore want to attend a more specialized institution.

Performing and visual arts schools

Performing and visual arts institutions are devoted solely to dance, theater, music, and the fine arts. Music and/or art schools do still offer academic courses in subjects like math and writing, although often in a manner that supports their specialty majors. In addition, many schools have agreements with other academic or arts institutions where students can cross-register. The application process will be a bit different from traditional schools as students must have a background in the arts and will be required to audition or submit a portfolio.

Institutes of technology

Are you a budding chemist? Wondering if your love of video games could lead to a career in computer programming? An institute of technology could be just the place for you. The main focus at technical schools is science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and at most schools, you will study with professors devoted to research, innovation, and discovery. Institutes of technology will offer the best in state-of-the-art equipment, which students can access and use, and generally mirror the products and processes used in the postgrad workplace.

Related: Interested in Tech? What You Need to Know About Institutes of Technology

Religious institutions

In general, there are two types of religious institutions: one that provides a liberal arts education and is affiliated with a religious order, and one that trains students to become religious leaders or scholars. Schools with a religious affiliation can provide a variety of resources for spiritual learning and growth for students—from places of worship to the observance of religious holidays to specialized food. In addition, the curriculum will often incorporate the particular beliefs of the religion as well as other religious course offerings are available. It is important to note that many secular schools also offer resources for spiritual life to their student body for a variety of religions. In addition, some schools are affiliated with a religion, but welcome students from all faiths and do not incorporate religion into the classroom. 

Single-gender schools

There are many highly ranked and prestigious women’s colleges in the United States, and while there are fewer all-male colleges, they do exist. Both can offer a strong sense of community, the opportunity for powerful mentorships and the ability to be yourself within the classroom and isolated from people of other genders. Most single-gender schools have vibrant activity boards and events throughout the year that involve surrounding co-ed colleges, to ensure a balanced social life. Most single-gender schools are also welcoming and supportive of nonbinary students.

Special programs within colleges and universities

So maybe you’ve decided on the type of school you’d like to attend, but don’t know what program to pursue. Perhaps you’d like to be part of an honors program, taking advanced courses and working closely with other high-achieving students on research and writing projects. Maybe you have a set career goal in mind, but liberal arts still appeal to you. Don’t worry! Many liberal arts schools offer pre-professional programs for fields such as law, finance, medicine, etc. This allows you to specialize in one area while also gaining that broad base of knowledge. If you know you’ll need to go to graduate school, look for institutions that have accelerated bachelor’s-to-master’s programs, which can cut down on the time and cost of getting an advanced degree. Many unique educational opportunities exist, so take the time to research these programs when choosing a school.

Related: College Honors Programs: Are They Worth It?

No matter what your path may be, remember, there is a school in the United States that fits your needs—it just takes some thought about what you want and need in an education and doing the research to find it. Are you an independent learner who enjoys large lecture-style classes Or do you prefer to learn through interaction and discussion? Would you thrive socially in a large student population or are you better in an intimate environment, where most students know each other’s names? Whatever you decide, your main focus should be on finding somewhere to study a subject that inspires you and will get you where you’d like to be in life.

Now that you know more about what types of US institutions are out there, start searching for the ones that fit your needs with our College Search tool

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