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Insider Advice to Begin Your Exciting US University Adventure

You're about to embark on an exciting journey to find and apply to US universities. Here's all the expert advice that international students should know.

When it comes to the US university search, the most important factors can usually be placed into one of three categories: academic, practical, and social. Your success during your time as an undergraduate hinges on the knowledge that your university of choice is going to fulfill your expectations in these areas, from majors and student life to your future career and beyond. As you're searching for the right university for you, here's what you should consider in all of these categories.

Your major and general academics

One of the biggest benefits of studying at a US university is the variety of things to study. Majors range from the traditional liberal arts, like philosophy, history, and linguistics, to fields that represent the growing technology field, like information systems, electrical and computer engineering, and biomedical engineering. Many universities encourage interdisciplinary studies and allow students to explore topics they have not yet been exposed to. Terms like “general education requirements” or “core curriculum” usually imply a set of courses that all students, regardless of major, must take in order to graduate. For example, all students at Carnegie Mellon University must take an introductory English course that focuses on writing and analysis at the college level. For students who identify themselves as non-native English speakers, the school offers an alternative class that focuses on the rhetorical and linguistic demands of US universities. Some colleges may offer similar alternative classes for international students who do not quite feel prepared for the language requirements of a university. If you feel you will need continued instruction with the English language, it is important to find out ahead of time what each university would have to offer you in order to ensure your success for the future.

Things to consider

Obviously academics should be the first thing to consider when looking at potential colleges. However, in the United States, the approach to learning may vary greatly across universities. Do you see yourself exploring a wide variety of fields, focusing on a major during your final two years of undergraduate? If so, perhaps a liberal arts college would be a good fit. For more technical minds, research universities may provide you with more resources to explore a specific topic of your own while still getting class credit. If you hope to become an artist in one of the fine arts fields, you should decide whether you want a conservatory-based program or a more flexible program that allows you to pursue academic interests while you improve your chosen craft.  

There are positives and negatives for each type of school, so it is important to know what your expectations are for your own college experience. Going into the college search process without first knowing what you want out of the university experience may lead you to be overwhelmed by all the options. For example, prospective students interested in studying science at Carnegie Mellon would apply directly to the Mellon College of Science. By the end of their freshman year, they need to choose between chemistry, physics, biology, or math. However, if a potential chemistry student was hoping to take more exploratory courses before deciding whether to officially declare chemistry as a major, the program might not be the best fit for such a student. Having an idea of what and how you want to study can help you rule out colleges that will not fit your expectations.

Related: 4 Expert Tips for Choosing Your Best-Fit College Major

Life on a US college campus

Another key aspect of the US university experience is the social life. Not only are students encouraged to become involved in the campus and local community, the potential for involvement is actually a part of the college admission process. Campus life encompasses everything available for a student outside of class; from dance groups to robotics teams, or even deciding what speakers to bring to campus, there is an organization for everyone. Many campuses have cultural clubs, which may be a great way to connect to other students who have also chosen to study outside of their home country. Universities in the United States are always looking to increase the diversity of their student population. There is an appreciation for the ability of an international student like you to act as an ambassador of culture, bringing new perspectives and experiences to American college students who may not have had the chance to travel outside of the United States.

Things to consider

In choosing to study abroad, many international students accept that there may not be any other students from their home country at the university they enroll in. It is important to ask yourself what your expectations are in terms of the student population. Many universities will have information available, like the percentage of international students on campus or what countries their international students typically come from. Some universities tend to draw students from a particular region of the United States. If you are looking to immerse yourself into a select part of US culture, choosing a university made up of students from a specific part of the country can be a unique cultural experience. Similarly, a university that has students from all 50 states would give you the opportunity to learn about the wide variety of cultures that make up the United States.

In choosing to study abroad, you'll have the opportunity to push yourself far outside of your normal comfort zone. However, it is important not to enroll in a college without knowing what you can expect from the student population once you arrive on campus. If there is a specific extracurricular activity you are passionate about, you may want to find out if universities already have an organization for it. If not, ask how open the university is to students creating new clubs, and what the process is. The importance of social involvement on the college campus should never be underestimated; it is often a part of the admission process. It will be key for making friends at any size university, and the opportunities for leadership and volunteering may be great for your résumé when you begin looking for jobs!

Related: 6 Common Misconceptions About US Colleges and Universities

Career planning and personal growth

Your undergraduate experience is about personal growth, but it is also about planning for your future. Nowadays, a college education is essential for many career paths. Whether your degree is aligned with a specific career field or applicable to many different types of jobs, the network of alumni, professors, and university staff will all play a part in preparing you for the job market. The strength of a university’s alumni network may play a crucial role in getting you that first interview for your dream job, or perhaps a professor’s connections in the field will allow you to discover a job you had never considered before. It is good to know what a university has to offer throughout the academic year in terms of your career development.

Internships are also an increasingly important part of the US university experience. Often, universities will host recruiting events from certain companies every year, exclusively for their students. For example, Carnegie Mellon has a job posting website that is only accessible to current students and alumni. University career centers use tools like this website to assist students in their job and internship search. So, just by being a student at a university, you would gain unique access to job postings from companies that may only be recruiting from a select number of colleges. In the years after graduation, should you ever be looking for a different job, you may continue to have access to these same opportunities, simply by being an alumnus. Often, companies that tend to recruit from certain universities will offer internships to the university’s students as well. These internships may focus on broader themes like understanding an industry, or they may focus on selecting the next batch of candidates for job offers upon graduation.

Things to consider

While getting your first job outside of college might seem like a long way off, it can’t hurt to begin exploring what a university has to offer. They may even be able to put you in contact with alumni who graduated into the field you hope to work in. Most universities will have a career center that not only helps students find internships while in school but also full-time job placement after graduation. Consider what resources you want from a career center. If you hope to work in the United States after you graduate, what assistance can the university give you? Are they familiar with visa issues and sponsorships with companies? These career centers might have a website where you can find statistics on job placement, internships, or typical companies that recruit on campus. Employers understand you are a full-time student, but they may expect you to take on a summer internship in a related field. Try contacting the department in which you hope to study, and ask for some examples of internships recent students have done. You may be surprised at what jobs line up with the major you hope to study.

Another important practical factor in choosing a university is the financial cost. Not all universities are able to offer financial aid to international students. This should be one of the first questions you ask. Before you put all of your time and effort into learning about the university, make sure it will work within your financial situation. For universities that do offer aid, like merit scholarships, get clear instructions as to the process for applying and any important deadlines.

Your next steps in the search

You've already begun the most important step in the college process: doing research! The more universities you consider, the more deadlines and tips you will need to remember. Start a chart or spreadsheet as soon as possible with each university’s important deadlines, costs, and any contact information you have for their office of admission. You may also want to include the pros and cons of each university. This will come in handy when making your final decision on where to enroll. As an international student, you may not be able to visit a campus until you are already an enrolled student. To give students a campus preview, many universities now use social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. At Carnegie Mellon, students who work with the Office of Admission help answer questions posted on the official Facebook page and keep blogs throughout the academic year. Official social media of a university is a great way to get a feel for the campus atmosphere, learn about traditions, and get in contact with current students. If available, virtual dorm and campus tours can be a good addition to your research.

Related: University Search: Thinking Beyond Rankings and Name Brands

For many people, the United States represents the freedom to focus on individual fulfillment. The undergraduate experience is essentially the starting point of your adult life. What better way to set up your future than with a country that is all about options? No matter what your academic and career goals may be, attending university abroad is sure to be the adventure of a lifetime.

Find more great advice to get through the US university search and admission process with the blogs and articles in our International Students section.

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