Last Updated: Dec 8, 2011
What is it about a U.S. education that is so irresistible?
According to the Institute of International Education, the number of international students at universities and colleges in the United States is at an all-time high. In the last three years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of international freshman applications to U.S. universities. The number of prospective freshmen and parents who visit U.S. campuses and programs prior to choosing or applying to a college is also on the rise. Why are so many international students willing to leave all that is familiar and venture out to unknown places?
With over 4,000 colleges and universities, the United States has more institutions of higher learning than any other country in the world. Many of them are highly ranked, offering top-notch educational programs, opportunities for hands-on learning, and cutting-edge research at the graduate and undergraduate levels. Many professors at U.S. institutions have terminal degrees in their field of expertise, are internationally recognized for their scholarship, and represent a diversity of ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. In addition, a significant number of the teaching staff have traveled or lived abroad, which contributes to an enriched classroom experience. Moreover, graduates from a U.S. university or college often find enormous success in the international job market. Employers recognize the value of such an education and the unique skills and qualities that these graduates possess. In short, a degree from a U.S. institution opens doors and is recognized around the world.
A wide range of majors
International students enrolled at U.S. universities can select from an endless list of majors or degree programs, ranging from business and social sciences (for example, accounting) to the natural and physical sciences (for example, zoology) and everything in between. Along with the incredible variety of majors, you can also select a specialization, concentration, or minor, enabling you to craft a curriculum that is unique to your goals. Students also have the freedom to start as a “no preference” or “undecided” major! Imagine an educational system where you can begin your university studies uncertain of what you want to do—in many countries, this is simply not an option.
Regardless of your academic choices, most universities require all students to complete basic or general education courses in areas such as math, writing, science, history, and social science. This educational philosophy is known as the liberal arts. Exposure to a wide range of subjects provides an excellent foundation for professional development and allows graduates to pursue jobs in areas outside of their major or expertise. In addition, graduates are well prepared to later pursue a master’s or a Ph.D., if they so desire.
Access to academic staff and educational resources at institutions in the United States is unparalleled. The use of cutting-edge technology in classrooms and laboratories provides an experience that inspires students to the highest level of achievement not only at the individual level but also as a community of collaborators involving students and faculty. Students meet and conduct research with numerous world-renowned teachers in their chosen field. It is the dream of many international engineering students to come and study in the United States, because they know they will have access to the latest technology and exposure to some of the world’s most innovative teaching methods.
The services available to students also provide an environment conducive to personal growth, allowing them to develop into citizens of the world. Personal counseling, academic advising, career development, intramural sports, student organizations, and cultural events are some of the other resources students can expect to find at most U.S. institutions.
The difference between colleges and universities
The terms “college” and “university” are often used interchangeably; however, a college often refers to a four-year institution that offers none or few postgraduate programs at the master’s and doctorate (Ph.D.) levels. It is also important to note that a college can also refer to a two-year institution, such as a community college, where students can obtain an associate degree that may transfer to a four-year institution, where they can then obtain a bachelor’s degree. More and more international students are considering community colleges or two-year institutions as the starting point of their education in the United States.
A university commonly refers to an institution that offers degrees at the undergraduate (bachelor’s) and graduate (master’s and doctorate) levels, including professional degrees in medicine, business, or law. Universities, particularly public ones, tend to have larger student populations as well.
After you have decided to study in the United States, the question becomes: where do you begin? If you are reading this article, you already have an advantage! ACUInfo.com is an excellent tool to help students become more familiar with a number of colleges and universities in the United States as well as every aspect of the U.S. educational system and student life on a U.S. campus. Your secondary school guidance counselors are also an invaluable resource, and you should make an effort to meet with them on a regular basis to discuss your university goals and plans. And, of course, there’s always the information overload that is the Internet!
But selecting a college doesn’t have to be complicated. Finding the right fit is a very personal process. The first step is to take a serious look at yourself. What kind of student are you? What is your academic profile (GPA, test scores, extracurricular activities, etc.)? Be realistic about your profile and compare it to the average admitted student’s profile at
the schools you are considering. (Every institution in the United States publishes such information.) Does your profile match that of the university? It is all about the match—finding a college where you believe you will be inspired, challenged, and mentored.
What will you study?
Think about your professional/career goals and interests. Perhaps you already know exactly what you want to study. Then again, maybe you have no idea! Either situation is welcome at most institutions in the United States. Frequently, students are expected to choose a major by the end of their second (sophomore) year, but changing majors throughout the undergraduate program is allowed and common at U.S. universities. Parents, on the other hand, may be a bit concerned if you are undecided about your future area of study. They just need to understand that some academic exploration will enable you to select a profession for which you have a true passion, one that will be a good fit for your aspirations in life.
Where will you study?
The United States is as geographically diverse as it is large! There are many regions, each with its own unique cultural and historical background, as well as climates that offer one-of-a-kind experiences. Do you have family or close friends already in the United States and would like to be near them? Or are you the adventurous type who would like to explore something completely unknown, like a snowy area complete with skiing, blizzards, and snowball fights? Would you prefer to be near the towering Rocky Mountains, the majestic Atlantic Ocean, or the vast prairies of the Midwest? Clearly, there’s a lot to consider!
A more practical consideration influenced by location is the availability of housing and dormitories. It is common for public rental housing to be less available and more costly for institutions in large cities and metropolitan areas. It is important to do plenty of research to determine which environment is the best for you. Visit if you can, but know that there are other ways to get a feel for a campus without actually being there.
Have you considered the pros and cons of studying in a city, suburban, or rural environment? You will find all three in the United States! Numerous universities are located in the middle of large cities or metropolitan areas, providing excitement and many cultural offerings. However, a significant number of institutions with a large international student population are located in smaller “college towns.” What makes you feel the most comfortable? Some students prefer a campus with plenty of green space, while others like the hustle and bustle of metros and crowded streets. Keep in mind that many universities in the United States are like small cities, offering plenty of social events and entertainment.
Some students prefer colleges with small populations (4,000 students or less), while others like the services offered by larger institutions. But you should not correlate institutional size with quality of academic programs. Another common mistake is thinking that large universities are always impersonal, with huge class sizes. A large university can be personal, and you should ask for the average class size within your specific area of study—it may differ from the school’s overall average, and you might be surprised.
Conversely, you may expect smaller colleges to always offer greater access to professors and more chances to get to know people. In reality, these opportunities and resources exist at all institutions. It is incumbent on you, the student, to seek them out. You need to be proactive and take advantage of what universities and colleges have to offer. For example, professors at both colleges and universities frequently advertise their office hours, but very few students take advantage of this access to advising and mentoring.
Security is another aspect of life at a U.S. university to consider. But safety on campus is rarely a function of the size of the institution. Where the university is located (e.g., within a city versus a rural community) generally influences the level of security off campus. But no matter where you go, you are sure to find a safe and secure environment, with dedicated campus police officers and ample security measures.
Public and private institutions of higher learning do tend to differ in cost. Prior to choosing a college or university, you should realistically assess the total cost of the universities that interest you, then determine what you and your family can afford. Most universities provide accurate estimates of the total costs of tuition, lodging, meals, and miscellaneous expenses. Plus, when you apply for your F-1 (student) visa, you are required to demonstrate your ability to pay for an entire year at the institution. If you are awarded a scholarship, make certain to calculate the total amount that your family will need to contribute toward your education on an annual basis over the four (or more) years of your undergraduate program.
Many of the large universities in the United States are members of a public system of universities, which receive support from federal and state governments. The majority of public schools do not offer need-based financial aid to international students; however, they may have merit-based scholarships available to you. On the other hand, private universities, which are typically more expensive, frequently provide greater financial assistance to international students after they have been admitted. Be sure to consider cost and financial aid when making your decisions. When filling out your applications, be truthful about your family’s financial situation and what they can afford.
Are you ready to begin your journey? Be bold and take a step that will likely change your life and shape your professional future.