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All About Studying in the United States and How to Get Started

What makes the US a great place to earn your degree? Here are the top reasons, plus ways to start your search and make your university journey possible.

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 few years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of international freshman applications to US universities. The number of prospective freshmen and parents who visit US campuses and programs prior to choosing or applying to a college is also on the rise. So why are so many international students willing to leave all that is familiar and venture out to unknown places for their higher education? Here are a few of the top reasons, plus tips on how you can make this dream a reality. 

World-class institutions

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 US 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 teaching staff have traveled or lived abroad, which contributes to an enriched classroom experience. Moreover, graduates from a US 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 these graduates possess. In short, a degree from a US institution opens doors and is recognized around the world.

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 (PhD) levels. It's 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.  

Related: Types of Higher Education Institutions You Could Attend After High School

A wide range of majors

International students enrolled at US universities can select from an endless list of majors, fields, and degree programs, from business and social sciences to the natural and physical sciences 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 PhD, if they so desire.

Unlimited resources

Access to academic staff and educational resources at higher education 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 can 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 at US schools 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 US institutions.

Related: The Best On-Campus Resources for International Students

How to start your US university search

After you've decided to study in the United States, the question becomes: Where do you begin? CollegeXpress 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 US educational system and student life on a US campus. Your secondary school 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!

Selecting a university to attend 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're considering. (Every institution in the United States publishes such information.) Does your profile match that of the university? It's all about the best 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 US universities. Your parents, on the other hand, may be a bit concerned if you're undecided about your future area of study. They just need to understand that some academic exploration will enable you to select a profession or field 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!

Think about location

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.

A more practical consideration influenced by location is the availability of housing and dormitories. It's common for public rental housing to be less available and more costly for institutions in large cities and metropolitan areas. It's 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.

Related: How Important Is Location in My College Decision?

Think about size

Some students prefer colleges with small populations (4,000 students or fewer), 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's 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 US 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. No matter where you go, you're sure to find a safe and secure environment with dedicated campus police officers and ample security measures.

Think about cost

Public and private institutions of higher learning 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'll be required to demonstrate your ability to pay for an entire year at the institution. If you're 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 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. On the other hand, private universities, which are typically more expensive, frequently provide greater financial assistance to international students after they've been admitted. Be sure to consider cost and financial aid when making your decision. When filling out your applications, be truthful about your family’s financial situation and what you can afford.

Related: Top Financial Aid Tips for Disadvantaged International Students

Are you ready to begin your journey to a US college or university? Be bold and take a step that will likely change your life and shape your professional future. Many international students make this dream happen every year—and so can you. 

Wondering what your next step should be? To get your search started, check out all our featured international-friendly universities and request more information in just one click!

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