10 Essential Things to Know When Considering a U.S. University

Florida State University, who run an International Gateway Program, has compiled a list of ten things you should know before choosing to study in the USA.


Deciding on whether to study abroad can be very tough – on the one hand you will be leaving your friends and family behind for a few years, but on the other you will be making new friends, exploring new places and finding out new things about yourself.

1.) Location and Culture

The first thing to know about the American University system is that there are over 4,000 colleges and universities to choose from. These sites of higher education range from small liberal arts colleges, large public research universities, specialized community colleges, and many others in between! When looking for the best schools for you, consider where these schools are located and what kind of academic culture they are likely to have. I’d say two of the most common kinds of universities are those found in more urban city centres and those found in more rural “college towns.” Going to school in the city can be a very rewarding experience, as the city life can help compliment your time as student and add a layer of cultural discovery to your collegiate career.  On the other hand, it might also dilute or convolute your time as well, as the hustle and bustle can sometimes build a wedge between you and the university student experience. Likewise, a “college town” is typically a place where you can find a small community coalescing around a university as its main focal point and lifeblood. There is something to be said for the potential of this kind of school, but it might also mean you don’t have access to the amenities or the diversity of a large city.


2.) University Pride and Alumni Network

One of the amazing aspects of the U.S. university system is the great pride and enthusiasm that folks typically develop for their school. This pride often starts with the competitive sports programs of the universities in question, but also manifests in many other areas. It isn’t uncommon for instance for U.S. students to frequently wear university apparel, attend university events, and rejoice in overall university achievement, whether it be a sports championship or a faculty member winning a research award. Pride for your university allows you to build powerful connections and relationships that often transcend generations, backgrounds and ideologies. It allows you to feel a part of a greater community; a feeling that you quite frankly cannot put a price on.
With this university pride comes an alumni network. These networks are typically used to help people continue to stay involved and connected to their university, and more specifically their university experience, while also allowing for professional development and advancement. It isn’t uncommon for graduates in the U.S. to get their first job as a result of connections or information provided by a university’s alumni network. When picking the best school for you, you ought to consider the kind of network that will stand behind your degree and help you get where you want to go.

Public and Private Universities?3.) Public and Private Universities 

There are two types of universities in the U.S., namely public and private. The main differences between the two are the prestige of studying at a private university over a public one, and the cost which obviously is much cheaper at a public university. A year of classes of public tuition costs around $3,500 (around £2,250) whilst some private universities charge well over ten times that amount. A public university also has a large number of students, so that may suit someone who thrives in a social educational environment. Private universities in the U.S. have smaller classes and allow students to forge much closer relationships with their tutors.

4.) Scholarships and Funding 

When looking at how to pay for a U.S. education, your focus should then turn to scholarships and funding. Now, it should be said that typically not all U.S. universities offer scholarships to international students and that government loans can’t always be applied to paying for and tuition and fees. Despite this, increasing fees for university around the world have made the U.S. university system quite competitive comparatively to other countries around Europe. One of the most important things to look at specifically is the OVERALL cost of going to a particular university; specifically tuition and fees, on-campus or off-campus accommodation, cost of living in the location of the university, etc. One of the most confusing traps I have seen international students fall into is being distracted by only looking at tuition fees or only looking at the kind of scholarship universities offer to them. Here is a typical scenario: University A is a public research university located in a small city. It costs approximately $40,000 a year to attend including accommodation and tuition. University B is a private university located centrally in a large city. It costs $100,000 to attend for all accommodation and fees, but it also offers a 50% scholarship to all international students.

As you can see, even with no scholarships, university A would be a better choice from a funding standpoint.

5.) Liberal Arts Education: Majors, Minors and Credits 

Liberal Arts colleges and universities provide specialised education in the basic disciplines of humanities plus social and behavioural sciences. Such universities offer a huge range of potential Major subjects, including Political Science, Psychology, Religion and Sociology. All universities will also allow you to study a Minor subject in addition if you so desire. Some Majors even allow a Minor to take the place of supporting coursework. Each Major and Minor requires a certain level of credits that need to be achieved to qualify for a degree. The definition of a credit can be difficult for someone who has not been born in the U.S. to get their head around. Basically credits are awarded for the time you spend studying or in class. If you have already attended University in the UK you should be able to transfer some credits across.

6.) Internships & Undergraduate Research 

Internships and Undergraduate Research programs are where companies sponsor students to go to university in the hope of securing them as employees once their studies have finished. This is an excellent way of securing financial backing for your university studies, and some companies will event help with accommodation and transportation. It’s not all study though – some companies will expect you to work for them as well, particularly during breaks and the summer.

7.) Rankings 

When choosing a university, the various rankings that are produced from several independent institutions are a good place to start, but should be viewed with a grain of salt. These rankings can tell you about certain qualities of schools, but can also leave out some vital information such as student satisfaction, engagement, and alumni performance. These rankings can also be biased towards smaller universities or schools that focus on a few key subject areas as well. Many times students think that the “Ivy League” schools are the only ones worth considering, when many non-Ivy schools are actually collectively and in many individual programs more well-regarded. At the end of the day, U.S. universities all over the country are known for something, so make sure to cast a wide net when considering where may be best for you.

8.) The U.S. Student Experience 

The main difference between being a US student and a U.K. student is that whilst the U.K. student is encouraged to be an expert in a single field, a U.S. student is more likely to become successful if they can exhibit a breadth of knowledge. On the social side of things, students in the U.S. are much more likely to spend time together, especially on campus. Many students will live on campus for all four years of their degree, eating and playing sports together and being members of sororities and fraternities is a big part of university education.

9.) SAT & ACT 

Many times students wonder whether their secondary school program, whether it be an IB diploma, A-Levels, Advanced Placement, etc. allow them to forgo taking their SAT or ACT tests. The answer to this question is almost always NO! Unfortunately because U.S. schools have students from all over the world applying and seeking admission into their university, it is hard to adequately and fairly compare them. After all, a student’s achievements in Canada vs. in Italy may be completely different. This is where the SAT or ACT come in. These standardized tests are exams that focus on general knowledge and skills in math, verbal reasoning, writing and science, though each is slightly different. These tests are usually required for any and all students as a way for the university to compare students effectively and also to predict how they will likely do in their first years at a university. Few universities wave this requirement, but some do let you postpone taking the exam until after admission. The best advice for this test is to take it seriously and study. More information about where to take these exams and how to study can be found online.

10.) Cultural Capital & Global Consciousness

U.S. universities do their best not to promote cultural capital and express a desire for all students to be treated equally no matter the standard of their social status. However, outside of the lecture halls and classrooms students from poorer backgrounds may find themselves at a disadvantage, and be looked down upon by those more socially fortunate.

Deciding to study in the U.S. if you’re a U.K. resident is something that should be thought out carefully, particularly as a new student will be in a foreign land away from their friends and family.

There’s nothing to stop a U.K. student from joining the 9,000 students who did exactly that in 2011/12. Just make sure you do your homework first.

More information on Florida State’s International Gateway Program can be found at http://www.fsu-gateway-program.co.uk, where they offer some useful tips of their own for any potential students.