4 Things International Students Should Know About U.S. Universities

4 Things International Students Should Know About U.S. Universities

Schools in the U.S. are actively becoming more and more diverse, attracting international students from every walk of life. As the global economy grows, it is more important than ever for universities to expose their students to many different cultures—and that’s good news for international applicants. For STEM graduate programs in particular, international students can make up a great deal of the population. It also means financial solvency for many other schools.

U.S. schools now actively court international students, but there are some key differences to be aware of when applying. Many aspects of the American educational system are invariably new, and sometimes shocking, to students from other countries. But don’t let the differences between international schools and those in the U.S. catch you off guard.

The following four points aren’t rules, and they don’t apply to every class or school across the board. But they are good indications of the system as a whole.

1. Be Prepared to Talk.

One stereotype about Americans in the international community regards their tendency to talk and talk and talk. Here’s another saying: Stereotypes don’t come from the wind.

In an American university classroom, it is much more likely that a student will be expected to participate by talking about their ideas and engaging in conversation. International students who are used to a stricter, lecture-only atmosphere might be taken aback.

What can you do? You may want to prepare answers and questions in advance of class, particularly if English is not your first language. Look for talking points in your readings, and make sure you are ready to be a chatterbox. Your grade could depend on it!

2. Be Open to New Classes.

International students may be more familiar with a pedagogy that follows a linear path from basic study of one topic to more advanced lessons, without deviation from the subject. In the U.S., it is more typical for students to have an obligation to take some classes outside of their major. There is a larger focus on creating holistic education and fostering well-rounded graduates in U.S. universities.

What can you do? Think of this as an opportunity to delve into topics that, while not directly related to your major, teach skills that are useful to know in your future field. Engineering majors might want to look into psychology or sociology, which could be helpful in working with others in groups. Sales or debate electives could always be useful down the line, too. Something like a negotiations class or basic marketing techniques could pay dividends when you are trying to get that start-up off the ground. The same is true of literature and art classes that give you creative outlets and improve your ability to connect with peers.

3. It’s More Expensive Than You Think.

“Sticker shock” is the term for when you get surprised by the high costs related to something that you are purchasing, and you might get sticker shock when looking at attending a university in the U.S. There is no question that tuition in the U.S. is growing considerably—something that can be identified as a worldwide trend. International students also often pay additional fees that local students do not for their education, not to mention all the added costs of travel and relocation. But the largest issue is a lack of available financial aid options for international students. U.S. students are eligible for a wide variety of government scholarships and loans that aren’t offered to someone from another country.

What can you do? Aid for international students is something that individual universities are prioritizing more and more. The University of Pennsylvania, for instance, allocated $6 million this academic year in funding specifically for undergraduates from outside of the U.S. However, if you do search for international scholarship opportunities online, be wary. There are many scams out there preying on international students.

And while cost of living (and college) may be more expensive in the U.S. than your country of origin, it’s possible that these costs can be reduced by part-time work opportunities on campus or work study programs that pay enough to make a significant difference. Be prepared to work and go to school simultaneously if need be—many Americans do, too.

4. Academics Aren’t Everything

In the U.S., students are expected to be involved in extracurricular activities. Outside of your studies, you could be part of cultural or professional clubs, or participate in athletics or the arts. Why? Your grades are just one part of your story, and the other level is one that involves networking and being unique. Part of your reason for attending a college program in the U.S. should be to network with fellow students! These will be your peers throughout your professional life—the people with whom you will forge connections, create businesses and rely on for recommendations. They are also your competition, so as they make connections, make sure you keep up.

What can you do? Think of it this way: Socializing is actually part of what you are paying for. Not all of your tuition money goes to professors and lab equipment. You should take advantage of clubs, teams and other extracurriculars because they can be every bit as important as the knowledge you receive in classes. If you don’t think you have time to join a regular club or society, pick something that has a shorter time commitment, like helping to host a specific event. You’ll still meet people, but a built-in end point means you have more time to get back to your studies.  

Culture shock might be something international students regularly face when coming to the U.S. for the first time, but if you are more aware of the difference between American and international universities, at least you’ll know what to do on campus.


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About the Author

Ryan Hickey is the Managing Editor of Petersons and EssayEdge and is an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants.

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