How Time is Different at American Universities

How Time is Different at American Universities

International students who plan to attend an American university or college have a great deal to plan before they travel to the United States and begin their studies. Chances are that you have thought about the technical aspects of your move—like where you will live—as well as the cultural differences, but how much thought have you given to time?

There are many differences between American and international universities, but one of the less emphasized is how academic pacing differs. When you are carrying four or five classes per semester, among other activities and responsibilities, time management can be critical. Here are four ways that time is different at American schools:

1. Course pacing

In certain countries, university classrooms are very structured, with students listening as the instructor or professor gives a lecture or presentation. While this is also common at American schools, there may be more student participation than what international students are used to, which can slow or alter the pacing of course content. For instance, an instructor may begin a discussion with a brief introduction before allowing student groups to further shape and control it over one or more sessions.

The professor often determines the structure of a class, and there is simply no way to plan for every possible format. If you are concerned that you will struggle because of the pacing of a course, consider contacting the instructor or university to inquire about how the class will be structured. The experience will still be new, but you will have a sense of what to expect.

2. Office hours

Another difference that international students may notice is the degree of access that they have to faculty members outside of the classroom. This can be in the form of personal communication like emails and telephone calls, but it can also include engagements like office hours.

More often than not, professors will set aside blocks of time each day or week to meet individually with students to answer questions, address concerns, and generally provide support. These appointments are critically important, and they are a great time to raise any issues that you do not feel comfortable discussing in class. If your instructor holds office hours, be sure to take advantage of them whenever possible.

3. Attendance expectations

Depending on your country of origin, you might hail from an educational system that is less reliant on class time and set schedules, and more reliant on work completed. Although American universities expect students to complete high-quality work, students are also expected to arrive on time to classes, as well as to any other appointments that they have scheduled.

If you must miss a class or believe you may be late, contact the instructor—too many unexcused absences can negatively impact your grade. If you realize that you are running late for a class, quietly enter the room without distracting anyone. When the class is over, apologize for being late, and offer an explanation if possible.

4. Deadlines

In the American educational system, some items are flexible, while others are much less so. One of the less flexible aspects of college is the deadline for an assignment or responsibility. You are one of many students for faculty and staff, and these individuals rely on tight schedules to ensure that every detail runs on time from the beginning of the semester to the end. You will be expected to turn in your assignments or to be ready for presentations by a certain date, and failure to do so can result in a poor grade.

Before the semester begins, most professors and/or schools will distribute a syllabus that details how the class will proceed and when items will be due. Review the syllabus promptly, and keep a schedule or system to remind yourself of important dates.   

Show More

David White is a contributing writer for, the world's largest global marketplace for finding independent tutors. 

Download Study in the USA® Magazines