Choosing a College or a University in the USA

Choosing a College or a University in the USA

By Dave Anderson

The United States has attracted millions of international students to its universities and colleges because the USA offers so many choices and some of the best facilities in the world. With more than 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States, the options are almost limitless. Yet, because the choices are so varied, deciding which program to attend is not an easy choice. Therefore you will have to determine your priorities.

One of the best characteristics of the American higher education system is that there are many great school options for just about everyone, from community colleges to career schools to private, liberal arts colleges to large, public universities. Other factors you must also consider are the geographic location of a school, its size and the degree programs it offers.

As an international applicant, you have a special challenge. You may have never visited the USA, or seen the campuses that interest you. It’s important that you take extra care to find out about each school’s location and the kind of people who study and teach there. These considerations can be as valuable to you as the quality of the school’s academic programs.

Begin your search early and consider your long-term goals

First, I would advise you to take plenty of time to research your potential choices. It takes a long time to identify what colleges might be appropriate for you, so it is important to begin this process 12 to 18 months before you wish to begin your studies. (Keep in mind that the school year begins in August or September in the United States.)

Many of you also need to consider that you will need three to nine months of an English as a Second Language (ESL) program to prepare for high-level academic work. 

Educational Advisors

With all the choices, it helps to know where to find relevant information so you can narrow your search. Many students turn to educational advisors for guidance. “Educational advisor” is a broad term and different people and organizations can fill this role for you.

The United States government has advising centers (either sponsored through the Public Affairs Section of a consulate or embassy), as well as EducationUSA and Fulbright Commission offices throughout the world. Your country may co-sponsor a binational center with the United States government—these centers are a good resource. There are also not-for-profit organizations such as AMIDEAST and the Institute of International Education.

Many of these organizations do not charge a fee for advising, but may charge for services such as photocopying or postage. Most of them have informational brochures and catalogs, as well as internet access to research universities. You will also find valuable information about important examinations like TOEFL, SAT, ACT, GRE and GMAT. These tests may be crucial to your admission. It is common for advising centers to hold group advising sessions in which students watch videos about universities and life at American colleges. After the videos, an advisor is then available for comments and questions.

Many countries also have private educational advising agencies, but they do charge a fee for services. These companies generally have more resources than the non-profit advising offices and have direct relationships with many intensive English programs and universities. For a fee, they can help you make a decision on which schools interest you and then help you through the application and visa process.

Because many graduates of ELS Language Centers proceed to U.S. universities and colleges, we have developed a website,, with information on getting a college or university degree without a TOEFL score (via ELS Language Centers.)
We also operate ELS University Placement Service, to assist students already in the U.S.A. as well as those still at home. For more information, you can write to

Some students seek advice from family members or friends who have studied in the United States. The benefit is that if you know and trust them, you can ask specific questions about the institutions they attended. Keep in mind, however, that these informal educational advisors may only have information about one or two institutions, so it is not in your best interest to only depend on their feedback. Everyone has a unique study abroad experience—you need to decide what’s right for you.


Of course, because of the Internet today’s students have access to much more information than previous generations. The challenge can be that there is TOO MUCH information, which can make finding reputable sources difficult. It is usually best to use the World Wide Web as a tool when you want to research specific institutions or academic degrees.

Multilingual websites like this one and are specially designed for international students like you. You will find comprehensive information about studying in the USA, such as how choose a program, getting a visa, and the estimated costs of tuition. There are also numerous featured profiles of universities, colleges and English language programs. From these profiles you can contact programs directly for more information and apply online. Use the customizeable search engine here on to help you pick the schools and programs that fit you best.

Factors to Consider

We have gathered some criteria to help you throughout your search. All of these factors can be important, but depending on your preferences, some may be more significant than others. Think about these things to refine your priorities.

Academic Field (Major)

Unlike universities in most countries, at universities in the USA you do not usually have to decide your main field of study (major) when you first enroll. However, if you know what you wish to study, make sure that each of the universities to which you apply has an accredited program in this area. Almost all colleges and universities offer popular majors, such as business and information technology. But if you are interested in some more specialized field, such as marine biology or archaeology, it is important for you to check ahead.

Aside from a few specialized institutions of higher learning, most colleges and universities in the USA offer a wide variety of subjects. It is nearly always possible to study your major and pursue other subjects at the same time. Traditional liberal arts colleges normally award bachelor’s degrees in the sciences and in the arts. These schools have the additional advantage of offering a close association with its professors and their research.

You might decide to attend a school that mainly offers courses in your area of study. There are U.S. colleges that are exclusive to one field, such as business or engineering, for example. On the other hand, perhaps you would rather study at a school where a wider variety of subjects are taught. This gives you more options and flexibility.

Degrees & Graduate Schools

Be sure in your research and application process that you are seeking information and applying for the correct degree program. If you have finished secondary school (high school), or have completed some university studies without having earned a degree, you are applying for undergraduate studies. This means for a two-year associate’s degree or a four-year bachelor’s degree. For most of these programs, you do not have to apply for a specific degree, just admission to the college or university.

Master’s and doctoral degrees are considered graduate programs, sometimes referred to as “post-graduate.” It is crucial that you make sure that the schools that interest you have the appropriate graduate degree. A degree program that is merely an evening or weekend program may not be intensive enough for you to maintain your status as a full-time student. (Many MBA programs are evening and/or weekend programs.) Furthermore, unlike undergraduate admissions, your application needs to be submitted directly to the department at the university where you are applying.

For most graduate degrees, you will have to submit standardized test scores from exams such as the GMAT (for graduate business programs) and the GRE. To qualify for these degrees you must have the equivalent of a four-year university degree.

Academic Standards & Prestige (Rankings)

Admission to some U.S. colleges and universities—particularly the most famous and prestigious ones—is highly competitive, especially for international students. An educational advisor is useful in determining whether you have a realistic chance of being admitted. For the majority of students, it is more practical to find a quality institution where they will be academically challenged, rather than insisting on attending one of the top 50 universities in the United States.

Research each school’s admission standards and how your own record will measure up against them. Ask your counselor and teachers about your probability of being admitted to your selected schools. Be aware that most colleges and universities base their admissions decision on academic performance. Your extracurricular activities will also be considered. Scores on standardized admissions tests are important, but your marks or grades from school are more important.

Location & Region

Geographic region and location can be highly influential. You will be living in the United States for possibly years and where you choose to study could affect your overall experience and your access to professional opportunities. Think about what you would prefer, or at least which areas are acceptable to you. In total numbers, the majority of international students in the United States live on or near either the East or West Coasts. Are you from a tropical climate? If so, you should consider whether you should live in New England, with world-class universities but a cold climate.

Along with the geographic location, think about extracurricular activities. Are you interested in any specific type of cultural, sporting or recreational activity to practice outside of your class time? Some people are attracted to mountain areas, such as Colorado or Vermont, for skiing or snowboarding. Others wish to live near Florida’s Atlantic coast or in Southern California so they can surf. Theater fans are drawn to cities like San Francisco or New York.

Some students prefer to live close to communities of their countrymen, so places like New York City and Los Angeles are popular. Other students choose to be somewhere in “Middle America” where they can have an almost complete cultural immersion. It may surprise you that many of the United States’ most important research universities are located in small cities or towns such as Lawrence, Kansas, or Madison, Wisconsin. These cities might not be famous in other countries, but are well known “college towns” with relatively low cost of living and a high quality of life.

City, Suburb Or Town?

Concentrating the issue of location, the type of area can be as important as the region. Be aware that the majority of universities are not located in the center of large cities such as New York, San Francisco or Chicago. Many of the great universities—that attract thousands of international students each year—are in small cities, even towns. This can be a very big adjustment for students from huge cities, so take that into consideration.

Yet, tens of thousands of students each year settle into their studies in small cities or towns. Most people can adapt to a new reality.

One compromise can be a suburb—residential areas outside major cities—where there are many attractive colleges. Suburbs give the tranquility and space needed for world-class facilities but are close to the excitement of large cities.

If living in a metropolitan or large city is really important to you, there are hundreds of schools in the heart of major cities.

Total Cost For Your Education

Try to calculate the TOTAL cost for your studies, including living expenses. You can often get this information on a colleges’ websites. Elite, private colleges and universities usually have higher tuition costs than public universities. There are a few private institutions with very competitive costs compared to public universities.

Generally speaking, the areas away from the East and West Coasts have a lower cost of living, in some cases, considerably lower. California’s two excellent university systems—University of California and California State University—have dozens of attractive campus locations with relatively inexpensive tuition. But, the cost of living can often be twice that in other states, so your total cost may be higher in California. Please be aware that costs increase every year.

Large University Or Small College?

Most international students enroll at large, research universities. Typically these are public universities that are supported by their state government. These offer good “brand names” on your resume. Abroad, schools like Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley are well known to families and future employers. But before you decide on these large schools, remember that there are hundreds of smaller universities and colleges that might also be good options for you.

Small colleges generally provide a more sheltered environment and smaller class sizes. Usually they have a better ratio of students to faculty, therefore you may receive more personal attention. This is helpful educational and cultural transition. Integration into student life can be easier at a smaller college. Large, research-focused universities have more technical majors like architecture and engineering. And, if they are public, the tuition costs tend to be lower. These schools will have more international students, so it is likely that other students from your country will be there.

Toefl Requirements (Or Toefl Waivers)

For most international students, the TOEFL examination is a source of anxiety. But, unless you have been educated in English it is almost unavoidable. Each program sets its own requirements and usually the more prestigious the university, the higher the TOEFL score requirement. Always research requirements of each individual school before you apply.

Some universities have what is called a TOEFL waiver option and this is very attractive to many international students. It generally involves studying at the university’s intensive English program (or another affiliated English program) until completing the final level. Some private language schools, such as ELS Language Centers, have agreements with many universities to enter without the TOEFL score.


Accreditation is the certification that a school or program meets a prescribed academic standard. It is very important to know that a college or university is accredited. If you attend a college or university that is not accredited, you will not be able to transfer your credits to an accredited college or university. Your home country may not recognize your degrees, and you may not be able to get the job you want.

There is no national government authority or Ministry of Education that sets higher education standards in the USA. Some states authorize or approve schools, but this refers to financial and licensing requirements, not the quality of education.

Instead, colleges and universities have formed associations that set the standards themselves. These associations, called “accrediting bodies,” evaluate each U.S. college and university. If the institution meets the accrediting associations minimum standards, it receives an acceptable rating; it is now designated as “accredited.” This means it earns the right to be listed on the accrediting association’s list of acceptable schools. A school must maintain these high standards in order to remain accredited.

Types Of Accreditation

There are different types of accrediting bodies: institutional and professional. Your government may also require that you earn a degree from a school with both types of accreditation. Institutional accreditation is based upon the entire school. Professional accreditation is based on the standards kept by a particular school, such as law, medicine, engineering, or business, and is determined by judges within those professions. Helpful resources are the Coucil on Higher Education Accreditation at and the U.S. Network for Education Information at The degree-granting colleges and universities listed on are fully accredited. Accreditation for schools or programs that do not grant degrees, such as English language institutes, varies depending upon its professional affiliation.

Contacting Schools

When you compile a list of colleges and universities that interest you, analyze your choices and narrow your list to six to eight schools. You can find school’s contact information here on

Before you contact the program, please be aware of the distinction between English language, undergraduate and graduate programs. Each program has its own designated admission office. If you will be an undergraduate student, write only to the undergraduate admissions office. If you will be a graduate student, be sure to write only to universities with graduate schools.

In the case of graduate programs, you would contact the admissions office of the graduate school for which you would like to study. For example, if you are interested in a graduate level engineering program at a university, you would contact the school of engineering admissions office.

You can send an online request for information directly to colleges and universities via Go to to read more about your list of schools and contact their offices.

If you contact schools through email, please understand that it is important for them to know how you learned about their school, so please mention Study in the USA®. The schools will send you an email or brochures with descriptions of the academic programs and activities.

Factors to Consider

  • Academic Field; Major
  • Degrees & Graduate Schools
  • Academic Standards & Prestige (Rankings)
  • Location & Region
  • City, Suburb or Town?
  • Total Cost for Your Education
  • Large University or Small College?
  • TOEFL requirements (or TOEFL waivers)
  • Accreditation
  • Types of Accreditation

What kind of education do I want?

What are my career goals?

Am I willing to move away from home and live in a new country for four years or more?

Have I considered the total cost (including living expenses) for this education?

Have I determined what type of credentials my future career path requires?

Does my home country impose any regulations with respect to studying in the United States?

What types of student organizations interest me?

Do I have any particular religious affiliation that needs to be considered?

Are the American universities or career schools’ degree programs recognized by the government of my country?

Where can I find information about American universities?

Liberal Arts

U.S. undergraduate students often attend a university for a year or longer before selecting their degree major. Some students later change their major, even though they might have to spend more time studying as a result.

If you are still unsure about the academic focus you would like to pursue, you are not alone. Each year, many thousands of U.S. students enter their college or university as “undecided.” To discover what appeals to them, they typically opt for the liberal arts: an academic area that offers a broad range of choices in various fields. It is designed to give graduates a well-rounded educational foundation.

Liberal arts education is an academic area that offers a broad range of choices in various fields. At a school with a strong liberal arts program, you will be required to take courses in subjects from the sciences to the humanities: philosophy, history, music, arts, and literature. By taking classes about different disciplines you are given the chance to explore other fields and learn new topics. You may discover that you have talents in areas you had never before considered. This may even lead you to pursue a field that you had no interest in prior to attending college or university.

You will most likely complete some liberal arts courses as they are weaved into the curriculum of most programs. You may enroll in a primarily liberal arts program simply because it is a valuable experience. A liberal arts education exposes you to new academic subjects and ideas and cultivates lifelong skills. Effective communication and critical thinking skills are essential to any career. In fact, many students desire a broad and balanced education from a liberal arts college before going on to graduate school or a specific profession.

Community Colleges

Many countries do not have a direct equivalent of the American community college (also called “junior college”). A community college is a public institution where students can pursue an associate’s degree, or the first two years of university study.

They have grown increasingly popular with international students because they do not have high entrance requirements and are very economical. For example, some students choose to get an associate’s degree in a technical area and then return to their countries with this credential. Many others, however, use this as an economical path to their degree. You can complete the first two years of their bachelor’s degree or simply earn academic credits. Both are most likely transferable to a four-year university and without a doubt, earning some of your university credits at a community college will save you money.

Student Tip

“Sierra College provides a nice education in a beautiful country. When I was younger I use to watch American movies and I wanted to visit the United States. They always talked about the American dream, and I wanted to come and see it.”

— Paolo Kwan, from Hong Kong Business Administration & English at Sierra College

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By David P. Anderson, Vice President - Recruitment & Partner Support; ELS Language Centers, the world’s largest campus-based intensive English program provider, offering pathways to 650+ universities worldwide, .


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