Study Abroad Student Handbook
United States United States
Center for Global Education

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1. Overview of the U.S. Educational System

With over 3,000 universities and programs to choose from, selecting just one may be a difficult process! In this section, you will get some helpful tools and advice on how to select the best program for you.

You have a variety of options to choose from in the United States; they include: language academies, 2-year colleges, traditional universities and colleges, trade and technical schools, cultural tours and study tours.

Prior to participating, you and your parents should take time to look at the different programs available for your U.S. study.

It will be helpful to your search if you understand the structure of the U.S. Educational system, which may be very different from that of your home country. Admission to undergraduate and graduate programs in particular will require you to have completed a particular level of education at the time of admission. It is important that you realize that not all U.S. programs are the same. Some programs are extremely demanding and the workload can even be difficult for American students. Other programs are more relaxed and focus on connecting students in cross–cultural learning. Before making a decision, it is important that you know how challenging your program will be.

2. Understanding the U.S. Educational System

(The following content detailing the U.S. education system was adapted from Refer to the web site for more information)

Today, over 400,000 students non-U.S. residents are studying in the United States. They come from almost every country in the world. As you might imagine, all students have their own educational goals. Therefore, it is important to understand the U.S. educational system so that you select the right program for you.

Levels of Education:

The levels of education in the U.S. are similar to those in other countries. But the differences can be confusing to non-U.S. residents. Below are some definitions:

  • Primary Education: Pre-school: ages 2 - 6; Elementary School: ages 6-12.
  • Secondary Education: Junior High School: ages 12-14; High School: ages 14-18 (note that everyone in the U.S. is required by law to attend until the age of 16. However, some students "drop-out" and do not complete their high school degree.
  • Post Secondary Education: There are no real age categories for post secondary education. Generally, American students start college right after completing high school (about 60% of all students who graduate from high school enter college at some point in their life). Junior and Technical colleges are designed to be two year programs, while universities and colleges are designed to be 4 year programs at the undergraduate level. In reality, the average American takes over 6 years to finish a "4 year degree". The reason is that more than 50% of college freshmen (first year students) do not know what major or specialization they wish to study. Also, many students work to pay for their college expenses. Thus they may take fewer classes in order to work.
  • College versus University: A college usually just has a Bachelor's (4 year) program. A university may be composed of several colleges (for example, the college of medicine and the college of engineering). Universities often have graduate programs as well. For most purposes, a Bachelor's degree from a college is equivalent to a Bachelor's degree from a university, so that the words "college" and "university" mean the same thing to most Americans. Generally, the value of a degree is a reflection of how society views the particular college or university.
  • Vocational/Technical School: Vocational and technical schools operate at either the high school or junior college level. They teach skills such as secretarial, auto mechanics, photography, nursing, etc. It is often difficult for non-U.S. residents to find information on U.S. technical and vocational schools since these schools usually do not promote their programs outside the area where they operate.

The Post Secondary Education category could be listed as follows:

Program Degree
Junior - Technical Degree (Community College) Associates
Undergraduate College - University Bachelor of Science (B.S.)
Bachelor of Arts (B.A.)
Graduate School Master of Science (M.S.)
Master of Arts (M.A.)
Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.)
Doctorate (Ph.D.)
Post Graduate after Ph.D. No-degree


Public and Private Institutions

There are public and private colleges, schools and universities in the United States. The public schools are funded, in part, by a city, and/or state, and/or federal government. Students living in the city or state pay less tuition because some tax money is used to subsidize the tuition. Non-U.S. residents would pay more, since they would not be residents of the city or state where the college or university is located.

Private colleges and universities are supported primarily by tuition and private contributions. All students must pay the same tuition no matter where they are from (unless they get a grant or scholarship). Many private schools are affiliated with a religion. Examples are Roman Catholic, Protestant, Islamic and Jewish religions. Students at these schools do not have to be of that particular religion to attend, but they may be required to take certain religious or theological courses pertaining to that religion. Consult each college's catalogue.

English Language Programs

If your English skills are very limited, you may need to attend an English language institute before beginning your degree program. Alternatively, you can also select a university that offers an English-as-a-second-language (ESL) program.

These programs are typically privately owned, although some operate on a college or university campus. They offer both private, one-on-one, and group instruction in English, TOEFL preparation, and other programs.

If you wish to study English before you enter an American college, you may want to study at a private English language center. There, you can improve your English, better your study skills, or prepare for the TOEFL test. This will also give you the opportunity to evaluate colleges and universities in the United States by visiting them personally, and speaking to Americans who may be more familiar with the universities and programs that are best for you. You will also be able to become more familiar with American culture before you start your university program.

If you have any more questions concerning the American education system, contact your English teacher, library, Educational Advising Center, American consulate, or nearest university in your country.

You can still get to a great university even if your English skills are not great at this point. The important thing to remember is to have confidence in yourself and to really put effort into learning the language!

3. Types of Education

After you identify what's important to you, do a university search. You can use various search tools to search for the U.S. University that best suits your needs.

It is important that you remember that in the United States, students begin collegiate studies after completing 12 years of primary and secondary school. Students can study at two-year colleges, known as community or junior colleges, four-year colleges, universities, vocational and technical schools, and professional schools such as law and medical schools. Size varies too. At some universities the student body is as small as 1,000 students. Large universities may enroll 50,000 or more students.

Check out a description of the U.S. Educational System for more information.

  1. Undergraduate Education
    Most students complete a bachelor's degree in four years. At most institutions those years are known as the freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years of undergraduate study. Some students attend a junior or community college for two years and earn an associate s degree. Some opt to transfer to a four-year college or university to complete two more years of coursework to earn a bachelor's degree.

    Typically students have the opportunity to study in various fields such as social sciences, humanities, and natural or physical sciences. By the end of the second year, students at many institutions are asked to choose a specific field of study, known as a major. Generally, students focus on their major during the last two years of their undergraduate program. Check out details about undergraduate education here.
  2. Graduate Education
    Master's degrees are the most frequently awarded graduate degrees. Typically, students spend one to three years completing a Master's program. The most common graduate degrees include the master's of arts (MA), sciences (MS), business administration (MBA), fine arts (MFA), law (LLM), social work (MSW), and specialist in education (EdS). Some students also pursue doctorates (PhD). For details about graduate studies, click here.
  3. Doctorate students usually complete their program in five to seven years of study following receipt of the bachelor's degree. Research is a focal point of most U.S. graduate programs. Most doctorate programs require students to write a dissertation involving original research. The dissertation may involve a year or more of research and usually a year of writing. For details about specialized education, click here.

4. Time Factor

Don't miss the opportunity to study in the U.S. by not beginning the process on time! The earlier you start researching programs, the better chance you will have to fulfill all the admission requirements and submit your application on time. One of the simplest ways to find an appropriate study program in the United States is to ask professors at local universities which U.S. programs or colleges they recommend. Chances are that some of your current or old teachers may have studied in the U.S. themselves. You also need to take the time to ask yourself why you want to study in the U.S. What are your goals? Which U.S degrees does your home country's government recognize? Which fields of study may lead you to a good job after you graduate? As an overseas applicant, you face a special challenge because you may have never visited the United States or any of the universities to which you may want to apply. This means that you must make the time to find out about university locations, size, and social life.

5. Some Tools for Finding a Program

  • Office for International Students/Resource Center: It would be worth your time to try to meet with a trained advising counselor. Most advising centers are usually sponsored by (1) the U.S. government, (2) a joint partnership between the U.S. government and a local university, or (3) by a non-profit international educational organization. Advising centers are a great resource because most have libraries with recent catalogs and video from U.S. universities. The advisors that work at these centers usually know the U.S. educational system well and should be able to help you answer questions about the admission process, including admissions tests. Chances are that your university has such an advisor, or may be able to refer you to someone else. You could also locate a private counselor who lives in your local city. To find a resource center in your home country, click here.
  • Websites: There are a number of websites with information about available study abroad programs in the United States. Some websites we recommend are: and IIE Passport.
  • Reference Books: The following are comprehensive reference books which are updated each year: Peterson's Study Abroad, Peterson's Summer Study Abroad, IIE Academic Year Abroad, and IIE Short–Term Study Abroad. They include detailed explanations and descriptions of many study abroad programs in the United States.

6. Asking the Right Questions

The following is a list of questions to ask when looking for an appropriate study program in the United States. Along with speaking with an educational advisor, it is suggested that you ask to speak to students who studied at the university in the past. If possible, speak directly with one of the university's representatives in the United States to find out the strengths and weaknesses of the program and the university. Making the right choice of a course and college in any foreign country is fraught with difficulties. However, it is one of the most important decisions that you will have to make, and the ability to answer the following 10 questions accurately, should go some way to helping you with this.(Source:

  • What are my main goals and objectives?
  • What type of environment would help me achieve those goals?
  • Is the university reputable? What is the depth of the curricula?
  • Will I need transportation or is public transportation readily available?
  • What are the housing accommodations like? How do they compare in quality and price to similar institutions?
  • What is the average cost of meals and housing in the college's location?
  • How does the cost of tuition and books compare to other similar programs?
  • How many other international students are enrolled?
  • Is the staff for international students adequate? Do they respond reasonably quickly to my needs?
  • What are the biggest strengths of the institution? What are the major drawbacks?

7. Relevant Questions

  • What resources are available to help you find a study abroad program in the United States?
  • What issues should you consider when looking for a program in the United States?
  • Where can you find information on the strengths and weaknesses of programs in the United States?
  • How can your U.S. home campus study abroad office help you?

8. Overview of the U.S. Educational System

  • I have visited the potential schools' Web sites and gathered enough information to help me make a selection.
  • I know what courses are available through the university I have chosen in the U.S.
  • I know whether or not I will be able to transfer the courses taken in the U.S. to my home institution (if I am an exchange student).
  • I have researched the cost of the program in the U.S. and what the cost covers.
  • I know where the program is located.
  • I have checked the length of the study and what time of year school begins.
  • I understand what support services are available through the university in the U.S. and in my native country.
  • I know what health and safety options I have while studying in the U.S.
  • I have spoken with students that have studied in the U.S. and/or read written evaluations from past students.

9. Resources

  • – Deciding on a Program: Mentors address the most important issues around deciding on a program.
  • – Top 10 Reasons to Study Abroad
  • Finding a Quality Program A resource of The Center for Global Education. The site provides a tool to search for a study abroad program by country and by major.
  • Frommers Budget Travel Online Publishes a variety of travel books and magazines.
  • Go to Course 1, Module 2, Task 1 " Find the Right Program" to find a quality program and see what options you have.
  • Go to Course 1, Module 2, Task 3 "Study Abroad Search List" about where to find your study abroad program and decide on your criteria for a program.
  • IIEPassport Provides information about various study abroad programs
  • International Education of Students Homepage for the Institute for the International Education of Students (IES) which provides guidelines for evaluating study abroad programs.
  • This site claims to be the world's largest travel guide and shows the not–to–be–missed highlights of major cities around the world.
  • Let's Go Site of the publisher of another one of the most popular student guidebooks on the market today, with links on where to buy.
  • Lonely Planet's Guidebooks Site of the publisher of one of the most popular student guidebooks on the market today, with links on where to buy.
  • Peterson's Provides information about various study abroad programs
  • Programs Abroad A resource of The Center for Global Education. The site provides an extensive listing with links to programs abroad, including internship, research, service learning and volunteer, study and work abroad programs.
  • Rough Guides guidebooks A travel site covering topics from world music to e–books.
  • Sarah's Wish This site provides helpful safety tips on things to remember when looking for a study abroad program provider.
  • Provides information about various study abroad programs.
  • Transitions Abroad Offers affordable alternatives to vacationing abroad, such as work and study abroad.
  • Who Runs Your Program? A resource of The Center for Global Education. Provides an explanation of program structures and ownership. This should be the first step in choosing a study abroad program.
  • Worldwide Colleges and Universities A resource of The Center for Global Education. The site provides web links to colleges and universities around the world.
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