More than 3,600 colleges and universities offer undergraduate degree programs in the United States. This vast number means there are programs available to meet everyone’s needs, but how can you find the best program for you? This webpage aims to give you the knowledge you need to make the right choices.

Education in the United States will almost certainly be different from the system offered in your country. This part gives you an introduction to the degrees available in the United States, the different types of institutions, and some key terms and ideas you will come across if you want to study at a U.S. university or college.

Bachelor’s and Associate Degrees

The bachelor’s degree typically takes four years to complete, though some students take slightly less time to finish, while others may take longer. The associate degree usually takes two years to complete. Associate degree programs may be “terminal” programs, which lead into specific careers upon graduation, or “transfer” programs, which correspond to the first two years of a bachelor’s degree and tend to be more liberal arts based. Under the latter option you could then transfer into the third year of a four-year bachelor’s degree program. Associate degree programs are offered at two-year colleges known as junior or community colleges.

Colleges, Universities, and Institutes:

The Distinction

Degree-granting institutions in the United States can be called by any of these terms, and colleges and institutes are in no way inferior to universities. As a general rule, colleges tend to be smaller and usually offer only undergraduate degrees, while a university also offers graduate degrees. The words “school,” “college,” and “university” will be used interchangeably.  Within each college or university you will find schools, such as the school of arts and sciences or the school of business. Each school is responsible for the degree programs offered by the college or university in that area of study.

State Universities

State universities are founded and subsidized by U.S. state governments to provide low-cost education to residents of that state. They may also be called public universities to distinguish them from private institutions. Some include the words “state university” in their title or include a regional element such as “eastern” or “northern.” International students, as well as those from other states, are considered out-of-state residents and therefore do not benefit from reduced tuition at state institutions.

Private Universities

Private institutions are funded by a combination of endowments, tuition fees, research grants, and gifts from their alumni. Tuition fees tend to be higher at private universities than at state universities, but there is no distinction made between state and non-state residents.

Community Colleges

Community colleges provide two-year associate degree programs, as well as excellent technical and vocational programs. As the name suggests, community colleges are community-based institutions with close links to secondary schools, community groups, and employers, and many U.S. students live close to campus with their families.

Programs of study at community colleges usually include:

a)Two-Year Associate Degree Programs

  • designed to fulfill the requirements for the first two years of a four-year bachelor’s degree. They may be called transfer degree programs because students who complete them later transfer to four-year universities for the final two years of study.
  • designed to prepare students for immediate employment

b) Certificate Programs

Certificate programs train individuals for positions in areas like social work and human services, health care, building trades, and technologies.

c) Continuing Education

Continuing education programs are for students who wish to enhance their professional or personal skills, rather than to study for credit toward a degree or certificate.

Institutional accreditation of a community college is very important, especially if you hope to transfer from a two year college to a four-year institution, in which case you will want to ensure recognition of your first two years of study. Nearly all the community colleges and private two year institutions in the United States are accredited by the same agencies that assess the four-year colleges and universities in their geographical area. However, prospective students should always verify the accreditation of any two-year college in which they are interested.

In addition to accreditation, the smooth transition from a community college to a four-year institution depends on the strength of the articulation agreement between the two schools. These contracts specify which courses transfer automatically from one institution to the other and, therefore, can be counted toward the four-year degree.

Community colleges operate an “open-door” admissions policy. This means anyone who wishes to enroll and meets the minimum entry requirements can do so. Each institution will have its own set of admission requirements, but the minimum usually includes the following:

  • completed application form;
  • proof of secondary school completion (usually 12 years of schooling);
  • certification of English language proficiency (usually a score from the Test of English as a Foreign Language [TOEFL]);
  • evidence of financial support (required for the I-20 form).

For many international students, a major attraction of community colleges is their low cost. In general, it will be a challenge for international students to secure financial aid at state-supported community colleges. Though you should check with the colleges about any scholarships they offer that are open to international students, almost all of the funds available to students will come from the federal government or local government, and are set aside specifically for U.S. citizens and permanent residents. There is a slightly better chance of acquiring financial assistance at private colleges. Other private institutions such as foundations, corporations, or associations may also have funds for grants and scholarships.

Non-Degree Study at a U.S. College

Do you want to study in the United States at a college or university, but not for a full degree? Perhaps you want to experience life on a U.S. campus, while improving your knowledge of certain subjects. This is certainly a useful addition to your educational experience, and U.S. colleges welcome students such as you. You should write to colleges, explain your situation, and request information on applying for “special student” or “non-degree student” status.

One of the most attractive features of the bachelor’s degree program in the United States is that it is highly flexible. You can usually choose from a wide variety of courses and create your own unique program of study. The degree is awarded after you complete a specified number of credits, which are usually completed in four years of full-time study. The first year is called the freshman year; the second is called sophomore; the third, junior; and the fourth, senior.

Academic Calendar

The academic year will be slightly different for each university or college but normally runs from early September to the end of May. It may be divided into two terms of 18 weeks called “semesters.” Alternatively, the university may have “quarters” or “trimesters,” which are about 12 weeks in length. In addition, universities very often provide six- to eight-week summer terms.  There are at least two main holidays during the academic year: a two- to four-week break over Christmastime and a one-week “spring break” sometime between early March and mid-April.

The Credit System

Students at American universities complete their degrees when they have accumulated a certain number of “credits.” It usually takes somewhere between 130 and 180 credits to graduate. Sometimes the terms “semester/ quarter hours” or “units” are used instead of credits. Each individual course you take each semester earns a specified number (usually three or four) of credits/hours/units.


100 – 90% = A
89 – 80% = B
79 – 70% = C
69 – 60% = D
59 – 50% = E
49 – 0% = F

What Is a GPA?

Each student completes his or her degree with a grade point average (GPA). A cumulative grade point average is the GPA for all courses taken throughout the degree program. Most universities use a GPA scale of 4.0, but a few universities use a scale of 5.0.

To be eligible for admission to a U.S. university, you must meet certain minimum entry requirements. These include:

  • a secondary school diploma;
  • good GPA;
  • you must be at least 17 years of age;
  • many, but not all, colleges require international applicants to take an admissions test, usually the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT I) or the American College Testing (ACT) Assessment. Some may also require SAT II Subject Tests. http://www.collegeboard.org, if English is not your first language, you also need to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL): http://www.toefl.org/

You should now have a shortlist of colleges that match your needs, interests, and abilities. You should also feel confident that you have the minimum entrance requirements for studying in the United States, and that you can meet the costs of a U.S. undergraduate education. Now it’s time to start putting together your applications. This chapter gives practical information and advice to help you make successful applications to the colleges of your choice. The entire application process, from obtaining initial information to applying for your student visa, should begin 12 to 18 months in advance of when you want to go the United States.

Requesting Application Materials

If you have access to the Internet, you will find that many U.S. universities also put their college catalogs onto their Web sites, and some have even stopped printing paper copies. Many also have on-line application forms that can be completed on the computer and sent back to the university electronically, or the forms can be downloaded and printed. If there is an on-line application, you should use it. This is the quickest method for submitting your application. If you can download the application, appropriate parts of the catalog, and other information from a college’s Web site, you will not need to contact the school directly.

Completing and Returning the Application Materials

Once you have received information from the colleges, read everything thoroughly. Most schools require similar information, but they may ask for it in different ways.  You will usually be asked to provide the following items:

Application Form

Your application form should be neat and clear to create a good impression.

Application Fee

Almost all universities charge a non-refundable application fee that covers the cost of processing your application. It must be paid in U.S. dollars either by a dollar check drawn on a U.S. bank or an international money order obtainable from banks or American Express offices.

Academic Credentials

In addition to a transcript, you must also send certified copies of the originals of secondary school diplomas, certificates, final examination results, or records of your performance in any national or leaving examinations administered in your home country. Do not send original documents unless there is no alternative; usually they cannot be returned. Copies should be certified with an official seal from the school, or certified by a public official authorized to certify such documents. If English translations are necessary, you may use the services of a professional translator.

Test Score Reporting

When you apply to take the SAT I or SAT II, TOEFL, or other examinations, you should know which universities you wish to apply to.

Personal Statement

Many schools ask applicants to submit a written personal statement or essay as part of the admissions process. When university admissions officers read this part of the application, they may look to see whether the student can contribute to the school and if the school can meet his or her needs. The personal statement gives universities a chance to get a personal glimpse of you, an insight that is not possible in the grades and numbers that make up the rest of your application.

Financial Statement

Most universities include a form called a “Declaration and Certification of Finances” or “Affidavit of Financial Support” in their application packets. This must be signed by your parents or whoever is meeting your college expenses, and must be certified by a bank or lawyer. Keep a copy of this form since you will also need it to apply for your student visa. Schools usually need to know that you have at least the first year’s expenses covered, although many may also ask you to indicate your source of income for the entire period of study. If you know when you apply that you will need some form of assistance from the college, indicate how much you plan to request from the university. Many U.S. universities operate a needs-blind admissions policy. This means that your financial position is not a consideration in the decision whether to grant you admission. Please note, however, that the university will issue the relevant certificate of eligibility for a student visa only if you are able to document fully your source(s) of income.

Deadlines and Submission

Each university sets its own deadline date, and it is usually firm about not accepting applications after that time, particularly if a college is very popular. Deadlines usually fall between January and March, although they can be as early as November or as late as June.

Common Application Form

This standardized application form is available on the Web at http://www.commonapp.org, and is used by over 130 colleges and universities.


If you plan to begin studies in September, you should hear from the colleges you applied to by mid-April of that year.

Once you have secured your place at a U.S. college, it is time to begin making plans for your new life as an international student in the United States. Although there are a few things you cannot do until you have obtained your visa, much planning can be done ahead of time to make the move to the United States run more smoothly.

Arrival in the United States

Once you have been admitted to a university, have notified them of your acceptance, and paid any tuition deposit required, you should receive further information about your new school and procedures for your arrival on campus. These should include details of the best way to reach the campus.


U.S. universities hold arrival orientations for new international students to familiarize them with the campus and its facilities and to help with adjustment to life in the United States.

International Student Adviser (ISA)

U.S. universities that regularly admit international students have special staff assigned and trained to work with them. They are usually called international student advisers (ISAs) or foreign student advisers (FSAs).

Academic Adviser (AA)

In addition to your ISA, you will be assigned an academic adviser (AA) who is usually a faculty member in your major field (if you have specified one). You usually meet with your AA before registering for classes to be advised on what classes to take to fulfill graduation and specialization requirements.

University Housing

Most U.S. universities expect freshmen to live on campus. This means you will almost certainly be sharing a room in a university dormitory or apartment with at least one other student. One advantage of this is that if your roommate is American, he or she might take you home at holidays and introduce you to American culture.

Money and Banking

The United States has very few national banks, and most operate on a regional, state, or city basis. Some universities have their own credit unions or other banking services. Before opening an account find out which banks are near to where you will be living and studying.

Health Insurance

As an international student you must have health insurance coverage while in the United States. It is compulsory to take out health insurance at most U.S. universities, either through the university’s policy or by purchasing your own policy that meets the university’s requirements. Health insurance policies vary and your international student adviser can explain them to you and help you decide on the best policy for you. Don’t forget to make sure you are insured for the journey from your home country to your campus in the United States.

Social Life

A variety of organizations and activities await you on most campuses, and getting involved is a great way to meet new friends, including Americans. You may find student-run radio and TV stations, newspapers, sports teams, and social clubs that are looking for new members. U.S. universities usually have an international society too. Most campuses have a Student Activities Office that can tell you what is happening on campus.

For more information on any of these topics please visit: https://educationusa.state.gov/