10 essential things to consider when choosing a US University

Dustin Daniels at Florida State University on 10 things international students should know before choosing to study in the USA:

1. Location and Culture

The first thing to know about the American university system is that there are over 4,000 colleges and universities to choose from. These sites of higher education range from small liberal arts colleges to large public research universities, specialized community colleges, and many others in between! I’d say two of the most common kinds of universities are those found in more urban city centres and those found in more rural ‘college towns’.

Going to school in the city can be a very rewarding experience, as the city life can help complement your time as student and add a layer of cultural discovery to your collegiate career. On the other hand, it might also dilute or convolute your time as well, as the hustle and bustle can sometimes build a wedge between you and the university student experience. Likewise, a ‘college town’ is typically a place where you can find a small community coalescing around a university as its main focal point and lifeblood. There is something to be said for this kind of school, but it might also mean you don’t have access to the amenities or the diversity of a large city.

2. University Pride and Alumni Network

One of the amazing aspects of the US university system is the great pride and enthusiasm that folks develop for their school. This pride often starts with competitive sports programs, but also manifests in many other areas. It isn’t uncommon, for instance, for students to wear university apparel, attend university events, and rejoice in university achievement, whether it be a sports championship or a faculty member winning a research award. Pride for your university allows you to build powerful relationships that often transcend generations, backgrounds and ideologies. It allows you to feel part of a greater community; a feeling that you quite frankly cannot put a price on.

With this university pride comes an alumni network. These networks are used to help people continue to stay connected to their university, while also allowing for professional development and advancement. It isn’t uncommon for graduates in the US to get their first job as a result of connections or information provided by a university’s alumni network. When picking the best school for you, you ought to consider the kind of network that will stand behind your degree and help you get where you want to go.

3. Public and Private Universities

There are two types of universities in the US: public and private. The main differences between the two are the prestige of studying at a private university over a public one, and the cost which obviously is much cheaper at a public university. A year of classes of public tuition costs around $3,500 (around £2,250) whilst some private universities charge well over ten times that. A public university also has a large number of students, which may suit someone who thrives in a social educational environment. Private universities have smaller classes and allow students to forge closer relationships with their tutors.

4. Scholarships and Funding

When looking at how to pay for a US education, your focus should then turn to scholarships and funding.  Not all US universities offer scholarships to international students and government loans can’t always be applied to paying for and tuition and fees. Despite this, increasing fees for university around the world have made the U.S. university system quite competitive comparatively to other countries around Europe. One of the most important things to look at is the OVERALL cost of going to a particular university: specifically tuition and fees, on-campus or off-campus accommodation, cost of living in the location of the university, etc. One of the most confusing traps I have seen international students fall into is being distracted by only looking at tuition fees or the kind of scholarship universities offer. Here is a typical scenario:

University A is a public research university located in a small city. It costs $40,000 a year to attend, including accommodation and tuition. University B is a private university located centrally in a large city. It costs $100,000 to attend for all accommodation and fees, but it offers a 50% scholarship to all international students.

As you can see, even with no scholarships, university A would be a better choice from a funding standpoint.

5. Liberal Arts Education: Majors, Minors and Credits

Liberal Arts colleges and universities provide specialised education in the basic disciplines of humanities, plus social and behavioural sciences. They offer a huge range of potential Major subjects, including Political Science, Religion and Sociology. All universities will also allow you to study a Minor subject if you so desire. Some Majors even allow a Minor to take the place of supporting coursework. Each Major and Minor requires a certain level of credits that need to be achieved to qualify for a degree. The definition of a credit can be difficult for someone who has not been born in the U.S. to get their head around. Credits are awarded for the time you spend studying or in class. If you have already attended University in the UK, you should be able to transfer some credits across.

6. Internships & Undergraduate Research

Internships and Undergraduate Research programs are where companies sponsor students to go to university in the hope of securing them as employees once their studies have finished. This is an excellent way of securing financial backing for your studies, and some companies will even help with accommodation and transport. It’s not all study though – some companies will expect you to work for them as well, particularly during breaks.

7. Rankings

When choosing a university, the rankings that are produced by several independent institutions are a good place to start, but should be viewed with a grain of salt. These rankings can tell you about certain qualities of schools, but can leave out some vital information such as student satisfaction, engagement, and alumni performance. They can also be biased towards smaller universities that focus on a few key subject areas. Many times students think that the ‘Ivy League’ schools are the only ones worth considering, when many non-Ivy schools are collectively and in many individual programs more well-regarded. At the end of the day, US universities all over the country are known for something, so make sure to cast a wide net.

8. The US Student Experience

The main difference between being a US student and a UK student is that whilst the UK student is encouraged to be an expert in a single field, a US student is more likely to become successful if they can exhibit a breadth of knowledge. On the social side of things, students in the U.S. are much more likely to spend time together, especially on campus. Many students will live on campus for all four years of their degree. Eating and playing sports together and being members of sororities and fraternities is a big part of university education.

9. SAT & ACT

Many times students wonder whether their secondary school program, whether it be an IB diploma, A-Levels, Advanced Placement, etc. allows them to forgo taking their SAT or ACT tests. The answer is almost always NO! Because U.S. schools have students from all over the world applying, it is hard to fairly compare them. After all, a student’s achievements in Canada vs. in Italy may be completely different. This is where the SAT or ACT come in. These standardized tests focus on general knowledge and skills in math, verbal reasoning, writing and science, though each is slightly different. They are usually required for all students as a way for the university to compare students effectively and to predict how they are likely to do in their first years of studying. Few universities waive this requirement, but some do let you postpone taking the exam until after admission.

10. Cultural Capital & Global Consciousness

US universities do their best not to promote cultural capital and to treat all students equally, no matter their social status. However, outside of the lecture halls and classrooms students from poorer backgrounds may find themselves at a disadvantage, and be looked down upon by those more socially fortunate.

More information on Florida State’s International Gateway Program can be found at http://www.fsu-gateway-program.co.uk, where they offer some useful tips of their own for any potential students.