The Ultimate Guide to Studying at University in the USA

From types of degree and institution to student life, accommodation and fees, this article covers all the essential information for studying in the USA.

When it comes to sheer numbers, the USA is hands down the most popular international student destination in the world: on BridgeU, 45% of university shortlists are for American institutions.

Why is it so popular? Well, to begin with, university offerings in the USA are numerous and varied: the USA is home to over 4,000 universities and colleges - the highest number in the world.

Home to the world’s most multicultural city (New York City), the USA is often described as 50 different countries in one. From the balmy coasts of Southern California to the snowy Ivy Leagues of New England (nicknamed the Ivies), there’s no shortage of climate, geographical, and cultural variety.

This diversity is reflected in the sheer volume of opportunities available to students too. From remarkably flexible and well-rounded degree options to access to cutting-edge technology, students in the USA are spoilt for choice.

This variety attracts 1, 000, 000 international students to the USA, who choose to study in America to reap the rewards of these globally renowned degrees. In fact, 160 US institutions consistently rank in the top 500 global university rankings - that’s, once again, by far the highest number per country!

US Academia at a glance

Alongside instantly recognisable names (hello Harvard, Stanford, and MIT), the USA is best known for its flexible degree options.

Degrees in the USA are credit-based, meaning that you have to gain a certain amount of credits (done primarily through classes and assignments) in a number of different fields: your major, your minor, and general education (often shortened to Gen Ed, but sometimes called ‘core classes’ or ‘core requirements’).

Gen Ed is one of the defining pillars of an American education, and it’s what makes university in the USA so unique. Put simply, it means you’ll have to take classes across the arts, humanities, and sciences throughout your degree, no matter your major.

For many students, this allows them to discover an unexpected passion or calling, and is one of their favourite things about the American higher education system: 80% of students enrolled in American universities change their major at least once! In fact, some universities even discourage students from declaring a major when they first apply.

Picking your study pathway: types of degrees

Broadly speaking, degrees in the USA tend to fall into one of the following categories.

Bachelor’s degrees

This is your standard 4-year undergraduate degree. It’s not unusual for Gen Ed to account for around half of your total requirements for a Bachelor’s degree, and students generally have to declare a major by the end of their second (sophomore) year.

Note: Don’t worry! Universities tend to be quite flexible about what courses you can take to fulfil your Gen Ed requirements. If you really don’t want to have to do calculus again, there’s bound to be something else for you, from Forestry at Yale, to Surfing at USC (University of Southern California), all the way to Emojis at the University of Michigan.

Pre-professional tracks

A slightly more specialised take on the classic Bachelor’s degree, some universities offer pathways designed for students who are planning to study specialised vocational qualifications (like Law and Medicine) which are only available at the postgraduate level in the USA.

You don’t need to follow a pre-professional track for these degrees, but some universities and colleges offer them to help students ensure they’re gaining the necessary preparation for these especially competitive postgraduate qualifications.

Associate’s degrees

Associate's degrees are 2-to-3 year degrees that rank between the GED/high school diploma and a Bachelor’s. Most typically offered by community colleges, yearly tuition tends to be considerably cheaper and entry requirements less stringent.

The cool thing about Associate's degrees is that students can transfer credits at the end of their two years and upgrade to a Bachelor’s.

Selecting your student life experience: types of universities & campuses

Private Universities

Private Universities are run as entirely independent institutions (most are registered as non-profit organisations). Notable examples include Harvard, Stanford, Rice, Brown, Duke, and Columbia. In fact, if you are looking at Ivy League schools, it's worth noting that all eight of these are private.

Select private universities have dropped the Gen Ed requirement and have what’s instead called an ‘open curriculum’, where students are free to focus exclusively on their major (as they would in, say, the UK). These include Brown University, Amherst College, and Grinnell College .

Did you know? NYU has the largest international student population of all. This one school alone accounts for 10% of all international student enrollments in the USA.

Public Universities

Public Universities receive significant subsidisation from the government/state. Some public universities belong to state-wide networks (like the University of California, which includes recognisable names like UCLA and UC Berkeley), and have their own centralised admissions processes.

There’s no hard and fast rule, but they do tend to have much larger student populations: Ohio State, for instance, enrolled over 61,000 students in 2019-2020, and Arizona State 53,000.

And while it’s true that private universities in the US do take up a disproportionate amount of the top slots in international league tables, the USA has its fair share of prestigious public universities, too, like the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Washington.

Note: It’s not always obvious from the name if an institution will be private or public. MIT and Caltech are both private, for instance, but the Georgia Institute of Technology (also a league-table topper) is public.

Liberal Arts Colleges

Liberal Arts Colleges focus on well-rounded, transferable undergraduate education, and tend to place key importance on subjects in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

Liberal arts colleges tend to be private, selective, and small. It’s not uncommon for undergraduate acceptance rate to be under 10%, and enrolment to be below 3,000 (sometimes even less than 1,000).

A smaller student body usually leads to a tighter community and closer interactions between students and staff, and a tailored, personalised approach to learning. Notable examples include Bowdoin College, Pomona College, and Barnard College.

Community Colleges

Community Colleges specialise in Associate's Degrees. Though plenty offer academic courses, they’re better known for vocational and technical programmes.

As mentioned above, it’s common for students to do their first two years at community college, then transfer credits. High-achieving students can even transfer to prestigious institutions (including Ivy Leagues!).

Technical Institutes

Technical Institutes are specialist schools that prepare students for a certain career path. These include engineering, technical sciences, fine art, film and music. Notable examples include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Savannah College of Art & Design, Pratt Institute, and the Rhode Island School of Design.

Accommodation

Corridor Rooms

If you’re after the quintessential college experience, you can’t go wrong with corridor rooms: it’s the floors of traditional dorms that you’re used to seeing in movies and TV shows.

In the US, you’ll generally have to be prepared to share a bedroom with at least one other student. However, you’ll also generally have access to catering and cafeterias, so unlike students in Europe, you’re not generally required to cook for yourself.

Single Gender vs Co-Ed

Co-educational accommodation means that the students you live with will be a mix of all genders. That being said, most universities (and private providers) offer a limited amount of single-sex accommodation.

Our top tip? If you opt for private landlords, ask the university admissions office (or the local chapter of your international student organisation) for a little guidance to avoid any cons or rip-offs.

Greek Life

If students become part of a Fraternity or Sorority, they’ll have the option to reside in-house. Fraternities and Sororities are nation-wide organisations that have branches/chapters across different campuses: it’s a mixture of an exclusive social club and a professional network. Interested students can partake in a vetting process and, if successful, will be offered the chance to join for a probationary period.

But it's important to remember that, because you need to have passed your probationary period before being able to live in-house with your fellow brothers or sisters, it’s not an accommodation option available to first years (freshmen).

Tuition fees & living costs

International student fees

Student fees in the USA are set by each university. In general, you can expect to pay anywhere between $5,000 to 60,000 for tuition alone.

Students can also apply for the OPT visa extension (Optional Practical Training) which enables them to work for a total of 12 months either during or after the completion of their degree.

If you're studying STEM subjects, there's good news: you get a 24-month extension of the OPT.

Unfortunately, there’s one stereotype about private universities that’s kind of true: the cost. Because private universities don’t receive the same governmental support as public universities, they often charge much higher fees.

Scholarships

Scholarships are available to international students at both private and public institutions. In fact, the ‘sticker price’ of a university (before financial aid) is often much higher than what students end up actually paying.

Many students in the USA take out student loans to cover their tuition payments: whether or not this option is available to you will depend on your individual circumstances and passport country/nationality. In some cases, students may need co-signers or guarantors who are based from within the USA.

Visas

For visas, most international students will have to apply for an F-1 student visa (or the M-1 for students doing vocational courses, e.g. air pilot or culinary school).

Cost of living

What about cost of living? Compared to every other country in the world, the US ranks as number 27. 

That means the cost of day-to-day life (that’s everything from food to transport to rent) is significantly higher than in most Asian, African, and South American countries, but Australia, Japan, and a number of Scandinavian and European countries, too.

When it comes to accommodation, the cost will vary wildly depending on which option you select: a shared dorm room will likely be considerably cheaper than a self-contained studio apartment, for instance, where you’ve also got to pay for bills and food. 

The cost will also depend on where you're studying. It will come as no surprise that living in NYC will be considerably more expensive than a small midwestern campus town, for example. 

What about earning money?

International student visas do permit students to work part-time during their studies in the USA, but with specific restrictions: first-year students can only work on-campus, for example, and students might only be able to earn money through designated programs related to their field of study.

Students can also apply for the OPT visa extension (Optional Practical Training) which enables them to work for a total of 12 months either during or after the completion of their degree.

Thinking of studying of the USA this autumn?

Many universities are extending their application deadlines this year, so there's still ample opportunity to enrol for 2021 entry! Check out our list of partner universities and exclusive BridgeU scholarships to discover which opportunities are the right fit for you.