Studying In The USA: What To Expect

study in usa
Thinking of studying across the pond? From the intrigue of the deep south to sunny California, it’s easy to be seduced by our much bigger cousins.

But we know that the information available to students can be confusing. One account will claim it’s cheaper to study in the US (compared to the UK), while another will warn against the expense of studying at a US university. Add in the sheer size of America and it’s hard to get a ‘one-size-fits-all’ account of student life.

While university life will vary between states and institutions, the following points will give you some idea of what it’s like to study at a US institution. We can’t promise it’ll be like the films, but we can dispel some common myths and answer some of the questions we most commonly get asked.

Course structure: How long do US students study for?

In the UK, students can typically expect to spend three years studying for a Bachelor’s degree. The option of a foundation year will top this up to four, as will studying a course which offers an integrated Master’s degree.

US university courses are structured a little differently. If you’re a fan of The Big Bang Theory then you’ll have seen Sheldon frequently make digs about Penny’s community college education. It’s fair to say that American TV gives community colleges a pretty hard time, but while they may not be ‘Ivy League’, there are benefits to studying at a local com-college.

Community college (or an ‘associate degree’) takes two years to complete with the option of transferring to a 4 year Bachelor’s degree (i.e. 2+2). Studying an associate degree before moving on to a Bachelor’s degree appeals to students as the cost of an associate degree is lower and the class sizes are smaller, making for a more supportive learning environment.

As you can imagine, this level of support also makes these colleges ideal for overseas students who need to improve their English language skills before progressing onto a Bachelor’s degree.

While in the UK, we’ll specialise in one (or two) subjects from the get-go. US Bachelor degrees focus on general studies during the first (Freshman) year and second (Sophomore) year. During the third and fourth years, students will start to specialise in their chosen degree subject.

Costs: What’s the damage?

Universities in the UK are very similar in terms of tuition fees. While some might be charging closer to the maximum amount, UK universities are open to everyone – provided you can get the grades and your student funding in place.

In the US, both public and private universities exist and the fees can vary wildly. HSBC recently published an ‘average’ cost of studying in the US (eye-wateringly high), however this was heavily scrutinised. Depending on the location, type of college and public/private status there really is no representative middle ground.

If you’re committed to studying in the US on a limited budget, then you should still be able to make it work for you.

Average annual tuition fees 2014-2015:

Public two year community colleges – $3,347 ($2,179)

Public four year colleges (out of state and international fees) – $22,958 (£14,948)

Private four year colleges – $31,231 (£20,334)

(Source College Board via Top Universities)

Average annual living costs 2014-2015 (room and board):

$9,446.50 (£6150.55)

Accommodation and living

Most students want to live on-campus – it’s social, secure and close to where your classes will be taking place. However bunking down in a dorm is a little different to what we’re used to in the UK!

For one, you’ll probably be sharing with a roommate. You may also need to budget for a meal plan if you stay in on-campus accommodation. Again, this can be a bit of a culture shock for UK students as most UK universities now have a larger proportion of self-catered ‘halls’.

Can I work around my degree?

Technically yes, but there are lots of limitations.

Most international students study in the US under an F1 Visa, which does permit some part-time work.

However, the rules are complex and if you’re categorically relying on work to help fund your studies, then you’ll need to keep some important conditions in mind. In most cases you’ll need to be enrolled for 9-12 months and you’ll need to seek permission before starting any sort of paid employment.

In terms of career-based study, students can work around their degree on Optional Practical Training or Curricular Practical Training options, which are essentially work experience placements. These must be related to your degree or major in some way however and, again, they are rife with caveats.

On-campus employment is the most straightforward option, but there isn’t an abundance of jobs available – naturally these tend to be popular and get snapped up quickly.

If you’re really in need of cash, then you can apply for an off-campus role based on a ‘severe economic hardship’ pledge. This is more flexible, but you must provide proof that you are struggling financially.

Next steps:

Once you have a good idea of what you want to study, use the resources below to gain an insight into the application process. If you need to speak to an advisor face to face, these sites point to experienced UK advisors who can take you through the whole process face-to-face.

Victoria is a student blogger for IEC Abroad. Please visit our website for more study abroad advice.

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