Undergraduate and Graduate Structure and Lifestyle
An undergraduate lifestyle in the U.S. is full of variety, adventure, fun and learning. U.S. students study a variety of subjects and may specialize in more than one field before opting to move on to graduate school or a career.
Undergraduate Student classification:
• Freshmen – First-year students; coursework typically includes several general education classes
• Sophomores – Second-year students; combination of general and major-related courses
• Juniors – Third-year students; higher level major-related classes
• Seniors– Fourth-year students; typically the final year to fulfill all requirements for major
Typical Undergraduate Degree Process:
Although there can be a high degree of flexibility in your academic plan and progress towards receiving your bachelor’s degree, this chart described the typical process. Students work with their faculty and advisors to determine personal plans of study and ensure progress towards completion.
• The academic year begins in August or September and continues through May or June
• International students usually begin their studies in the autumn (fall) term, in August or September
• The academic year can be divided either in quarters or semesters.
• Typical collegiate courses combine lecturing with active student participation. Participation is often part of the final grade. For undergraduate courses, a course might be split between a large lecture session and a smaller discussion session.
• Typical assignments include weekly reading, written reports and papers, presentations and group projects. Due dates for assignments, evaluation criteria and other information related to the course is usually provided in the syllabus at the start of the term.
Evaluation and grades:
• Courses are taken for an assigned credit value. Credits reflect the number of hours students are expected to spend in class each week, usually three to five credits per course.
• A full-time program at most schools is 12-15 credit-hours (three to five courses) per term. International students are usually expected to enroll in a full-time program during each term.
• If a student decides to transfer to another university, the credits s/he earned at the first university may apply towards the degree at the transfer school.
• Evaluation criteria are in the form of a mark or grade for each course. Your grade may be based upon:
o In class participation, including discussions and informed questions
o Attendance and punctuality
o Performance in quizzes, exams, papers and group projects
• Some courses may not be open for freshmen or sophomores due to prerequisites; however, a student may be given special permission to opt into the course if certain criteria are met. These exceptions are considered on a cases-by-case basis and may include passing a university level proficiency test or completing a course waiver based on entry exams or prior education in the field.
There is often a high degree of flexibility in the U.S. higher education system. While this is meant to give each student a unique experience tailored to their own interests, it can also be daunting to navigate many opportunities. Luckily, most universities have a number of resources to help you! Students often learn of these resources during an orientation and are encouraged to take advantage of them during their time on campus. College and university websites also include a wealth of information about accessing these resources.
Faculty Advisors: Some programs will have faculty advisors for each of their students. If a program does not have a specific faculty advisor for students, usually professors in your major can be valuable resources as advisors and mentors.
Academic Advisors: Most programs have one or more academic advisors. These are staff that understand your specific degree requirements and the university system and can help navigate academic requirements and opportunities and address general concerns you may have.
International Advisors: Most colleges and universities have an international office that helps international students adjust to the new environment, culture and life style. These advisors can also help with visa concerns or other official paperwork.
Teacher Assistants: Typically graduate students or teacher assistants (TAs) work with a professor on his/her course and support students outside the classroom to help them better understand difficult material. Often, TAs facilitate the discussion section of a course.
Resident Assistants: Resident assistants (RAs) are usually advanced level students who oversee on-campus residence facilities and are an academic and social resource for students. RAs organize social and culture events and help with any housing related issues.
Career Councilors: Most colleges and universities have an office for career guidance. This office organizes career fairs, workshops and lectures pertaining to your career goals and finding a job. Career Centers usually also offer one on one advising for job-seekers.
Academic Tutors Often universities and/or departments within universities offer academic tutoring for students. Some examples include: a writing center where tutors help you to proofread papers, librarians to help guide you in research, and tutors in departments like math or engineering to help with homework.
Graduate Level Academics
Evaluation of grades and teaching styles, discussed above, can be similar at the graduate level as at the undergraduate level. Professors often expect greater input and participation in a graduate level course, and study is often more self-directed. Graduate level courses may also be smaller and the content more focused. School activities, resources and guidance that are available to undergraduates are also available to graduate students. Often graduate programs will also have their own programming and academic and career advisers to meet the specific needs of graduate students.
Graduate level degrees, including programs like law or medicine, usually include some combination of research and coursework. Whereas bachelor’s degrees can be more flexible and provide a broader base of skills and knowledge, graduate level programs focus on in-depth training and specialization in your chosen field. In the U.S., it is not always necessary to pursue a graduate level degree in the same subject of your bachelor’s degree.
- For international students, a master’s degree from the U.S. is often an important step on their chosen career path. Master’s degree programs are available in nearly all academic areas of study, including sciences, engineering and social sciences.
- A master’s program is one route to achieve a doctorate.
- Master’s degrees may offer a thesis option and/or a non-thesis option. In lieu of a thesis, some programs offer an applied project requirement rather than theory-based research.
Doctorate (Ph.D. or Ed.D.):
- A qualifying examination is often required for a student who is applying for a doctorate program. Doctoral degrees usually require an additional three to five years of study. During the first two years of the program, students enroll in classes and seminars, followed by a couple years of conducting research and writing their findings in the form of a thesis or dissertation.
- An oral defense on the dissertation is treated as final examination in most programs.
- Some Ph.D. programs require students to have a U.S. master’s degree or international equivalent; others allow you to earn a master’s during the first one to two years of the program.
Professional Degrees, Medical Doctor (MD) or Juris Doctor (JD): While you do not necessarily need a bachelor’s degree in a field related to the graduate degree you want to pursue, most medical school programs in the U.S. and some other professional degrees like law, for example, require certain pre-requisite coursework. If you plan to apply to medical school, you should research pre-med requirements while an undergraduate student to make sure you receive the appropriate coursework. For other professional degrees, you should research if any pre-requisites will be required for admissions.
On-campus vs. off-campus living: Most four-year colleges and universities and many two-year colleges offer residential facilities on-campus. Living in on-campus residences means you are closer to class and campus events and you are in an environment that encourages making friends and a sense of community. If you live on-campus, you will likely have a roommate in a shared dormitory. There is limited housing available to have your own room, an apartment or family housing, though these options may be available on some campuses. Student housing is usually made available for the academic year; limited housing options may be available on-campus during the summer. Living on-campus also gives you the option of having a meal plan and access to on-campus cafeterias. On-campus housing often includes amenities such as 24-hour staffing and emergency maintenance response, housekeeping and 24-hour patrolling by the Office of Public Safety. Some residential facilities even provide exercise facilities, recreation and entertainment centers, and tutoring centers. Student residents are expected to follow regulations stipulated by the college. Students cite convenience, security, and ability to make friends and take advantage of campus activities as top reasons for living on campus.
The off-campus residential option gives students more freedom to choose where to live and when to move in and out of the housing. Student may choose to have roommates or to live independently. There is typically more privacy as compared to the on-campus residence facility. Living off-campus also entails accepting more responsibility; students are responsible for various expenses that include rent, utilities, cable, internet and phone bills. Depending on the location and the fiscal responsibility of the student, off-campus living can be less expensive than on-campus living. Most colleges and universities have off-campus housing offices or advisors that can help navigate finding off-campus housing. Students cite cost, independence, and desire to experience more than just campus life as top reasons for choosing to live off campus. Also, some campuses do not have residences or have limited availability.
Graduate Students: Many university campuses have some housing for graduate students, but often this is more limited than for undergraduates. If you do live on-campus you will likely be living with other graduate students, rather than undergraduates. However, off-campus housing is more common among graduate students at most schools. Graduate students can reach out to the university’s off-campus housing office for guidance on accessing apartment listings.
On Campus Jobs: Typically an international student with an F-1 visa can work for 20 hours per week. Working beyond that is illegal and against the F-1 visa conditions. During the summer students are allowed to work for 40 hours. Working in libraries, at a computer lab, as a receptionist, for administration and serving as a research assistant or a teaching assistant are a few of the job options that are available on-campus. If you will be trying to find a job because of low income, it is important to note that some schools offer tuition waivers as well. Students with visas other than the F-1 may not be eligible to work and should carefully review their visa conditions. A campus’s international office can give students further information about working on campus.
Graduate Students: F-1 visa restrictions on employment apply, regardless of your degree level. It will be important to ask your professors and advisors about on-campus employment opportunities. Research Assistantships and Teaching Assistantships are often more available to graduate students than other types of on-campus employment.
Extracurricular Activities: An important part of studying in the U.S. is the experience you will have outside the classroom. You will no doubt receive a high quality education, but a true college experience is much more than just the degree. It is a chance to share your perspective, learn from others, stretch your comfort zone and have new experiences. The freedom, innovation and creativity of campus life will open the doors to endless activities – from attending a multicultural concert to kayaking with the university’s outdoors club to making cupcakes with children while volunteering in a hospital children’s ward. No matter what campus you go to, there is something for everyone and you will be encouraged to take advantage of all the opportunities offered through the campus.
International students have said that getting involved with on-campus activities helps them integrate into the culture and lifestyle of the U.S. and make American friends. A recent study shows that international students in the U.S. do not tend to make friends with American students as much as they do with other international students. But, international students develop stronger English language skills and have better academic performance when they get to know their peers and absorb the U.S. culture. Joining clubs and participating in activities with other students that have similar interests is an easy way to break down language barriers and let go of being shy or timid. Most strong friendships are built outside the classroom.
Graduate Students: Extracurricular activities are an important part of the university experience at any level. Many extracurricular activities are open to graduates and undergraduates alike. Often, though, graduate programs offer their own activities and events just for graduate students. Often a program coordinator will be responsible for disseminating opportunities specific to a particular graduate program.
Clubs & Organizations: Some campuses host literally hundreds of clubs and organizations. These can be social, religious, cultural, community service oriented, professional, political, academic, recreational or arts related. Joining a club or an organization requires a time commitment, but it is a great way to enhance classroom education and have fun. For international students who miss home, there are many organizations representing their h ome countries. For example, the Latin American Student Union, Chinese Student Association, or the Arab Student Group are ways to stay connected to home, share cultural experiences and engage with students from diverse backgrounds. Students who like to plan events can join student council or other leadership-centered organizations. There are a multitude of opportunities –student newspapers or radio, intramural sports and more.
Graduate Students: While most clubs and organizations on college campuses are largely made up of undergraduate participants, there are also usually a number of organizations dedicated to graduate students. While campus clubs and organizations are open to all students, graduate students may find that participating in an organization specifically for graduate students enables them to connect more closely with their peers.
Service-based Activities: Many universities and colleges in the U.S. offer activities dedicated to service and helping the less privileged, whether this is through their campus-based club or through partnerships with local or global organizations. There are many different ways to be involved in community service, ranging from local levels (volunteering at a nearby hospital) or global (fundraising to help flood victims in Bangladesh). One of the most popular service activities in college is Alternative Spring Break (ASB). This is a wonderful opportunity for students to travel and contribute to a community outside their own. ASB participants may construct a house for someone who lost all their belongings after a hurricane or paint a public school so that children can have a better education.
Graduate Students: Again, graduate students can participate in service-based activities offered through the school, but will also have graduate level specific opportunities for their field of interest or for the graduate student population as a whole. Some campuses are now offering Alternative Spring Break trips just for graduate level students.
Fraternities and Sororities: Joining a fraternity or sorority is referred to as Greek Life. Sororities are for women and fraternities are for men. There are also co-ed fraternities which are generally focused on a professional discipline such as business or engineering or honors fraternities based on superior academic performance and other criteria. Greek life is typically focused on building character, developing leadership skills, contributing to the community and networking. Additionally, sororities and fraternities become a home away from home, especially in big colleges with 25,000 students or more. Your sorority or fraternity becomes like family and offers a chance to build many strong relationships.
Graduate Students: Fraternities and Sororities are largely targeted towards undergraduate populations. Graduate students are typically more focused on their field of study and find close connections through other activities.
Learning to balance work, education, community service, social events and personal life is a challenging but wonderful part of the university experience. The variety of organizations and activities available through campus life are an opportunity to grow as a well-rounded individual.
What is Expected of You?
By Shelton L. Williams, Ph.D.,
President of Osgood Center, Washington D.C.
Going abroad to study is obviously exciting, challenging, and perplexing. What is expected of you? Surprisingly enough, the answer is shockingly simple. Just be yourself. By the time you get to a U.S. college or university, the school already knows a lot about you. They know your grades, your test scores, your hobbies, and your parents’ occupations (and bank account). They know your religious background and they know your food preferences. All of this information is collected and processed long before you step foot on campus. You will already have an assigned dorm, adviser, and roommate. You know that university’s ranking, reputation, and maybe their strongest programs, but you don’t know what it will be like for you.
International student advisers (and I was one for many years) will know enough to guide you on classes, dorm life, and some career ideas, but they cannot anticipate everything you will need to know. I will tell you a secret. American colleges and universities want you to succeed. They want you to make good grades, add to the life of the college, and make many friends. They want you to get the most out of classes and extracurricular activities. They want you to travel in and around your college town. To do these, you have to have decent English skills (which will improve dramatically), to have good study habits, and have an adventurous spirit. But like I told my American students going abroad, you are always and forever an ambassador of your country, your parents, and your college. It can be a heavy weight, so expect it. Give yourself time to adjust and focus on your immediate concerns at the beginning—your classes, your roommate, your new friends. No one expects you to be the center of attention, even if you sometimes feel that way.
I have always found that many international students bring more expectations from home than we have of them. These expectations concern majors, grades, behavior, friendships, and especially religious practices. Guess what? Those were my parents’ expectations as well. Honor your parents, but know that American universities expect you to be mature enough to chart your own course. My experiences are with small liberal arts colleges, in which half or more of the entering freshmen are “undecided” in their majors. At the Osgood Center for International Studies in Washington, D.C., where I am now president, we offer Model UN, International Business and Foreign Policy seminars. We find that many engineering students from India, Chinese Hotel Management majors, or Moroccan Language majors late in their academic careers develop a great fascination with Diplomacy or International Studies as a major. Most American small colleges are “OK” with that and we expect you to explore options, investigate majors and follow your dream. We also provide advisers, career centers and visiting alumni to answer your questions regarding requirements, graduate schools, and experiences you need to get where you want to go.
Think for yourself. That is what colleges and universities expect. American colleges and universities reflect American society, so our education is based on personal choice and personal development. You bring your talent and interests and we provide the training and opportunities. Work hard. Even for American students, college is an adjustment. Avoid the GPA monster. Having a good grade point average (GPA) is the beginning of academic success and starting off with poor grades can mean taking time to recover or hurting your chances for grad school. But there is another side of the monster. Concentrating only on the GPA may mean that you miss out on Model UN, playing in the orchestra, a Biology field trip, or a school play. These are all “educational” experiences and American university life is rich with them. Have a balanced life between academics and extracurricular activities. Make friends. They will last a lifetime.
Get to know America. What are Americans like? Are we all the same? Are small towns like Alma, Michigan like big cities like Washington, D.C.? No, and neither is like New York City or Los Angeles, California. What may surprise you is that whether you go to a place like Alma College or Yale University, you may find opportunities to go places and see things that you never imagined.
That is what we expect.
Shelton L. Williams is President of the Osgood Center in Washington D.C., a non-profit educational organization that offers short-term foreign policy programs and experiential learning to graduate, college, and high school students from around the globe. Shelly has taught at The John Hopkins University – Paul H.Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and University of Texas.