Your Path

Four Key Insights for International Students

JulieAnne Dietz

Are you interested in earning your university degree in the United States? U.S. colleges and universities rank among the best in the world for educational quality, so it’s no surprise that almost one million international students are currently enrolled in U.S. colleges.

So, if studying in The Land of Opportunity is part of your long-term strategy – you’re not alone!

But before you apply for your student visa, pack your bags and brush-up on your American slang; there’s a lot you should know. That’s where this site comes in!

Now, I can’t cover everything you need to know in this blog post because, truth be-told, American colleges and universities are diverse, oftentimes expensive, and the search and application process can be fairly complicated.

So for today, I’m just going to focus on giving you four key insights to contemplate.

But don’t panic. This website (especially the posts within the College Search Starter Kit) is full of great information designed to help students navigate the process – and because it’s meant to serve as a live resource, you should leave comments at the bottom of our posts, join my online community, and send me notes to let me know how the process is going.

“Putting aside part-time jobs, student-assistantships, and internships, what do students do when they’re not studying? If they made a wise college decision, whatever they want!”

Okay, one quick note before we get started. In the U.S. we typically use the term College when speaking about any schools that offer a higher education degree; this includes universities and colleges. This jargon is important to note because unlike some international higher education programs, in the U.S. both colleges and universities offer bachelor degrees (unless classified as a “two-year school”). In other words, as long as the school offers your intended area of study, you can receive the same degree at either.

The U.S. is a big, diverse place, which means you have your pick of settings! (photo courtesy of Brooke Cagle via Unsplash)

Okay, let’s dive into those insights!

Academics: The first thing you should know; bachelor’s degrees (a.k.a. undergraduate degrees) in the U.S. typically take four years to complete.

Why the difference?

Colleges in the U.S. take a holistic, rather than a field-specific, approach to academics. This means you will be required to take a variety of classes not necessarily focused on your major. In general, the first two years of an undergraduate degree will comprise general education courses (math, science, English, history, philosophy, psychology, etc.) with a few field-specific courses sprinkled in. Then, the second two years will focus almost entirely on your major, internships and in some cases research.

To give you something to picture, on average, you will have 15 hours of class a week and around 15 hours of studies outside the classroom (assignments, papers, reading, exam preparation). It’s not quite a full-time job, but close.

Finally, U.S. colleges are broken down into public and private institutions. This has everything to do with how they are funded and essentially nothing to do with the quality of the education. For U.S. residents this can also have an impact on the cost of college, but as an international student you likely won’t benefit from things such as “In-State Tuition”.

Now, if the prospect of an extra year of undergraduate studies has you thinking twice, lets move on to the next insight because it’s a good one.

Social: American colleges are usually really fun!

Putting aside part-time jobs, student-assistantships, and internships, what do students do when they’re not studying?

If they made a wise college decision, whatever they want!

The U.S. is a large and diverse country – and the same can be said of the college landscape.

There are schools that live and breathe with their sports teams; where athletic events dominate the week-to-week social scene – 70,000 seat stadiums, face paint and all! Other schools are almost indistinguishable from their environment, where the happenings of the surrounding community drive the social agenda – think New York University in New York City.

Still others are steeped in outdoor life, like the mountainous University of Colorado @ Boulder (think hiking, mountain biking and camping) or beachside Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.

And it doesn’t have to be all play; there are plenty of schools where even downtime is driven by Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) or entrepreneurship.

What’s important for you to know is that you need to think about what you want from the social scene (e.g. what do you like to do?) and look for schools that accommodate your vision. Four years is a long time to live somewhere out of sync with your personality and interests.

And to avoid misleading you…most schools offer a mix of attributes – you just need to find the balance that works for you.

Okay, with leisure time on your mind, let’s move on to the next insight.

(photo courtesy of Abigail Keenen via Unsplash)

Geography and Culture: As I mentioned before, the U.S. is large and diverse. As a matter of fact, it is bigger than all of western and central Europe combined! And while everyone lives under one constitution, the look, feel, culture and many of the underlying values can differ greatly across the States – and this often spills over into the college atmosphere as well.

So do your homework and research the prevailing cultures of these areas before applying. Sperling’s Best ( and Area Vibes ( can be good starting points for understanding the different locals.

It’s also important to note that the U.S. is largely a “car” country. While public transportation exists, for the most part it’s only a realistic mode of transportation in some of the bigger cities. Colleges do their best to provide transportation for students in terms of getting around campus and/or into town for shopping, but if you love mountains/beach/forest/cities don’t think it’s going to be easy to cover those 200 kilometers without a car. And many schools don’t allow first year undergrads to have one on campus!

Just keep location in mind when selecting a school.

And that brings us to our last point – Costs.

The Cost of College:  College in the U.S is really expensive.  Think $80,000 to $200,000 for four years expensive!

First, make sure you understand the true cost of the schools you are applying to, not just tuition and room and board. You will also need to consider fees, books and supplies, expenses for additional meals, entertainment, and transportation.

There are two ways to quickly and accurately determine how much a college is actually going to cost. First, the U.S. federal government requires all schools to offer a “net price calculator” on their webpage. You can go directly to the schools website and calculate your estimated cost.

Another option is to use sites like to efficiently check the cost of several schools at a time. Since, as an international student, you won’t qualify for federal loans, the price on College Board should be approximately the same as the “net price calculator” results on school websites.

Finally, even though you won’t qualify for federal loans there are are ways to cut the costs; check out these blog posts – #1 and #2.

Okay, that’s it for today.

While you face some unique challenges as an international student, I hope that the excellent academic reputations, lively social scenes and the opportunity to explore the beauty and culture of the United States will encourage you to look further into the prospect of studying in the States.

As I mentioned, almost one million students do it each year, so it is definitely achievable!

I have more content specific to international students on the way, but in the meantime please feel free to e-mail me with questions and join my online community for access to exclusive tips and tools targeted to all students looking to study in the U.S.

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Until next post – keep smiling! You’ve got this!

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