American Education System: What International College Students Should Know

It was a big adjustment for Karla Medina when she relocated from the Dominican Republic to the U.S. to attend the Florida Institute of Technology.

“It is something that comes with the decision of entering a new education system. Adjusting to all these terms is overwhelming and humbling at first because you go back to learning from scratch,” says Medina, a sophomore studying aviation management.

Adjusting to a different education system can be challenging for international students attending U.S. colleges and universities. But learning about the American education system can help prospective students know what to expect before they begin their studies.

“Prospective international students heading to American universities on U.S. soil certainly should be exposed to a definitive foundational set of knowledge before heading off to college,” says Emily Dobson, founder of EDGE Direcionamento Educacional, an educational consulting company in Brazil, and The Caribbean and Latin America Network for educators.

[U.S. Higher Education Glossary.]

Here are some concepts in the American academic system that prospective international college students should become familiar with:

— Grading

— Majors, minors and concentrations

— Assignments, midterms and finals

— Extra credit


At U.S. colleges and universities, grades are given on a universal letter system of A through F; a student’s cumulative grade is indicated as a grade-point average, or GPA, which is measured on a scale from 0.0 (F) to 4.0 (A).

“Even if they are not used, the symbols A through F — an F is sometimes E in foreign countries — as values for academic performance are familiar to most students. So, in reality, it does not take much time or effort for foreign students to understand the American 4.0 grading system,” says Stacey Reeder, associate director of international admission and liaison for international programs at Florida Tech.

Sarah Sweeney, director of student support and international education at Cardinal Stritch University in Wisconsin, says staff at the school explain grading when international students first arrive and through ongoing advising.

“I learned it through orientation when I reached here in the United States. Although it took me a while to fully understand how it works,” says Dinah Aming’a, a Kenyan national and junior at Cardinal Stritch University. “‘A’ in Kenya starts at 85; here it starts at 93.That’s a big difference. Also being graded for attendance and participation — that was a motivational factor.”

[Read: What a Good College GPA Is and Why It Matters.]

Majors, Minors and Concentrations

Another feature of the American education system is that universities emphasize breadth, which means students can take a wide range of courses and typically have nearly two years to decide on a major or choose a double major, a minor or concentration.

“I was confused about minors and concentrations because in the Dominican Republic, there is no such thing,” Medina says. “My adviser helped me understand and decide what I wanted to do.”

Aming’a says she was undecided for two semesters before realizing her passion for acting, and after taking classes, her other passion for psychology. She is now double majoring in psychology and theater, with a concentration in performance theater.

“I talked to my adviser and international coordinator and they supported me and helped me make the transition,” Aming’a says. “I got support from professors and faculty advisers from both psychology and theater departments.”

Jon Hertig, assistant director of undergraduate admissions at Cardinal Stritch University, says international students are often “happy to hear that they can combine more areas to create a super degree, so to speak, instead of being pigeonholed into one area.”

Experts encourage having a road map of classes to ensure prerequisite requirements are met to graduate in four years. Students should be aware that some schools have had to cut majors and minors due to the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic on American higher education, experts say.

Dobson recommends checking university websites about courses and degrees offered and says they are “a firsthand resource, which is an absolute must when researching.”

Assignments, Midterms and Finals

Prospective international students should be prepared for continuous assessment at U.S. universities as well as regular homework, such as reading and writing assignments.

“Many international students are accustomed to taking multiple quizzes and exams in order to regurgitate memorized material,” Reeder says. “Therefore, they often have to adjust to showing subject matter and skill mastery at the higher levels through other means — research papers, individual projects, group projects, capstone projects, research, etc.”

Another area of adjustment for international students is that courses typically include discussions, class participation and oral presentations, as well as midterm and final exams that make up only a percentage of a student’s grade.

[Read: How International Students Can Adjust to U.S. College Classes.]

“I like the peer system where our peers help us learn and also do assignments that we do not understand. There’s a great integrated system that helps with students who don’t have English as their first language, and that is really awesome,” Aming’a says.

She says she also “had to learn that everything can be done via email and text.” At U.S. universities, most academic information is accessible online, from lectures and homework to grades and communication with professors.

Experts recommend international students attend the first day of class, so as not to miss discussion of course policy, the syllabus and expectations. Doing so will also help students determine whether the course is a good fit, or whether they need to drop the class.

Extra Credit

In the American education system, some university professors may offer extra credit during a class; this is where students can participate in extra lectures, write papers or take quizzes, for example, for extra points to improve their overall grade.

“Extra credit was a fantastic thing to learn about,” Medina says. “This was an entirely new concept, but a helpful one to learn about.”

However, Reeder says the opportunity to earn extra credit may not be a common feature at all universities. “Many U.S. professors simply expect students to do the work required to master the material required by the class,” Reeder says.

Apart from extra credit, a student’s grade may get a boost in another way. Some professors grade on a curve, where the top-scoring student in the class sets the A range and the bottom scores an F, regardless of the actual percentage scored on a given exam.

With all the new concepts that prospective international students will encounter, Dobson recommends turning to educators and admissions officers to “help a college-bound student begin to demystify the U.S. higher education experience.” She says students can also use free resources like EducationUSA, a network of advising centers supported by the U.S. Department of State, and, among others.

“It is a gift to have the honor of learning new concepts and terminology and getting to be part of this system,” Medina says. “I feel fortunate to receive a good education in the field that I want to pursue.”

Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.

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