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US Higher Education System: Things to Know

4 Min Read
December 08, 2022

By: Claresta Audrey Tjandra

Higher education in the United States is regarded as one of the best in the world, so it's no surprise that international students are rooting to get their degrees there. If you're one of them, it never hurts to learn how it works! Read more to know everything you need to know about the US higher education system!

College vs. University

These terms have given rise to a lot of confusion for a lot of students and parents. The truth is, in the United States, both terms are used interchangeably to refer to schools at the postsecondary level. Despite the fact that both institutions provide undergraduate education, there are key differences you should know:

What Is a University?

Universities are public or private institutions that offer undergraduate and graduate degrees. As there are a larger number of enrolled students, these institutions generally offer a more diverse range of classes and programs. Private universities are typically smaller and more selective than public universities, which commonly enroll tens of thousands of students. For instance, the University of Florida, a public institution, enrolls more than 34,500 students, while Columbia University, an Ivy League school, admits about 6,200 students.  

Larger universities frequently divide different academic areas of study into subsections of colleges. For example, UC Berkeley has its own business school, the Haas School of Business, as well as a school focusing on climate change and environmental justice, the Rausser College of Natural Resources.

What Is a College?

Colleges, as opposed to universities, typically have smaller student populations and fewer program options. The majority of colleges offer four-year bachelor's degrees, although some colleges, such as community colleges and junior colleges, may offer two-year associate degrees. In addition, there are some colleges that are actually universities but use the title 'college' as a university with the same name already exists. The College of Charleston, to exemplify, is a public liberal arts and sciences university that uses the term 'college'. 

Majors, Minors, and Concentrations

Is it enough that you've decided on a major? Some colleges, however, do offer a number of concentrations and minors to support your degree.

For starters, majors are the areas of study you select to concentrate on. Psychology, chemical engineering, economics, and mathematics are a few examples. Majors usually represent your best interest when learning, which affects not only your academic track but also your career path. If you can't decide on just one major, most colleges allow you to choose two, also called double majoring.

Minors are secondary focus areas in addition to a major that is often offered by colleges as an optional way for students to pursue another subject without having to declare a second major. Minors usually require half the number of classes as majors, making declaring one a manageable commitment.

Concentrations are specific areas of emphasis or specializations within your chosen major which are offered by institutions to allow students to dive deeper into a more specific area of study. In contrast to minors, concentrations usually must be in the same field. If you're majoring in business, for instance, a complementary concentration could be management, finance, or marketing.


Basic requirements

Although different universities or programs have different requirements in submitting documents, here are some of the basic requirements you'll need to apply to US higher education:

  • Standardized Tests
    • As an international student, you'll need to submit English proficiency test scores, this includes TOEFL, IELTS)
    • SAT or ACT
  • School transcripts
    • This means submitting your from every institution you have previously attended
  • Essay
  • Recommendation letters
    • You can ask your teachers who are familiar with your academic abilities or advisors who understand the kind of person you are to recommend you
  • Copy of valid passport

To find out more details about US university admissions, read: Study in US: Here's what you should know

The Academic Year

US universities or colleges use quarters, trimesters, or semesters in the academic calendar systems. Generally, the academic year starts in August or September and finishes in May or June. The fall semester usually starts in late August or early September to mid-December, while the spring semester begins from January up until May or June.


Grading System


Most US universities and colleges use the letter grading system from A to F, usually complemented with plus (+) and minus (-) signs. These grades are used in determining the GPA (grade point average) of the student. Some colleges, on the other hand, offer classes with pass/fail or satisfactory/unsatisfactory grades.


Each academic term, students often take three to six classes, each of which is allocated a certain amount of academic credits, which typically ranges from three to five. The number of credits per class could be determined by the number of weekly hours of lessons. For instance, if you have a science course that meets for four hours every week, it will typically be worth four credit hours.

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