Undergraduate Study

Undergraduate Study
Undergraduate Study

Education in the United States will almost certainly be different from the system offered in your country. This section gives you an introduction to the degrees available in the United States, the different types of institutions, and some key terms and ideas you will come across if you want to study at a U.S. university or college.

1. Types Of Institutions
2. Undergraduate Degrees
3. Academic Calendar
4. Course Load and Grading System





  • Colleges, Universities, and Institutes: The Distinction:

Degree-granting institutions in the United States can be called by any of these terms, and colleges and institutes are in no way inferior to universities. As a general rule, colleges tend to be smaller and usually offer only undergraduate degrees, while a university also offers graduate degrees. The words “school,” “college,” and “university” will be used interchangeably throughout this booklet. An institute usually specializes in degree programs in a group of closely related subject areas, so you will also come across degree programs offered at institutes of technology, institutes of fashion, institutes of art and design, and so on.

Within each college or university you will find schools, such as the school of arts and sciences or the school of business. Each school is responsible for the degree programs offered by the college or university in that area of study.

  • State Universities:

State universities are founded and subsidized by U.S. state governments (for example, California, Michigan, or Texas) to provide low-cost education to residents of that state. They may also be called public universities to distinguish them from private institutions. Some include the words “state university” in their title or include a regional element such as “eastern” or “northern.” State universities tend to be very large, with enrollments of 20,000 or more students, and generally admit a wider range of students than private universities. State university tuition costs are generally lower than those of private universities. Also, in-state residents (those who live and pay taxes in that particular state) pay much lower tuition than out-of-state residents. International students, as well as those from other states, are considered out-of-state residents and therefore do not benefit from reduced tuition at state institutions. In addition, international students may have to fulfill higher admission requirements than in-state residents.

  • Private Universities:

Private institutions are funded by a combination of endowments, tuition fees, research grants, and gifts from their alumni. Tuition fees tend to be higher at private universities than at state universities, but there is no distinction made between state and non-state residents. Colleges with a religious affiliation and single-sex colleges are private. In general, private universities have enrollments of fewer than 20,000 students, and private colleges may have 2,000 or fewer students on their campuses.

  • Community Colleges:

Community colleges provide two-year associate degree programs, usually called the associate of arts (A.A.) or associate of science (A.S.) degrees, as well as excellent technical and vocational programs. As the name suggests, community colleges are community-based institutions with close links to secondary schools, community groups, and employers, and many U.S. students live close to campus with their families. Community colleges can be public or private institutions and are sometimes called junior colleges or two-year colleges. A growing number of international students are choosing to study at community colleges. Tuition costs are often lower at two-year than at four-year institutions, and many have agreements to allow students on transfer programs to move easily into the third year of a bachelor’s degree at the local state university.

  • Technical and Vocational Colleges:

These institutions specialize in preparing students for entry into, or promotion within, the world of work. They offer certificate and other short-term programs that train students in the theory behind a specific vocation or technology, as well as in how to work with the technology. Programs usually last two years or less. There are several thousand technical and vocational colleges across the United States, and they may be private or public institutions. Further information is provided in ‘Short-Term Study.’



2. Undergraduate Degrees


  • Bachelor’s and Associate Degrees

The bachelor’s degree typically takes four years to complete, though some students take slightly less time to finish, while others may take longer. The associate degree usually takes two years to complete. Associate degree programs may be “terminal” programs, which lead into specific careers upon graduation, or “transfer” programs, which correspond to the first two years of a bachelor’s degree and tend to be more liberal arts based. Under the latter option you could then transfer into the third year of a four-year bachelor’s degree program. Associate degree programs are offered at two-year colleges known as junior or community colleges. Four-year colleges and universities offer bachelor’s degree programs, with a small number also offering associate degree programs.

  • The U.S. Bachelor’s Degree

One of the most attractive features of the bachelor’s degree program in the United States is that it is highly flexible. You can usually choose from a wide variety of courses and create your own unique program of study. The degree is awarded after you complete a specified number of credits, which are usually completed in four years of full-time study. The first year is called the freshman year; the second is called sophomore; the third, junior; and the fourth, senior. You may read that students in the United States often take longer than four years to complete their degrees. This may be because they change majors and need to accumulate enough credits in the new major field to earn the degree. Or it may be because they take less than a full-time course load per term for academic, personal, or financial reasons. International students, however, cannot study part-time and must maintain full-time status. Courses taken in the first two years are known as lower division courses, and courses taken in the final two years are called upper division courses. College catalogs usually assign a number to a course, which indicates the level of study as follows:

100 – 199 Freshman
200 – 299 Sophomore
300 -399 Junior
400 -499 Senior



3. Academic Calendar


The academic year will be slightly different for each university or college but normally runs from early September to the end of May. It may be divided into two terms of 18 weeks called semesters. Alternatively, the university may have “quarters” or “trimesters,” which are about 12 weeks in length. In addition, universities very often provide six- to eight-week summer terms. These are optional, and students attend if they wish to get through their degree faster, to decrease their course load during the regular terms, or to make up for courses not completed successfully during the regular academic year. There are at least two main holidays during the academic year: a two- to four-week break over Christmastime and a one-week “spring break” sometime between early March and mid-April.



4. Course Load and Grading System


  • The Credit System

Students at American universities complete their degrees when they have accumulated a certain number of “credits.” It usually takes somewhere between 130 and 180 credits to graduate. Sometimes the terms “semester/quarter hours” or “units” are used instead of credits. Each individual course you take each semester earns a specified number (usually three or four) of credits/hours/units. Your academic adviser will help you plan your course schedule for the academic year.

  • Degree Courses

The individual courses that make up the degree program can be divided into the following types:

Core courses: These provide the foundation of the degree program and are required of all students. Students take a variety of courses in mathematics, English, humanities, physical sciences, and social sciences. Some colleges require students to take many core courses, while other schools require only a few.

Major courses: A major is the subject in which a student chooses to concentrate. Most students major in one subject; however, some colleges offer the option of pursuing a double major with a related subject. Your major courses represent one-quarter to one-half of the total number of courses required to complete a degree.

Minor courses: A minor is a subject in which a student may choose to take the second greatest concentration of courses. The number of courses required for a minor tends to be half the number of major courses.

Elective courses: These courses may be chosen from any department. They offer opportunities to explore other topics or subjects you may be interested in and help make up the total number of credits required to graduate.

  • Grades
    American universities employ a system of continual assessment and assign grades for each course taken. Almost everything you do for a class will influence your final grade. Examinations and tests, essays or written assignments, laboratory reports, laboratory or studio work, class attendance, and class participation may all be used to determine your final grade. This means it is essential to keep up with the reading and course work and to attend classes on a regular basis.

The following is a general percentage/letter grade scale for classes taken at U.S. colleges:

100 -90% = A
89 -80% = B
79 -70% = C
69 -60% = D
59 -50% = E
49 -0% = F

What is a GPA?

Each student completes his or her degree with a grade point average (GPA). A cumulative grade point average is the GPA for all courses taken throughout the degree program. Most universities use a GPA scale of 4.0, but a few universities use a scale of 5.0. To work out your GPA, take the numerical value assigned to the letter grade you achieve for each course (typically 4 points for an “A,” 3 points for a “B,” and so on), then multiply this number by the number of credits each course is worth. Finally, add these numbers together and divide by the total number of credits for all courses. For example:

Letter Grade Numerical Value Number of Credits Total
A 1.0 3 12
B 3.0 3 9
C 2.0 3 6

27 divided by 9 = 3.0 GPA
Most universities will also offer some sort of honors degree. To qualify for an honors degree, you must fulfill additional credits or write an honors thesis; precise details depend upon the university and/or academic department. There may be different levels of honors: summa cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude, in descending order of distinction.