Thursday, August 15, 2013

American higher education - basic concepts. Part 1

Hi guys!

This post is meant to answer the questions I have been getting on facebook from a lot of you in the past week.

I thought it would be enough to make a general overview in the beginning but now I understand I have to explain some basic terminology first before you can really understand any of the stuff I post here.

So, here is the American higher education system 101 (that means the most basic concept) from an international student's perspective.

college, graduate school, basic information


I understand now that college and university can be two very different concepts depending on where you come from. Basically, college is (almost always) a four-year school you apply to after high school. This usually means you are 18-19 years old although there aren't any age limits there, it's just the average age of the kids who get in.

Going to college is the same as going to university in most countries. Colleges are basically schools within universities that specialize in different areas of study. That means that most universities have a number of colleges.

The degree you usually get when you graduate from college is Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.) and it is the equivalent of finishing university in most countries.

Now, universities have two types of students: undergraduates that go to college (what I just explained) and graduates that go to graduate school. I will explain what graduate school is later in the post.

Right now focus on the undergraduates (or undergrads) who go to college.

Major/Minor - specialization

When you go to college you are supposed to declare a major (class) that you want to pursue your degree in. Let's say you pick psychology. Since you get to pick classes you want to attend in American higher education system, you have to choose a number of classes that have to do with psychology (your major) to get a degree in it after 4 years of study.

You do not have to pick a major in your first year and you can drop one and take up another major during your studies but you have to fulfill the core program requirements to get the degree in the academic discipline you chose (you can't take only arts and literature classes and get a degree in psychology).

Another thing they let you choose is a minor, which is basically another area of study you should focus on, but significantly less than your major. It doesn't even have to have anything to do with your major. For example, you can get a B.A. degree in psychology (your major) with a minor in political science. Once you have this degree you are basically a psychologist (probably unemployed forever but what can you do).

Graduate studies

Once you have your B.A./B.S. degree you can choose to attend graduate school. In Great Britain this name is much more logical and they call it postgraduate studies. It means you attend university after graduation.

You can choose to spend some time in the workforce (highly recommended for most people pursuing Master's degree) before you apply but it is not necessary and you can start right after college.

The degrees you can aim for are Master of Arts (M.A.)/Master of Science (M.S.) - this usually requires two years of study - and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) - this usually takes 4-5 years and a thesis (which is basically the equivalent of writing a book about something).

Don't be confused by the "philosophy" in Ph.D., you can have a doctorate in mathematics, physics, literature, law, pretty much anything.

Also, many schools will let you get an M.A./M.S. while you're studying for Ph.D. as a kind of "on route" degree - you get it after two years in a Ph.D. program.

So, to sum it up, every university consists of colleges (for undergraduate students) and graduate schools (for graduate students).

While American colleges tend to be an opportunity to party a lot and choose a lot of different classes in search of your true calling, graduate studies are very serious and they require a lot of dedication and are highly focused on a narrow area of study.

In addition, Ph.D. students very often get scholarships and are expected to work as research assistants (RAs) doing research for their professors and/or teaching assistants (TAs) teaching undergraduate students.

Many professions require graduate degrees

In many countries, if you want to be a lawyer you go to law school right after high school; if you want to be a doctor you go to medical school when you're 18-19. This is not the case in America. You cannot become a doctor or a lawyer just by finishing college.

The rule is, first you finish college and then you are allowed to enter law school, medical school and many other specialized schools that last from 3 years (law school) to 5-6 years (med school, and with specialization it becomes even longer), etc.

Be aware of this fact when applying to American colleges. Those first 4 years tend to be much more general than in most other countries!!!

Stay tuned because I will cover some other basic aspects in part 2 of this story. Please send me your comments and questions here or on facebook so I know what kind of stuff you would like to know more about.

Also, share this post and the facebook page with your friends who might also be interested in finding out more about how to apply to American universities (now you know that includes both college and graduate school)!


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