Studying in the US: the hard decisions you need to make as a Foreign Student

Studying in the United States is a serious and costly process. Thus, you need to carefully consider how your studies in the U.S. will fit into your long-term educational and professional aspirations, as well as your personal goals. One’s experience as a foreign student can be a life-changing and fulfilling one, but you need to take many internal and external factors into consideration before you start packing your bags to come to the United States.

Intended Goals
What are your reasons for wanting to study in the United States? You should think about not only the ways in which studying in the U.S. will enrich your multi-cultural and personal life, but also how it can improve your educational and professional targets. The primary reason why a foreign student would pursue higher education, in their home country or abroad, because it will help them achieve any number of goals later in life. These goals may include professional advancements, a better-paying job, or a broader range of cross-cultural knowledge, adaptability and experience.

Does it fit with your Academic background
Before I came to the United States, I studied nursing in my home country, I was fortunate to study in a University that used the American system of nursing practice and instruction, it was thus easy for me to transition to the American system once I was able to come to the United States, initially as a student.

If you apply for undergraduate study at a two- or four-year university in the United States, you must have completed at least twelve years of school and obtained the equivalent of a U.S. high school diploma. If you are considering graduate study at the master’s or doctoral level, you will need an academic equivalent to a U.S. bachelor’s degree.

Whichever level of education you are seeking in the U.S., you should know that the grades you received in your previous academic background carries a lot of weight with admissions counselors. Some U.S. universities are very competitive, selecting only students with excellent grades, high test scores, a variety of extracurricular activities and overall leadership skills. Many other schools are less selective, but almost all require some demonstration that you have succeeded in your previous schooling. Furthermore, your application should show the admissions staff that you have the potential to succeed at a more advanced level. Most graduate schools also require a minimum grade point average of 3.0 from your earlier studies.

Be realistic about your academic record and test scores. Apply to universities whose requirements match your academic background and interests. Be aware that graduate work in the United States involves a great deal of independent work and classroom discussion, forms of learning that may be different from your past learning environment.

U.S. colleges and universities place a huge emphasis on neat, organized and clearly written presentation. Almost nothing is accepted in handwriting; projects and term papers should be typed or produced on a computer. More and more research at campus libraries is conducted using computers to access on-line resources instead of books. Most universities will issue a personal e-mail account to students upon enrollment and expect them to use it for homework assignments. Take care that you are knowledgeable and prepared for this type of learning.

Is the Institution Accredited?
You will want to make sure that any U.S. institution that you are considering is accredited by the relevant authorities; this is the U.S. Department of Education. Because the United States central government does not control the educational system, private, non-governmental agencies were created to review higher education institutions and their programs. If an institution is accredited, you can be assured that the quality of their courses and programs, faculty, recruiting processes and admissions guidelines has met the set standards set forth by an accrediting agency.

In the event that a higher education institution is not accredited? First, it will be extremely difficult for you to obtain financial aid through grants or loans if you need the money for a college or university program that has not been recognized as meeting certain standards for their practices.

Second, if you choose to pursue a graduate degree after completing undergraduate coursework through a program at an unaccredited school, your credits from that program will not likely be accepted as part of your graduate school application.

Finally, many employers check to see if a potential applicant for a position has received a degree from an academic program with accreditation. A candidate without accredited credentials may well be overlooked for employment. It is well worth your time to take care that all programs you are considering have met the high standards set forth by an accrediting agency.

Gauging Quality Among Other Factors
Due to the variety and size of higher educational institutions in the United States, the quality of any given institution and its programs, even when accredited, is difficult to gauge. The most expensive institution is not necessarily the best, nor is every program at a highly regarded university necessarily of the same high quality.
There is no official ranking of colleges and universities in the United States, though many general university guides will offer objective information on the difficulty in the admissions process (more competitive schools are more difficult to get into) and the quality of various schools’ programs.

Some factors that can affect the quality of the education available, particularly to undergraduates, include:
Opportunities for independent research and direct work with faculty: The available opportunity to do your own research and to work one-on-one with department faculty is an important consideration for both undergraduate and graduate students. Are there service learning opportunities and research programs? Is there an honors program for students who excel in their area of study? Is the technology at the school current, and will it allow you to do the necessary work you need to be successful as a student?

Class size: Are all classes taught in a lecture format, with one professor lecturing the course information to a hundred or more students? Or are there smaller discussion seminars available to students? This is an important consideration for international students, for it can be difficult to get questions that you have answered if many of your courses are all lectures, with little to no opportunity for clarification and intensive study in a smaller group with a professor or teacher’s assistant.

Educational background of the student body: How selective is the institution in admitting students for enrollment? Do they have ‘open enrollment,’ whereby most any student can join their program, or are they selective, competitive or highly competitive? Again, our Research Tools to Guide Your Search section will provide you with helpful resources that you can use to determine a school’s selectivity.

What Will an Education in the U.S. Cost?
Studying in the U.S. can be an expensive undertaking. Tuition costs vary enormously from one institution to the next: a community college may have a yearly tuition of $2,000 (USD), while a highly selective private university may have yearly costs for tuition, room and board of $35,000 or more.

The biggest reason for this wide range of costs is because some colleges and universities in the United States are public schools, and some are private schools. What’s the difference? In short, public institutions receive funding from the government (usually state government), whereas private schools get their money from student tuition, alumnae gifts, grants and endowments. Public schools are generally much less expensive than their private counterparts, with public school tuition costs coming in at an average of one-third the cost of private school tuition. No matter which school you attend, you can pretty well count on tuition being the largest single cost that you will face.

Sources of financial aid available to international students at the undergraduate level are limited and highly competitive. In some cases, financial assistance may be available through the institution. In other cases, you may be able to get aid through a private foundation, a private company, or your home government. Financial assistance may come in the form of scholarships, loans, grants or tuition reductions. Graduate students may find some teaching assistant and/or research assistant positions available to them.

Many American students receive some form of financial aid to help them pay for their higher education. As a result, many schools reserve financial aid funds for students who are already U.S. citizens, and simply do not have enough money left over to offer financial aid to international students. Competition may be fierce for the international student funding that some schools can offer, so you will want to do your research well in advance and be prepared. It is important for you to keep tuition rates and the availability or unavailability of financial assistance in mind when going through your school selection process.

You should also remember that tuition is not the only expense that you will incur while studying in the United States. Housing costs can also vary greatly, whether you are living in a dormitory with a number of other students or in an apartment either on or off-campus. You will also want to consider the cost of living in the surrounding area. The cost of living in some parts of the country (especially in large cities) can be much more expensive than in other areas. Even different cities within the same state may have a wide range in costs.

As you set your budget and make financial plans, be sure to plan for all your time spent in the U.S. for the entire program. An undergraduate degree in the United States takes an average of four to five years to complete. Master’s programs may last one to three years. Doctoral programs may take anywhere from five to seven years, depending on your field of study and previous education. Non-degree or vocational programs last anywhere from several months to two years.

Be realistic if you plan to bring your family with you during your time in the United States. You will probably need an additional $5,000 per year to bring your spouse with you, and an extra $4,000 per year for each child. Health insurance is a necessity for living in the United States, and you should budget for these costs, as well. The cost of health insurance varies, but it generally ranges from $3,500 to $4,000 per year for a family.

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