Academic Considerations
Academic Considerations

Important things to think about before you begin your undergraduate education.
Accreditation and Recognition of Degrees

An important indicator of the quality of any U.S. college or university is its accreditation status. Unlike many other countries, the United States does not have a central government office that approves educational institutions. Instead, it relies on a system of voluntary accreditation carried out by non-governmental accrediting bodies to ensure that schools meet standards.

While almost all U.S. colleges hold widely recognized forms of accreditation, it must be noted that accreditation in the United States is a complex area; there are different types of accreditation and a large number of accrediting bodies. There is also no legal requirement that degree-offering institutions be accredited or hold a particular form of accreditation. Because of this complexity, you should check carefully well in advance whether a degree from the institutions you are applying to will be recognized by your home country government and any relevant professional associations, ministries, or employers in your country. Also, talk to graduates who have returned to your country to see if they have been successful in applying degrees earned from such institutions to their chosen professions. If you think you might wish to transfer from one U.S. college to another during your undergraduate studies, or if you might want to pursue graduate study in the United States, you should also check whether other U.S. universities will recognize credits and degrees from the colleges you are considering.

EducationUSA information and advising centers can advise you regarding recognition of U.S. degrees in your country and tell you whether a U.S. degree-offering institution is appropriately accredited. More detailed information on the topic of accreditation can be found in 'Short-Term Study.'


"Get to know the colleges you are really interested in. Some of the so-called big names have very strong departments — but also some weak ones too."
— Politics and fine arts student from Finland

Your major is the field of study in which you plan to specialize. It is not essential to declare the major you plan to undertake when you enter a university. If you have a definite degree objective, however, you need to identify universities offering that field.

Some subjects are taught at many universities. Knowing which subject you wish to major in may help, but you could still be left with a long list of institutions to choose from. If there is a particular specialization within a field that interests you (for example, if you are interested in 20th-century history, or environmental geography, or painting within a fine arts degree), identifying which schools offer that specialization will also help you draw up a shortlist of institutions.

Most directories of U.S. universities list schools by the most commonly offered majors. Computer-based search packages available on the Web or at U.S. educational information and advising centers can also help you narrow down your choices. Make use of college catalogs and bulletins to check if your interests are offered and that the programs have the particular focus you want.

Academic Emphasis

You should check to see how the university emphasizes its curriculum. Is the emphasis on professional education or liberal arts? Do undergraduate or graduate students dominate the campus? Many liberal arts colleges emphasize teaching and professor-student interaction, rather than research, so the teacher-to-student ratio is quite low. Some research-centered campuses are dominated by graduate students, but the facilities at these universities are often state-of-the-art and the professors world-renowned. However, at some of these campuses, first- and second-year classes may be taught by graduate students instead of professors.


Because the U.S. university system is so extensive, admissions requirements vary greatly. Highly selective private universities and liberal arts colleges may receive enormous numbers of applicants and accept only a small number, while other colleges may accept all applicants who meet their admission standards. Most university directories and college catalogs list the number of applicants and the number of students accepted the previous year, plus the average Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) score, the ACT score, and grade point average (GPA) for the previous year's accepted students. Selectivity assessments using this type of data, however, tend to put weight on admissions test scores, which are only one part of an application. Remember that admissions officers look at a variety of factors, including essays, prizes, community service and work experience, hobbies, and special talents, as they review applications to try to determine your potential for success at their institutions.

Degree Program Structure

You should study the course catalog and course descriptions for each institution. Many international students choose the U.S. system because it is flexible enough to allow them to choose courses according to their interests. However, degree programs in some subject areas are highly structured, and universities dictate exactly which courses a student must take and when they must take them in order to graduate with a major in that area. This type of prescribed coursework limits flexibility and, for example, does not allow student athletes to have a lighter workload during the playing season or permit motivated students to pursue a double major.

It is important to check the requirements of any majors you may wish to pursue. For example, if you want to major in engineering but also want to gain a strong academic background in business, be sure to check the requirements of the engineering degree — are they too numerous to allow you to take additional business courses? Or is there a specific program for people who wish to combine engineering with a related subject?

There is also great variation between course requirements in liberal arts colleges. Some colleges require students to take a certain number of classes in each of the broad subject groups, while other liberal arts colleges have no such requirements, merely making "strong recommendation" that students complete a well-rounded education.

Advanced Standing

U.S. students begin higher education after 12 years of elementary and secondary education. Some U.S. universities award advanced credit to students from education systems with 13 years of elementary and secondary education or those who have taken the International Baccalaureate. Students who have undertaken postsecondary vocational and technical diplomas, certificates, or similar programs may also qualify for some credit toward their degree. Such students may not have to be enrolled for the full four years in the United States and may be able to enter the university with advanced standing. You should ask admissions officers about this possibility and read "Transferring to a U.S. University," for further details.

Student-to-Teacher Ratio

At large universities, undergraduate freshman and sophomore classes are usually large, and you are likely to be taught by graduate students rather than professors. At a college, where there are fewer graduate students, you are likely to be taught by a professor and will be required to make a greater contribution to the class from the start. A high student-to-teacher ratio indicates that classes will be large, reducing the amount of attention faculty can give to individual students.