U.S. Education System: What International College Students Should Know | Best Global Universities

“It is something that comes with the decision of entering a new education system. Adjusting to all these terms is overwhelming and humbling at first because you go back to learning from scratch,” says Medina, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in aviation management in 2022.

Learning about the U.S. postsecondary education system can help international students know what to expect before they begin their studies.

“Prospective international students heading to American universities on U.S. soil certainly should be exposed to a definitive foundational set of knowledge before heading off to college,” says Emily Dobson, co-owner of Geoswerve Consulting, an international educational consulting company, and founder of The Caribbean and Latin America Network for educators.

There are four primary types of postsecondary education options in the U.S.: community colleges, vocational trade and vocational schools, state colleges and universities, and private colleges and universities.

Community colleges are two-year colleges, and the highest degrees typically attainable are associate degrees.

Vocational and trade schools emphasize hands-on training and practical skills and grant certifications in technical job fields, such as welding, cosmetology, dental hygiene and hospitality. Programs usually can be completed in one to two years.

State colleges and universities are public, government-funded schools that offer undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Private colleges and universities also offer undergraduate and graduate degrees, but their admissions are more selective, they are usually more expensive than public schools and they rely more on endowments and other private sources of funding. Like their public counterparts, they offer bachelor’s degrees that take longer to complete than community college, vocational and technical programs.

Within the four-year college and university sphere – the most common choice among these options – here are four key academic areas that prospective international students should become familiar with:

  • Grading.
  • Majors, minors and concentrations.
  • Assignments, midterms and finals.
  • Extra credit.


At U.S. colleges and universities, grades typically are given on a universal letter system of A through F; a student’s cumulative grade is indicated as a grade point average, or GPA, which is usually measured on a scale from 0.0 (F) to 4.0 (A).

“Even if they are not used, the symbols A through F – an F is sometimes E in foreign countries – as values for academic performance are familiar to most students. So, in reality, it does not take much time or effort for foreign students to understand the American 4.0 grading system,” says Stacey Reeder, former associate director of international admission at Florida Tech and current director of college and academic advising at Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy in Florida.

Grading is typically explained to international students when they arrive and through academic advising, experts say.

“I learned it through orientation … although it took me a while to fully understand how it works,” says Dinah Aming’a, a Kenyan national who graduated in 2022 from Cardinal Stritch University in Wisconsin. “‘A’ in Kenya starts at 85; here it starts at 93. That’s a big difference.”

She says being graded for class attendance and participating in class discussion was also a new concept but served as a motivating factor for her.

Majors, Minors and Concentrations

U.S. colleges and universities also emphasize breadth, which means students can take a wide range of courses and typically have nearly two years to decide on a major or choose a double major, minor or concentration.

“I was confused about minors and concentrations because in the Dominican Republic, there is no such thing,” Medina says. “My adviser helped me understand and decide what I wanted to do.”

Aming’a says she was undecided for two semesters before realizing her passion for acting, and after taking classes, her other passion for psychology. So, she chose to double major in psychology and performance theater.

“I talked to my adviser and international coordinator and they supported me and helped me make the transition,” Aming’a says. “I got support from professors and faculty advisers from both psychology and theater departments.”

Experts encourage having a roadmap of classes to ensure prerequisite requirements are met to graduate in four years. Students should be aware that some schools have eliminated some majors and minors, in part because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, experts say.

Dobson recommends checking university websites about courses and degrees offered, calling them “a firsthand resource, which is an absolute must when researching.”

Assignments, Midterms and Finals

International students entering U.S. universities should be prepared for continuous assessment and regular homework, such as reading and writing assignments. Also, instructors typically give an exam, commonly called a “midterm,” halfway through the course to assess students’ progress, which along with semester-end final exams usually make up a large part of each student’s final grade.

“Many international students are accustomed to taking multiple quizzes and exams in order to regurgitate memorized material,” Reeder says. “Therefore, they often have to adjust to showing subject matter and skill mastery at the higher levels through other means – research papers, individual projects, group projects, capstone projects, research, etc.”

Another area of adjustment for international students is that courses typically include discussions, class participation and oral presentations, as well as midterm and final exams that make up percentages of a student’s grade.

“I like the peer system where our peers help us learn and also do assignments that we do not understand. There’s a great integrated system that helps with students who don’t have English as their first language, and that is really awesome,” Aming’a says.

She says she also “had to learn that everything can be done via email and text.” At U.S. colleges, most academic information is online, from lectures and homework to grades and communication with professors.

Experts recommend international students be sure to attend the first day of class to avoid missing discussion of course policies, the syllabus and expectations. Doing so will also help them determine whether the course is a good fit or whether they need to drop the class.

Extra Credit

Some professors may offer extra credit, an opportunity for students to voluntarily do extra work for additional points to improve their grade.

“Extra credit was a fantastic thing to learn about,” Medina says. “This was an entirely new concept, but a helpful one to learn about.”

However, Reeder notes, extra credit may not be at every school or in every class. “Many U.S. professors simply expect students to do the work required to master the material required by the class.”

Apart from extra credit, a student’s grade may get a boost in another way. Some professors grade on a curve, where the top-scoring student in the class sets the A range, regardless of the actual percentage scored on a given exam or assignment.

With all the new concepts that prospective international students will encounter, Dobson recommends turning to educators and admissions officers to help “demystify the U.S. higher education experience.” She says students can also turn to free resources like CollegeBoard.org, the AXS Companion to the Common Application and EducationUSA, a network of advising centers supported by the U.S. Department of State.