Top of main content
group of college cheerleaders waving pompoms; image used for HSBC International Services study abroad article, What it's like to study in the US.

What students find different about studying in the US

You may have travelled to the US, but have you wondered what it's like to study there? Diversity and a flexible learning environment are just a few things you'll get from your studies in the States.

It's culturally diverse

Over 350 languages are spoken in the US, and the country houses the largest international student population in the world. American colleges1 understand the importance of embracing the diversity of their students and will organise social activities around cultural celebrations or holidays.

Students converge on college campuses, learning to appreciate, understand and respect their classmates, regardless of geographical differences, socioeconomic background, race or religion. It's perfect preparation for the world beyond school.

You'll return home with more than just an international education. You'll also get improved cultural awareness, a global mindset and best of all, a new network of friends from all around the world.

Here's 5 good reasons why a study abroad might be right for you.

S-P-I-R-I-T!

Your host country's culture will define your schooling experience, as will your college major. But aside from the obvious academics, the school culture and campus spirit will also have a huge impact on your study abroad experience.

Athletics, as well as social organisations like frats and sororities (and their parties), are a big thing at many American universities, unless you're at a smaller community college or doing vocational training. Collectively cheering for a sports team unites the school community.

Flexible learning environment

If you're used to a very rigid school environment, the more casual approach to studying in the US might come as a (pleasant) shock to you. Higher education in the US comes with quite a bit of flexibility.

Students can choose classes that are convenient for them, and grades largely depend on coursework, projects and exams, rather than mere attendance. There may be a more laid-back attitude but this doesn't mean that they don't take their academics seriously.

What to expect in the first couple of years

For your first 2 years, you'll take general education courses that everyone's required to take, like math and literature, which gives you a broad foundation. If you decide to follow a different path after a few years, the American system will allow you to change your major - it's that flexible. You'll focus on your chosen 'major' subject in the last 2 years of study.

Start at a community college to save money

If cost is a concern, you can even spend the first 2 years as a freshman and sophomore taking general education courses in community colleges, where the tuition is significantly more affordable, before transferring to another university to finish off your junior and senior years. Many universities have community college affiliates located in the same area.

3 students holding books and walking on campus; image used for HSBC International Services study abroad article, What it's like to study in the US.

Grading is not just about the final exams

US universities tend to look at the student as a whole: how well they do academically, their extracurricular activities, and their commitment to community service. GPA (Grade Point Average), the standard method with which academic success is measured, isn't everything, but it's very important.

Top academic institutions will usually require a GPA of at least 3.5 (out of 4.0), but employers won't necessarily ask for your GPA scores when you're applying for jobs. A good GPA can, however, get you into coveted clubs and organisations.

Analytical skills, not rote learning

Many students are attracted by the lure of schools that don't place the most emphasis on test scores, which is a common practice in Chinese and Indian universities. Students are graded on their capability to analyse and solve problems, not on rote learning.

Final exams account for only a portion of the GPA, which allows for a fairer evaluation of the student's knowledge and not just their ability to cram.

If you're not even sure where to start in the search of your perfect school, perhaps it's time to hit a few books on the subject.

You can study almost any subject

Why do a lot of students go to the US to study? Educational choices are pretty much like American culture itself: diverse. With a huge selection of elective courses, there's greater intellectual freedom in a liberal arts education.

Compared to UK universities, which emphasise depth in 1 or 2 subjects, US colleges offer an array of subjects and courses that everyone must take during the first 2 years. Expect to study for an extra year if you're attending college in the US - degrees in the UK and India, for example, only take 3 years, not 4, except in Scotland.

If you've already arrived, this checklist for settling in might make your first week or two as an international student, easier.

And now for some really unusual majors

Want your degree to really stand out? Head to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to get a Master's in Bagpiping, or to Appalachian State University in North Carolina for a BSc in Fermentation (also known as "majoring in beer").

It doesn't come cheap

Cost is cited as the number one concern for parents and students when considering a US university. You can attend a cheaper, public university or a private, Ivy League one. Public or private, US universities tend to cost much more than other comparable universities around the world.

You can pay for tuition with scholarships and loans, but it's not uncommon for students to hold down 1, 2 or sometimes 3 jobs while studying (depending on their visa, of course). This is where the flexible learning environment also benefits students and their schedules.

Living costs can vary depending on factors such as accommodation, utilities (which may or may not be included in the rent), groceries, transportation and entertainment. Of course, all of these costs will depend on where you go to school, and in which city.

Ready to open an overseas account?

When studying abroad, it's easier to manage your finances if you have a bank account already set up in your host country. Leave your details to let us know what you're looking for. We'll aim to call you on your preferred date and time.

1 In the UK, college is where you go after high school; in the US, a college is synonymous with university.