American higher education system – Undergraduate degree : Abroadee

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American higher education system – Undergraduate degree

By on August 20, 2013 in Study Abroad, United States with 7 Comments

This post is also available in: Portuguese (Brazil)

I’ve created the infographic below to make it easy for international students to understand the American higher education system.

Notice that while it’s difficult to get into an American university without graduating from high school, many community colleges do accept students without a high school diploma.

In this post, I’ll explain the first four years of higher education in the United States, also called undergraduate studies, which can be very different from those of other countries.

AmericanHigherEducationSystem title=

Undergraduate Studies

A student can initiate his or her academic life in the United States in two ways:

  1. by enrolling directly into a 4-year university (e.g. UCLA, Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley)
  2. by enrolling into a 2-year community college (e.g. Foothill College, City College of San Francisco, Santa Monica College).

Students can enter college undecided and choose their majors (fields of study) later on—usually up until the end of their second year in college—after having the chance to explore many fields through different classes.

In the first two years, either at a university or a community college, students have to take general classes in multiple areas of study (e.g. English language and critical thinking, math, physical science, life science, humanities, arts, social sciences) and classes related to their chosen majors. The latter are called major prerequisites and the former are referred to as general education.

An engineering student, for instance, would take both engineering classes and classes in other unrelated fields. In my case, I started my undergraduate studies in the U.S. as a business major, but during my first two years in college, I was taking classes as varied as history of photography, public speaking, introduction to statistics, introduction to astronomy, French, world music, and English composition, in addition to the specific business classes (e.g. international business, international marketing, macroeconomics, financial accounting).

Community Colleges

Also known as junior colleges, these institutions are usually smaller than universities and offer both general education and major prerequisite classes. Community colleges often have open admission, which means that anyone can take classes at these institutions, regardless of previous grades or test scores.

In the case of international students whose native language is not English, community colleges require a minimum score on an English proficiency test (e.g. TOEFL). Those who don’t achieve the minimum score may enroll in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes to improve their language skills.

Students who go to a community college can complete their general education and major prerequisites and, then, transfer to a 4-years university to take more specific classes in their majors and earn a Bachelor’s degree (4-year degree).

Because classes are considerably cheaper at community colleges, students can save a lot of money by attending a community college for two years and, then, transferring to a university, instead of going straight to a 4-year institution. 

Another option is to earn an Associate’s degree (2-year degree) at the community college and stop there. To earn an Associate’s degree, a student usually has to take a few extra classes in addition to the general education and the minimum major prerequisites. Community colleges are also open to those who want to take a few classes for fun or a career change.


Universities are more selective, offer more majors and grant Bachelor’s degrees, as well as other higher degrees. Students who choose to go to these institutions usually need to submit their school records, standardized test scores (e.g. SAT scores), letters of recommendation, personal essays and other documents to be considered for admission. Some universities also require interviews.

Just like at community colleges, students at universities take general education and major prerequisite classes during the first two years of their undergraduate studies. In the final two years, they concentrate on their majors, taking more specific classes.

As can be noticed…

American undergraduate programs tend to be very broad, which is also known as a liberal arts education. When I first started going to college in the U.S, I thought it was very odd to have to take classes in all those different fields. However, after a while, I began to appreciate the system.

The whole point of a liberal arts education is to free students’ minds through a multidisciplinary approach to learning. In this type of system, the skills you gain through your academic studies (e.g. critical thinking, problem-solving, writing and oral communications) are more important than the subject matter being studied per se. These skills may not be profession-specific, but they will certainly serve students well wherever life takes them.

I know that it’s difficult for international students to understand the American higher education system (it took me 6 months to do so!). I also know that there is a lot more to cover about this topic, so feel free to leave comments or ask questions about it!


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About the Author

About the Author: Juliana Selem é globalista por formação (UCLA) e viajante por opção. Brasileira, casada com um argentino, ela vive nos Estados Unidos há 6 anos. Já morou em 5 países e ama se inserir em diferentes culturas até se sentir como uma residente local. Para saber mais sobre a Juliana, clique aqui. Conecte-se com ela no Twitter, G+, Instagram ou Facebook. .


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