How Does College Work? University in the United States Explained

Are you headed to college soon? Are you confused about how it works? Read on to learn everything you need to know about how college works!

Perhaps you’re heading to college or planning on taking a hiatus from work to continue or further your studies. Are you an international student looking to get into college in America? If that’s the case, you’ll be joining many others!

But, maybe you’re asking yourself: how does college work? Is there a difference between college and university?

The journey can be exciting, but overwhelming. For example, the college admissions process can certainly be daunting, especially if you’re not sure you can get into university, or you’re unsure about the requirements. 

We’re here to demystify the entire process and make it a little easier to understand. We know it’s confusing! But keep reading to learn everything you need to know.

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How Does the American School System Work?

Essentially, once you’ve passed through primary, or elementary school, you’ll move into middle or junior high, which covers grades 6 through 8. Following this is secondary tuition, which covers grades 9 to 12. The American education system covers both vocational tuition and a college-prep curriculum.

The expectation is that you will attend a college so they gear everything towards that. For example, students will sit SATs, which score an academic baseline and determines their overall knowledge base, which helps them get into college or university. 

The goal is first and foremost graduation. Following that, schools make sure your prospects outside of school are good. This standard works across the entire United States, and the expectation is that you have 12 years of education. 

For international students, this may pose a problem, since some countries only mandate 11, but there are foundation courses you can take to get you where you need to be before applying to a US higher education system like a university or college.

And yes, there is a difference!

Related Read: 10+ Types of Colleges and the Admission Requirements by College Type

What Is the Difference Between College and University?

There’s a difference between what the rest of the world calls universities, but the US often uses the words university and college interchangeably. Some places are even referred to as institutes. Typically, however, a university will refer to a larger group of institutions, offering undergraduate programs and graduate programs. 

Because a university typically comprises multiple divisions or areas of study, it may have its own colleges. In this context, colleges are the same as divisions inside a university. For example, Harvard University has various colleges (or schools) like:

  • Harvard Business School
  • Harvard College
  • Harvard School of Dental Medicine
  • Harvard Graduate School of Design 
  • Harvard Divinity School

Universities will often have a more diverse curriculum and you’ll often have the option of working in research facilities and enjoying sports centers. These kinds of institutions are the ones that international students will look at, but it’s not always a necessity. You don’t always need to attend a university, especially if your career of choice is more vocational and doesn’t require extensive and advanced abilities, like engineering or doctoral work.

If this is not something you’re interested in, then it may help to apply at places like:

  • Community colleges 
  • Vocational or professional Schools
  • Liberal arts colleges

Degrees programs at vocational or community schools typically take around 2 years to complete, after which you’ll get an associate degree, a professional certification, or a certificate. Some vocational schools may offer focused subjects like nursing and teaching.

From there, you can choose to attend a university in the US to complete your degree, and even follow it up with a Master’s or Ph.D. This is achievable even if you attend community college to start, which is something many people seem to shun. 

What Is a Community College?

Community colleges offer discounted, quality education, as well as the chance to transfer to a university since it helps you build the foundation of your course. Community colleges do also come with various advantages. For example: 

  • They let students who are unsure of their future studies (inexpensively)
  • They offer flexible transfer preparation
  • They offer associate’s degrees and certifications
  • They offer non-degree programs

Remember that not everyone is interested in pursuing a degree, though community colleges do certainly make it easier. But they’re worth considering for the simple fact that you offer certifications and qualifications that can get you in the door.

Non-degree programs could be anything from extensive remedial and developmental education, as well as GED coursework. Overall, community colleges are more flexible than universities, and when they’re well funded (because the state funds them), then they can be an excellent choice for education.

Let’s discuss how to transfer if you’re interested in getting your start in community college but ultimately want to complete a full degree.

Related Read: 5+ Best Laptops for College Students & Young Professionals

Transferring From Community College to a Four-Year College

Many people use community college as a stepping stone to a four-year degree. It’s a viable and potentially cheaper option, and it lets you explore your options a bit more than university does. There are some things you should know first: 

  • Make sure your credits count
  • Sign up for a transfer program
  • Get help with resources
  • Check the minimum grade requirement 
  • Check if the college has an ongoing transfer relationship with the university

The most important thing you need to do is ensure that the credits you’re earning from your classes will actually count in the four-year course you’re looking at. Not doing this could cost you time and money. Next is the transfer program. Some colleges have these, and they can be exceptionally useful.

Essentially, the two-year transfer program should include the same courses that you’d expect to see in your first two years at the university. This not only helps gear you up for success but makes the transition smooth and painless.

Here are a few basic transfer facts to help iron out questions (before we move on to how to actually get into college):

  • If your credits and courses transfer, you’ll start as a junior (not a freshman)
  • You may need to retake courses if you don’t get the credits
  • When you graduate, the four-year college will be the only one on your degree

The College Admissions Process

It’s important to remember you’ll need to apply for your university or college of choice well before the semester starts. They typically accept applications as early as a year before your chosen academic term. For example, you may have to apply as early as September 2022 if you want to start in late August 2023, though this depends on the university.

While many top universities in the United States have typical application deadlines in January or February, certain colleges also have an early decision or early action deadlines in November or December. These earlier deadlines mean students can receive a decision as soon as possible, though they frequently require a commitment to enroll if accepted.

Other institutions have rolling admissions rules, which means they will take applications for the following academic term or throughout the year. Applicants that apply for early decision deadlines may find out within a month if they’ve been accepted or not. For example, if you apply in January, you could find out by late February or early March, though this depends on the volume of applications the school receives. 

International students who apply to colleges with rolling admissions should expect to hear anywhere from a few days to three or four weeks. 

Related Read: 7 Important Questions to Ask College Admissions Before Making a Choice

Applying for College and University

When you understand where you want to go and what you want to study, you’ll need to look at actually applying. This can be a daunting experience, and it can certainly feel overwhelming. However, if you’ve worked with the right guidance and have all your information together, the process should be a breeze. 

Remember that the credits you earned in high school matter, as they determine where you can apply. Let’s look at what exactly these are, especially if you’re an international student.

What Are Credits?

Credits are one of the most common ways for high school students to determine and show that they have satisfied academic requirements. After successfully completing and passing a course or a compulsory educational program, the student will earn credits. These go into formal records, and there are options for earning credits above and beyond the minimum requirements.

Credits in the United States are frequently based on the Carnegie unit, which equals 120 hours of classroom instruction (one hour of instruction a day, five days a week, for 24 weeks). That being said, credit-bearing courses can differ significantly across the country. Some states have their own requirements, which you can look up here

Universities and colleges also use credits, and each subject and school will have its own base minimum you need to achieve in order to graduate every year. Most schools, however, require a 120-133 credit score in order to get your bachelor’s.

Application Forms

While it’s standard for most colleges to have their own application forms, it’s possible for prospective international students to use the Common Application form to apply to one (or more) of the nearly 4,000 colleges and universities in the US. 

Regardless of which form you use, keep in mind that each college has its unique application deadlines. Besides an application form, each university or college will have its own set of requirements.

Related Read: 10+ Best College Tips & Advice to Improve Your University Experience

Tests

Most American students will sit for the SATs or ACTs, which help determine their overall academic score, while graduate programs may ask for a GRE or GMAT score to apply. International students will be required to take at least one sort of English proficiency test. These could be anything from:

  • TOEFL
  • PTE Academic
  • IELTS
  • Duolingo
  • iTEP

International students will also need to submit their SAT and/or ACT scores, though most colleges won’t be too concerned if you don’t do as well as Americans on these tests. That doesn’t mean you can fail them, as you still need to be within the desired ranges, there just may be less pressure.

Academic Records

Your academic records (translated into English) will be the most crucial aspect of the evaluation process for most colleges in the US education system. For undergrad applications, this could involve submitting and summing up your entire academic career. Things you should expect to submit are:

  • Academic transcripts
  • External tests
  • Any former colleges or universities

You’ll need to submit official copies of your transcripts, both from high school and any courses you took.

Essays and Recommendations

An essay (for undergraduate candidates) or a statement of purpose (for graduate applications), as well as letters of recommendation, will be required by more selective colleges and universities. Topics for essays might range from:

  • Personal essays about goals
  • Greatest role models
  • Hypothetical questions 

Someone who has taught you should prepare letters of reference or recommendation. This can also be someone who somehow speaks to your academic ability. An advisor can also give a more holistic view of who you are, so it is handy to work with a guidance counselor or advisor.

Related Read: When to Apply for Scholarships? How to Find the Best Time (w/ Tips!)

How Does College Work? Education Levels and Degree Types

Each university or college will offer its own styles of courses and study, but the ultimate goal is the same. Within that, there are different classifications for the level of education you’ll receive. If you work with something you enjoy, you’re more likely to be successful in your college efforts! We’ll start at the bottom and work up to what’s possible to achieve.

Undergraduate 

These kinds of studies can start immediately after secondary or high school. Within that, there are two primary options. The first is the two-year associate’s degree, and the second is the four-year bachelor’s degree.

Remember, the associate’s degrees come from community or vocational colleges, while bachelor’s can be awarded by universities and other four-year institutions. No matter the location or case, students will choose a focus for their studies, which is called a major. 

Besides this, students will be expected to take other required core subjects or general classes to enrich and develop their critical thinking and communication skills.

Graduate

Graduate students, or grad students, are those who have earned their bachelor’s degrees. In many other countries, this can take up to 5 years to earn, sometimes more. In the US, anything that follows a four-year degree will be referred to as a master’s. This can often take 2-3 years to finish, though many schools offer a fast-track program. It’s important to note that these can be grueling. 

This kind of study allows you to dive into the meat of your subject and can be more career or academic-focused. For example, someone can get their masters in philosophy, which is geared toward academia. Others may opt for their master’s in marine biology, which would give them a specialty and more career prospects.

Related Read: Greek Life 101: A Full Introduction Into College Fraternities & Sororities

Post-Graduate

The US has a system that refers to post-graduate studies as anything that happens after a master’s degree, which includes studies for a doctorate. The actual length of the doctorate will depend on two key things: 

  1. Has the student finished a masters in a related field?
  2. How long will it take them to finish their dissertation?

Typically, this process also takes 2-3 years. There will first be classes, followed by a dissertation or extensive research paper, that will act as the culmination of your focus. You’ll have a faculty member as an advisor and work closely with them to achieve your goals. 

Majors, Minors, and Concentrations

We touched on what a major is when we were talking about under-grad studies, but we didn’t go into extensive detail. They’re an important part of the university process and form the foundation of your degree. That being said, most schools will not allow you to have over 50% of your classes in your university major

These represent what you’re interested in, but there are other subjects that must come into play in order for you to graduate with a well-rounded skill-set. 

This is where college minors come into play. These are areas of academic focus that enhance your soft skills (usually) and can help you understand your coursework better. 

Concentrations are further specializations writing a specific major, which means you have more options for the area of study. For example, you could have your major in history, but have a concentration on Latin America, North Africa, and even niche subjects like the history of religion or politics.

Related Read: A Student’s Guide to Promoting Gender Equality in Education

The Different Degrees

The three most prevalent bachelor’s degree types in the US are the BA, BS, and BFA. Bachelor of arts, bachelor of science, and bachelor of fine arts, respectively. There are others you can investigate, but we touched on that here.

Bachelor of Arts

A bachelor of arts, or a BA, is typically a four-year degree that covers general education requirements, then typically after two years, allows you to choose a focus of interest. It is one of the most common undergrad programs, but there’s a reason many people pursue it. 

A BA degree can help you with:

  • Critical thinking skills
  • Communication skills
  • Foundations for humanities-based studies
  • Developing a well-rounded education

Typically, you’ll graduate with a bachelor of arts with a major in psychology, or geography, for example. The options are plentiful and they can be exceptionally useful for getting into a career that doesn’t require niche skills, but still needs a university degree.

These are some careers you could pursue with a BA:

  • Marketing and sales
  • HR
  • Public relations
  • Journalism
  • Teaching
  • Web design
  • Business leadership

This is just the tip of the iceberg, and reportedly, people who study for a BA actually end up making over 40% more than those with no qualifications.

Bachelor of Science 

A bachelor of science differs from a BA in a few ways. Both the core of the degree and the upper-division coursework achieve a far more focused dive into a specific discipline. These disciplines could be:

  • Science
  • Technology
  • Engineering
  • Biology
  • Maths

Anyone looking to pursue a BS should understand that their program will involve rigorous studies, specialized courses, and offer a combination of technology, maths, and engineering topics. If you want to apply for a job in one of these fields, or your aim is to earn a Ph.D. in science or engineering, then you may want to choose a BS as your degree.

Related Read: What Is a Good GPA in College? Is My Grade Point Average Too Low?

Bachelor of Fine Arts

A bachelor of fine arts is another undergraduate degree that specializes in the study of the fine, visual, or performing arts. These could be anything from painting to music, drama, and sculpture. 

This kind of degree will have a practical element, typically with studio time, lectures, and discussion classes. You’ll still need to choose an area of specialty, but your options are broad. These are just a few examples:

  • Game design
  • Architecture
  • Acting
  • Illustration
  • Writing
  • Visual effects
  • Fashion design
  • Animation
  • Ceramics

This is also usually a four-year degree, though it may take more or less time based on the amount of studio time required. Once you’ve finished a degree like this, you can pursue a post-grad option, which could open you up to teaching and lecturing positions. These would again require a combination of practical and theoretical studies.

Paying for College

When looking at actually paying for college, you have a few options at your disposal. While the best thing to do is pay for it upfront, this is not always possible. Keep in mind that as an international student, you may not have access to these kinds of resources, so plan ahead. These are a few of the different routes you can take:

Financial aid is available to those with a green card, but only if the US Department of Education deems you to need it. If they approve, they will either offer a grant or a loan, though grants can be difficult to get. You will need to reapply every year if you’re planning on studying with financial aid. 

The 529 plan is a scheme where you can pre-pay for college, though this is typically done by parents who want to lock in a lower rate. Scholarships may be awarded based on merit, academic, or extra-curricular performance, and they will typically come with a requirement that you play for the school or use your talents in exchange for the scholarship. 

Student loans are the other option, but they can seriously set you back financially. Before applying for a loan, see if there are other ways to save on tuition so you can take out fewer loans. For example, you may have access to transfer credit, or if you work part-time, you can take out smaller loans and pay your tuition upfront. 

Always look at the school’s return on investment. Is it worth investing your time and money in it? Will it make a significant difference in your career? The answer is usually yes, but every person is different, and that’s why we recommend doing your research (you’re already well on your way!) and making the choice that suits you and your career best.

It’s possible that night school may be a better option for you, or a credit-based high school course. The choice is yours!

Related Read: How to Choose a College: 7 Considerations for Finding the Right University

Secure Your Future and Further Your Mind

We know it’s a lot to consider, but the best way to go about the process is to start with what you have in your pocket. Got all the credits? Planned for payment? Do you know what your majors will be? These are just a few of the things you need to work out in order to answer the question we posed at the beginning. 

How does college work? Hopefully, you have a better understanding of it now, and are geared up and excited to tackle the world of higher education. The professional world often needs qualifications, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. 

To learn more about how college works, check out these articles to read next:

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Goodwall Team
Written By Goodwall Team
This article was written by the Goodwall team or by a contributor for publication on Goodwall. Goodwall is dedicated to helping students, entrepreneurs, and young professionals reach their full potential. We'll share thought-provoking and supportive articles on career advice, self-improvement, navigating the college landscape, climate action, social impact, and more. On the business side, we'll talk about SMB subjects related to community, diversity, talent acquisition, case studies, and enterprise.

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