Overview of Undergraduate Education in the United States
Students are increasingly being hit by the US virus every year and there are no immunizations! It begins when you consider pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in the US. The hustle bustle of the SAT and TOEFL tests are soon followed by the application process, admissions, visas, etc. And the roller coaster ride is just beginning! Undergraduate education in the United States are Bachelor’s degrees at colleges and universities and associate degrees at community colleges. Bachelor’s degrees in the US are generally for four years and Associate degrees span over two years. Students pursuing a Bachelor’s degree are called freshmen in the first year, sophomores in the second, juniors in the third and seniors in the fourth year. Due to its quality, flexibility, diversity, hands-on experience and opportunities, the US undergraduate
degree is gaining popularity.
THE ‘LIBERAL ARTS’ PHILOSOPHY
US undergraduate education is based on the liberal arts philosophy, which believes in providing a well rounded academic education that develops the student’s verbal, written, and reasoning skills. The essence of this philosophy is that education begins with a breadth of education in your field of choice initially and then it gradually acquires depth in your area of interest as you progress.
TYPES OF INSTITUTIONS
Public Universities: Public universities obtain a part of their support from the state in which they are located and the tuition they charge from the students is often lower than that charged by private universities. However, international students as well as those from other states are considered out of-state residents and therefore do not benefit from reduced tuition at state institutions.
Private Universities: Private institutions are funded by a combination of endowments, tuition fees, research grants, and gifts from their alumni. Tuition fees tend to be higher at private universities than at
state universities, but there is no distinction made between state and non-state residents.
Community colleges: Community colleges provide two-year associate degree programs, usually called the associate of arts (AA) or associate of science (AS) degrees, as well as excellent technical and vocational programs. Community colleges can be public or private institutions and are sometimes called junior colleges or two-year colleges.
Technical and Vocational Colleges: These institutions specialize in preparing students for entry into, or promotion within, the world of work. They offer certificate and other short-term programs that train students in the theory behind a specific vocation or technology, as well as in how to work with the technology. These institutions may be private or public colleges.
Unlike most countries, there is no centralized ministry of education in the US that dictates requirements to US colleges and universities. The US Dept of Education and CHEA (Council for Higher Education and Accreditation) reviews and recognizes “accrediting agencies” which in turn assure certain acceptable standards of educational institutions, programs, services and facilities. Since each institution determines its own program and admission standards, admission criteria varies from school to school. So, it is important to be sure that the schools to which you are applying are accredited by a recognized accrediting agency.
An academic year in the United States lasts for nine months. Semester system, which means a nine-month academic year, is divided into two equal parts. There is also the trimester system where the academic year is divided into three equal parts and the quarter system where the year is divided into four equal parts. Spring semester is from January to May and Fall semester is from August/ September to December. An optional summer term is also available in some universities.
There are more than 3,600 colleges and universities that offer undergraduate degree programs in the United States. This vast choice means there are programs available to meet everyone’s needs, but how does one find the best program? You can get a good idea of a school’s selectivity by the scores they require on academic admissions tests. Do not limit your selection to only the most famous internationally known institutions or rankings. Consider factors such as the quality of the institution or department, the admission requirements, the cost (and the availability of financial aid, the size of the institution, the location, housing policies, etc. Sometimes it helps to limit your search to one region of the US, such as the east or west coast, before looking for schools that match your other requirements. The most important factors in choosing a location are climate and cost of living.
Equivalence of a US high school degree (12 years of schooling), good consistent academic performance, language proficiency, completion of the required standardized tests like TOEFL (www.toefl.org) and SAT (www.collegeboard.com), proof of adequate financial resources are the usual entry requirements. Selective programs will require the SAT II subject tests as well.
APPLICATION PROCESS AND REQUIREMENTS
The admission process is a long one, and should ideally begin at least 12 to 18 months prior to the academic year in which you hope to enroll.
There are two types of early plans, both non-binding and binding, which are offered by several hundred colleges that use regular application calendar.
Early action (EA):
Early action plan gives you an admission decision from the School/ University well in advance of the institutions regular response date, wherein you have the flexibility to weigh your options with other institutions before you make the commitment (non-binding).
Early decision (ED):
Early decision is the application process in which students make a commitment to a first choice institution where, if admitted, they definitely will enroll (binding).The college will intimate you about their decision of whether you have been admitted or not. By choosing this decision, you have made a commitment to attend that college and surrendered the right to wait to make a decision.
The application packet usually consists of the following with some school specific variability:
Is increasingly available online. Check individual school websites for the same.
Almost all universities charge a non-refundable application fee that covers the cost of processing your application. It must be paid in US dollars. Check the school’s application form, website, or catalogue for the current cost.
Each college will specify the types of official records it requires to document past education. In addition to a transcript, you must also send certified copies of the originals of secondary school diplomas, certificates, final examination results, or records of your performance in any national examinations administered in your home country. Copies should be certified with an official seal from the school, or by an public authorized official.
When you apply to take the SAT I or SAT II, TOEFL, or other examinations, you should know which universities you wish to apply to. In this way, you will be able to specify at that time that you want your scores sent to those universities. You will save time and money by sending the scores at test time rather than requesting separate scores at a later date. When you submit an application, also include a photocopy of your test score reports if possible.
Letters of recommendation:
Most colleges in the US ask you to submit one or more letters of recommendation from a teacher, school counselor, head or principal of your school who knows you well. When asking someone to write such a letter, be sure to do so well before the college’s deadline.
Many schools ask applicants to submit a written personal statement or an essay. When writing an essay, take the opportunity to express your individuality in a way that sets you apart from other applicants. The essays play an important role in your admission process. Write the essay well in advance so that you have time to put it aside for a week, and then read it again to see if it still makes sense.
If you’re applying for a program such as music, art, or design, you may have to document prior work by submitting an audiotape, slides, or some other sample of your work to demonstrate your ability.
Most universities include a form called a Declaration and Certification of Finances or Affidavit of Financial Support in their application packets. This must be signed by your parents or whoever is meeting your college expenses, and must be certified by a bank or lawyer. Schools usually need to know that you have at least the first year’s expenses covered, although many may also ask you to indicate your source of income for the entire period of study. Note that your financial position is not a consideration in the decision for granting admissions. Your entire application should create a consistent portrait of who you are and what you’ll bring to the college. The more the pieces of the puzzle support one impression, the more confident the admission committee will be in admitting you. If the essay or interview contradicts information you gave on other forms, you may cause doubts about your acceptance.
TUITION AND FEE
As a very rough guideline, the cost of tuition can range from $7000 to $25,000 per year. In addition to tuition, most colleges and universities will also charge fees, such as student activity fees that help to support student clubs and organisations on campus. They are usually relatively small, only a few hundred dollars per year.
FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE (FA)
Financial Aid for an undergraduate is very limited and extremely competitive. FA is provided to students with excellent academic records, high test scores, effective essays, leadership potential with exceptional talent and well rounded personality. Some schools offer merit-based/ need-based/ special talent (music, sport, art) scholarships. Funding is primarily available at private universities, but rarely covers full cost. It’s better to apply early if you are seeking any kind of funding from the school. In conclusion, although the process may sound nerve-wracking, if you plan systematically, success is guaranteed.