Recent international US College Graduates share their insights and tips

International US College grads share insights & tips - Part 1

Susie Cochin De Billy
May 18th 2018

Part I  - College Academic Life:

The decision to attend university in a foreign country, far from the comforts of home, is a declaration of courage. Earning a degree in a language not your own merits a second bravery citation.

Still… Despite the enthusiasm, optimism and outward bravura, the range of unknowns is pretty formidable.

To demystify the experience, we contacted recent US College graduates from countries as diverse as the UK, Turkey, Ethiopia and Azerbaijan – to find out what took them by surprise - both academically and socially.

The good news is that no one regretted their choice, but some did experience difficulty adjusting to unfamiliar academic and cultural norms.

There was a consensus that the emotional and intellectual hurdles foreign students confront do help them become more self-reliant and confident. 

"I learned to be responsible for myself 360 and became more resourceful, resilient and ready for "real life" than friends who stayed to study back home."

              Serra, Columbia University, NY

"It made me a lot more positive and open. After only a couple of months, I found that my mentality was changing and I felt like anything was possible. In Europe, there is quite a cynical approach to education, but in the US the sky is the limit, you just need to work for it."

            Camille, Brown University, RI

Many international students choose college in the US because it allows them to explore a range of subjects before committing to a major. The students we heard from appreciated this freedom to experiment and ‘test drive’ disciplines and departments.

"I enjoyed the range of subjects that were available to me. Eighteen is very young in my opinion to know what career you want to pursue, or to focus on just one subject. Being able to take classes in History of Art, History of Western Music, The Study of Horror as a Genre in Literature and Cinema, and Corporate Finance - all in one semester - despite majoring in Intl. Studies, was great."

            Alex, Middlebury College, VT

"I highly appreciated how much my education mattered to the university; the quality of the teachers, classes, clubs and, more generally, the opportunities on offer. Also the chance to try and test different disciplines before deciding on a major."

            Ece, University of Chicago, IL

"I would say that Americans never have to dwindle down subjects the way Europeans have to. They study 10-12 subjects until they get to college, so they are a little more open to different subjects."


A recurrent theme was adjusting to a different educational philosophy, study priorities or grading structure.

The approach to learning was very different. The focus on reading and discussion was new for me. Furthermore, a lot more trust and responsibility was placed on the student.

"In midterms or final-exams, the honor code was totally foreign. The concept of exams being unsupervised (I even had a few that were “closed-book, take-home exams”!) was a major culture shock! The attitude of students was just as much of a culture shock. In general, they were much more motivated, independent, hard working and even competitive about their grades."


"Learning was based on discussion [in the US] vs. memorization [at home]."


"I wasn't used to the US syllabus structure. There were a lot more quizzes than we had in the UK (I usually had two exams per class). Participation was also a very big component."


Overall, pleasant surprises outweighed difficulties.

"I was amazed at how varied the interests and knowledge areas of American high school are. While I was used to students having different aptitude levels in certain subjects, I found it strange that American students didn’t have some basic skills down (e.g. arithmetic), while they had relatively in-depth knowledge/experience in other areas."


"The level of professionalism and how organized everything was (prospective student brochures, housing arrangements, orientation, international student office, advisor allocation etc.). Everything was always explained in detail. The system was very organized and well thought through. I was even surprised to see an international student SOS line for homesick students!"

            Menzer, sophomore transfer from USC to NYU

"It is very hands-on, which you do not find in the UK. If you have a question or an issue there are always at least a few advisors who are happy to help."


The most consistent piece of advice for non-native speakers was not to underestimate the challenge of full immersion in English. The step up from attending an international school where classes are taught in English, to communicating in spoken and written English both inside and outside the classroom is a major leap.  

"Reading, reading, reading - especially before coming to the US and starting college. It makes a huge difference."

"Also leveraging TAs, office hours, study sessions, problem sets, etc. I wasn’t used to having this support system outside of the classroom and as a result, did not utilise it as much as I should have. Whenever I did, I thought it was hugely beneficial. Get input on your assignments/essays as much as possible before turning them in."


"Reading well-written articles (to improve structure, story telling) and reading well-written fiction (to expand ways of saying things)."


"In terms of when I had to learn another language, there is no substitute for reading books in that language and practicing."


Writing 101 is one of the toughest classes in the first years of uni but really worth investing in. Put the required time into that one class and it will help you with all your other classes in the next 4 years.

"READ as much literature as you can (classics such as Mark Twain, Fitzgerald, Hemmingway). If it’s not your thing, read literature in a field of interest (but not poorly written blogs/unknown books). It improves vocabulary and unconsciously improves how you form sentences."


"My freshman counselor was very helpful and kind. They are a great source of help. Professors are very ready to support you if you reach out, usually offering extra hours tutoring."


Of course, every school has its own distinct academic culture – and because the range of courses, majors and combined majors on offer in the US is vast - each undergraduate path is unique. Hopefully, the experience shared by these recent graduates provides useful insights that can help you identify questions to ask when researching potential colleges.

(Quotes were edited for clarity and concision.)


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