A Guide to American Universities

With over 5,000 colleges and universities throughout the United States, students have a huge range of schools to choose from. From extremely selective Ivy League schools like Harvard and Yale, to large public state universities with around 50,000 students, the schools can be very different, but these are some features that are common to most of them.

Grade levels

In the United States, the grade levels for high school and college have the same names. Incoming students are called freshman, second year students are sophomores, third year students are juniors, and fourth year students are seniors. Those who don’t finish their degree in four years and have to go for one or two more years are taking a “victory lap.”

Welcome Week

The days before classes start: the most exciting, awkward time of freshman year. At the beginning of every school year, many schools have a week or a few days scheduled full of activities for incoming students, similar to fresher’s week. Activities include concerts, spirit rallies to introduce the football team, meetings to get to know other people in your dorm or academic program, and open houses to learn about clubs. With all of these planned activities, parties, and new people, the week can seem a little daunting, and being away from home for the first time might be scary. The best thing to do is find a friend or two to go to things with, and don’t feel bad if you feel overwhelmed.

Greek Life

Another opportunity to get involved is through fraternities, all male groups, and sororities, which are all female. To join one of these social organizations, students go through a process called “rushing.” The rush process involves a lot of small talk to get to know the people in the chapter, and if the members think you would fit in and you want to join, you receive a bid. After you accept a bid, you are welcomed into a world full of clothing covered in Greek letters, parties, secret rituals, and “brothers” and “sisters.” On many college campuses, the chapters also have houses where members live, and the bigger the campus is, the bigger the houses are. While Greek life may seem a little crazy, and may not be for everyone, it’s really just another way to make friends on campus and make networking connections.

Sports

College sports are a defining feature of American schools. Each college is in a division, either 1, 2, or 3, and is placed into a conference based on size and location, and then competes with other schools in the conference and division throughout the season. There are men’s and women’s sports, and some schools have up to around 25. The most popular sports at most schools are football and basketball, and other sports range from swimming to wrestling. Many students pick their college based off of how competitive its teams are, and if they are fun to watch, or if they are offered a spot on a team.

Tailgating

Before big sporting events, especially football games in the fall, students will gather to eat and drink. Tailgates are sometimes set up around the tailgate of a car, but students often get tents or gather at houses. On campuses with Greek life, fraternities often hold tailgates before football games.

Homecoming

Every fall, in the middle of the first semester, colleges celebrate and welcome back former students. The celebration usually centers around a football game, and there’s also a parade and other activities for alum to attend. Homecoming is a time for parties, sports, and for students to show off their school spirit.

How do you get in?

Admissions for American students are based off of standardized test scores, grades from high school, and extracurricular activities like clubs, sports and community service. The more selective the school is, the more important it is to have participated in unique activities, been a leader of an organization, or excelled at an activity. Many schools also require prospective students to submit essays about themselves and why they are interested in that school. The better the essay, the better your chance is at getting into the school.

What are you studying?

At colleges in the US, students apply to the general college, don’t have to pick their major, or academic program, until completing general education courses. Colleges have “schools” with different majors, like studying finance within the business school. You can also take optional classes outside of your major, like painting, piano, and underwater basket weaving