What to Know About the U.S. College Experience Before Applying

Choosing to attend a university thousands of miles away from home is a big decision, and with big decisions come a lot of changes.

As an international student who came to the U.S. three years ago, I had expected that there would be some things to adjust to, but there were also some others that I wasn’t counting on. Here is what I wish I had known about the U.S. university system before I’d headed for the States.

1. Attending college is like having a full-time job.

 One big mistake a lot of prospective freshmen make is thinking that university is similar to high school, and that it will be very easy.

Unfortunately, that is not exactly the case. Being a university student is analogous to having a full-time job. Most university students in the U.S. live on campus, in dorms provided by the university. This means that students eat, sleep, socialize, study and hang out all at the same place: campus.

Most things going on in a student’s life – academics, extracurricular activities, social life – will likely be related to university life. In fact, during certain periods of the semester, such as midterms or final exams, university life might even feel like more than a full-time job.

College in the U.S. is more than just taking classes; most of the work university students do will actually be outside of the classroom, such as working on assignments, group study or research. Sometimes, the amount of time a student devotes to university work will be more than 40 hours a week.

2. Extracurricular activities are important.

One of the things I found very surprising about university life in the U.S. is that it’s not all about academics. It’s not a requirement, but many students are very active on campus, and that definitely has a lot of perks.

Not only will you learn new skills and gain experience in new things, but being heavily involved in at least one extracurricular activity is also a meaningful way to expand your network and forge lifelong friendships.

It is also important to note, however, that extracurricular activities require time commitment and dedication too. Therefore, it would not be the wisest decision either to be involved in too many activities. Make sure to not overwhelm yourself, and remember that academics should come first.

3. You don’t need to decide your major right away.

The education system varies from country to country, and some international students are not very aware of that. I come from a country where everyone has to decide what they want to major in right at the beginning of university – but as a lot of people have realized, it’s very difficult to know what you want to do for the rest of your life when you’re only 18.

I found it quite surprising that here in the U.S., it’s perfectly fine to not know what you want to study yet. In most universities, they do not required students to declare a major until the end of sophomore year.

Of course, there are always people who already know what they want to study, and that is great – but if you aren’t sure, that’s also all right. One of the advantages of education in the U.S. is the emphasis on exploration of different fields, which is not something that is offered around the world.

4. American social life is very different.

A big part of the U.S. college experience is your social life, and I found the social aspect quite a culture shock. In general, Americans are very open and friendly to other people. It’s perfectly normal for people to strike up a conversation at a bus stop or at the grocery store.

Some universities might have a pretty big party scene, and although some Hollywood movies make it seem like everyone loves to party, that’s not quite true. Not everyone parties every Friday night – and that’s perfectly fine as well.

I had also expected students to wear slightly more formal attire for classes, and I pleasantly surprised to see a lot of people wearing flip-flops and shorts to class in May, when it starts to get hot where I attend college. Of course, this varies a lot from university to university, and it’s always better to overdress.

5. Professors are very, very important.

It’s generally a good idea to take at least one small class in your first year. In a smaller course, it’s a lot easier to forge meaningful relationships with professors. Some of the people you meet at university can be very important and influential mentors.

It is especially important to know someone in your field closely, as he or she will be able to provide you guidance in your specific area of focus, and even offer reference letters when you need them.

6. There are jobs available on campus. 

Coming from a very highly populated country like Indonesia, where finding a job even as a highly skilled person is very tough, I was not expecting to have the opportunity to actually work on campus.

Working on campus, especially at something that really interests you or related to your academic field. It is a great way to get to know other people – and at the same time, get paid for it. A lot of universities have teaching assistantships as well as research opportunities, and they are definitely worth checking out.

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