Studying in America: The college experience

Go big or go home. The insider's guide on what to expect from a year studying in the US

Daniel Cooke
Monday 23 September 2013 15:04
Hype on campus, the day before a big American football game at the University of California, Berkeley
Hype on campus, the day before a big American football game at the University of California, Berkeley

The change from British university life to American college life can be quite overwhelming, and with just a short while to make the most of the opportunity, who has the time to be overwhelmed? Here's what to expect.

The preconceptions

Although it is only natural to picture your college experience ahead of time, your preconceptions will most likely be false, and might leave you slightly disappointed. Amar, who studied for a year at the University of California, Berkeley, said that he had been expecting ‘Van Wilder meets American Pie’, whereas in reality the red cups and frat parties came ‘secondary to the real vibes of the place’.

Nick, who studied for a year at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill said that although he had been ‘intrigued to know if the stereotypes of those from the South were going to be real – small-town thinking, right wing, gun loving etc.’ he said that Chapel Hill turned out to be a ‘liberal enclave given its student population’.

It’s clear that you can’t really know what it’s going to be like until you arrive, so go in open-minded and see what happens. Wherever you choose, it’ll surprise you.

The easy mistakes

We all know how easy it is to spend foreign money so it is important to remember that it’s not just a holiday, so try and stick to your budget. There’s nothing worse than missing out on a trip because you spent all of your money at Taco Bell in the first week. On the other hand, definitely splash out on a decent phone. The stress it will save you is easily worth the extra $50.

Don’t be scared to go to new events and societies outside of your friend group. Put yourself out of your comfort zone, meet new people and make friends from all walks of life.

Make sure to leave some extra space in your bags. You will come back with a lot more stuff than you left with and it gets quite expensive to fly an extra bag home, so leave a little space or leave some stuff behind.

Also, it’s the norm in the US to have a roommate. Most of the time this is not as bad as it sounds, but there are horror stories, so take your time filling in the application so you get a decent match. Even if you are not friends with your roommate, which is not imperative, simply getting along is very important as cooperation on certain matters can be a deal breaker.

Finally, find out from your home university whether your time abroad is pass/fail or for full credit. You’d be surprised at how many students remain unsure when exams roll around.

What to expect – academically

Says Nick: "as soon as you are enrolled, the college says 'you are in', you are part of team UNC; let's help you achieve everything you can and we will help you as much as we can along the way."

Most US colleges hold this ideology, which contrasts completely with the impersonal approach of UK institutions and can be very refreshing. Embrace it and make the most of it.

This school spirit, however, comes hand in hand with a heavier workload, and much more class time than the UK weekly average of eight hours. Nonetheless, for Amar this was not an issue. He says that his lecturers ‘have a very different teaching style'.

"They like to get to know their whole class and encourage everyone to come to office hours regularly," he adds. And with this support, Amar found that the additional hours became easy. "You feel as though you are getting a lot more for your money."

The structure of the academic year is also completely different. American universities either break the academic year up into quarters, with finals at the end of each one, or semesters wherein you have midterms and then finals. This system brings with it less stress at the end of the year, but it does mean that you are being continually assessed - so you have to stay on top of your work.

You will also find that most US students will know exactly what they want to do, and that most students will be very career-driven. For lots of them, especially at the more academic schools, university is their time to make connections and network for the future.

What to expect – socially

The college social scenes differ across the nation. Some are absolutely wild, and some less so, with some frat-based, and others not. On the East Coast, the social scene centres on college (American) football, or the basketball team.

"I had no idea of the passion and identity that the sports teams created on campus and in the town itself," admits Nick. "During football games, the whole town shuts down allowing for hundreds of ‘tailgate’ parties to take place' - even though the UNC team isn’t that good."

In my own time at Berkeley I found that the bar and club scene wasn’t very big at all, mostly due to the drinking age, 21. It was considered vital to be in a fraternity or sorority, to be able to go to parties, or at least know people to get in. Sports teams are also good options in terms of social goings-on as they will usually bring with them a widespread friend base.

Amar agrees: "There are way more house parties on an American campus as everyone lives so close together."

Furthermore, ‘American date culture is very formal, unlike our own, which is odd’.

So if you are not yet 21, do not worry as most of the social events occur away from the clubs and bars. The focus of the party scene will depend on your school, but wherever you decide to study every base will be covered, it’s just about putting yourself out there, joining clubs and societies and meeting new people.

If you’re interested in studying at a US institution, visit USA College Day on 27 and 28 September at Kensington Town Hall, London, W8 7NX.

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