The American Education System

The education system in the US is totally different from its namesake in India. For starters, you actually have to study to pass a course, copying assignments on the day of submission is not an accepted way of learning :P. The course system at US universities can be confusing for many of us. Read this post to familiarize yourself with the American way of education.

Types of Universities:

Similar to India, the US has public (also called state university) and private universities. However, unlike in India, private schools are at par with public schools with some of them leaving their government counterparts far behind in the college rankings. In fact, some of the leading universities in the engineering field like Stanford, MIT, and CMU are privately run institutions. On the other hand, government funded universities are equally known for their stature and leading research, with universities like UIUC, GeorgiaTech and UCB leading their charge. While the topic of the supremacy of private schools vs public schools is an open debate, one thing that can be said with certainty is that public schools are often less expensive than their private peers (with a few exceptions of course). Also generally public schools are larger in size as compared to private schools (because, Hey! who can beat the cost of free land to build the universities 🙂 ). There are also a few other types of schools and colleges like community college etc. but most likely as an international student, you won’t have to deal with any of them.


An academic year is typically divided into two semesters: Fall (which starts in August thereby ending in the ‘fall’ season) and Spring (which starts in January and ends around the ‘spring’ time). Although they don’t differ too much in terms of duration and other things they can make a difference in subtle ways. For starters, some courses are only offered in one of the semesters. Well if that’s the case, I’ll take the course in that semester …. why is that a problem? The problem arises because some courses have prerequisites i.e. some other courses that you should have completed before you can register in that course. So if you are very certain that you want to take a course X, which is offered in the spring semester. You should try and take all the prerequisites to that course in the fall semester. Before you go on to say well I still don’t get how is this an issue, I’d like to remind you that as a graduate student, you only have 3 semesters to get your degree (well, given that you are in a non-thesis track :P). So figuring out permutation and combination of courses that you can accommodate in the three semesters can be a difficult task, but don’t worry your seniors will help you through this process 😉

Another way in which the difference in the two semesters can crop up is when you decide which semester to start your program in. As you might have noticed, typically all the US universities accept applications for both the semesters. While the fall semester is a popular choice amongst grad students, many students do choose to apply for spring admissions. And although I don’t have anything against the spring semester, I’d like to point out that as a part of the spring batch, you won’t be allowed to take part in summer internships because of rules laid out by the USCIS which require the student to have been registered as a full-time student for one academic year before undertaking any off-campus employment in the form of internship or co-ops. You can read more about the rule here. As a student who starts in the spring semester, you would have only spent half-a-year (one semester) as a full-time student till summer. However, it’s not the end of the world for you if you start in the spring semester. Many colleges offered paid positions like research assistantship for the students in the summer semester. This has added benefit if you are studying at a state university as they often pardon the tuition fees (in-part or if you’re lucky, even full) if you are a teaching assistant or a research assistant.

* Side Note: If your university is located at a cold place, you’ll have two semesters of snow NBD 😀

The Grading System:

Students are typically evaluated here on a letter based grade ranging from A – F with their numerical counterparts ranging from 4.0 – 0 (most schools do not include E in their grading system (I guess they do not want to address the E[lephant] in the room :P)). Some courses also award fractional grades to its students (e.g. B+, or 3.33, A- or 3.67). While the actual policy may vary across different schools, grades for graduate students are often normalized. In other words, most of the graduate courses follow relative marking criteria: with top x% of the students getting the highest grade, followed by next y% getting the second highest grade and so on. Although a higher GPA is considered better than a lower one (lol isn’t that obvious), employers/colleges do justice to you if you get a bad grade in a challenging course vs getting straight As in easy courses. Bottomline: you shouldn’t avoid taking tough courses at your school out of the fear of landing a bad GPA.

The Credits System:

The education system in the US is built around credits. No this is not the same thing as the boring sequence of names you see after the end of any movie. Credits here refer to a point system used by the universities to measure the progress of a student in their program. The way this works is that each course is assigned a certain credit, this number is usually the number of hours a student spends in class for that course per week. In order to complete your program of study and get your degree, you are expected to earn N credits in a specified amount of time (that is if you are not enrolled in a thesis-based program because if you are, you will graduate only when your advisor is satisfied (PRO TIP: He’ll never be :P)).


To earn credits for a course, you must receive a passing grade in it. Although some institutions levy more strict rules for international students (for e.g, you’ll only get credits for a course if you pass with a grade of C or higher). Further, as an international student, you are *required* to take courses worth some minimum m number of credits to maintain your F-1 visa status. This number may be different for different schools.

One interesting fact about the American education system is that unlike the nagging wife, who is there to stay, you can easily change your school if you don’t like it without people judging you. Okay some of them might, but it doesn’t even come close to the number when you change your wife :P. The credits you’ve earned at your university can be transferred to another university (provided they are willing to accept your application). For more details on how this can be done and its implications for international students, follow this link.


General Course Structure:

The funny thing about course structure in the US universities is that there is no course structure. Some courses don’t even have exams. No! they are not going to give you grades based on your attendance in the class :P. Unlike in India, the professors don’t even care if you come to class or not, sleep in the class or play games on your phone because they very well know that it’s your own loss. Take my word for it and don’t learn this the hard way like I did :P. Jokes aside, whatever the actual course structure may be, one thing is for certain, it will have some element on which you can be graded e.g. a project, exam, or several assignments. At the end of the day, you will be awarded a grade for that course…. or not!

You also have the option to take a course without getting graded. This is something you might have already seen on online course websites like coursera, where you can still get access to the course lectures but you don’t get a course completion certificate unless you complete the quizzes and assignments. This is called auditing the course and since you don’t get graded, you don’t get credits for taking that course. One other flexibility that the schools offer you is the power to drop/discontinue a subject if you don’t like it or if you are not doing well in it. There are usually many rules around it like a deadline after which you cannot drop any course or that you should still maintain a full-time student status after dropping the course, but these are mostly school specific and your academic advisor will guide you through the process.

I think this would have given you a brief idea about the American education system. Please share your thoughts about this post in the comments section below.


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