Adjusting to the U.S. Education System
Thursday | October 6, 2016 | by Valeria Gonzalez
Many students who come to the U.S. to study are unprepared for the differences in the education system in the United States as compared to their home country. The system in the U.S. can vary greatly from other countries, so it’s important to understand the steps you need to take to achieve academic success. If you are considering attending a U.S. school or have just started your first semester here, there are many resources you can use to adjust to the new education system and catch up to your American peers.
Managing Your Schedule
In some countries, it is common to spend most of the day in classes; however, in the U.S., students attend four to five courses spread throughout the week. This creates the illusion that students are left with ample free time, but do not be misled. Many courses in the U.S. will likely require completion of weekly, if not daily assignments in addition to major term papers and exams. Plan your schedule so that you don’t procrastinate and end up having to cram at the end of the semester. If you find that you are having difficulties prioritizing, find out if your school offers time management workshops.
For students who are used to a different grading system, understanding the difference between a B- and a B+ may be confusing. You may find yourself trying to navigate the difference between a good or bad grade and how your performance compares against your peers. If your professors or advisors do not explain the grading system to you from the beginning, reach out to them or fellow students to help you. Also, each professor has his or her own expectations for every assignment, so try to understand how you will be evaluated to prevent stress and frustration.
Answering questions and participating in class discussions is highly encouraged and is considered as part of your grade. Participation ensures you are engaged and understand the concepts taught in class. If you find that it is difficult to participate in large lecture classes, you may have a second chance to participate in the course’s recitation session, which are smaller classes where a teaching assistant helps review key concepts. Do not be afraid to voice your opinion, as this makes discussions even more interesting. Class discussions also help you get to know your fellow classmates, so you can form study groups or compare notes.
Collaboration Between Students and Professors
American universities encourage collaboration between professors and students. If you are struggling in your courses, take advantage of your professors’ office hours. These are specific blocks of time that professors accept walk-in visits. Use this time to clear up any doubts you may have about your coursework or performance. Your professor will be able to provide information and tips he or she may not share with the whole class. In addition, try to seek out a professor in your field of study.
For example, one graduate student at Rutgers University from Uganda recommends seeking out a professor who can become a mentor and guide you throughout your academic career. By reaching out to a professor in his field, he obtained his first research opportunity. Although the professor did not know this student prior to their first meeting, he was persuaded by students’ enthusiasm to work with him.
In addition to professors, academic advisors are great resources. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the number of course options offered in American universities, so speaking with an academic advisor can be helpful. An advisor can help you decide which courses to take for your field of study as well as help you choose electives and general education requirements. They can also advise you on which courses to drop and retake, and help you keep track of your academic progress.
If you are an international student from a country where the language of instruction is English, you are in luck. However, for the thousands of students who come from non-English speaking countries, communicating in a foreign language can be daunting. As one NYU graduate remembers, passing the TOEFL does not guarantee that you will be able to manage your courses well. In her first semester, she struggled to keep up with her peers. She grew frustrated when she was unable to finish all of her required readings and express herself as articulately as she would have liked in class and in her writing assignments.
Practicing English before you begin your studies in the U.S. can help you get ahead academically. Read as many English texts as you can before your arrival and try to participate in courses that are tailored to international students at your institution. Some schools even offer English conversation groups. The more you practice reading, writing, and speaking English, the faster your academic performance will improve.
International students are often surprised by the strict writing standards followed in the U.S. American students are often taught about specific writing formats and avoiding plagiarism in high school, but it may be the first time international students encounter these practices. One student was glad that his professors were clear about their expectations from the beginning of the semester, which helped him produce quality work. If you are unclear about the expectations of your professor, do everything you can to learn about them. Speak with your professors and try to take relevant writing courses that will help you master standard writing formats. The more you practice, the more comfortable you will be with writing in English.
The most important thing to remember is that you have to take initiative to successfully adjust to a new education system. Although your school may provide useful information and resources, they may not cover all of your questions and needs. The best way to find the right tools and resources for you is to talk to as many different people as possible. Talk to your academic advisors, professors, peers, and other international students. They will not know how to help you if you do not ask. Also, remember that your academic success is affected by other aspects of college life, so immerse yourself in the community and enjoy the experience.
What are some obstacles you had to overcome in adjusting to the U.S. education system? We’d love to hear it, so let us know in the comments!
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of World Education Services (WES).