Get to Know the American Academic System

Exams and grading scale are just a few academic differences international students will encounter.

By SHARE
International students should take time to adjust to the standard grading and testing systems at universities in the U.S.
International students should take time to adjust to the standard grading and testing systems at universities in the U.S.

The adjustment to new classes and grading systems can sometimes be a confusing process for international students. Most countries have very different educational and grading systems, which can be unsettling for students new to the U.S.

Here's a basic breakdown of some of the key components of the American academic system so incoming international students know what to expect when arriving at a U.S. college.

In order to progress through each year of college, students will be required to pass a certain number of classes. Although assignments will often be graded with the universal letter system of A, B, C, etc., most American colleges will express your cumulative grade as a grade point average, with each of your classes worth a certain number of credits.

[Learn how international students can cope with difficult classes.]

The GPA roughly translates to the universal lettering system, with 4.0, equivalent to an A, frequently being the highest achievable grade and 0.0 the lowest. As you move through your semesters at college your transcript will show the accumulation of grades.

In many countries, making the move to college usually involves studying a single subject such as math, history or science. One of the best things I found about the American academic system is that there is no need to make a firm decision about what subject you want to study before beginning your college career.

While at college, students pick a major, a primary subject of study. One of the most common questions on any college campus is "What's your major?" But around that subject, students can often select courses from other departments – or schools – on the campus.

[Avoid these mistakes international students make in picking a major.]

A student could, for example, major in English while taking minors in philosophy and biochemistry. Some students spend several semesters or even several years at college before they choose, or declare, a major.

This opportunity to explore different subjects was by far one of my favorite things about the American academic system, because it allows students the time to really think about what they want to study before making a long-term commitment to a single topic.

I believe this flexibility gives students studying at American colleges a more well-rounded academic experience, and international students should take advantage of these opportunities. Even if you know the major you want to pursue, it's always worth selecting a variety of classes to give your schedule a bit of contrast. I was a literature major during my year abroad, but also took classes in politics, journalism and theater and enjoyed every one of them.

International students should also be ready to take some exams. Instead of clumping all the academic weight of your classes at the end of a semester, college courses tend to have a set combination of assignments, midterms and final exams as a way of distributing grades more evenly across a semester.

[Understand U.S. college terms with this glossary.]

Midterms are exams that fall across a period of a few weeks in the middle of each semester. It can seem at times as though you're facing a relentless onslaught of papers and tests, but ultimately the midterm system helps your grades, as your final grade in a course is cumulative.

Don't worry if you feel like you're falling behind in one of your classes. If you miss the occasional assignment, some professors offer ways to make up extra credit. You can try petitioning your professor for an extra project to improve your grade in a class or take on a smaller part-time class alongside your main schedule to bring in an extra grade.

The American academic system is comprehensive, and when preparing to start college you should be ready to put an increased amount of time and effort into your studies. But while this increased workload can be challenging, I strongly believe the system is designed for students to get the most they possibly can out of their academic lives.

While you might initially find the adjustment to the academic system at your new college a struggle, once you get to know it, you'll find it's an environment in which it's easy for you to succeed. You may even discover a new favorite subject! Happy studying.

Emily Burt, from the United Kingdom, is currently studying at the University of California—Berkeley on an exchange program. She will graduate from the University of East Anglia in 2014 with a bachelor's in American literature and creative writing.