Over the next several weeks, you’ll learn the basics of choosing and applying to a college or university in the United States as an international student. Today, we’ll show you how to decide what degree and major are right for you. Later, you’ll find out how to select a school, what exams you need to take, how to prepare transcripts and admissions essays and get letters of recommendation, and what other paperwork you must prepare.

You may wonder why Americans often speak of “going to college” instead of “going to university”. In the U.S., the word “college” is used informally for any institution that offers degrees beyond high school. A university usually is a higher education institution that grants undergraduate, graduate, and/or doctoral degrees. A college can also be a specific part of a university, such as a college of business or college of education.

Types of degrees

There are many schools in the U.S. called community colleges or technical colleges. These colleges offer certificates and diplomas in specific job skills, such as truck driving and cosmetology, as well as associate’s degrees. An associate’s degree is a two-year degree, such as an A.A. (Associate of Arts) or A.S. (Associate of Science). After completing this degree, a student might start his or her career or transfer to another school for two more years to complete a bachelor’s degree.

A bachelor’s degree, or undergraduate degree, typically takes four years to complete. All universities offer bachelor’s degrees. These are usually abbreviated as B.A. (Bachelor of Arts) or B.S. (Bachelor of Science), for example, according to the type of major.

After completing a bachelor’s degree, either immediately or after some time in the workforce, students may choose to pursue a master’s degree, a kind of graduate degree. Depending on the program, this can take between 18 months and 3 years. Common types of master’s degrees include the M.A. (master of Arts), M.S. (Master of Science), and M.B.A. (Master of Business Administration).

The highest level of education is the doctorate degree, another type of graduate degree. A Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) usually prepares the student to teach or do research at a university. There are also professional doctorates to prepare students for specific jobs, such as an M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) or J.D. (Juris Doctor, or Doctor of Law).

Choosing a major

American students have a lot of freedom in choosing what subject to study in college; their major is not determined by exams or by high school coursework as in some countries. In fact, many American undergraduate students begin college without having chosen a major yet; they take the core classes required for all students and declare a major by the end of their second year.

Like American students, you might choose a major by thinking about the following:

  • Interests: What classes have you enjoyed the most? What kind of paid or volunteer work have you enjoyed in the past? What are your hobbies?
  • Abilities: What are your strengths and weaknesses? What were your best subjects in school? What have you learned from former jobs or volunteer work?
  • Values: What you want from life after college? Do you want to make a lot of money? Help other people? Create beautiful things?

Of course, if you are receiving funding from your government or another organization to study in the U.S., there may be restrictions on which majors or degrees you can choose.

apply now

We hope that this series has been useful to you. Applying to a college or university in your second language is not always easy, but we’ve helped hundreds of students to achieve their dreams of earning a degree in the U.S. Read a few of their stories here, and if you’re ready to take the first step in preparing to reach your goal, find out how we can help you!