Plan Your Career

The USA Education System

The U.S education system is truly unique and completely unlike what you would be used to here in India. Not only does it offer many more specialized choices, but it also offers complete academic freedom so that students can make informed career decisions based only on their interests and aptitude. For example, you can enter an undergraduate course in the U.S and learn different subjects before you decide the field you want to focus on!

The whole approach of the U.S education system is based on individuality and flexibility. The programs are designed in a way so that they cater to every person’s needs and desires. Given below are some of the main aspects of the U.S education system that make it unique and different from the Indian education system.

Colleges and Universities

One of the distinguishing features of the American education system is the amount and diversity of educational institutions present in the country. Unlike India, where the majority of the reputed institutions are Government – run, the U.S has a healthy mix of private as well as public universities. The differences between them are primarily in terms of the tuition fee as well as the number of students. As expected, public universities are cheaper than private universities and offer huge concessions to students who belong to the same state as the university. The University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia are two of the most reputed public universities in the U.S.  Private Universities usually admit much lesser students than Public Universities but are equally reputed. Some of the most reputed private universities in the U.S are the Stanford University and the Princeton University.

Apart from the bigger private and public universities, there are many smaller colleges that offer courses in Liberal Arts. These colleges focus on the overall development of an individual and offer Bachelor level courses in subjects that are useful for every discipline such as Languages, History, Political Science etc. Some of the most famous Liberal Arts colleges are the Pomona College and the Swarthmore College.

The United States also has many ‘Community Colleges’. These colleges usually focus on providing education that would prepare the students to start working as professionals or teach students to prepare them for entry into a 4 year Bachelor’s level course.

The U.S is also home to the world’s ‘Ivy – league’ colleges. The term ‘Ivy – League’ refers to the following universities: Harvard University, Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania and the Yale University. These are some of the most selective and prestigious colleges in the world and are symbols of academic excellence.

Courses and Degrees

Another important feature of the U.S education system is the type of courses it offers to the students. The duration of Bachelor level courses is usually 4 years and they are offered in a vast variety of fields and specializations, from engineering to history to nursing. Most Liberal Arts colleges offer 4 year Bachelor degrees as well. The first year of the 4 year course is known as the ‘Freshman year’, the second is ‘Sophomore’, the third is the ‘Junior year’ and the fourth is the ‘Senior year’. Upon graduation, you will generally be awarded with a B.S (Bachelor of Science) or a B.A (Bachelor of Arts) degree, depending upon your choice of subjects. These Bachelor level courses can be followed up with Master level courses as well as Doctorates.

Apart from the traditional 4 year Bachelor level courses, various Community colleges offer 2 year ‘Associate degrees’. These degrees can either be used to take a transfer into the 3rd year of a Bachelor level program or be used to get a job. Upon completion of the 2 year course, you will generally get an A.S (Associate of Science) or A.A (Associate of Arts) degree.

You can also choose to pursue professional certificate courses or diplomas. These courses generally tend to impart a certain set of skills or knowledge and are career – oriented. Various technological colleges and institutes offer these types of certificates or diplomas upon the completion of the course.

Course Structure

Probably the most unique factor about the U.S higher education system is the design of the course structure. The course structures are flexible and focus on the overall development of an individual through knowledge and skills in various subjects. The Bachelor level courses usually consist of 3 types of subjects that include General Education subjects, Major subjects and electives.

The General Education subjects focus on the overall development of an individual and look to polish other interests and talents of an individual apart from his/her primary field of study. These subjects include English, Foreign Languages, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and Basic Math etc. These subjects are normally mandatory in the first two years of the course and have to be studied alongside your ‘Major’ subjects.

Choosing a ‘Major’ is a vital part of the U.S education system. Unlike India, where you normally choose your exact field before you start with the course, the U.S allows you to study various different subjects related to your interests so that you can decide the field you want to pursue your graduation in. You choose this field normally after 1-2 years of Bachelor level studies and this chosen field is known as your ‘Major’. Most of your course curriculum in the last 2/3 years of your Bachelor’s degree will comprise of subjects related to your Major. ‘Electives’ are subjects that are optional and a student can choose to study them from any field.

Majors and Minors

Your ‘Major’ basically refers to your specialization. As the U.S education system focuses on general subjects as well, there is a need to distinguish between them and your chosen field of study. This chosen field of study, or your major, is the most important part of your Bachelor degree and specifies your field of expertise and the focus of your degree. For example, if you choose to major in Journalism, you will be awarded with a Bachelor of Arts (B.A) in Journalism.

The concept of choosing Majors provides great flexibility to the U.S education system. You are not necessarily allowed to specify your major during the beginning of your course, but you will have to choose a Major before the start of the Junior year for most courses. This helps students learn more about their different interests before choosing their specialization, and thus encourages them to make wise career choices. Also, you have the option to pursue two Majors at the same time, i.e. to specialize in two related or unrelated fields, provided that you meet the eligibility criteria and attend the required amount of classes for both. For example, you may choose to pursue majors in Physics and Math at the same time. This is known as a ‘Double’ Major. You can also choose to create your own major by choosing a set of subjects that you want to pursue so as to meet the requirements of your desired career, provided that those subjects are offered by the college/university.  This is known as a ‘Personalized’ Major.

The greatest advantage of this system is that you can change your Major during your course, even though there are some exceptions. As a matter of fact, most students change their major at least once or twice during their Bachelor’s degree.

Your ‘Minor’ is your secondary field of specialization that you can choose to pursue while doing your Major. The basic difference between the two is that a Minor is subordinate to your Major. Students choose Minors in related or unrelated fields to pursue additional interests or to become more attractive to employers. For example, it is a common practice for students who have a Major in Economics to pursue a Minor in Mathematics at the same time, as knowledge in Math is important for any Economist. Students choose a Minor in a completely unrelated field as well; a student with a Major in Mechanical Engineering might have a Minor in French. The basic difference between a Double Major and a Minor is that in a Double Major, you focus equally on both your fields and the work load is very heavy, whereas while pursuing a Minor you focus more on your Major and less on your Minor and the work load is comparatively much lighter.

Please keep in mind that the requirements to pursue a major differ from course to course and college to college. Courses like Medicine and Law are not available at the Undergraduate level in the U.S. To pursue Medicine or Law, you might need to pursue a Pre-medical or Pre-Law course from a college. However, these Pre-medical and Pre-law courses are not majors and their purpose is only to train you for entering the medical and legal fields. Most aspiring medical or law students tend to pursue Majors in related fields like Biology or Political Science. For courses like Engineering, you will be required to declare your Major generally by the end of the 2nd year. However, some colleges like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) require you to declare your Major by the end of the Freshman Year.

Credits or Credit Hours

The U.S education system is based on the system of ‘Credits’.  These credits or credit hours are related to the number of hours you spend in class per week on a particular subject. You earn these credits once you attend the specified number of classes (including fieldtrips, research work and laboratory work) required for a course. These credits are used to signify your progress as a student. Whenever you complete a course, these credits get added to your academic record. Credit hours are very important in the U.S as the tuition fee is calculated as per your credit hours. You will have to pay the tuition fee per credit hour. So, if you’re pursuing a Double Major, you will have to earn more credit hours in order to fulfill the requirements of both courses, and hence you will have to pay more.  It is also important to keep in mind that foreign students need to earn the minimum amount of credit hours per semester (12 credit hours) in order to be considered a full – time student. This is essential as if you fail to maintain your status as a full – time student, your visa might be considered to be invalid.

Usually, these credit hours represent the number of hours you spend in one class per week.  They are usually calculated semester –wise. The most common credit rate is 3 credit hours for a university class. This means that you will need to attend 3 hours of that class each week in order to pass that class for that semester and add 3 credit hours to your academic record. However, it is important to keep in mind that the credit rate for all classes is not the same. For example, a class meeting for 3 times a week for 50 minutes every time might be equal to 3 credit hours, but a 2 hour seminar that is conducted once week might be worth 4 credit hours for the semester. On the other hand, 3-4 hours of laboratory work per week might be worth only 1 credit hour for the semester. It is also important to keep in mind that the value of these credit hours differs from subject to subject; you might get more credit hours for your major subjects and less for your general education subjects.

Please keep in mind that the graduation progress in the U.S is based on these credits and not yearly exams. So, if your college requires you to earn about 120-130 credit hours to graduate, you will not be able to graduate unless you’ve earned the specified amount of credits, i.e. 120-130, no matter how many years it takes. This makes it very important for students to plan their classes carefully so that they manage to earn the specified amount of credit hours within 4 years. However, you can choose to reduce your yearly academic load and complete your graduation in 5 or even 6 years.  Many colleges also calculate the progress of a student on the basis of these Credit hours. So, if the minimum credit hours required to be considered a sophomore is 40, then you will be considered a Freshman till the point you earn those 40 credit hours, even if it takes you 3 years.

The usual amount of credit hours you’re required to complete your graduation range from 120 -130 for most courses. This means that you will need to earn around 15-17 credit hours per semester so that you can earn 120-130 credit hours within four years. Many students choose to attend summer classes in order to earn extra credit hours and finish their graduation early or cover up on pending credit hours in order to complete their graduation within 4 years.

Letter Grades

The U.S uses a ‘Letter Grading’ system to assess student performance, unlike India, where we use numerical marks. These letters are often used to represent numerical values as well. The standard practice in the U.S is to use the following grades: ‘A’ for excellent, ‘B’ for above average or good, ‘C’ for average, ‘D’ for below average and ‘F’ for failing. Many institutions also use grades like ‘A+’ or ‘A-‘. An ‘A+’ would represent an outstanding performance whereas an ‘A-‘would represent a very good performance which wasn’t excellent, but was much better than an above average performance.

Students are assessed by using these letter grades to come up with a ‘Grade Point Average’, which is also known as a ‘GPA’. This is basically an average of the grades that a student has earned throughout the semester. It is often also calculated for the whole Bachelor’s degree as well.  It is very much like the percentage that is calculated in the Indian Education system.

The Grade Point Average is calculated by dividing the total number of grade points by the total number of credit hours. The following rate is used for converting letter grades into Grade Points:

A = 4.0 Grade Points

B = 3.0 Grade Points

C = 2.0 Grade Points

D = 1.0 Grade Points

F = 0.0 Grade Points

*Keep in mind that the above Grade Points are for one credit. If a subject is valued at 5 credits, then the Grade Points will have to be multiplied by 5 to get the correct conversion.

Please look at the following example:


Credit Hours


Grade Points




A (4.0)

12 (3 x 4.0 = 12)




B (3.0)

9 (3 x 3.0 = 09)




A (4.0)

12 (3 x 4.0 = 12)




B (3.0)

9 (3 x 3.0 = 09)






3.5 (42/12 = 3.5)

In order to pass the course and receive the degree, an undergraduate student must have a GPA above 2.0 (Grade – C) for General Subjects and a GPA of 3.0 (Grade B) or above for the whole Bachelor course.

Please note that GPAs from all schools or colleges are often not valued at the same level. For example, a 3.2 GPA from a university like Harvard might be more valued than a 3.5 GPA from any smaller university.

Teachers, Classrooms and Assistance

Another unique aspect about the U.S education system is the relationship between teachers and students. Professors in the U.S are highly educated professionals who are primarily a part of the university to conduct their own research or are there for the love of teaching. This promotes better interaction between the two and benefits the students as the Professors share their practical experiences and find it easier to communicate with the students by developing a friendly relationship with them. The teachers have greater autonomy with regards to their methods of teaching compared to India.

Students are encouraged to share ideas and constantly innovate rather than just reading books and learning the theoretical aspects of their fields. Fieldtrips, Seminars and Research work are regular components of an American classroom. The focus is not on how well you can do in your exams but rather on how well will you able to use the knowledge you gather from the classroom in practical life. Class participation is considered to very important in the U.S education system and it will greatly benefit you if you communicate openly about your opinions, ideas and thoughts.

Most universities have ‘Academic advisers’ who are responsible for helping international and national students adjust to the university. They also play great roles in helping the students plan their studies, choose their majors and manage their credit hours. Assistance for students is otherwise found through seniors, administration and the faculty. The whole education system welcomes international students and you will find most people to be hospitable and attentive to your needs and concerns.

Study in USA