Skip to main content

Universities in the USAMaking the decision to apply to a US university for your undergraduate course can be exciting if a bit daunting. There are over 4,500 colleges and universities in the US of which approximately 2,000 offer undergraduate degrees (four years).

You will be in good company: over the last few years the Fulbright Commission’s EducationUSA service in London has seen enquiries and website activity rise sevenfold (to over 11 million). There are already over 11,600 UK students now in higher education in the United States, half of whom are undergraduates.

Dealing With the Terminology

Learning how Americans define their universities is an important part of the application process. Failure to suss the semantics can land you in trouble! For example, rather than referring to the delights of your ‘uni’, you will constantly be talking about your ‘school’, causing some confusion among grandparents who thought you had passed your A levels. Here we explain some of the terminology of the US university system (and, in case you’re wondering, university is used interchangeably with both school and college!).


Accreditation has to be your biggest consideration when looking at US universities, not only to ease credit transfer, but also to ensure recognition of your degree when you come back to the UK. It is vital to make sure that your university is accredited by a body recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) in Washington DC. If the school or university is not accredited by one of these agencies, there may be problems with recognition and acceptance of your qualification both within the US and in the UK.

The Ivy League

(Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Penn, Dartmouth, Cornell)

The Ivy League schools are the Holy Grail of the US college admissions process – the American equivalent of Oxbridge. But while these elite colleges enjoy some of the best reputations in America, the famous title actually started out as little more than the name of a sports division (and not even a particularly good one). No one, however, dares dispute the academic excellence of the Ivies. Each school is remarkably different but all are situated on the East Coast and all enjoy stellar reputations.

Ivy League graduates are at the top of the tree in finance, media and politics (among other areas), and most of them never shut up about how their glory years in the most prestigious colleges that got them where they are today. In fact, there is a plethora of universities in America that more than rival the Ivy League, but society finds it hard to resist that old East Coast arrogance and these colleges remain among the most popular around (and most difficult to get into).

Liberal Arts Colleges

Many US universities claim to follow a liberal arts curriculum, but few can actually label themselves liberal arts colleges. This epithet applies only to a select group of mostly superb schools that pride themselves on the instruction of the undergraduate. As a result, they tend to have smaller campuses and fewer irritating grad students hanging around stealing the professors’ attention.

Liberal arts programmes are designed to give you a broad and basic education rather than prepare you for a professional career. As a result you will normally be expected to come up to scratch in a range of academic disciplines. This ensures that at the end of four years, you emerge as a well-rounded individual.

Most liberal arts colleges are private schools and Williams, Amherst and Swarthmore are normally recognized as the top three options. But students who want the breadth of a variety of courses need not confine their search to those colleges that are officially ‘liberal arts’. The majority of undergraduate programmes at good universities insist their students take a broad base of courses.

Public Schools/State Universities

Don’t get confused! When you hear someone refer to a public school, they don’t mean the Eton and Harrow equivalents of America but rather the institutions that are supported by the state and open to all members of the public (which actually makes more sense if you think about it). These schools have names like Penn State or the University of Indiana and the majority of the student body hails from within that state, something that allows them to pay reduced fees. Public/state universities tend to be huge in size and some of them are absolutely excellent (UCLA and UVA). Be warned, though - standards vary immensely and if you are an out-of-state candidate, competition is generally fierce.

State vs Private Universities – Which Comes Cheaper?

In the United States private universities make up 75% of all institutions. However, 75% of US students attend the remaining 25% - the state universities. State universities are founded and subsidized by state governments to provide a lower cost in higher education to residents of their state. With student bodies of 20,000 plus, they admit a wider range of students than private universities.

For UK students, the economic incentive that US students have for attending their ‘state’ university, unfortunately, does not exist. For example, if a resident of Ohio attends Ohio State University, their fees will be much lower than those of anyone who lives out of state. However, the fees for non-residents, while much higher, are still less than private university fees. Unfortunately, there will be little, if any, financial aid available to international students.

Private universities are funded by a combination of fees, grants, endowments and gifts from alumni. They are usually much smaller and, as a result, are much harder to get into. They are also far more likely to be able to provide financial assistance to international students.

Community Colleges

Another option, and one which may be appealing for both late developers and those struggling economically, is the community college. Community colleges, also known as junior colleges, are similar to the FE sector in the UK. They provide two-year courses leading to an associate’s degree — very similar to an HND. As a rule, admissions criteria are much more flexible, many not even requiring an admissions test such as the SAT. They are also much, much cheaper and thus attractive to those on a tight budget.

Many students elect to attend a community college for the first two years of their degree and then transfer to a four-year institution, similar to topping up an HND. In fact, many community colleges have agreements with prestigious universities that will guarantee acceptance upon successful completion of the two-year course.

For students who have, perhaps, not yet proved themselves academically, the community college route offers an opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities and save a lot of money. For some international students, the community college may make the transition to the American system more comfortable, as a more gradual means of acclimatizing to the American style of assessment, etc.

The downside to community colleges is that they tend to attract older students and it may be more difficult to find a satisfying social group. They also may not have the resources to provide special support for international students, and may not offer the total ‘living’ experience provided by four-year institutions — many do not cater for housing, etc. If you are considering a community college, find out what agreements they have with four-year institutions and what sort of support they offer international students, both academically and socially, before you make any decisions.

What’s an American University Education Really Like?

The greatest difference between Bachelor degrees in the US and BAs in the UK is summed up by two words: ‘liberal’ and ‘arts’. If you feel that nothing but three years of physics is right for you, then stay at home. If you know what you’re good at but want to explore a hundred other things as well, then the US may be just what you need. Have no idea? Head to America and put off those daunting decisions for a little while longer.

Students at a liberal arts college or a university with a strong liberal arts programme – most of the ones covered in this guide – can take classes in a wide variety of courses before zeroing in on a specialist subject. Even if you plan to major in engineering you will usually have to take courses in the humanities and social sciences while history majors will be required to undertake courses in maths and science subjects. The end result? A flexible education that enables you to carry on exploring academically throughout your undergraduate career.

This philosophy is one of the most striking differences between UK and US degree programmes. For some students, the thought of having to take a subject that they may have gratefully left behind at GCSE level will be unappealing, but the US system believes in urging everyone to explore a varied curriculum before committing to a major area of focus.

This system also makes the US degree far more flexible for those students who are unable to make up their minds. For the most part, any class (or course in American lingo) taken to fulfil the liberal arts core can also be used to fulfil graduation requirements. It is thus perfectly possible to start out as a history major and change to Spanish, without losing any time. What’s more, should you decide to transfer to a different university, you can bring what you have already completed with you – rather than having to start over. Obviously, there will be instances when you cannot transfer directly because courses will differ from university to university, but for the most part universities are co-operative and accept transfer credits.

There’s plenty of single-minded education on offer in the US, too - though the best of it is often postgraduate-only. Large universities tend to comprise colleges of arts and sciences and several ‘professional’ (i.e. career-oriented) schools such as business, agriculture, medicine, law and journalism. Institutes of technology have a scientific emphasis.

Tinker, Tailor, Doctor, Lawyer

If you are one of those noble characters who have known from the cradle that you have a vocation for mending broken bodies or diagnosing ingrown toenails, then you may regard the American medical school system as a serious waste of time. There are hardly any courses for undergraduates seeking a medical degree in the United States (with the exception of a couple, such as the combined courses at Northwestern). Instead would-be doctors must go through their college career as pre-meds, combining the courses that will set them on track to med school with those that give them a liberal arts education.

Though frustrating for many, this approach does guarantee a wider base of knowledge and means you are not exposed to the gore and pressure of the medical system at the tender age of eighteen. But being a pre-med is no easy task. The requirements are fairly painful and, if you plan to carry on in the US system, you will have to take your MCATs while studying for your undergrad degree. This dreaded nine-hour exam is a multiple choice stamina test that is mandatory for entry into the many excellent American medical schools.

The advantage of this system is that if you are presently considering medicine as a career option, but are by no means set on it, you get an extra three years of broad education while you make up your mind. The disadvantage is that pre-meds work harder than most other students and still have to jump through the extra hoop of applications at the end of the four years.

Even then, you are chancing your arm if you intend to stay on in the US for your postgraduate medical studies. Fewer than one half of 1% of students in US medical colleges are international students. Therefore, even if you hold an appropriate undergraduate degree, the likelihood of acceptance is virtually nil. Worse, if you are accepted, there is almost no financial aid for international medical students and many of the medical schools that do accept international students require them to place in escrow the equivalent of one to four years' tuition and fees (US$50,000 - $250,000).

Those still set on a US medical education should be aware that even if you have completed your medical studies in the UK, it is quite possible to enter the US for your residency/clinical practice stage. Contact the Fulbright Commission for additional information.

Would-be lawyers in America find themselves in a similar situation. There is no actual undergraduate law degree. Instead, the students designate themselves (you’ve guessed it) pre-laws and round off their college career with the LSATs. Those set on a legal career do not have the same college-imposed requirements as their medical peers, but they do have to suffer the slings and arrows of important grad school applications and tests in the midst of what should be the final fun fling of their collegiate years.

For students wanting to study law, the prospects of graduate study in the US after earning an LLB in the UK, are bright. Armed with your LLB, you can apply to do a one-year LLM (Master’s in Law) in the US and may be able to take the qualifying bar exam in several states. As each state sets its own requirements, and they change frequently, it is best to consult with the Fulbright Commission first.

The Facts of the Matter

An American education is hard work. Your friends back home will spend much of their first year sitting in the pub while you spend it trekking back and forth to the library. The fact that most of these universities operate under the principle of continuous assessment means that goofing off for semesters at a time is not an option.

Instead, practically everything you do in a class will influence the eventual status of your degree. Exams (usually at least two per term), tests (sometimes unannounced), essays or written assignments, problem sets, laboratory reports, laboratory practicals, class attendance and discussion participation – may all be used to determine your final grade. While you get a chance to laugh at the Brits back home when they all start panicking about finals, you will have spent four years working much harder than them on a day-to-day basis.

US colleges do not come cheaply and you should expect to get your money’s worth in terms of hours of class. There’s none of that ‘six hours of tuition a week, attendance optional if you have a hangover’ stuff here. Students should expect to attend at least twelve hours of lectures a week with quality professors. Attendance at several smaller sessions (something akin to tutorials) with graduate students will also be required.

And falling behind on that massive reading load really isn’t a possibility if you hope to keep those grades up. Courses are marked as a percentage, then translated to the letter grade scale as follows (with some minor variations): 100 - 90% = A; 89 - 80% = B; 79 - 70% = C; 69 - 60% = D; 59 - 50% = E = Fail. Other systems stretch to F for fail. Competition for those A’s tends to be fierce, so prepare yourself for four years of hard work.

There is one easier option available to the lazier variety of student. This is to take a course on a pass/fail basis rather than for a letter grade. Most universities have become wise to this easy out, however, and there may well be a limit to the number of courses a student can take by this method. The option also may not be available if the course is required for the student’s major. The system works well, however, for students who want to experiment in different fields but don’t want a potentially low grade to risk their treasured GPA (see below).

However hard you work, you can rest assured you are not the only person putting in long hours. While America expects a lot from its students, it also expects its professors to teach well. Students are able to assess their lecturers’ performance at the end of each course and access to members of the faculty is generally less restricted than in England. America prides itself on the unity of its academic communities and professors are normally fairly involved in undergraduate education. But don’t be a shy and retiring Brit about it. US students have been trained from an early age to go out there and introduce themselves to that scary person lecturing at you. Learn to do likewise and you will benefit hugely.

The Credit System

American undergraduate degrees allow you a variety of options. Students usually experience a wide variety of courses before selecting a major on which to focus. It is also possible to create your own unique programme of study. Every course you take each semester earns a specified number of credits (also termed hours or units). You get your degree when you have completed the appropriate number of credits (normally after four years of full-time study.) Don’t worry, though - most US colleges have an advising system in place that allows students to discuss the courses they will take during the academic year with a tutor. This ensures that nothing vital gets overlooked.

It is not uncommon for students to take longer than four years to complete their degrees. This often happens if they take less than a full-time course load per term owing to academic or financial reasons. Students can also adjust their workloads between terms – taking five courses in one semester and only three in the next. Courses taken in the first two years are known as lower division courses and those in the final two years as upper division courses.

The individual courses that make up the degree programme can be divided into the following types:

Core courses: These provide the centre of the degree programme. Students take a variety of courses drawn from maths, English, humanities, sciences, social sciences, foreign languages and foreign cultures. Core requirements vary from college to college but are the base of the liberal arts spirit and a valuable part of the American system.

Major courses: A major is the subject on which a student chooses to concentrate. Most students major in one subject, however, some colleges offer the option of pursuing a double major with a related subject. Of the total number of courses required for the completion of a degree, one quarter to one half will be spent collecting credits for your major.

Minor courses: A minor is a subject in which a student may choose to take the second greatest cluster of courses. The number of courses required for a minor tends to be half the number of major courses. Minors are a great way of pursuing a secondary interest, in such fields as languages or the arts.

Elective courses: These courses may be chosen from any department and often have little to do with a student’s major. They help make up the total number of credits required to graduate and also offer the student the chance to really explore everything their university has to offer. As a result, they can be one of the most fun parts of an American degree.

What Is a GPA?

Instead of a degree classification, students complete their degree with a Grade Point Average (GPA). A cumulative Grade Point Average is the GPA for all courses taken throughout the degree programme. This number is what prospective employers look at, and during job-hunting season, you will see your classmates frantically trying to calculate their total.

To work out your GPA, you assign a numerical value to each letter grade you achieved (most universities use 4 for an A, 3 for a B and so on, but a few, purely to confuse, score an A as five and so on down). You then multiply this number by the number of credits the course is worth to give total grade points for the course. Add all these up and divide by the total number of credits for all the courses you have taken – hey presto, there’s your average grade points per credit – your GPA.

Most universities will also offer some sort of honours degree (in the UK this comes free with the BA, like an Oxbridge MA). To qualify for an honours degree you must acquire additional credits or write an honours thesis. Precise details depend on the university and/or academic department, so make sure you find out about it early in your college career. There may well be different levels of honours: summa cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude, in descending order of distinction, based on your GPA and the honours extras.

The Academic Calendar

The academic year will be slightly different for each university/college but will normally run from early September to the end of May. It may be divided into two terms of eighteen weeks called ‘semesters’, or the university may have ‘quarters’ or ‘trimesters’ which are about twelve weeks in length. Additionally, universities often provide six to eight-week summer terms, but these are optional. Many students attend if they wish to decrease their course load during the regular terms, or simply make up for lost ground. There are at least two main holidays during the academic year: a two- to four-week break over Christmas and a one-week Spring Break somewhere between early March and mid-April.

English students should, however, beware. America does not offer the 'three long holidays a year' system that so many British schools enjoy. The Christmas break is fairly short and Easter does not exist. The one-week Spring Break, which college students treat as a big excuse for drunkenness and debauchery, can leave you more exhausted than relaxed, and the haul from January to May is a long one. American summer holidays are huge but most of your contemporaries will be using them for work experience. Relaxation does not figure largely in the American calendar – occasional breaks for President’s Day or Thanksgiving are the most time off you can really expect in the academic term – something to bear in mind if you are someone who enjoys his leisure time.

Culture Shock

Love America one minute? Hate it the next? For students concerned about the normality of their reaction to American life, there is an answer. Sociologist Gregory Trifonovitch has studied the experiences of students transplanted to another culture and outlined the four stages of cultural adjustment. Below is the kind of experience you may encounter during your first few months in America.

1) The Honeymoon Stage: Upon arrival everything is wonderful. The Americans are so friendly, everyone loves your accent and the price of jeans in GAP is half that at home. You love your adopted country and it seems to love you. Until…

2) The Hostility Stage: Suddenly everything is a little too strange. Where are your friends? Why is there no pub? What on earth are people talking about? This is the stage at which Trifonovitch believes most international students experience frustration and depression, due mostly to the difficulties of settling into a new environment. The tendency is to lash out at the new surroundings – think phone calls home outlining the stranger habits of the bloody Americans. This is the point at which you must make sure you are meeting lots of new people, developing those initial connections into real friendships and talking to friends or counsellors about any problems you are having.

3) The Humour Stage: Suddenly one day you wake up and you know how to deal with being a Brit in America. Mistakes are no longer irritating. They are funny. Suddenly you like being the outsider.

4) The Home Stage: Eventually you are a veteran. Despite your misgivings, you start defending American foreign policy to your English friends, in much the same way you defend the British Empire to your American ones. You have become culturally ambidextrous – a true transatlantic traveller.

A Shared History?

Everyone considering applying to a US university should understand that the experience will have its ups and its downs. There will be good friends who open your eyes to a whole new cultural awareness. And, yes, there will be bad times when you feel like banging your head against the wall and screaming, ‘Get me out of here!’ Always, there will be the constant reminder that you are, in essence, different from these people.

It may be the evening when everyone gets drunk and decides to sing the theme tunes from their favourite childhood television shows. When you start to sing Neighbours or Robot Wars, they’ll suddenly go blank and you’ll shudderingly realize these English (or Australian) classics never quite made it across the pond. Or it may be the time you try to remind everyone about that great single that Ash released and the time you tried to sing it on a pub table after your GCSE results.

Again, although there may be a few indulgent smiles, the vast majority of Americans will be sitting there thinking ‘Poor crazy English kid’. The sad truth is that, no matter how assimilated you become, the trends, jokes and cultural history of your childhood and adolescence will always be a mystery to Americans. However, when you really think about it, how much of your time at college do you really want to spend discussing that romance in Hollyoaks or the names of all four Teletubbies?

Fellow Brits

At the majority of these universities you will discover a significant number of international undergraduates. In those first baffled days as you grapple with registration, visa snags and the mysteries of the American language, it is all too easy to fall in with those you most closely identify with – your fellow countrymen. After all, they share a common background, a similar accent and, given the minute scale of England, mutual geographical and social history. AND, chances are, they're just as bemused by Americans as you are…

These people can become your extended siblings - friends with whom to make sense of an alien environment and who can help you to assimilate. Just because you have decided to make the move out of England does not mean you should slam the door on all its other exports. To have a truly international university experience you need to foster your links with the past at the same time as embracing the future.

Yet it is also important you do not isolate yourself from the American community. If you are surrounded solely by Brits or Europeans from day one, it can be difficult to make contact with actual Americans – an integral part (unsurprisingly) of the American educational experience. The natives of your new country do not all share the same background and the chances are many of them will feel as lost as you.

Getting to know roommates and classmates who come from places you would never be able to pinpoint on a map is essential and the most rewarding thing you can do. Of course, there will always be Brits available to form an emergency support system but, at the vast majority of these colleges, they are an extremely small minority. Americans are the people who will come to form the major body of your friends and, whatever your angst about accent or cultural background, you must turn to them from the beginning.

The Dating Game

Does absence makes the heart grow fonder?

The start of freshman year always sees a significant handful of loyal souls clinging to the relationships that have defined their teenage years. As the year progresses, however, many of these relationships fall by the wayside. Leaving a ‘significant other’ back home is not an easy trick to pull off. The social/drunken/hormonal atmosphere of university means the relationship will be severely tested and even if the one drunken slip doesn’t zap it, the mileage probably will. There is also the undeniably irritating, but also undeniably true, parental dictum – ‘too serious, too young’. College is after all a time to get out there and try new things – so don’t tie yourself down or you might end up resenting that one true love.

This is not to say that long-distance relationships don’t work. After all, America has some pretty bizarre dating rituals and some people just feel more comfortable sticking to what they know. But it pays to consider the options before you swear eternal devotion and get on that plane. And if you do decide to stay together, for goodness sake invest in an international calling card and a beneficial air miles deal!

Braving the new

Remember those high-school movies? The ugly ducking turns into a swan, the jock discovers his heart, the whole thing comes together in one great romantic climax on prom night…? American fact or Hollywood fiction? It’s difficult to tell but whatever the answer, one truth stands out – dating in the United States is a whole new experience.

Of course, as in England, it is difficult to generalize about relationships across the range of universities. Students who head for one of the more relaxed and less academic schools will discover dating scenarios that are totally different from the insanely introspective and esoteric relationships that define some of the Ivy Leagues. Think Road Trip versus Love Story. But there are some crucial elements to American romance that seem to go across the board.

First of all, there is the definition of the word ‘dating’. In Britain its meaning is clear: you’re going out. But in America you can quite easily be routinely seeing the same person, yet have absolutely no idea what the dating status of your relationship actually is. Let alone if it even has one! There comes a point when casual dating evolves into monogamous dating and it still isn’t quite a relationship but doesn’t allow relationships with anyone else but… well, you get the idea. Americans seem to be born with an embedded cultural chip enabling them to understand all of this stuff, but Brits are frequently left bemused.

Second, the date itself is a somewhat different experience. This may be due to the alcohol restrictions in this country. Somehow in England, pubs, bars and clubs lend themselves to drunken encounters that sometimes develop into something more memorable. In America, however, the most used phrase is ‘Let’s have coffee.’ It makes no difference if neither of you actually like coffee – the formalities have to be preserved. No wonder Starbucks is so popular!

Even getting to the coffee stage is something to be proud of. Forget any rules of relationships you may have learnt at home. Do not expect to go on dates alone – everyone continues to travel as a pack. Do not expect a call on day three. Americans tend to be far more assertive than your average Brit. (Although if you are the kind of person who has a little Old World reticence, rest assured it could work to your advantage!) And if you get stuck – for goodness sake, ask an American, not an international student, for advice.

The Dating Game if You're Interested in Men...

Perhaps the whole debacle can be best summed up in the words of a frustrated friend who studied in America (capitals her own): ‘The “dating” KILLED ME. What I really like about European guys is they tend to tell you whether they like you or not. Then I came to North Carolina and went on a date with this guy. The movie ended and he drove me home. Nothing happened.

Then he didn’t call again for about a week. Then we went out to dinner and to the beach. Then he drove me home. STILL nothing happened. Then he didn’t call for a few days. Then we went out again… AND THIS WENT ON FOR A MONTH OR TWO… I didn’t know how to deal with the whole situation any longer so I got him drunk and ONLY THEN something happened… and all the other girls from America were telling me not to stress as nothing seemed wrong!!! But HOW CAN SOMEONE KIND OF BE YOUR BOYFRIEND?! HE IS EITHER YOUR BOYFRIEND OR HE IS NOT YOUR BOYFRIEND.’

With the introduction of countless dating apps like Tinder and Bumble, this situation is (unfortunately for Brits) far from abnormal and will continue to be. But as American men mature, their games disappear and you can end up walking along the Brooklyn Bridge hand in hand, content to know you're at least on the way to relationship road.

The Dating Game if You're Interested in Women...

American women have, for the most part, been brought up to believe that it pays to take a more assertive attitude towards dating. Women are not backward about coming forward on college campuses (probably because they have to make a stand just to cut through the American boy’s deeply relaxed attitude).

Our Swarthmore man: ‘The author’s right about the direct nature of American women – they single you out and tell you that they like you – but I also think this applies to American guys as well. I have another friend who’s an international student at Swarthmore, and when we’re at parties we sometimes like to just observe the American kids interacting – we both agree that they are about as subtle as a bull in a china shop. Sometimes, it feels like you’re 12 again, because the inter-sex (or same-sex, to be fair) interactions are just devoid of any conversational finesse (for kids who are so smart) and seem to be fuelled by loud music and alcohol. By contrast, interactions between English men and women at college age really can be very subtle. I’ve got mates who have gone for months at a time trying to get with a girl they like without letting the girl figure it out. The American way saves a lot of confusion, but just doesn’t seem as satisfying. However, I am biased!’

The straightforward nature of the American girl can be great. You know that she likes you, she singles you out, it’s good for your ego. At the same time, many English gentlemen begin to feel they are losing control. After all, they have been taught it is polite to hold open doors and pay for meals.

Ultimately, however, these differences seem to work themselves out – and the long tradition of young American girls falling in love with distinguished English gents suggests you may well be in with a chance of enjoying a functional relationship on the other side of the Atlantic.

Your Secret Weapon

British students have one secret weapon in their mission to conquer Americans – their accent. It is undeniably true that when Brits open their mouths, Americans swoon. It may have something to do with Prince Harry or Emma Watson, but the average Yankee will initially seem more than receptive to your suave British charm.

So all of your dreams about the sun-kissed liberated American, schooled in the arts of high-school seduction and just waiting for their happy ending, may very well come true. (Note: Just don't utter a resounding cry of "You're SO fit!" as a compliment here – no one will have any idea what you’re talking about.) 

Fraternities (or "Greeks")

When you tell your British friends you are planning to attend an American university, it is more than likely that at least one of them will look at you with pity and mutter something disparaging about fraternities. These Greek societies have been much parodied in Hollywood movies, most famously in the iconic Animal House, and remain among the most notorious features of US universities, at least in the minds of Brits.

These social groups (often named after random Greek letters – Sigma Alpha Epsilon and so on) are particularly dominant in Southern and state universities, but exist across the United States, known as fraternities (for boys) and sororities (for girls). The latter are often somewhat more civilised than the fraternities. On many campuses, they form an integral part of the social life, offering the students privately owned buildings where it is possible to party (and drink) in relative peace. They also offer alternative accommodation to the university dorms for their members.

Although some of them remain secretive and exclusive, many universities have insisted that any Greek house on campus must open its doors to all students. For whatever reason, fraternities and sororities have become much more integrated into college life than they used to be, from extensive open-door party weekends to community work events. And they are certainly more a part of general campus life than the mysterious secret societies that still thrive at Yale and UVA.

Scandals do, however, continue to hang over these Greek institutions. Accusations of sexual assault, drunken casualties and ‘hazing’ - which takes place during rush and initiation seasons when the frats are recruiting more members (and which has, on rare but tragic occasions, gone horribly wrong and resulted in a fatality) - are rife.

Widely associated with but not exclusive to fraternities, it’s common knowledge that sexual assault is far more likely to happen at college than in other environments. The most shocking statistic is that apparently 25% of women will be assaulted before they graduate. 

It’s not clear whether this is a bigger problem at US colleges than at UK universities (perhaps due to fraternity culture, or different attitudes towards women, or possibly even the higher drinking age) but it makes sense to at least be aware of the dangers. On a more positive note, there is all sorts of work going on to combat these problems, much of it student-driven. 

As far as you are concerned, most of the schools mentioned in this guide are not dominated by the Greek institutions (although the majority have active chapters on campus), and nowadays most college students find their social life extends in other directions. However, if you are bent on being the next Iota Gamma, it pays to do your research before signing away your life. After all, you don’t want to become the next John Belushi.

Pubs and Prohibition

The majority of Brits spend their college days enveloped in a haze of alcohol that oils the wheels of their social lives, cushions their academic crises and whips up their weekends, weeks, evenings and even the odd morning. Not so their American neighbours. In the good old US of A you can use a shotgun almost as soon as you can carry it, drive a car from the age of 16 and kill for your country before you even consider university. Yet, until your twenty-first birthday a glass of wine with dinner or a pint of beer at a football game remains a criminal offence in most states.

Almost all American students think this rule ridiculous and all Europeans certainly do. Yet it remains and its effects are widely felt. Not only is it an impediment to normal socializing, it also means that far more importance is attached, in the freshman year particularly, to underage drinking. This can be disturbing for the Brit who suddenly feels fourteen again, hiding their vodka bottles under the bed.

Fake IDs are the name of the game and the majority of students turn to these to lubricate their first couple of years. Those lucky enough to have older brothers or sisters often nab their IDs. Be warned, however. Arrests happen frequently enough for actual concern and there are horror stories among international students of offenders being deported. The stories may be fictitious, but it is certainly not uncommon for IDs to be confiscated and even handed to the police.

Of-age Brits should also be aware that their English driving licence is not considered by many of the more pedantic East Coast bartenders to be a sufficient form of identification. It pays to have a colour photocopy of your passport with you at all times. This also helps to clear up the issues of reversed dates (that whole month/day, day/month thing can be a nightmare).

Certain areas are infinitely more difficult than others. Unsurprisingly Puritan New England suffers the most. In some areas (most notably Massachusetts) it is still illegal to buy alcohol on Sundays and dry towns (a concept that would appall the average Englishman) are not uncommon. Those interested in hitting the biggest nightspot of them all will be relieved to learn that the majority of bars in New York City are considerably more relaxed.

No Smoking Please

It is easy to spot the Europeans on winter nights at East Coast American universities. While everyone else is tucked up in their dorm rooms, watching four feet of snow pile up around the windows, the Europeans are sitting on their doorsteps, shivering in an inadequate coat, and frantically trying to warm themselves by the heat of a much needed cigarette.

They can only find this nicotine solace outdoors because legislation across most of the United States has banned smoking in restaurants, bars and clubs (as well as the more obvious offices and dorm rooms). Americans, particularly those of the educated variety, are frequently militant anti-smokers and for Brits with a pack-a-day mentality, this can come as a rude surprise.

Certain areas of the States are much more draconian than others – in California, for example, the only cigarettes you are likely to come across are those chain-smoked by the odd Hollywood actress in a bid to expunge all food from her diet.

But although America as a whole is rapidly becoming a no-cigarette zone, stressed-out students are one sector of the population who can be relied on to boost sales. Smoking comrades are always available, but the problem lies in finding somewhere to join them.

BTW - for those of you Brits who are die-hard smokers, a word of warning. Calling a cigarette a ‘fag’ is NOT a good idea unless you are given to provoking multiple misunderstandings, embarrassment and lectures on political correctness! (In the US, "fag" is a very derogatory term for a male homosexual.)

Just Don’t Inhale - and you too can become President

Drug-taking among university students in America is really little different from drug-taking among their contemporaries in England. Some do it all the time, some never touch the stuff. The range of drugs is also pretty similar – rich, spoilt kids do cocaine, everyone else smokes pot, and the experimental ones swallow any pill going. 

If there is one small difference, it is the fact that marijuana is probably even more popular among students in the US than it is in the UK. The reason for this is probably because alcohol is so much harder to come by for under-21s in America, and it is often easier to smoke a joint in your dorm room than be chucked out by bar after bar on a Saturday night. Since the joys of Woodstock and the Swinging Sixties, pot has never really relinquished its place as drug of choice for students eager to escape reality.

However, this is not to say the American bureaucracy is willing to overlook a bunch of stoned students.  Drug laws can be pretty tough - and, in case you need reminding, as an international student you are particularly liable for harsh punishment - but the laws vary by state and the key is to know the local rules pertaining to drug offences. The majority of states allow for legalized marijuana for medical purposes, but only a handful have legalised the production and sale for recreational use. There may be other states that have loosened up by the time you get to campus, so make sure you stay up to date - especially if this is a factor (hopefully a minor one) in your school choice. 

If you're in violation of local laws, universities are normally willing to turn a blind eye to the first minor drug offence but, as with alcohol, if you are going to indulge, you need to keep your wits about you and be careful not to get caught.

In any event - definitely, definitely do not drive under the influence of anything. In some college towns, fines and legal fees for DUI (Driving under the Influence arrests) cases are a growth industry, plus you will not enjoy the company of your fellow inmates all night in the local lockup.

Also, if you are an athlete or going through the recruiting process for any money-making finance jobs, you should be warned that random drug-testing is one of the perils of the process and something that has dashed the hopes of many an ambitious stoner.

Work-Out Nation

Many Americans like to say their nation is fat in the middle and thin around the edges. This is a certainly a country of extremes and personal health is most definitely one of them. International students are frequently shocked by the sheer volume of food that people consume in the US. Movie shows come with a bucket of drink and a barrel of popcorn and even the nicer restaurants will slap half a cow on your plate and call it a steak.

While obesity is a humungous problem in Middle America, college students normally need only worry about the dreaded ‘freshman fifteen’ (the fifteen pounds – read one stone plus - all students are rumoured to gain in their first year).

Once your mind and stomach have grown accustomed to the size of your plate, you will notice another thing - American students are obsessed with working out. It rivals only their dating rituals for most baffling personality trait. While students also play all the sports English universities do, they continue to regard the gym as a sort of second home. Jogging is like oxygen to them. You may well become sucked into this lifestyle - in fact, it may become the compensation for the size of your meals.

But be warned, if you are one of the brave souls who manages to withstand the onslaught of comments about your lack of gym attendance, you will be marked down as slightly unnatural. After all, doesn't everyone want to run eight miles a day?

Cold Hard Cash

As far as banking practicalities go, never put your faith in the effectiveness of international monetary transactions. Although English bank cards work in most American ATMs, there is no point in draining your Lloyds account, incurring extra charges and constantly having to calculate the dollars/pounds exchange.

By far the best option is to set up an American bank account. As students return to school, all the banks compete to offer the best possible options and it is easy to get a good deal. Getting an American credit card is important too, especially for those who plan to stay on in the United States. Building up a credit history will help you later when you need to start paying for that mortgage or car.

Your school will probably have a way for you to pay your tuition and fees by credit card. It’s worthwhile to try to make those payments with a card that gives you air miles!

Also, if you are transferring large sums of money (or cheques) between countries, make sure you give it plenty of time. Banks often impose long waiting periods before they clear cheques and this could prove catastrophic if your rent is due the next day. (Having said that, it should be noted that there are a number of non-traditional financial services getting ahead of the surprisingly creaky mainstream banks, who claim to be less expensive than a bank and able to get the money into your bank account in the US on the same day it's sent.)

Finally, a couple of other financial points. America is a nation that expects heavy tipping (to compensate for its remarkably low minimum wage). If you are paying for dinner or taking a taxi, leaving around 20% is considered normal. The traditional Brit who tips at 10% is treated with considerable disdain and won’t necessarily be welcomed back.

And for those of you who are struggling with all those coins – here’s a breakdown: 1 dollar = 100 cents; 1 quarter = 25 cents (the big coins, like the 10p and with fun state facts on them!); 1 dime = 10 cents (this is really confusing, they’re the small ones – like 5p’s); 1 nickel = 5 cents (bigger than the dime but less valuable!); 1 penny = 1 cent (borrowed from the English).

Hitting the Road

You're in the States. An open road in the land of opportunity stretches before you. A small piece of advice: Get on it.

It is all too easy to downsize to your own little campus and spend four years languishing in an obscure corner of New England, Chicago or California. This familiar haven in a terrifyingly VAST land (that actually boasts ranches the size of England) will always feel like a secure American home for you. Don't let it trap you.

Presumably you chose to come to the States because you have either some sort of wanderlust or a sense of adventure (or, in the worst case scenario, a real hatred of the UK). Going to university in such a unique environment should not kill your travel itch. Give it free rein and make all your British friends truly jealous.

Your travels are made that much easier by the fact your American friends will be falling over themselves to show you around their hometowns. The colleges in this book are not only popular with international students, they also take Americans from all corners of the fifty states. Unless you select your friends using geographical criteria, the chances are that you will end up knowing people ‘from California to the New York Island’.

And on such random American holidays as Thanksgiving, the great American hospitality kicks in for the poor abandoned Brit. Accept all invitations, exploit all the long weekends you get and break out into as many of the fifty states as you possibly can.

The road trip remains a remarkable part of the American youth experience and one highly recommended to any Brit who can jump on board. If you have a friend with a car, you're set. The sole problem lies with your own driving. Not only do you face the challenges of driving on the wrong side of the road, you will also probably find you are too young to hire a car. If you fail totally in chartering your own set of wheels, the ubiquitous Greyhound (and numerous other) bus systems are more than adequate for the intrepid traveller.

Most popular Good Schools Guide articles

  • University resources, references and links

    Resources, organisations, references, books, links and consultants to help you navigate through the maze of courses, tests, essays, extracurriculars, applications and scholarships or post-graduate education. Vetted by us annually.

  • Planning for university: best fit and scholarships

    Which university and where? is the obvious end point for parents after years of feverish school planning. These useful, vetted sources will help with the whole process including scholarships. 

  • Which curriculum will get you into university (UK or US)?

    How to chart your child’s curriculum journey (from primary school on) so he/she winds up safely at a good university at the end – whether in the UK or US. 

  • The Good Schools Guide International

    Coronavirus As a result of the coronavirus outbreak, The Good Schools Guide International offers the following guidance:  Determine the global situation and that of individual countries on government mandated school closures by accessing the UNESCO information on this link:   For updates on the medical situation, go to  the World Health Organisation website at  If you wish to contact one of our GSGI listed schools to discover their current status or any plans for alternate learning strategies, please go to our database to find email and phone numbers for each school If your company makes you brexit, The GSGI should be your first stop.…

Subscribe for instant access to in-depth reviews:

☑ 30,000 Independent, state and special schools in our parent-friendly interactive directory
☑ Instant access to in-depth UK school reviews
☑ Honest, opinionated and fearless independent reviews of over 1,200 schools
☑ Independent tutor company reviews

Try before you buy - The Charter School Southwark

Buy Now

GSG Blog >

The Good Schools Guide newsletter

Educational insight in your inbox. Sign up for our popular newsletters.