Inevitably, 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 backwards and forwards from 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) 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% = F = Fail.
(Some systems use E 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 may 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.
American undergraduate degrees allow you a variety of options. Students usually experience a wide range 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 and 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 about sorting this out by yourself - 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 for 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 (typically in fields such 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.
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. A GPA of 4.0 is the highest - this suggests all your grades are As. A GPA of 3.0 means that your average is a B and so on.
Incidentally, this is the same system used in American high schools, so all native students will be entirely familiar with it. It is a key measurement on university applications from US students (Brits have national exams instead - so we substitute A Levels for GPA as an indication of how well we've done at school).
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.