International Students: Advice for starting your U.S. college search

As you begin your U.S. college search, the first step in the process is to familiarize yourself with the different terminology used in the U.S. higher education system and understand what it really means.

Take for example the terms “college” and “university.” I just said as you begin your “college search” but you may very well end up studying at a university. In the U.S., the words “college,” “university,” and “school” are often used interchangeably. American students refer to their entire post-secondary education experience as “going to college,” even if they go to a university. And, regardless of whether or not a student goes to a college or university, they may call the institution their “school.”

Here is a typical conversation among American students:
Bob: Where do you go to college?
Susan: George Mason University, how about you?
Bob: I go to Gunston College.
Susan: Wow, that’s a great school

Confused? Unfortunately, it gets even more complicated. Unlike other areas of the world, in the U.S. the definitions for “college” and “university” are very broad and distinguishing between the two can be difficult. The academic quality of a post-secondary institution should never be judged based on whether or not the institution calls itself a “college” or “university.”

In general, a university tends to offer a wide range of academic programs, is made up of several different colleges or schools (College of Science, College of Technology, School of Humanities, etc.), and the faculty often divides their time between teaching and research. Bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees are usually offered at a university. (A great example of a university can be seen at

Colleges, on the other hand, are often smaller institutions that specialize in four-year bachelors degrees in the arts and sciences. The faculty tends to focus more on teaching rather than research and doctoral degrees are usually not offered.

Of course, there are a number of exceptions. For example, there are quite a few large U.S. institutions that have “college” in their name but they have very well-known graduate research programs. While there are smaller institutions that call themselves a “university” but offer a limited number of academic programs and have little research happening on their campus.

The purpose of all of this is not to cause you more confusion and anxiety but to emphasize the importance of doing your research and keeping an open mind. When considering a college or university, be sure to read their web site thoroughly to make sure they offer an educational experience that fits best with your future goals and academic needs. Do not judge a U.S. college or university based on their name alone!


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