Whether you're in the northeast, the birthplace of U.S. politics and its beautiful changing seasons; the South, with unique customs, music and cuisines; the Midwest, enjoying the spectacular plains, lakes and mountains; or the West with national parks and beautiful coastlines - studying in the U.S. will leave you with endless opportunities to explore. While you experience the varied culture, landscapes and people, you can perfect your English skills, strengthen your resume and get exposed to a range of academic topics.
THE U.S. EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM
The U.S. system of education is highly decentralized. At the elementary and secondary levels, control of the curriculum is left to the states, and schools are under the jurisdiction of local governments. At the university level, each institution is autonomous in its choice of curriculum. The federal government does, however, provide some aid to school systems as well as funding for university research projects and college student loan programs, and recipients of such aid must adhere to certain regulations.
Elementary and Secondary Education System
Public education is free (i.e. funded through taxes) at the elementary and secondary levels and compulsory in most states through the age of 16.
Most U.S. children begin kindergarten when they are five years old and continue in primary school through the 5th or 6th grade. In some school systems, grades 6 to 8 are grouped into a middle school unit. In others, elementary school continues through grade 6, and grades 7 to 8 are called junior high school. High schools, the final four years of secondary education, mandate courses in a number of subject areas for graduation. Most high schools offer students a wide range of academic and vocational subjects, along with extracurricular activities such as clubs and sports. Vocational or technical coursework is aimed primarily at students who will not pursue further studies after high school. Students interested in going on to college take college preparatory courses in literature, history, art, sciences, mathematics, languages, etc. Upon completing high school, students receive a diploma, certifying that the student has satisfactorily fulfilled all graduation requirements set by the school or school system. There are no national exams required for graduation.
Postsecondary Education System
Postsecondary education is divided into:
- undergraduate programs leading to a bachelor’s degree after four years of study or an associate degree after two years of study (or the equivalent)
- graduate programs beyond the bachelor's degree, leading to master’s or doctorate degrees
Institutions Offering Postsecondary Education
- Four-year colleges offer academic programs leading to a bachelor's degree; some also offer master’s degrees in certain areas.
- Universities offer bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees as well as professional degrees in areas such as business and law; some universities also have schools of medicine and dentistry.
- Community colleges offer two-year programs leading to the associate degree and provide professional certificate programs.
Educational institutions in the United States are accredited not by the government but by regional accrediting associations. All ISEP member institutions in the United States are accredited, degree-granting institutions.
Admission to college or university is based on the student's high-school academic record, evidence of personal maturity and extracurricular activities, and on entrance exams administered by private organizations including the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and achievement tests in specific subjects. For graduate students, the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), Graduate Management Test (GMAT) or Law School Achievement Test (LSAT) is required. Students' test scores are an important factor in determining their acceptance.
The U.S. undergraduate curriculum consists of:
- General Education courses designed to develop general academic skills as well as knowledge of humanities, science, and social science (awareness of social, political and ethical issues)
- Courses concentrated in a major field of study, and sometimes also a minor field of study
U.S. students usually do not have the "declare" or decide on their major (the main subject of their degree) until their second year of study. While some students enter unviersity knowing exactly what they want to "major in" others will spend the first two years taking General Education courses and elective courses to figure out exactly what they want to focus on. Students may also "double major" (have two main fields of study) and "minor" in a subject. Majors will require students to take a significant number of courses in the subject, while minors may be completed with fewer courses.
In a typical semester, a U.S. student will take a couple courses in their major subject in addition to a couple general education or elective courses. Students tend to take more general education or elective courses in their first or second year towards the beginning of their university studies, and then transition to taking more courses in their major or minor field during their third and fourth years of study.Some majors (engineering and science, for example) are highly structured, but most students are also able to include a number of electives in different subject areas —courses that enhance general knowledge and provide broad perspectives.
Undergraduate students are classified as freshmen in their first year, sophomores in their second year, and juniors and seniors in their third and fourth years, depending not only on the number of years in college but also on the number of course credits completed. Students who are unable to complete a full load of courses each semester (for whatever reason) may spend more than four years in college. Upon graduation, students receive a bachelor's degree (Bachelor of Arts, B.A., or Bachelor of Science, B.S.).
Graduate students work toward a master's, doctoral, professional or other advanced degree in a specific subject area. The number of years required to earn an advanced degree depends on the particular college or university, the field of study and the nature of the curriculum.
Master's degree programs vary from one to three years in length, based on whether or not a master's thesis is required. Doctoral-level programs lead to the Ph.D. (Doctorate of Philosophy) or the Ed.D. (Doctorate of Education) degree. These programs vary in length from two to five years beyond the master's degree.
Students wishing to become lawyers, physicians or dentists enter professional schools after completing their bachelor's degree with a concentration in relevant subjects.
TAKING CLASSES AT A U.S. COLLEGE OR UNIVERSITY
Most U.S. institutions follow a semester system that includes two terms, each 15 to 18 weeks in length. A few use a quarter system comprising three terms, each 10 to 12 weeks long. Each term includes one week of examinations during the final week of the session. In both systems, the academic year normally covers nine months of the calendar year, beginning in August or September and ending in May or June.
Summer sessions in the remaining three months of the calendar year may be six-, eight- or 12-week sessions. Many institutions also have short winter sessions between the first and second semester. Winter and summer sessions may be used to accelerate a student's program of study, to make up academic deficiencies or to enrich the student's degree through elective courses.
Courseload & Credits
A course is a unit of study in a particular subject that meets one to four hours per week for a quarter, semester, or academic year. In order to earn a bachelor's degree, a student needs to complete the equivalent of four years' worth of courses that meet general requirements as well as requirements in a major field.
Each course is assigned a number of credit hours based on the amount of time spent in the classroom. Most U.S. undergraduate students take between 12 - 15 (and sometimes up to 17) credits per semester, which is equivalent to 4 or 5 courses. Courses are normally worth 3 credits, although some courses may be worth 1 credit, 2 credits or 4 credits per semester. One credit is equal to 15 contact hours per semester, so a 3 credit course will have 45 contact hours during the semester. A U.S. semester is usually 15 weeks long, meaning a 3 credit course normally meets for 3 hours each week. Work outside of class, including individual study, reading, writing and research is not included in the calculation of credits. Note that courses requiring laboratoy work (usually biology and chemistry courses) may include substantial time spent in labs that is not included in credit calculation. To comply with U.S. J-1 visa regulations, ISEP students must take 12 credits (undergradaute level) or 9 credits (gradute level) each semester to maintain full-time student status.
Undergraduate level courses are usually begin with a number between 1 and 4 (i.e. Business 101, Art 3215, Chemistry 264), while graduate level courses are usually begin with a 5 or 6 (i.e. Math 612, Communications 5045). Sometimes advanced level undergraduate students will be permitted to enroll in courses beginning with a 5.
A single course may meet once per week or several times per week. For example, a 3 credit course may meet once for 3 hours (usually called a "block class"), twice a week for 1.5 hours each or three times a week for 1 hour each. Classes will almost always meet on the same day(s) each week, for example Tuesdays and Thursdays (for a class that meets 2x per week) or Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (for a class that meets 3x per week).
One course may have multiple "sections" offered on different days and times, to accomodate more students with varying schedules. For example, an Intro to Business class may have one section that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the morning, a second section that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the afternoon and a third section that meets on Wednesdays midday. Courses might have just one section or might have as many as 10 or more. Students will register and attend one of the sections that is available and best meets their schedule needs. Different sections of a course may also have different professors and slightly different syllbi, content, assignments or readings.
U.S. universities tend to offer courses from 8 or 9 a.m. until the evening, sometimes as late as 10 or 11 p.m. When registering for courses, be sure to check the times of the course meetings. You should not register for courses that have conflicting or overlapping times, as you will be expected to attened and participate in each class session. It is not recommended to take more than two classes "back-to-back" in the same day without a break.
Advice on What Classes to Choose
Each student is assigned an academic advisor who assists in designing his/her academic program, selecting appropriate classes and discussing possible academic problems. A student usually meets with their academic advisor once or twice during the semester. The final decision for selecting courses rests with the student, and U.S. students have considerable independence in planning their course schedules and course plans. Permission to take specific courses, however, depends on students having the necessary pre-requisites.
Registering for Classes
Registration procedures vary. At some institutions, registration is done electronically; elsewhere, registration takes place on a particular day or days and at a central location for the whole college or university. Despite the fact that registration often uses computerized methods, it may be a time-consuming process that requires completing special forms. It may be possible to pre-register before arrival on campus. ISEP students should be sure to read the information you receive from your host institutution regarding registration carefully, including your Pre-Departure information, and seek advice from your ISEP Coordinator and your academic advisor.
Because U.S. course plans and fleixible and universities offer a variety of major-specific, general education and elective courses, course topics and subjects tend to rotate each year. It can be difficult to know far in advance exactly which courses will be offered during a specific semester. Past semester course schedules and general course catalogs can be used as a guide, but course offerings may change for future semesters. ISEP students should arrive in the U.S. with a variety of course options approved by their home university, and be prepared to be flexible when registering for courses.
The number of openings (seats) in a course are normally limited to a specific number of students (ex. 15, 35, 100, etc). Depending on the course's popularity, these seats may fill quickly. If you are given a specific date and time to register for courses, it is important to stictly adhere to it so that you can register for courses before they fill - keep in mind this date/time will be given according to your host university's time zone. If a course reaches capacity, usually there will be a "waitlist" for any seats that open up when other students withdraw from the class before the semester begins or during the first week or two of the semester. Getting on the waitlist is not a guarantee of being able to enroll in the course.
Courses may also have pre-requite requirements, and certain advanced level courses may require special permission from the professor. Your host university will have a copy of your academic record/transcript from your home university so that they may see your previous coursework. Your host university will not expect you to have the exact pre-requisites for each course, but they will check to make sure you have taken something similar to fulfill the pre-requisite requirement. For example, if a business course has "Statistics 100" listed as a pre-requisite, they will check to see that you have taken an introductory statistics class at your home university.
Should you find that the classes for which you are registered are not well suited to your needs, it is possible at most institutions to drop and add classes without too much difficulty during the first few days or weeks of each semester. The university will specify particular days on which you may add, drop or change a course without penalty. The process varies from institution to institution, so if you are having difficulties you should speak with your faculty advisor or ISEP Coordinator before you begin to alter your courses.
Withdrawing from Classes
If you must withdraw from a course for any reason after the official add/drop period, the process may be complex and involve financial penalties and should only be undertaken with the assistance of your advisor. A note of caution: under ISEP sponsorship you must maintain your full-time student status; should you violate that status for any reason, your visa may be revoked.
THE CLASSROOM SETTING
Classes may vary in size from less than a dozen students in upper-level undergraduate and graduate-level seminars to large undergraduate lecture or survey courses of 300 students. On the average, a class will have 20 to 25 students. Classes usually begin on time, and it is considered disrespectful to arrive after the class has begun. In most classes there are no formal seating patterns; students just choose any seat as they arrive. The atmosphere is usually informal and fairly relaxed. Students may bring soft drinks or coffee to class, but institutions maintain a no-smoking policy in all classrooms.
Due to the fact that students in the United States have considerable flexibility in choosing their curriculum and schedule, you may not see the same people in any two of your classes. In addition, your classmates may represent a variety of ages and backgrounds.
Requirements for each course will vary with the subject, professor and teaching method used. However, the following general information may serve as a guide.
The course syllabus or outline will list the course objectives, required and suggested textbooks, readings and class assignments and specify the requirements for the final grade. This may include information about the proportion of the grade that will be determined by class participation, term papers and examinations. The material that the paper or exam is expected to cover and the due date or exam date should be clearly listed. If you have any questions about the syllabus or the course requirements, you should not hesitate to ask the professor for clarification. For more information on the various types of term papers and exams, see below.
Attendance and Participation
Some professors require class attendance, call the roll at each session and may include class attendance and participation as a factor in determining your grade. Others may not feel it is their responsibility to keep track of your attendance, but take your attendance for granted.
In many classes, students are not only encouraged to participate in classroom discussion, they are also expected to do so. Classroom participation usually requires that you: 1) contribute to the discussion; 2) discuss the subject matter with your colleagues and the professor, and 3) answer questions in class. If you sit quietly and never offer an opinion or ask a question, your final grade may reflect that, although class participation rarely is worth more than 20 percent of the final grade.
When registering for courses and building a class schedule, students should ensure that they will realistically be able to attend almost all classes. If you need to miss a class due to an extenuating circumstance, it is considered polite to let the professor know in advance, if possible. You should also ensure that you complete any of the assigned work and speak with a classmate about getting notes or materials from the lecture. Some professors will allow you to have a "make up" class during office hours, to discuss the lecture topic that you missed.
Textbooks and Reading Assignments
The syllabus will list the required and suggested textbooks. In most cases the texts listed will be available for purchase at the university bookstore or to loan from the university library. Purchasing textbooks can be expensive (although you may be able to buy used books), but if you rely on loaning from the university library you may find a book on loan or lost when you need to use it.
Students are generally responsible for completing assignments outside class. Professors for upper-level classes do not usually review assigned readings during class time, but rather will spend the time discussing related points. You will, however, be held responsible for learning the material covered by the assignment for tests and final exams, even if the professor does not review it during class.
Written assignments such as term papers or research papers are required in most courses. Please note that due dates for papers are rarely flexible. Late papers may not be accepted or the grade may be lowered. If you don’t have your own computer, you will have access to a computer lab where you can type your paper; hand-written assignments are not accepted.
There are many types of papers. Sometimes the student picks the topic of the paper; other times the professor will assign the topic. You may be asked to develop a theme based on your own knowledge or be required to do research using library resources, conducting interviews, visiting organizations, etc. A professor will usually give specific instructions on what is expected, but if you are uncertain, you should ask questions to clarify the exact requirements. If necessary, see the professor during his or her office hours or schedule an appointment outside class.
American students are taught to write comprehensive papers from the time they are in secondary school. You will be expected to be able to research a topic fully, compose your thoughts clearly and present them in a certain format like your U.S. classmates. For the most part, professors will treat all students equally, granting no special privileges or extensions without a good reason.
In order to familiarize yourself with standard formats for written assignments, you may want to purchase a grammar and style book. Kate Turabian's Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations or the Modern Language Association's Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations are recommended. Both are concise publications that are recommended by many U.S. professors and available at most university bookstores.
U.S. professors expect to see papers that are expressed in your own best English and that give proper credit in footnotes and bibliography if you quote another writer or if you use ideas that you have derived from a source other than your own opinion. Copying language or representing the ideas of another as your own thoughts is considered plagiarism (stealing someone else's thoughts or phrases). Plagiarism may be grounds for receiving a failing grade for the paper or even the course and can lead to disciplinary action on the part of the university. Therefore, be sure you have not copied something word for word into your notes and then inadvertently used it in your paper without proper footnoting. Also, note that U.S. students are not expected to help each other write papers or develop ideas for papers.
Most courses have a midterm exam, a test about halfway through a semester or quarter, and a final exam at the end of the term. A professor may give you other, less important exams every week or every month; these are called quizzes.
Different types of exams include:
- Multiple choice: For each question on the test, you are given several possible answers, and you must choose the answer that you believe is correct. Usually the answers are marked a, b, c, d, and you simply mark or check the answer you choose. There are variations, such as "true or false" questions.
- Essay: To answer a question on an essay exam, you write a short paragraph or sometimes a long analysis responding to the question or problem.
- Open book: In this exam you are allowed to have the textbook or some other book with you for reference during the exam. Since there is a time limit to finish the exam, students must know most of the information before taking the exam because they will simply not have enough time to look up everything in the book during the exam.
- Take-home: In a take-home exam, the professor gives you the questions on a sheet of paper. You can take the exam home, to the library or anyplace you wish to work on it. You then return the test to the professor. Such exams tend to be very intensive, asking numerous questions and requiring long, detailed answers. Sometimes the professor will set a time limit for the exam, in which case you will need to budget your time carefully to be able to complete the exam.
Almost all institutions in the U.S. educational system use a letter grading system. That system is A, B, C, D and F, with A being the highest grade and F being the lowest or failing grade. The letter grading system is also the basis for computing one's grade-point average (GPA). The letter system is usually equated to a numerical system, an A is equal to 4, B is equal to a 3, C is equal to a 2, D is equal to a 1 and F is equal to a 0. Sometimes a grade will be further characterized by a "plus" or a "minus" sign, e.g., a B+ is slightly better than a B. In some cases, students may have the option of taking a course on a "pass/fail " (P/F) basis. A pass/fail grade only indicates whether a student has passed or not passed the course.
Note: Holders of J-1 visas are required to be in good academic standing as defined by their host university. If your grade-point average for a semester drops below what is required for “good academic standing” by the host university, you may lose your visa status.
The relationship between a student and a professor in the United States tends to be much more informal than in most other countries. Students are encouraged to ask questions, seek clarifications and present counter-arguments to what the professor is presenting in class. Students may discuss their own ideas with the professor, and they do not have to agree with everything the professor has said. It is not uncommon for a student who has taken several courses with one professor to end up on a first-name basis with him or her.
Many professors have office hours every week during which a student may discuss academic problems, a particular idea or an assignment that the student does not completely understand. The office hours are usually posted on the professor's door or are announced in class. These hours are set aside specifically so that students can make appointments to see the professors, and it is therefore considered quite normal for a student to talk to a professor outside class. In fact, this outside contact is recommended.
Visa and Residency
Studying the U.S. can help perfect your English skills, strengthen your resume and expose you to a range of academic topics. In this section, you can learn how to obtain your J-1 Exchange visitor visa, what to do once you arrive to the U.S., how to maintain legal status during your time abroad, and how to apply for on-campus employment or an academic training internship.
COVID-19 Update on J-1 Visas and residency:
We hope you are excited for your ISEP program, and understand that you may have questions regarding how the current COVID-19 outbreak might affect your ability to obtain the J-1 visa you will need to participate in your program. Please reach out to your specific Student Services Officer should you have questions or concerns regarding the J-1 Visa program.
J-1 Visa and SEVIS Overview
- Obtaining your visa
We're excited you’ll be coming to the United States via ISEP Study Abroad! ISEP is happy to sponsor your visa to come study in the U.S. Check out our overview of what to expect before, during, and after your program.
- Arriving in the U.S. and to your Host Institution
When traveling to begin your ISEP program, it's important to remember certain documents and steps to follow along the way. We'll be sending you more details later, but here is a good starting point.
- While on campus
Remaining in good visa status during your program is easy, but requires being aware of a few guidelines. Make sure you remain in good academic standing at your institution, and follow the correct procedures if you travel during your program.
- Employment and Internships with ISEP
As an ISEP student, you will have a few work opportunities available to you. You could work on campus during the semester, or find an internship or other position to gain useful work experience in your field of study after your semester ends.
Most visitors to the United States arrive with their own ideas as to what Americans are really like. These notions derive, in large measure, from the worldwide distribution of U.S. television and films. The ISEP student who spends a year in the United States will soon discover that the stereotypes presented in these media do not reflect the complexity of U.S. life and culture.
As an ISEP student in the United States, you will find that an important part of your education will take place outside of the classroom. The people you meet and the friends you make will teach you more about U.S. culture than any number of sociological articles or books you might read. This section is intended to provide a starting point for your own observations.
You will, no doubt, be making comparisons constantly between the Americans you encounter and your fellow countrymen. It is important to remember that we all wear cultural blinders and view another culture from the perspective of our own. For example, a visitor from Asia might find Americans permissive with respect to relationships between men and women. American couples will walk hand in hand or embrace in public. But a visitor from South America might feel the opposite way, finding Americans to be cold, since in his country, many people walk hand in hand--brothers and sisters, friends of the same sex, parents and children. As you observe life around you, think about how your reactions reflect the attitudes, values and behavior of your home country.
CHARACTERISTICS OF AMERICAN CULTURE
It is impossible to summarize a culture in a few words, but the following general points about American culture may help you to understand the behavior you observe in the United States.
In the United States, great emphasis is placed on the individual. Each individual is considered responsible for making the decisions that affect his or her own life. From childhood, Americans are taught to take control of their lives, develop their individual potential and use their own initiative to move ahead. There is much less emphasis on consultation within the family in the United States than in more traditional societies. As individualists, Americans feel a need for privacy and personal space. They also tend to be competitive and achievement-oriented.
Attitudes Toward Work
The early founders of the United States, the Puritans, believed that salvation would be assured by hard work. Therefore, material success was an indication that an individual worked hard and lived a righteous life. This emphasis has greatly influenced the physical and financial development of the country.
From childhood, Americans are taught that a person can, through hard work, better one's position in life. Children are encouraged to work and earn their own pocket money. Adults are encouraged to switch jobs should a better, more responsible one become available. Those who do not work may be seen as lazy--even if their situation is a result of circumstances beyond their control.
America has been described by some sociologists as a classless society. This is not entirely true, but it can seem to be so because of the high degree of social mobility in the United States. There are old moneyed families in the United States, who form a sort of upper class, but in general, education, hard work and personal success are more important in determining one's position in society than family background. Class correlates more closely with income than with occupation, in contrast with many countries where one's occupation determines one's place on the social ladder.
It is consistent with the fluid class structure of U.S. society that Americans do not pay much attention to social differences. They like to think that they do not care about rank, title, age or social status. In principle, all people are seen as having equal rights, equal social obligations and equal opportunities to develop their own potential. Americans value the do-it-yourself ethic and can be embarrassed by or uncomfortable with obsequious service. There is no social stigma attached to doing one's own cooking, housework or gardening. Few Americans employ household help.
Americans tend to apply this egalitarian ethos in dealing with other people. Visitors from countries where the social hierarchy is more clearly defined may find this confusing and feel that Americans do not treat them with proper respect and deference. Even the president of the United States is addressed merely as "Mr. President."
A corollary of the U.S. belief in egalitarianism is the informal manner in which people treat one another. It is common for people to address new acquaintances by their first names. Nicknames, a shortened version of a person's name or a name given by family or friends, are used often. These points signify neither intimacy nor disrespect, but rather a willingness to be casual about social relationships.
Informal behavior carries over into other areas of U.S. life. The manner of dress in the United States is also casual. Americans tend to dress more according to the weather than to any social standard. Men often go about in offices without a tie or jacket, and women dress lightly in the summer. It is important not to confuse informality of dress with immorality.
Americans are taught from childhood to question, analyze and search. "Go look it up for yourself," a child will be told. School tasks are designed to stimulate the use of a wide range of materials. In relation to some other cultures, this emphasis on questioning and searching may be considered disrespectful. Americans are not trying to be rude; rather, they are seeking facts and new insights.
Even in social conversations, you may find that people often argue, ask for sources or challenge conclusions. Most do not mean to be disrespectful; they are just keenly interested and are trying to explore the idea in greater depth.
This idea of questioning authority appears in many aspects of life, especially in the classroom. Students are encouraged to question the facts and to debate points with the professor and other students. Once again, in most cases this is not meant to be rude, but rather is a tool used to explore many points of view.
Truth and Courtesy
One direct result of this constant questioning is that, in most situations, Americans place a high value on truth. In many countries, people consider it proper to give the response that the listener would prefer to hear, whether it is true or false.
Most Americans equate truthfulness with trustworthiness, and it is considered wrong to distort the facts purposely, however kind the motive.
This outlook is reflected in daily life. For example, a dinner guest in some countries may be expected to refuse a second helping at least once before eventually accepting, while an American who says "no thanks" is thought to be truly satiated and may not receive a second offer.
Distance and Body Contact
All human beings maintain a comfort zone, a certain physical distance they keep with someone when they are talking. This difference applies to how close people sit together, the extent to which they lean over one another in conversation, how they move as they argue or make a point, etc.
Space is nearly always unconsciously created and varies from one culture to another. For example, many South Americans and Middle Easterners normally stand quite close together, while North Americans may find this awkward and often back away if their space is "invaded," especially by a member of the same sex. Men generally do not hold hands or link arms in public, but men and women do.
Although North Americans tend to establish relatively wide comfort zones, they also tend to communicate a great deal with their hands--not only with gestures but also with touch. They put a sympathetic hand on a person's shoulder or place an arm around him to demonstrate warmth of feeling.
It is helpful to recognize these responses and to realize that a backward step does not mean "stand-offishness," nor does a friendly touch mean rudeness.
Conversation and Personal Questions
Americans tend to look a person in the eye when speaking and are generally very verbal, so much so that 'being quiet' tends to be noticed. To Americans, long silences between people who are not close friends can seem uncomfortable. A lot of trivia is discussed, such as talk about the weather and sports, that not only fills the silence but provides a way for people to get acquainted.
Conversational questions may seem to you both too personal and too numerous--especially when you first arrive. "Where do you study?" "How many brothers and sisters do you have?" and "Where do you live?" are not personal questions by U.S. standards. They are a search for common ground on which to build a relationship or base a conversation.
At the same time, there are subjects that are avoided, being considered too personal and therefore impolite. These topics include questions about a person's age, financial affairs, cost of clothes or personal belongings, religion, or romantic relationships.
If you are asked these or any other questions that seem to you to be too personal, you need not answer them. You can simply smile or say pleasantly, "I'd rather not say," or "In my country, that would be a funny question." If you do this, follow it quickly with another topic or make a comment on variations in customs. The American will not be offended, but will understand the point.
How Americans form and maintain friendships may be hard for foreign students to understand. In this mobile society, friendship can be transitory and is often established to meet personal needs in a certain situation. You may be greeted warmly by many Americans but find that a closer relationship does not necessarily follow. It is important to recognize the casual friendliness for what it is: a sign of general interest in other people and a desire to make everybody comfortable. Real friendships may or may not develop later, but they take time to build--in the United States as in other countries.
The casualness of friendships allows people to move into new social groups easily, groups that usually form around mutual interests, work and places of residence. Most Americans readily welcome new people into their social groups. Every campus has programs and social organizations such as fraternities; sororities; music, drama, dance and sports clubs; religious groups; etc. The tendency to form closed cliques is far less developed than in Europe, and families are not the protective, tightly-knit groups they sometimes are in Asia or South America.
Relationships between genders are fairly informal. Often groups of friends rather than individual couples share social activities. It is also possible for two people to go to social events together just because they enjoy each other's company and not because they have an exclusive relationship.
There are many entertainment opportunities available on campus that can be shared with one person or in a group. Studying together, stopping for coffee, going to a special lecture or attending a campus event are ways to get to know someone.
Recognizing that few students have a great deal of money, many people share the cost of a joint activity. However, if a more formal invitation is extended, the person who invited the guest should consider providing the transportation and paying for the entertainment.
In recent years, much attention has been focused on "date rape" and sexual harassment. Women in the United States may appear and indeed be more openly friendly than women in other countries. However, it is wrong to assume that a woman welcomes sexually suggestive remarks or behavior directed at her (sexual harassment), or that consent to go on a date implies consent to sexual activity. Charges of sexual harassment and sexual assault are considered serious. A man who forces a woman to engage in sexual activity when she has said or even indicated "no" can face criminal prosecution.
Time and Punctuality
The United States is a nation concerned about punctuality. It is important to be on time for business appointments and meetings. The prevalent philosophy is that "time is money." Social occasions are not so strict with regard to being 'on time', but one is still expected to telephone if a delay of more than 15 minutes is expected. Classes also usually start punctually or within five minutes of the scheduled starting time.
Sociologists argue as to whether there is a national culture in the United States at all or merely a composite of ethnic cultures. America is almost entirely a land of immigrants. Its cities and suburbs incorporate many ethnic neighborhoods, which often have their own newspapers, restaurants and places of worship, as well as their own attitudes toward child-rearing and family life.
Because of its vastness, the United States is characterized by strong regional differences as well as national and ethnic ones. Although Americans are very mobile, regional accents and vocabulary are quite distinct.
Several characteristics of Americans and American life discussed previously--informality, friendliness, punctuality--will vary a great deal between regions. The South, for example, has the reputation for a slower tempo of life, compared with the "fast" Northeast. Californians are stereotyped as being casual and relaxed, whereas those from the East Coast are seen as more formal and uptight. Many such regional characterizations are exaggerations, but Americans themselves perceive these differences.
A Final Thought
Although people in the United States are gradually becoming more globally aware, you may still find many individuals who know little about geography and world affairs. You may be surprised at some of the questions that you are asked about your own country and culture. As you seek to learn more about U.S. culture and society, ISEP hopes that you will also take the time and find opportunities to share information and perspectives on your home country with those you meet.
Health and Safety
- Your health and safety is our number one priority. Please read and reference the Health and Safety sections of the ISEP website for general information regarding health and safety abroad.
ISEP expects changes to COVID-19 vaccine requirements for 2021 and 2022 programs. If the student's host country, host university, home university, home country, or travel provider require a COVID-19 vaccination, students must comply with that requirement. ISEP will notify students if we become aware of changes in the terms of participation for their program.
For helpful tips for before, during and after your study abroad trip, please visit this page of the CDC website.
If you’re planning to bring your prescription or over-the-counter medicine on your trip, you need to make sure your medicine is travel-ready. More information can be found here. Please contact your Student Services Officer and ISEP Coordinator with any additional questions.
- Detailed travel advice about the United States of America can be found here. Please pay special attention to the Safety and Security, Terrorism, Local Laws and Customs, Health and Natural Disasters sections.
Note: Information sourced on this page is provided by the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Non-British nationals should disregard the Entry Requirements and Travel Advice Help and Support sections.
- This video teaches international students how to prepare for their arrival in the U.S., how the U.S. healthcare system works and how students should seek medical care appropriately if they become sick or injured.
- Sexual assault is a growing concern for many international students, and with this video you can learn all about what sexual assault is and the importance concept of consent, how you can prevent an assault from happening and what to do if one does occur.
- This short video introduces the concepts of mental health for international students in the U.S. Covering mental health awareness and warning signs, dispelling myths, and showing ways to seek treatment, the video seeks to demystify a complex topic.
WHAT TO BRING
How Much Money to Bring
As an ISEP student, you will have your tuition, housing and basic food needs covered. However, you will need to bring funds to cover all other expenses including books, local transportation, personal items, snacks, travel and any other incidental expenses. The amount you will need for incidental expenses will depend on your lifestyle as well as on local costs, which can vary a great deal in the United States.
ISEP's health insurance program requires that you pay for routine health care costs yourself and that you pay a deductible for each separate accident or illness that occurs. You should include an estimated amount for both in your calculations of how much money to bring.
Some countries restrict how much currency you can take out or bring back. Check with an international bank or the appropriate officials in your country regarding any such requirements.
How to Bring Money with You
You should carry your money in traveler's checks to last two to three months and most of the remaining funds in the form of a bank check or bank draft. Another possibility instead of a bank draft would be to use international money orders. More information on these and other options is provided below.
Upon arrival in the United States, you should have some cash in U.S. dollars, in notes of small denominations, to cover your immediate expenses. For example, you will need money at hand to cover the cost of transportation from the nearest major airport to the host institution via bus, train and/or taxi. Although there are banks or exchange bureaus at most international U.S. airports, they are not always open 24 hours a day.
There are several ways in which you can bring or have access to the money that you need for the rest of your stay in the U.S.:
Traveler's checks are a convenient and safe way to carry money. If the checks are lost or stolen, the company that issued them will replace their full value, as long as you have a record of the serial numbers. Keep a record of the check numbers separate from your checks.
Traveler's checks can usually be purchased at an international service bank in your home country in U.S. dollar denominations, usually at the rate of one percent over the value of the checks you are buying. Be sure to keep the receipts for traveler's checks separate from your checks, in case you need replacement checks.
You may be able to access your account at home with a bank card and minimize the risks associated with traveling with cash. Check with your bank to find out if there are special guidelines for using your bank card in another country.
In order to take your funds in the form of a bank draft, visit your bank or any international bank in your home country. Bank drafts may take up to three weeks to clear. In other words, once you deposit the draft at a local U.S. bank, it may be two to three weeks before you have access to your money.
International money orders in amounts up to $500 U.S. dollars may be purchased at a major post office in your home country before you leave home and cashed at any U.S. bank.
DEALING WITH EXCHANGE RATES
Should you exchange all of your funds for dollars before your trip to the United States, upon arrival, or as you need it throughout your stay? There is no simple answer to these questions, since exchange rates between other currencies and the U.S. dollar often fluctuate.
Having all of your funds in U.S. dollars will protect you in the event there is a significant devaluation of your home currency versus the U.S. dollar. However, if your home currency is gaining value in comparison to the U.S. dollar, it would be better to bring most of your traveler's checks in your home currency and exchange money as you need it throughout the year. Be aware, however, that you will have to pay a commission to the bank each time you convert a traveler's check from another currency into U.S. dollars and that very few U.S. establishments handle foreign traveler's checks.
The best thing to do is to call several banks and try to get a sense of whether your home currency is declining or gaining in value against the dollar. Shop around before you exchange funds; larger banks may give you a better rate of exchange. Watch the exchange rate for a period of time and deal when it seems most advantageous. Remember that the rate quoted to you will be different for buying than for selling.
Toward the end of your stay, if you have maintained some funds in your home currency, exchange money only as necessary to avoid paying a fee to convert these funds back to your home currency. Right before leaving the United States, convert the loose change you have into bills; most places will not convert coins.
The following Web site has a useful currency converter:http://www.oanda.com/convert/classic.
THE U.S. MONETARY AND BANKING SYSTEM
The basic monetary unit is the dollar ($). One dollar is equivalent to 100 cents (¢). Paper currency is printed in $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 denominations. Before 2003, all bills were the same size and the same green color. To deter counterfeiting, the U.S. Treasury has new $20, $50 and $100 bills with a subtle background color. Both new and old bills are in circulation.
Coins are minted in the following denominations: penny (1¢), nickel (5¢), dime (10¢), quarter (25¢), half-dollar (50¢ rarely used), gold dollar ($1 rarely used), and silver dollar ($1 rarely used). It may be helpful to keep a supply of coins on hand, especially in cities that require exact change for buses and laundry machines.
Most banks provide checking and savings accounts for customers. In general, you can only cash a check with the bank where you hold an account, or at any of its branch offices. Choose a bank with locations and business hours (which vary from bank to bank) that are convenient for you.
Banks are generally open from 10 am to 3 pm weekdays, and 9 am to noon Saturday, with extended hours on Fridays. In addition, many banks now have 24-hour automatic teller machines (ATMs) that give you access to most bank services, such as withdrawing and depositing money to your account, 24 hours a day. Be very careful when using these machines, and avoid using them at night. Never let anyone use your bank card.
Some of the advantages of a checking account are: you can write checks and thereby avoid carrying a lot of cash; you can earn interest on some checking accounts; your family can transfer money directly to your bank account. Be sure to find out how long you must wait before any money you deposit via bank draft or check is actually available for your use, and be careful not to write a check or checks for more money than you actually have available in your account. U.S. banks charge stiff penalties of $25 or more per check for overdrafts.
Before you decide whether or not to open a checking account, we suggest you speak with other foreign students. The ISEP coordinator will also be familiar with the banking services provided in the area and how they serve the needs of foreign students.
The United States is a credit-oriented society, so if you carry a major credit card (e.g., American Express, MasterCard or Visa) you will be able to use it widely. Credit cards are particularly useful if you travel within the United States. They can be used at hotels, restaurants, shops, gas stations and car rental agencies. In fact, many hotels will insist on payment in advance unless you present a credit card on arrival.
Your credit card bill will reflect the exchange rate on the day your credit card transaction was processed, which may be more or less than what you thought you were paying at the time of your purchase. A word of caution: It is easy to buy something with a credit card even if you do not have money available to pay. However, the interest charged on an outstanding balance adds up quickly and it is very easy to get into debt. If you wish to open a credit card account, it may be easier to obtain one in your home country.
IF YOU NEED MONEY
Advances, Check Cashing
With the use of credit cards and computers, it is now much easier to transfer money from a home account and to cash personal checks. Any bank that honors your type of credit card will help you draw funds in U.S. dollars as a cash advance. These advances are often considered a loan and you can get an advance only up to your line of credit. When requesting an advance, remember that banks always require proper identification. A high interest is charged if this is not paid back within the month.
American Express offers check-cashing privileges to its clients. Any American Express travel service office will cash personal checks from a U.S. account at no charge. Up to $1,000 can be cashed; the first $200 may be provided in local currency, the rest in American Express traveler's checks, with the regular fees applying.
If you think you might need to use bank transfers, or have your initial funds sent to you in the form of a bank draft, visit your bank in your home country before you leave for the United States and ask them for a list of their correspondent banks. Let them know who is authorized to initiate cable transfers to you.
Once in the United States, you can contact your home bank by telegram or phone and receive the money, usually within 48 hours. Be advised that you will probably have to pay the cabling charges both ways, in addition to a commission charged by your U.S. bank. Money can also be cabled from home through American Express; this type of transfer will take two to five days and the charge varies according to how much money is sent.
Alternatively, you can notify your home bank and request that a bank draft in your name be mailed to you, via registered mail, at a specific bank and location. Bank drafts may take up to three weeks to clear.
Sources of Information
To prepare for your time abroad in the United States, please navigate the linked sites below to learn more about the culture, history, and government of the country.
U.S. HISTORY, ARTS & CULTURE
Guide Books and Resources for International Education and its Participants
American History and Historical Documents
U.S. National Park Service
U.S. Forest Service
U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
National Public Radio (NPR)
Website of the Washington Post newspaper
Newspapers such as the The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, etc., are published daily and serve as a lens to understanding the U.S. mentality and current events.
- Magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report are general news magazines published weekly and contain information and news on all aspects of the U.S. and the world.
- Magazines such as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Wired give an overview of American culture.
- Harper's and the Utne Reader compile interesting articles from various media for a more intellectual look at U.S. culture.
Works of literature often serve to highlight culture and illuminate a reader's understanding of the culture. We have compiled prevalent pieces of literature that will provide more background of the U.S. culture. Enjoy!
*All links below will take you to the Amazon.com Web site for content and purchasing information. Most of these works can also be checked out from libraries.
- Succeeding as an International Student in the United States and Canada (Chicago Guides to Academic Life)
- Let's Go USA 24th Edition (Let's Go USA)
- Lonely Planet USA
- The Rough Guide to the USA 8 (Rough Guide Travel Guides)
- USA (Rough Guide 25s)
FICTION & POETRY
- Alvarez, Julia. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (Plume Contemporary Fiction)
- Angelou, Maya. The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou
- Banks, Russell. Continental Drift (P.S.)
- Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451
- Cisneros, Sandra. Woman Hollering Creek: And Other Stories
- Faulkner, William. Light in August (The Corrected Text)
- Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter (Bantam Classics)
- Hughes, Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes
- Kerouac, Jack. On the Road (Penguin Classics)
- Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird
- Lewis, David. The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader (African American History (Penguin))
- London, Jack. The Call of the Wild (Tor Classics)
- Miller, Arthur. The Portable Arthur Miller (Penguin Classics)
- Moore, MariJo and Vine Deloria, Jr. Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing (Nation Books)
- Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon
- Orwell, George. Animal Farm (Signet Classics)
- Poe, Edgar Allan. Great Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe
- Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye
- Sinclair, Upton. <The Jungle (Bantam Classics)
- Smith, Betty. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
- Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men (Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century), Travels with Charley in Search of America
- Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Penguin Classics), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Tor Classics)
- Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie
- Bryson, Bill. I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America
- Grafton, John, ed. The Declaration of Independence and Other Great Documents of American History 1775-1865 (Dover Thrift Editions)
- (includes Patrick Henry's Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,the Monroe Doctrine, theConstitution of the United States and Bill of Rights, and speeches of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln).
- Just, Ward. To What End
- King, Jr., Martin Luther. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience and Other Essays (Dover Thrift Editions)