US universities are considered the most prestigious in the world. According to the QS 2020 ranking, 38 of American universities are among the world’s top 150. The front-runners are Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and Stanford University. Largely due to their reputation, an American degree opens up excellent career prospects anywhere in the world. However, when submitting documents, one should take into account that there is no free education in the USA.

Admission to US universities and colleges is characterized by extremely high competition. Another challenge is taking standardized tests such as SAT / ACT and GRE / GMAT. The selection is also based on the language test results, Grade Point Average, letter of motivation and other application documents.

Top US universities

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Most prestigious US universities according to employers

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Most affordable universities in the USA
CostUniversityStateRatingCategory according to US News
6,187 USDDelta State UniversityMS92Regional universities
6,224 USDMinot State UniversityND106Regional universities
8,134 USDBemidji State UniversityMN99Regional universities
8,293 USDOklahoma Panhandle State UniversityOKRNPRegional colleges
8,312 USDWest Texas A&M UniversityTX80Regional universities
8,894 USDMayville State UniversityNDRNPRegional Colleges
9,563 USDNorthern State UniversitySD47Regional Colleges
9,703 USDMidwestern State UniversityTXRNPRegional Universities
9,795 USDSouth Dakota State UniversitySD181National Universities
9,804 USDWayne State CollegeNE84Regional Universities
Complete list of US universities — US News
Advantages of US universities
  • Rolling admission. Many US universities accept applications from applicants not only within specified time periods (early admission, regular admission) but also all year round as vacant seats appear (rolling admission). This is an additional chance for those who missed the previous deadlines for some reason.
  • Cultural diversity. US universities are the most international in the world. Over a million foreign students study here[1]. In some universities, their ratio is estimated at 40-50% of the total number of students. Many foreigners choose the United States as their study destination solely due to its multicultural environment.
  • Competitive environment. It is a crucial factor for the development of US education: universities compete for brilliant students, professors compete for remarkable research grants, and students compete for excellent grades and scholarships. In case of universities, this directly affects their infrastructure and development — the best students are likely to choose the most prestigious and promising universities that provide outstanding facilities. In case of professors, the prestige of the university attracts eminent foreign academics, and therefore American universities conduct fundamental researches and operate with huge funding. In case of students, competition motivates, encourages personal growth and develops leadership.
  • Scientific life. The USA is a renowned leader in research and development. Billions of dollars are invested in science. That is why the United States is a center of attraction for many scientists in the world, and American universities actively involve students in research. At the same time, creativity and innovative thinking are highly valued. In specialties related to economics, business, and sociology, students often try to address real economic or social problems using the case-study method.
Disadvantages of US Universities
  • Entry requirements. For admission to most US universities and colleges, a foreign applicant must pass some standardized test: SAT or ACT for undergraduate studies, GMAT or GRE for graduate programs. For many applicants, this can be a real challenge.
  • High competition. Admission to highly-rated universities in the United States is accompanied by extremely high competition. In some universities, the acceptance rate is 5-10%[2]. Of course, there are more feasible options. Therefore, in order to increase their chances, students usually submit documents to multiple universities at once. It should be noted, however, each university charges an application fee of 50-100 USD.
  • Decentralization of education. The flexibility of the educational process, which is one of the main advantages of US education, doesn’t come without drawbacks. The autonomy of universities and colleges makes the whole system decentralized. This is manifested in multiple programs and courses with curricula and standards varying greatly from one university to another. As a result, inconsistencies in qualifications granted by different universities may be misinterpreted by the employers.

Admission to American universities

Type of studyAgeDurationMin. costAvg. costMin. language levelExams
Pathway / Pre-Master's16+1 year15,000 USD/year30,000 USD/yearB1TOEFL iBT 55
Two-year college16+2 years4,000 USD/year12,000 USD/yearB1TOEFL iBT 55
Undergraduate17+4 years18,000 USD/year30,000 USD/yearB2TOEFL iBT 61, SAT / ACT
Master's20+2 years18,000 USD/year25,000 USD/yearC1TOEFL iBT 78, GRE / GMAT
Medical school20+4 years25,000 USD/year40,000 USD/yearC1TOEFL iBT 78, MCAT
Doctorate20+4-6 years18,000 USD/year25,000 USD/yearC1TOEFL iBT 78, GRE / GMAT

There is no unified application system for international students in the US. Documents are submitted through the websites of universities. There are usually 3 intakes here: Fall, Spring, and Summer. Taking exams (SAT / ACT or GRE / GMAT), collecting documents and other application processes can take quite a long time, therefore it is recommended to begin preparing a year before the course starts.

At US universities, there are usually several admission periods:

  • Early admission: Mid September — early December. This period has many advantages, including a low level of competition and a lot of time for arranging financial aid and applying for a visa. The application can be organized in three ways — Early decision, Early action and Single choice early action. The first means that documents are submitted to only one university, and in case of a positive decision, the applicant is bound to this university and can no longer consider other options. The second and the third options are non-binding. Although single choice means submitting a single application, both early action plans allow students to apply to other universities on a regular basis.
  • Regular admission: December — February. The period in which the majority of applications are considered and competition is mounting. Students accepted within Early action plan, still can apply to other universities.
  • Rolling admission: Documents are actually accepted all year round, applications are accepted when vacant places appear on the course. That is an additional opportunity for those who did not apply in the previous time frames. However, very few scholarships are available throughout the year.

Universities may require an evaluation report from one of the authorised independent organisations, for example, WES, EСE. Depending on the organisation, it requires certified translations, academic transcripts and in some cases apostille verification. The fees vary from 100 USD to 205 USD.

After being selected, the applicant is to make an entry in a special database — Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). The SEVIS I-901 fee is 200 USD.

Entry requirements at American universities
For admission to a Pathway program or Pre-Master's:
  • A certificate of complete secondary education (high school diploma) or a bachelor's degree;
  • Proof of English proficiency TOEFL iBT 55 or IELTS 5.0-5.5 (for those who do not meet minimum requirements, language courses are available).
For admission to undergraduate programs basic requirements are: For admission to graduate schools (master’s and doctoral programs):

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Types of educational institutions in the United States

Today there are about 4.5 thousand institutions of higher education in the United States — colleges and universities. These terms are often used interchangeably and both mean educational institutions providing post-secondary education. However, some differences still exist. The following independent types of educational institutions in the USA can be distinguished:

  • Two-year colleges (community / junior / technical / city ​​colleges) provide vocational (continuing) education. Students are awarded certificates, diplomas and associate's degrees.
  • Four-year colleges (four-year and liberal arts colleges) grant only undergraduate qualifications (bachelor's, associate's).
  • Universities offer both undergraduate and graduate programs.

Typically, a university has a complex structure:

  • College. A four-year undergraduate institution being part of a larger university. For example, Harvard College, Yale College;
  • Graduate school. Advanced-level school offering Master's and Doctoral academic degrees. Depending on the size of the university, a grad school can combine several fields of study (mostly Humanities).
  • Professional school. Highly specialized graduate school. It involves advanced practical training in a particular professional field. For example, medicine, nursing, business, engineering, law schools. There can be several professional schools within a university.

Sometimes four-year colleges also offer graduate programs, which makes the line between them even more blurry. Many colleges, which are actually universities, prefer to retain their old names because of tradition, e.g. St. Joseph's College, College of William & Mary.

In the United States, there is no federal body that is responsible for the accreditation of all educational institutions. Instead, many independent organizations evaluate universities according to a number of criteria: quality of education, degrees and publishing records of the faculty, equipment of libraries, and financial solvency. This is especially important for international students since a prerequisite for obtaining a student visa is admission to one of the SEVP-certified schools.

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Colleges in the USA

In most countries, universities are considered to be better and more prestigious than colleges. But that is not the case in America. Here both types of four-year institutions are academically equal. At the same time, both have their pros and cons. Universities offer a wider choice of educational programs and elective courses, while colleges, due to their size, provide smaller academic groups and closer interaction with teachers.

Two-year community colleges also have some features. Upon completion of training, a student is awarded an associate's degree, which already allows a graduate to look for a job in their specialty. However, it should be noted that the average salary for associate’s degree holders is 798 USD per week, for bachelor’s degree holders — 860 USD per week. The unemployment rate is 4.3% and 2.8%, respectively[3]. Therefore, most students prefer to continue their studies in the 3rd year of undergraduate studies at four-year colleges and universities, where they can be enrolled under partnership agreements of educational institutions.

Such a scheme of transferring from one institution to another is becoming increasingly popular for several reasons. Firstly, it saves a lot of money — tuition fees of community colleges are several times lower than those of four-year institutions. Secondly, that is almost guaranteed admission — a student does not have to participate in a difficult competition in case of initial applying to a four-year college or university.

Public and private universities in America

American universities are divided into private and public (state). Both charge tuition fees.

Public universities receive funding from particular states in which they are located and therefore the fees for in-state students are lower. All the rest — out-of-state students — are subject to higher rates, regardless of whether they are foreigners or residents of a different US state.

Private universities and colleges are ineligible for state funding but may receive a portion of federal research grants. Most of their income is student payments, which are usually higher than at public universities. The cost is the same for everyone, including international and out-of-state students.

State universities are mainly large educational institutions with a serious research base. Private universities offer the same or even superior quality of education. The most famous and prestigious universities in the world are private, e.g Harvard, Princeton, Stanford. However, in the USA, the type of ownership is a secondary concern. Universities are valued for their facilities and achievements of alumni. When choosing a university, one should be guided not only by prestige and rankings but also by location, campus infrastructure, courses and hobby clubs available, etc.

Groups and associations of US universities

Many American universities are part of groups or associations.

The Ivy League

That is no doubt the most famous group of universities in America. Initially, the Ivy League was founded as an athletic conference of sports teams from eight private universities located in the Northeast of the US[4]. Today, the term Ivy League refers to the group of elite US universities with large endowments. The Ivies are characterized by academic excellence, selectivity, and social elitism.

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The Public Ivies

The term Public Ivies is used to refer to the best public universities in the United States. In terms of quality of education, these institutions are not inferior to private universities of the Ivy League. Membership in this group is not official and based solely on the subjective opinion of writers and academics. According to various versions, the group includes up to 30 universities. For the first time, the term Public Ivies was used by Richard Mall in his book Public Ivies: A Guide to America's Best Public Undergraduate Colleges and Universities. The original universities included in the list are the following:

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The Association of American Universities

An organization of leading private and state research universities of North America (63 in the USA and 2 in Canada[5]), founded in 1900. AAU members receive most of the federal funding for research. Membership in the Association is by invitation, which must be confirmed by at least 75% of the current members.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities

A national association, which includes more than 1,350 educational institutions — private and public colleges (including community colleges) and universities[6]. The mission of AAC&U is to promote the values ​​of liberal education by establishing equality and quality as the basic principles for undergraduate education.

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Free universities in America

In America there are no free educational institutions. Tuition fees in state universities are lower than in private ones, but for international students there is no considerable difference. Many universities and colleges provide students with financial aid, based either on their financial situation (need-based) or academic achievements and talents (merit-based).

The five largest US universities accept students (local and foreign) on a need-blind basis. It means that any decent candidate who has been selected at Harvard, Amherst, Yale, Princeton or MIT, can get some funding, regardless of his or her financial situation.

There are also scholarship programs funded by various external foundations and private organizations.

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Infrastructure of US universities

In the USA there are some of the most splendid and comfortable student campuses in the world. They are mostly located in green areas or close to parks and garden parks. Some university buildings in the USA are architectural monuments and tourist attractions.

All US universities are well equipped with scientific laboratories and research centers. At research universities, their number can reach several hundred. Also, universities have libraries, churches, sports sites. Larger educational institutions maintain their own clinics, museums, galleries, workshops, concert halls, and theater venues. University campuses are located in vast territories and have residences and apartments for students, as well as cafes and buffets.

University campuses have WiFi to access the internet, as well as the educational network. Almost always, university grounds are equipped with bicycle paths.

Pattern of studies at US universities

Education at US universities is quite flexible, based on a system of credits: students arrange their time themselves, choose subjects to study within an academic term. Examinations are taken in the middle of the semester (or trimester) and at the end of the year.

Each course of study consists of a certain number of credits (units). Normally, there is a minimum number of units set for the course. But students are not limited to the mandatory minimum and take subjects that they think might be beneficial to master the major. Usually, 120-130 credits are enough for a bachelor's degree and 30-45 — for a master's degree.

Classes at American universities are mostly seminars — students learn to think, reflect, debate, argue and discuss. Traditional lectures are not very common in the USA. Seminars, discussions and team projects are aimed at developing critical thinking.

Particular attention is paid to extracurricular and research work. Students spend a large amount of time in laboratories, libraries, research centers. Thus, students receive fundamental theoretical knowledge and consolidate them in practice.

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Student clubs in American universities

Hobby clubs are common in the USA. There are dozens or even hundreds of them in each college or university. Usually, these are clubs for those who are keen on sports (golf, rugby, baseball, frisbee), theater, music, literature, cooking, cinema, art, foreign languages, photography, astronomy, etc. US universities welcome communities of young politicians, speakers, and debaters. There are even clubs for wine, anime, and cactus lovers. As a rule, student clubs are open to all university students. They are extremely popular among international students.

Interesting facts about US universities

  • American universities are world leaders in the number of graduates who have become Nobel Prize winners. So, from 2015 to 2019, 50 laureates were awarded, 28 are affiliated with US universities[7].
  • The student capital of the United States is Boston, aka the Athens of America[8]. There are several dozen universities in Boston itself and nearby, including Harvard University and the famous MIT — Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • US residents attach great importance to higher education and are ready to repay student loans for many years. In 2019, more than 45 million people in the United States have debts, the total sum of which is almost 1.6 trillion dollars[9].
  • In the 30s, Stanford University actively encouraged its graduates and students to engage in entrepreneurship, which led to the emergence of many world-famous companies such as Google, Yahoo, Cisco, Sun Microsystems. Over time, a huge community of IT companies was formed not far from Stanford University. It is now well-known as Silicon Valley[10].
  • US universities have the most incredible budgets in the world. For example, the endowment of Harvard University in 2019 is more than 40 thousand billion dollars[11]. Even some countries do not possess such finance. Thanks to endowments, US universities are perfectly equipped with technological facilities and enjoy the opportunity to attract gifted academics and students from around the world.
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