Official Name: United States of America
Population: 324, 057, 300
Form of Government: Constitution-based federal republic
Capital: Washington, D.C.
Area: 9, 826, 630 square kilometres
Major Mountain Ranges: Rocky Mountains, Appalachian Mountains
Major Rivers: Mississippi, Missouri, Colorado
Languages: English, Spanish
Money: U.S. dollar
Geography of the USA
The United States of America (often referred to as the USA, or simply the US) is the world”s third largest country in size (after Russia and Canada) and the third largest in terms of population (after China and India). Located in North America, the country is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean, and on the east by the Atlantic Ocean. Along the northern border is Canada, and along the southern border is Mexico. There are 50 states and the District of Columbia.
More than twice the size of the European Union, the United States has high mountains in the West and a vast, central plain. The lowest point in the country is in Death Valley, which sits 86m below sea level, and the highest peak is Mount McKinley, standing a whopping 6,198m tall.
Landscape, wildlife and nature of the USA
The landscape varies across this large country – from the tropical beaches of Florida to the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains, from the rolling prairie lands and barren deserts in the west to the huge areas of dense wilderness in the north. Interspersed throughout are the Great Lakes, the Grand Canyon, the majestic Yosemite Valley and the mighty Mississippi River.
The wildlife is as diverse as the landscape. Mammals such as American Buffalo once roamed freely across the plains, but today can only be found in protected areas. The largest carnivores are black bears, grizzlies and even polar bears, which live in the northernmost state of Alaska.
The United States works to look after its wildlife, with nearly 400 areas protected and maintained by the National Park Service, and many other parks in each state. The bald eagle, today a protected species, is the national bird and symbol of the United States.
History of the USA
For centuries, native peoples lived across the vast expanse that would become the United States of America. In the early 17th century, settlers moved from Europe to the ‘New World’, established colonies and displaced the native peoples.
The settlers fought for their independence from Britain in the late 18th century and formed a union of states based on a new constitution. The nation continued to expand westward and, although the country is a relatively young nation, it has become a global power since declaring independence from Britain on July 4, 1776.
The people and culture of the USA
Throughout its history, the United States has been a nation of immigrants. The population is diverse with people from all over the world seeking refuge and a better way of life. The country is divided into six regions – New England, the mid-Atlantic, the South, the Midwest, the Southwest and the West.
European settlers came to New England in search of religious freedom. These states are Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.
The mid-Atlantic region includes Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and the city of Washington, D.C. These industrial areas attracted millions of European immigrants and gave rise to some of the East Coast”s largest cities – New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia.
The South includes Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. These states all struggled in the years following the American Civil War, which lasted from 1860-1865.
The Midwest is home to the country”s agricultural base and is called the ‘nation”s breadbasket”. The region comprises the states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
The Southwest is a beautiful stark landscape of prairie and desert. The states of Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas are considered the Southwest, home to some of the world”s great natural marvels, including the Grand Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns.
The American West, land of the iconic western cowboy and rolling plains, is a symbol of the pioneering spirit of the United States. The West is diverse, ranging from endless wilderness to barren desert, coral reefs to Arctic tundra, Hollywood to Yellowstone National Park. The states of the West include Alaska, Colorado, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
US government and economy
Citizens over the age of 18 years old vote to elect the President and Vice President of the United States every four years. The president lives in the White House in the capital city of Washington, D.C.
The part of the government that makes the country’s laws, controls the money and decides if the USA should go to war is called the Congress. There are two houses of Congress – the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate has 100 members, two from each of the 50 states, and each serves a six-year term. The House of Representatives is made up of 435 representatives, who must be elected every two years.
The Supreme Court is the branch of the government that interprets the laws of the USA. It is the highest court in the country and made up of nine justices, who are each picked by the president and must be approved by Congress.
Advances in the past hundred years have established America as a world leader economically, militarily and technologically. The USA’s important exports include petroleum products, aircrafts, vehicle parts and medical equipment, and the country’s big imports include cars, industrial machinery, computers and crude oil.
If there’s one constant about the USA, it’s change. The country’s pioneer spirit is reflected in its bold outlook and ever-evolving nature, which extends to all corners of the land, from the gleaming skyscrapers of New York to star-saturated Hollywood – and even beyond, to the first human landing on the moon. Here are 18 things you need to know to explore (and survive) the USA.
1. The US is big – 3.8 million square miles big
To put it into flying-time perspective: it takes roughly the same time – give or take an hour – to fly from NYC to LA or to London. Also, two-hour daily commutes? Completely normal.
2. It’s the United States of America – remember there are fifty of them
Is it called soda, pop or soft drink? A subway sandwich, hoagie, hero or grinder? Depends on which state you’re from. Regional differences across the US extend to accents, food, drink, laws and politics. It’s little wonder one of the New York Times’ most-read features was about pronunciation.
3. Everything’s open 24/7, if you know where to look
The hungry beast of commerce ensures that you can probably find a 24/7 joint willing to satisfy your need for a 2am Slurpee, a 3am Double Quarter Pounder (see Supersize It!, below) and a 5am Venti with quintuple espresso shots and a caramel drizzle – especially in the big cities. When travelling through smaller cities and rural areas, you’ll need to plan ahead for earlier closing times or keep a sharp lookout for the odd 24-hour diner.
4. The country’s national parks are spectacular
The US’s national parks – which cover 84 million acres across every state – can claim many superlatives: The lowest point in the Western Hemisphere (Death Valley California); the highest point in North America (Mount McKinley in Denali National Park, Alaska); the longest cave system in the world (Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky); and the largest gypsum sand dunes in the world (White Sands National Monument, New Mexico).
5. There’s a festival for everything: roadkill, fungus, garlic – you name it
America is the land of weird and wonderful festivals, from the Chainsaw Carving Festival (Pennsylvania) to the Testicle Festival (Montana). Plus, deep in the heartland, state fairs are their own special brand of weird, where you can sample essentially everything deep-fried: Twinkies, butter, pig ears, White Castle burgers, bubblegum, Kool Aid and beer…
6. Americans are relentlessly friendly
But that can be more a mode of communication than a personality trait. A chirpy “How are you?” isn’t necessarily meant to be answered. And, the ubiquitous “have a nice day!” is often just another way of saying bye-bye (and perhaps receiving a touch higher tip…).
7. Speaking of tips, Americans give them out generously
Officially: Tipping is absolutely voluntary. Unofficially: 15% to 20% in restaurants is the norm, given that minimum wage is low, and tipping makes up for this.
8. You can always Supersize It!
Not only does fast food still dominate large tracts of the culinary landscape, but it has given rise to such intellectually stimulating phrases as, “Supersize it!” “Where’s the beef?” and “Do you want fries with that?” When in doubt, say yes. All that said, Americans work out with equal fervor – the US consistently tops the list of countries that exercise the most.
9. But the US also excels at wildly innovative, gourmet cuisine…
San Francisco and New York regularly show up on the top lists for number of Michelin stars, and celebrity chefs rival Hollywood royalty, with big names like Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck, Anthony Bourdain and Rachael Ray spawning multimedia empires, with dozens of restaurants, books, TV shows, films and more.
10. New York is not the centre of the universe
Unless you’re talking to a New Yorker, in which case it is.
11. Los Angeles is not the centre of the universe
Unless you’re talking to an Angeleno, in which case it is.
12. Regional stereotypes abound
The laidback Californian? The “welcome, y’all” Southerner? The headstrong New Yorker? According to a study reported by Time magazine, yes, yes and yes. The study divided the US into three key regions: the New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, which were termed “temperamental and uninhibited;” the South and Midwest, called “friendly and conventional;” and the West Coast, Rocky Mountains and Sun Belt – “relaxed and creative.”
13. Montana has three times as many cows as it does people
The east and west coasts get much of the attention, but the US’s rolling interior encompasses ocean-sized expanses of farmland. In some circles, it’s called “flyover country” for the reasons you’d think.
14. The US doesn’t use the brilliantly logical metric system like the rest of the world
Height is measured in feet; football fields in yards; distances in miles. Though the “use of the metric system has been sanctioned by law in the US since 1866” according to the CIA website, widespread use has been slow, to say the least. The US isn’t entirely alone: two other countries also don’t use the metric system – Myanmar and Liberia.
15. America’s car culture is unrivalled
A quintessential American experience? Throttling down the highway, the wind in your air and the road ribboning behind you. Though the country’s car culture has waned since its heyday in the ‘50s and Mustang-era ‘60s, the car is still the dominant force in transport – and seeps into every facet of culture, including music: Life is a Highway, Route 66, Born to be Wild, Pink Cadillac, and so on.
16. Baseball is America’s pastime
The rest of the world has soccer. America has baseball. During baseball season – April to September – there are few more classic American experiences than cheering on your favorite team (go, Yankees!) under the warm spring sunshine, enjoying a hot dog and beer (or five).
17. Relatively speaking, the US is just a toddler
Native Americans arrived more than a thousand years ago, but the formation of the United States is just a couple of hundred of years old – the US celebrated 239 years on July 4, 2015.
18. The American Dream is still going strong
No, the streets aren’t paved with the gold but the belief in the American Dream? Still going strong (especially if your last name is Rockefeller).
The American education system offers a rich field of choices for international students. There is such an array of schools, programs and locations that the choices may overwhelm students, even those from the U.S. As you begin your school search, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the American education system. Understanding the system will help you narrow your choices and develop your education plan.
The Educational Structure
Primary and Secondary School
Prior to higher education, American students attend primary and secondary school for a combined total of 12 years. These years are referred to as the first through twelfth grades.
Around age six, U.S. children begin primary school, which is most commonly called “elementary school.” They attend five or six years and then go onto secondary school.
Secondary school consists of two programs: the first is “middle school” or “junior high school” and the second program is “high school.” A diploma or certificate is awarded upon graduation from high school. After graduating high school (12th grade), U.S. students may go on to college or university. College or university study is known as “higher education.”
Just like American students, you will have to submit your academic transcripts as part of your application for admission to university or college. Academic transcripts are official copies of your academic work. In the U.S. this includes your “grades” and “grade point average” (GPA), which are measurements of your academic achievement. Courses are commonly graded using percentages, which are converted into letter grades.
The grading system and GPA in the U.S. can be confusing, especially for international students. The interpretation of grades has a lot of variation. For example, two students who attended different schools both submit their transcripts to the same university. They both have 3.5 GPAs, but one student attended an average high school, while the other attended a prestigious school that was academically challenging. The university might interpret their GPAs differently because the two schools have dramatically different standards.
Therefore, there are some crucial things to keep in mind:
- You should find out the U.S. equivalent of the last level of education you completed in your home country.
- Pay close attention to the admission requirements of each university and college, as well as individual degree programs, which may have different requirements than the university.
- Regularly meet with an educational advisor or guidance counselor to make sure you are meeting the requirements.Academic YearThe academic year at many schools is composed of two terms called “semesters.” (Some schools use a three-term calendar known as the “trimester” system.) Still, others further divide the year into the quarter system of four terms, including an optional summer session. Basically, if you exclude the summer session, the academic year is either comprised of two semesters or three quarter terms.
- The U.S. Higher Education System: Levels of Study
- The school calendar usually begins in August or September and continues through May or June. The majority of new students begin in autumn, so it is a good idea for international students to also begin their U.S. university studies at this time. There is a lot of excitement at the beginning of the school year and students form many great friendships during this time, as they are all adjusting to a new phase of academic life. Additionally, many courses are designed for students to take them in sequence, starting in autumn and continuing through the year.
- Your educational advisor or guidance counselor will be able to advise you on whether or not you must spend an extra year or two preparing for U.S. university admission. If an international student entered a U.S. university or college prior to being eligible to attend university in their own country, some countries’ governments and employers may not recognize the students’ U.S. education.
- First Level: Undergraduate A student who is attending a college or university and has not earned a bachelor’s degree, is studying at the undergraduate level. It typically takes about four years to earn a bachelor’s degree. You can either begin your studies in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree at a community college or a four-year university or college.Many students choose to study at a community college in order to complete the first two years of prerequisite courses. They will earn an Associate of Arts (AA) transfer degree and then transfer to a four-year university or college.A very unique characteristic of the American higher education system is that you can change your major multiple times if you choose. It is extremely common for American students to switch majors at some point in their undergraduate studies. Often, students discover a different field that they excel in or enjoy. The American education system is very flexible. Keep in mind though that switching majors may result in more courses, which means more time and money.
- A “major” is the specific field of study in which your degree is focused. For example, if someone’s major is journalism, they will earn a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. You will be required to take a certain number of courses in this field in order to meet the degree requirements of your major. You must choose your major at the beginning of your third year of school.
- Your first two years of study you will generally be required to take a wide variety of classes in different subjects, commonly known as prerequisite courses: literature, science, the social sciences, the arts, history, and so forth. This is so you achieve a general knowledge, a foundation, of a variety of subjects prior to focusing on a specific field of study.
- “The American system is much more open. In Hong Kong you just learn what the teacher writes on the board. In America, you discuss the issues and focus more on ideas.”
- Second Level: Graduate in Pursuit of a Master’s DegreeFurthermore, international students from some countries are only permitted to study abroad at a graduate level. You should inquire about the credentials needed to get a job in your country before you apply to a postgraduate university in the USA.Graduate programs in pursuit of a master’s degree typically take one to two years to complete. For example, the MBA (master of business administration) is an extremely popular degree program that takes about two years. Other master’s programs, such as journalism, only take one year.
- The majority of a master’s program is spent in classroom study and a graduate student must prepare a long research paper called a “master’s thesis” or complete a “master’s project.”
- A graduate program is usually a division of a university or college. To gain admission, you will need to take the GRE (graduate record examination). Certain master’s programs require specific tests, such as the LSAT for law school, the GRE or GMAT for business school, and the MCAT for medical school.
- Presently, a college or university graduate with a bachelor’s degree may want to seriously think about graduate study in order to enter certain professions or advance their career. This degree is usually mandatory for higher-level positions in library science, engineering, behavioral health and education.
- Third Level: Graduate in Pursuit of a Doctorate DegreeFor the first two years of the program most doctoral candidates enroll in classes and seminars. At least another year is spent conducting firsthand research and writing a thesis or dissertation. This paper must contain views, designs, or research that have not been previously published.Characteristics of the U.S. Higher Education SystemClasses range from large lectures with several hundred students to smaller classes and seminars (discussion classes) with only a few students. The American university classroom atmosphere is very dynamic. You will be expected to share your opinion, argue your point, participate in class discussions and give presentations. International students find this one of the most surprising aspects of the American education system.Professors issue grades for each student enrolled in the course. Grades are usually based upon:
- Each week professors usually assign textbook and other readings. You will be expected to keep up-to-date with the required readings and homework so you can participate in class discussions and understand the lectures. Certain degree programs also require students to spend time in the laboratory.
- Classroom Environment
- A doctoral dissertation is a discussion and summary of the current scholarship on a given topic. Most U.S. universities awarding doctorates also require their candidates to have a reading knowledge of two foreign languages, to spend a required length of time “in residence,” to pass a qualifying examination that officially admits candidates to the PhD program, and to pass an oral examination on the same topic as the dissertation.
- Many graduate schools consider the attainment of a master’s degree the first step towards earning a PhD (doctorate). But at other schools, students may prepare directly for a doctorate without also earning a master’s degree. It may take three years or more to earn a PhD degree. For international students, it may take as long as five or six years.
- Each professor will have a unique set of class participation requirements, but students are expected to participate in class discussions, especially in seminar classes. This is often a very important factor in determining a student’s grade.
- A midterm examination is usually given during class time.
- One or more research or term papers, or laboratory reports must be submitted for evaluation.
- Possible short exams or quizzes are given. Sometimes professors will give an unannounced “pop quiz.” This doesn’t count heavily toward the grade, but is intended to inspire students to keep up with their assignments and attendance.
- A final examination will be held after the final class meeting.Each course is worth a certain number of credits or credit hours. This number is roughly the same as the number of hours a student spends in class for that course each week. A course is typically worth three to five credits.TransfersTypes of U.S. higher educationA state school is supported and run by a state or local government. Each of the 50 U.S. states operates at least one state university and possibly several state colleges. Many of these public universities schools have the name of the state, or the actual word “State” in their names: for example, Washington State University and the University of Michigan.These schools are privately run as opposed to being run by a branch of the government. Tuition will usually be higher than state schools. Often, private U.S. universities and colleges are smaller in size than state schools.3. Community CollegeCommunity college graduates most commonly transfer to four-year colleges or universities to complete their degree. Because they can transfer the credits they earned while attending community college, they can complete their bachelor’s degree program in two or more additional years. Many also offer ESL or intensive English language programs, which will prepare students for university-level courses.4. Institute of Technology
- An institute of technology is a school that provides at least four years of study in science and technology. Some have graduate programs, while others offer short-term courses
- If you do not plan to earn a higher degree than the associate’s, you should find out if an associate’s degree will qualify you for a job in your home country.
- Community colleges are two-year colleges that award an associate’s degrees (transferable), as well as certifications. There are many types of associate degrees, but the most important distinguishing factor is whether or not the degree is transferable. Usually, there will be two primary degree tracks: one for academic transfer and the other prepares students to enter the workforce straightaway. University transfer degrees are generally associate of arts or associate of science. Not likely to be transferrable are the associate of applied science degrees and certificates of completion.
- Religiously affiliated universities and colleges are private schools. Nearly all these schools welcome students of all religions and beliefs. Yet, there are a percentage of schools that prefer to admit students who hold similar religious beliefs as those in which the school was founded.
- 2. Private College or University
- 1. State College or University
- If a student enrolls at a new university before finishing a degree, generally most credits earned at the first school can be used to complete a degree at the new university. This means a student can transfer to another university and still graduate within a reasonable time.
- A full-time program at most schools is 12 or 15 credit hours (four or five courses per term) and a certain number of credits must be fulfilled in order to graduate. International students are expected to enroll in a full-time program during each term.
- Each course is worth a certain number of credits or credit hours. This number is roughly the same as the number of hours a student spends in class for that course each week. A course is typically worth three to five credits.A full-time program at most schools is 12 or 15 credit hours (four or five courses per term) and a certain number of credits must be fulfilled in order to graduate. International students are expected to enroll in a full-time program during each term.TransfersIf a student enrolls at a new university before finishing a degree, generally most credits earned at the first school can be used to complete a degree at the new university. This means a student can transfer to another university and still graduate within a reasonable time.Types of U.S. higher education
- State College or University
A state school is supported and run by a state or local government. Each of the 50 U.S. states operates at least one state university and possibly several state colleges. Many of these public universities schools have the name of the state, or the actual word “State” in their names: for example, Washington State University and the University of Michigan.
- Private College or University
These schools are privately run as opposed to being run by a branch of the government. Tuition will usually be higher than state schools. Often, private U.S. universities and colleges are smaller in size than state schools.
Religiously affiliated universities and colleges are private schools. Nearly all these schools welcome students of all religions and beliefs. Yet, there are a percentage of schools that prefer to admit students who hold similar religious beliefs as those in which the school was founded.
- Community College
Community colleges are two-year colleges that award an associate’s degrees (transferable), as well as certifications. There are many types of associate degrees, but the most important distinguishing factor is whether or not the degree is transferable. Usually, there will be two primary degree tracks: one for academic transfer and the other prepares students to enter the workforce straightaway. University transfer degrees are generally associate of arts or associate of science. Not likely to be transferrable are the associate of applied science degrees and certificates of completion.
Community college graduates most commonly transfer to four-year colleges or universities to complete their degree. Because they can transfer the credits they earned while attending community college, they can complete their bachelor’s degree program in two or more additional years. Many also offer ESL or intensive English language programs, which will prepare students for university-level courses.
If you do not plan to earn a higher degree than the associate’s, you should find out if an associate’s degree will qualify you for a job in your home country.
- Institute of Technology
An institute of technology is a school that provides at least four years of study in science and technology. Some have graduate programs, while others offer short-term courses.
Why Study in the USA
What would it mean to have an American university listed on your resume? Why would potential employers pause and take notice of your education credentials from the United States?
It would mean that you have advanced English language skills and valuable intercultural experience. It would show that you studied within one of the best higher education systems in the world, with access to advanced technology and research. They would know that you received in-depth instruction, learned to problem-solve and have knowledge of modern practices within your field.
It would mean that you have more opportunities.
Studying in the United States and abroad doesn’t just give you tangible degrees and certificates. Your experience says something about who you are. Living and studying in another country—especially where your language isn’t spoken—is challenging, requires courage and a positive attitude. Sometimes, these characteristics are more influential than your degree.
Life here, both as an international student and visitor, will probably be different from what you expect. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that the images from films and television programs are not always true. Americans come in a variety of sizes, colors and shapes and in general are very friendly and will be interested in learning about you and your country.
For any international student, the USA has a lot to offer: one of the most prestigious, top ranked higher education systems in the world, eclectic cities and beautiful natural parks, culture, history and a very multicultural population.
Diversity and Variety
The United States offers variety.
There is a wide range of schools, countless areas of study and specialty degrees. If you are interested in studying business, you are not relegated to just general study, but can choose from many concentrations: accounting, marketing, international business, business management, business administration, or finance. (There are many more!) This type of specialty study is available at the undergraduate, graduate and doctorate level, too.
One option you may not be aware of is studying at a community college, which is a two-year school in which you can begin your university study. You can complete the first two years of your bachelor’s degree at a community college and then transfer your credentials to a four-year university. This is extremely common in the USA. Community colleges offer lower tuition costs, smaller class sizes and more personal attention. Many community colleges also offer intensive English language programs.
Or, you can begin your studies at a four-year university or college. The variation and number of choices reflects the diversity and enormity of the U.S. You can study at a large public university or college. If you prefer a more intimate campus and a smaller community, you may choose a small private university.
The land and people of the USA are also incredibly varied. Wherever you choose to study, you will encounter a regional culture rich in history and local traditions. For instance, the West Coast region has many beaches, outdoor activities, the people have a relaxed attitude and you will probably find many local international communities. The Midwest has many large research universities and the people are known for their hospitality and kindness. The USA is a multiracial society that is still absorbing new immigrants, which makes it a very dynamic and exciting place to experience. While students must exercise caution in a few locations, streets and university campuses are generally clean and safe.
A Unique Higher Education System
U.S. universities and colleges may differ from those in your home country in several ways. For one thing, small class sizes are very common. There may be as few as 10 to 20 students in a class, giving you the personal attention you need in order to succeed. While in class, students are encouraged and expected to contribute to the discussion. Professors meet with students in their offices or even share coffee or meals with them. The close relationship between students and faculty serves to motivate students and fosters a personal approach to the curriculum. Studying in the U.S. gives you the opportunity to gain a mentor in your given career field, an invaluable resource.
You may be surprised at your professors willingness to challenge authority. Academic freedom is one of the hallmarks of a U.S. university. You will notice different perspectives on instruction. Here, students are trained to observe and analyze a problem, then solve it. You will be expected to listen to your classmates and challenge their points of view. The goal is pragmatic, so that you will gain confidence and the ability to organize and present an argument.
Most American university students live on or near the school campus. You will have many opportunities to join planned and informal activities with other students, such as hiking, skiing, museum visits, excursions to new cities, and local tourist attractions. Imagine visiting New York City and taking a ferry to the Statue of Liberty! Many schools have international student organizations and clubs that also plan activities. This interaction with other students will enhance your English language skills. Your fellow students will also teach you about American culture and about the diverse cultures represented on any U.S. university or college campus.
The Leading Edge
The United States is the leader in many areas of technology and research. While studying here, you will be exposed to advanced technology and research. You may be fortunate enough to meet, and even study, with the leading scholars in your chosen field. Why not study with the best?
Living and learning in the USA will exhilarate you. It will change the landscape of your life permanently. We guarantee that you will return home changed—more confident, more open and knowledgeable, making you a citizen of the world with a much broader perspective!