How to study in the US as an international student can make or break your success as a student abroad. American universities are popular choices for international students because they boast some of the best undergraduate programs in the world, as well as the renowned Ivy League schools. International students can face many challenges as US students, but knowing the ins and outs of American higher education can help. In this blog, we’ll cover what you need to know about studying in the US as an international student, the US grading system, exams and study tips and how to succeed as an international student.

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7 min read

What you need to know about studying in the US Class culture at US universities International student experience in the US Study strategies for US international students US grading system US university exams US standardized tests When and how to study for exams FAQs

What you need to know about studying in the US

Studying in the US as an international student can be an amazingly rewarding experience. America is the most popular destination for international students who want to study abroad, and for good reason. The US has over 4,000 higher education institutions within its borders, and boasts some of the best higher education programs in the world. There’s no doubt that studying in the US as an international student, you’ll gain a top-notch education, unique cultural experience and plenty of social interaction.

If you’re planning to make the jump and study in the US, you’ll undoubtedly have a lot of questions. You’ll want to know how hard university courses in the US are, how higher education is structured, what it’s like to study at US universities and the best strategies for success. You may want to know how to succeed at the best undergrad business schools in America, or you want to get into an Ivy League med school as an international applicant. Whatever your reason for studying in the US, it can be a daunting challenge.

We’ll dive into some of the specifics of the American higher education system, but first we’ll look at some things you need to know if you’ll be studying in the US as an international student.

Class culture at US universities

For many international students, classroom culture in the US will be entirely foreign. Especially in higher education, the US culture is at times both relaxed and demanding. University courses in the US are difficult, and your professors will expect you to apply yourself accordingly. International students can expect a more relaxed and informal classroom culture than they may be used to, with more flexible schedules and an abundance of social activities that are considered just as important as academics. But underneath there is a strict grading system and some hard rules students need to follow.

At US universities, grades and test scores matter. Maintaining a good GPA is extremely important, so knowing how to study, and study well, is your best strategy here. Having a good international student advisor can help, too! Devote yourself as well to your academic study as you do to the social experience of US universities, and you’ll excel. Remember that the common attitude at many US universities is a “work hard, play hard” approach.

Embrace the flexibility of American college culture, and immerse yourself in everything there is to offer. But keep in mind you’re there to study and get a good education, so arm yourself with good study strategy!

International student experience in the US

Culture shock is a very real concern for international students who come to the US. Apart from navigating an entirely new education atmosphere and orienting yourself at your new university, you’ll also need to familiarize yourself with a new city and wider culture. It can be overwhelming, and it usually takes a month or two for culture shock to really set in, but it helps to keep yourself organized, take things one step a time and take advantage of student resources wherever you can. You can also talk to a guidance counselor or college counseling for international students service, who may have insider tips to share. You should also explore international student scholarship consulting, since tuition costs are famously high in the US.

As you adjust to the American way of life, you’ll simultaneously be immersed in the famous US college culture of social activities, extracurriculars, athletics and arts. There will be endless things to see and do, so be ready to jump in with both feet and keep yourself open to opportunities. All of this is part of the experience of being an international student.

Next we’ll look at some study strategies and tips to help you learn how to excel in the US education system.

Interested in applying to an Ivy League School? Check out this video.

Study strategies for US international students

Undergraduate degrees in the US typically take 4 years to complete, with the first two years requiring students to complete the usual schedule of courses in communications, history, math and literature to develop a broad base of knowledge. The final two years will be focused on your chosen major or field of study. You’ll also have an option to study two majors at once, change your major or add a minor, or secondary, smaller focus of study. As a student in the US, you have a wide range of courses you can take and plenty of ways to customize your degree to your preferences, strengths and career goals. This also means your study schedule will often be full and varied as you take on different courses and a variable type of learning experiences.

US grading system

The US grading system utilizes both a GPA score and a letter grade score, with each letter corresponding to a percentage score. The US letter grades are A, B,C, D and F, with A being the highest grade and F being the lowest, or a failing grade. US letter grades may also use a plus and minus system, so will include A+, A, A-, B+ and so on. There is no plus or minus F grade, as anything below a D or D- is considered a failing grade in the US. In general, A grades are considered excellent, B grades are above average scores, C grades are considered average, and D grades are considered below average but still passing scores.

Your overall grades for all your courses provide your final GPA score, so a low grade in one class can pull your GPA down, but a high mark in another will bump it up. In general, you want to keep your scores as high as possible to maintain your GPA, but it is possible to increase your GPA over time as you learn the ropes at a US university.

The table below illustrates the conversion between US letter grades, percentage points and GPA scores.

Conversions between US academic grades and international grading systems may vary since other countries may not use a similar grading system.

US university exams

Almost all US universities have exams, though the type and schedule of these may vary. Mid-term and final exams are commonplace at US institutions, but the format of these exams is typically standard across institutions. Students may also need to familiarize themselves with US standardized exams, although these are often used for admissions purposes or to enter postgraduate study programs. We’ll take a quick look at the types of exams international students might face below.

US standardized tests

Almost every college in the US will require students to submit a standardized test as part of the admissions process. These tests are designed to test your overall academic knowledge and proficiency for admission to American undergraduate programs. The two most commonly used tests in the US are the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and American College Testing (ACT), which are both multiple choice tests. An important tip when taking these tests is to remember that they will not subtract points for wrong answers, so use the multiple choice elimination method by crossing out two of the wrong answers, leaving yourself with a 50/50 chance of being correct. Even if you get the answer wrong, you won’t lose marks, so guessing is better than leaving a question blank. Each university may have requirements for minimum scores accepted so be sure to check what your chosen university’s test and scoring requirements are.

International students may also need to take English language proficiency tests to study in the US. These test an applicant’s English proficiency in reading, listening, writing and speaking, so admissions boards can gauge whether an international applicant can successfully study in the US. The most commonly used tests are the IELTS and TOEFL.

International graduate students studying in the US will need to learn how to ace specialized qualifying exams, too. These might include studying for the LSAT for students who want to study law in the US, studying for the GMAT for MBA programs or studying for the MCAT for students pursuing a career in medicine.

For pre-med students, there are resources you can use, including MCAT prep courses, MCAT prep books and MCAT study guides. These are all highly specialized study aids, but are beneficial for international students to get comfortable with the US versions of pre-med or pre-law evaluations and how to prepare for them.

If you’re a future international business student wondering how to get into Harvard Business School or other top-tier MBA programs in the US like Stanford, Kellogg or Wharton, you’ll need to take GMAT or GRE exams to qualify for admission.

When and how to study for exams

As always, it’s best to start studying for university exams early. There will be a lot of coursework material to retain and memorize, on top of your bundle of assignments, projects and research papers. But there are some proven tricks and strategies to tackling mid-terms, finals and standardized tests.


1. What are the requirements for international students to study in the US?

International students studying in the US will need to submit their SAT scores, an English Language proficiency test, their college application and obtain an American student visa.

2. What are some challenges international students face studying in the US?

One of the biggest challenges international students will face is culture shock. Being a student in the US can be a radically different experience than studying elsewhere in the world. 

3. Do I need to take the SAT to study in the US?

Yes, most universities in America will ask students to take the SAT as part of admission requirements.

4. Which English exam do I need to take to study in the US?

Most US universities require students to take either the TOEFL or IELTS exam for English language proficiency.

5. How hard are university programs in the US?

US university programs are difficult and the grading system can be tough, but the atmosphere does tend to be more informal and laidback in general.

6. Is the US popular for international students?

Yes, the US is the most popular choice for students studying abroad in the world, and it is well known for its superb higher education programs.

7. Is it harder for international students to get accepted at US universities?

In general, no. Many international students are accepted into US universities every year. In 2020, the average acceptance rate for international students at top US universities was 43.8%.

8. How much does it cost for an international student to study in the US?

Tuition costs in the US are notoriously high, with average undergraduate degrees costing $20,000-40,000 per year. Medicine, law, MBA and other graduate programs can cost significantly more, depending on the school.

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting 

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