All about American colleges: Culture, colleges types and how to get in

All about American colleges: Culture, colleges types and how to get in

by Adriana Stein

Updated November 10, 2022

It’s true, America does have a sort of obsession with college culture. As an American hailing from Oregon, I can safely say that nearly all men in my family – and even some women – watch more college level sports than professional. But why is college as a topic and one could even say, an entertainment genre, so prevalent across all forms of American media? 

In my opinion it’s because college is a hugely pivotal time of our lives, because it’s when teenagers move away from home for the first time and finally have the opportunity to drink, otherwise known as our initial “independence”. We Americans put the concept of independence on a pedestal, because we believe that doing things on your own builds character. So for many Americans, going to college is a crucial part of becoming independent, and is often a time of life that as we grow older, we turn back to for our favorite memories. Not to mention, we try to learn a little there as well. 

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Is American college really like the movies?

Nearly everyone has heard about the infamous groups like the “jocks”, “geeks”, and “popular girls” (like in Means Girls or The Breakfast Club). You’ve likely seen the crazy parties such as in American Pie. And to some extent, it is accurate. Americans often form their identities based on their belonging to a particular group (quite ironic for independence, right?), so this starts all the way back in grade school and continues through college.

And the parties? We actually aren’t allowed to drink until we’re 21 (about the third or fourth year of college for most of us). There’s a common assumption though that drinking happens in shared dorms regardless of age. I luckily never had to live in a shared dorm, but I’d heard there were particular schools that you could go to that were well known for their party culture.

What the media doesn’t show about American college, however, is how many of us struggle with student debt and have to work in addition to studying, so it’s not always butterflies and rainbows. 

Nevertheless, let’s take a look at how American college works.  

Types of colleges in the USA

We refer to all types of college in America as “school”, so even if you’re a Ph.D. student working on their doctoral thesis, in America you are still “in school”. There are three main types of college level schools in America, which would be referred to as “university” in the UK and Europe

College (university)

College is exactly the same as “university”, but is the American term. It’s where you start by working on a bachelor’s degree that takes between four and five years depending on how fast you go. Working on a master’s degree and doctorate would be considered as going to college as well.

Community college

Community college is an alternative form of college that’s less expensive and has smaller classes. I did my first two years of my bachelor’s degree at community college and don’t regret it whatsoever. I got all my prerequisites finished for half the price of a regular college and completely loved my experience with the small classes and close access to teachers. 

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Vocational/trade schools

These types of schools are solely for particular careers, such as mechanics, plumbers, and electricians. In terms of work prospects, they hold the same weight as a bachelor’s degree, but enable someone to work solely in a particular field.

Majors and minors

Americans often refer to their studies by their specific “major” and “minor”.  A major is the main topic of your bachelor, while the minor is a smaller, secondary topic that you took multiple classes in. The idea is that students don’t just study “Economics” for example, but get a more well-rounded education.

Costs of college – is it really that expensive?

The average college costs per year including tuition, housing and daily costs are around $35,331 per student in the United States. When you go to college for a typical four-year bachelor’s degree, the yearly rate tends to increase, which sets the costs at around $100,000 for a bachelor’s degree, which is no small expense.

How do we afford this?

This is why many American students have such high levels of student debt, as that’s the major method for offsetting the costs of college. Many of us also work part-time, or even full-time jobs in addition to our studies. You can also apply for scholarships that cover some of these expenses (or all if you’re super lucky), but these are of course limited. This is the reason why many athletes try to use their talent to get on college teams, which then pay their school expenses. 

The college admission process and the SAT

The SAT, otherwise known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, is a test that many Americans take in their senior year of high school to qualify for college. When I took the SAT, it took the entire day (about 8 hours) to complete and was quite grueling. Most students take the practice SAT at least a few times before the serious one that’s graded.

Despite this test’s popularity, it’s not necessarily what makes or breaks a good college education. More and more colleges are dropping the requirement of SAT scores entirely, because there is research that shows scores correlate more closely with family income than with actual academic success. My SAT scores ended up being pretty useless, as my school was more interested in my actual grades.

When it comes to applying for college, you will need to show your entire transcript of records (your grades), as well as a resume that describes your work and volunteer history. You might also need to write admissions essays for particular schools. In addition, there is unfortunately a fee for each application.

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