What Studying In America Is Really Like

What Studying In America Is Really Like

Posted in Student Experiences, Student Life, Study Abroad on Jul 04, 2019 by

University Finder

Each year over 25,000 UK students choose to study abroad in the land of frats, Donald Trump, McDonalds, and the Superbowl.

We interviewed four English students who’ve studied in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Kansas, and New York to find out what studying in the USA is really like.


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Ellen - Penn State University - PENNSYLVANIA

Ellen spent her third year at university studying abroad as part of her integrated masters program, she studied Chemistry at Penn State in Pennsylvania.

What was accommodation like?

First semester I lived in shared accommodation. Majority of American colleges require you to share a room with another person, and I was paired with an international student from Dubai. It took some getting used to as you completely give up your privacy and your enjoyment of this experience is entirely dependent upon the relationship you form with your roomie. Bathrooms were shared across the whole floor, and each floor was gendered. Second semester I lived in an on-campus apartment with one of my friends from study abroad which allowed me a lot more privacy - so key point is there was flexibility between living arrangements between the two terms.

What is the nightlife like?

Frats: Exactly how you'd imagine from the movies - every bit as bigoted, homophobic and sexist as society tells us. You should try and go to the parties however as it’s something to experience but go with a group of friends who you trust to look after you. Sororities: Penn State due to archaic laws did not have sorority parties and to join a sorority it was $1000+ to join so it was a hard pass from me!

I wasn't 21 [when I studied there]. I was lucky because I had a big group of international friends from Australia/NZ who were a little older. There were often parties all round campus for underage freshman. Although I've never seen drinking like it, due the stricter drinking laws, a lot of 20-year olds don't know how to handle their alcohol and religiously drink to black out.

What are sports games & school spirit like?

Amazing. Probably the best part of the experience. College football games are like no sporting match I've ever watched. Students get behind these teams like a religion, and football players are treated like VIP celebrities on campus. Penn State vs Ohio State was one of the best matches I've ever experienced, Penn (the underdog) won and everybody ran on to the pitch in celebration - there were parties all throughout campus which spilled out in to the street in to the early hours of the morning. Also tailgating - look it up, so much fun!

What are classes/assessment like? How does it differ to the UK?

There was a lot more of an emphasis on assignments. Every piece of work you did was marked and put toward your final grade. This was difficult for me as part of the integrated masters scheme meant that my grade counted. Whereas most of my friends on the exchange were on a pass/fail year. It was definitely more intense than uni back at home purely due to the volume of work. However, I think this was because I was a chemistry student and had to take very specific modules - a lot of my friends at other unis said the content was a lot easier.

What was campus like?

Huge! Very expansive, with a great student union, huge football pitch, and stadium where global artists would sell out and come play. There were so many opportunities to get involved in, and lots of stuff happening from week to week. However, due to it being a college town - it was only the campus and downtown and that was it for miles! Very difficult to walk/get the bus anywhere, definitely worth hiring a car/making friends with an American with a car for road trips.

What was the biggest difference to UK uni?

For me, the food! A lot less variety if you're in a college town - would be different if you were placed in a big city such as LA/NYC.

What did you wish you knew before you went?

  1. Save, save, save! It's an expensive year, especially if you want to travel. Make sure you've saved up so you can make the most of your time state side.
  2. Make the most of your hand luggage. Most airlines allow you to take a carry on and a backpack - crucial when trying to pack all your possessions for a year!
  3. Set up a bank account on campus - it makes international transactions so much easier. But also purchase a back up no fee bank card in case of emergency.
  4. Double check your student Visa allows you to travel out on a single flight or expects a return to be booked. (I messed up here)
  5. When in doubt, Starbucks always has free wifi!

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Clari - Northern Arizona University - ARIZONA

Clari studied abroad at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and took business and criminal justice classes. Flagstaff is a small town at the foot of the San Francisco Mountains. Surprisingly (given that it's Arizona) it’s really cold there and she had a snow days off uni from November – May!

What was accommodation like?

Most internationals lived on campus in the International House Dorm. I had to share bedroom and an apartment with an American student. I really didn’t want to share a room – but it ended up being amazing! I was really close with my roommate and spent Thanksgiving with her family and flew out to visit her this year. You can live off campus in private accommodation but that was really expensive.

What was the nightlife like?

I turned 21 pretty soon after I got there so I didn’t really have to deal being underage in the US. Nightlife is more focused on bars than clubs, entry is free! My town had a country dancing scene which I was dragged to – it’s actually alright! Bouncers are quite suspicious of people’s IDs, especially if they’re not American – (fake IDs won’t work) – they only accept passports not driving licences. Frats & sororities weren’t as big at NAU as at other universities but were still fun. The people are pretty much how you’d expect them to be – frat guys are quite like rugby boys at uni x5.

What are sports games & school spirit like?

Americans are really into their school sports teams. Football, basketball, and ice hockey were big at my uni, all the games were free to attend. Before the game there was tailgating in the parking lot – BBQs, games, drinking etc. – so much fun!

Our mascot was called Louie the Lumberjack – he’d walk around campus every day and there were giant (25ft tall) statues around campus. The whole town was obsessed with the uni. At most shops in town you could buy uni merchandise, if the football team won there would be discounts at local pizza places. A lot of people in the town went to NAU, it’s common for people to go to the same uni as everyone in their family – my roommate and her whole family went to NAU. People are big on uni pride – parents would wear ‘NAU mom’ and ‘NAU dad’ t-shirts around town.

What are classes/assessment like? How does it differ to the UK?

Classes are a lot more like school than a UK university. There’s a LOT of assessments which don’t count for much, this good in a way as you don’t have to memorise an entire year for an end of year exam – but they do have random pop quizzes. Lecturers expect you to participate in class and participation contributes to your final grade. Extra credit assignments are quite popular and often unusual – I wrote an essay on Monsters Inc. for a business law class.

What was campus like?

Absolutely gigantic! All the buildings were spread out and you could drive around campus – it took around 50 minutes to walk from one side to the other. We had a pizza hut, a subway, two Starbucks, loads of cafes, dining halls and a fancy restaurant on campus. My uni put on loads of free concerts and carnivals – our summer headliner was Blink 182!

What was the biggest difference to UK uni?

People are way more friendly - especially if they hear a British accent they all want to be your friend.

What did you wish you knew before you went?

  1. America is more expensive than the UK so I would’ve made sure I had more savings when I moved out there.
  2. How health insurance works. At most universities it’s mandatory for study abroad students to have some form of health insurance. I didn’t realise that I was covered by my UK university’s insurance, so I ended up paying around £2,000 for my US uni’s insurance.

What are the best American traditions?

  • Thanksgiving – I spent it with my roommate’s family – had loads of pumpkin pie!
  • Homecoming – Flagstaff holds an event called Tequila Sunrise where whole town shuts down and bars open at 5am! The homecoming parade and football match was really cool too.
  • Halloween – it was just like the movies – my whole town was decorated with loads of cute pumpkins.
  • Spring break – My friends and I drove down to Mexico – all of the unis in Arizona had the same Spring Break so there were thousands of college students there – it was wild!

What was the best thing about America?

  • The food – cheaper and large portions – AZ borders on Mexico so it has loads of great Mexican food.
  • The landscapes are incredible – living in Arizona made me realise why some Americans haven’t left the country before. It’s so different everywhere you go, it differs from town to town dramatically, let alone state to state.

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Lindsay - Kansas State University - KANSAS

Lindsay spent two years at the University of Plymouth before moving with his family to America. He completed his undergraduate degree at Kansas State University.

What was accommodation like?

I lived in accommodation that was off campus in an apartment that was like a 25 min walk to campus.

What was the nightlife like?

I was 21 when I arrived. Americans wouldn’t go out on Saturday if they went out on Friday. I thought their culture was not as heavy on drinking/ partying. The only people I related with were the exchange students from Europe.

What are sports games & school spirit like?

Absolutely huge!! My uni is a huge basketball uni and has one of the best basketball programs in the US. people. College basketball season is arguabley as huge as NBA, lots of people I’ve spoken to have said that they prefer college basketball to NBA. School spirit is also taken very seriously. Uni merchandise is sold at local Walmarts and shops. I guess it’s because unis here (at least in my town) are a generational thing – it’s not unusually to come across families that that all attended the same university. The university is almost regarded patriotically so to speak.

What are classes/assessments like? How does it differ to the UK?

In short – class assignments are very different. I was very confused when I rolled up for my orientation there was the notion of planning your own timetable – like what?? This impacts when you graduate and there’s the general education requirements for every class [in the USA college students have to take basic classes like Maths, English, and language classes in their first year] this was all new to me. The system is more 'liberal' and encourages students to be 'more rounded' individuals.

What was campus like?

On campus the scenery is better [than my UK University – University of Plymouth]. The campuses are more spread out, there’s more land, so there’s more places to hang out and chill.

What was the biggest difference to UK uni?

The biggest difference is the structure of the work - in UK, it’s more specialized. You do your degree and that's it. You don't meddle in any other affairs. In the UK chemistry student would never be seen in the humanities building. This is frequently isn’t the case in the US, they teach you all sorts of stuff that doesn’t relate to your degree.

What did you wish you knew before you went?

I wish I knew about how the university education system worked before I came. I thought it was more similar to the UK.

What are the best American traditions?

Red cups obviously, road trips! Philly steaks! BBQ! Cookouts!

What was the best thing about America?

The best thing about the US is people are generally more open and welcoming.


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Adam - University of Rochester - NEW YORK

Adam spent the third year of his Medical Bioscience degree studying abroad at the University of Rochester in the state of New York. Although Uni of Rochester is in the state of New York it is a five-hour drive to NYC, it's actually much closer to Canada - only an hour and a half's drive!

What was accommodation like?

Accommodation was shared bunks. This took a bit of adjusting to from having a single room in the UK but was okay overall. We had one bathroom between 4 people.

What was the nightlife like?

Frats and sororities were really fun if you were allowed to go in. They were very exclusive and strict to most people, you usually had to be part of one to be allowed in, but usually we were let in (probably due to being British). There was lots of underage drinking at frats/sororities – [this probably why] they’re so big as they allow people to party without the need of a club.

What are sports games & school spirit like?

I didn’t really go to many sports events but there was a huge buzz around the American football team and their games were heavily celebrated.

What are classes/assessment like? How does it differ to the UK? Lecture style was same, but testing was more frequent like a high school.

What was campus like?

It was a large campus, biggest difference for me was that everyone stayed on the campus, [there] wasn’t much around you bar the campus. This is different to the city university I went to in the UK, where you could explore and venture around the city and there’s a lot more nightlife.

What did you wish you knew before you went?

How cold it was going to be – there was lots and lots of snow.

What are the best American traditions?

They have lots of funny holidays like 4th of July etc was fun to experience them and how they celebrated them all.


This article is part of our #StudyAbroadSeries where we speak to students who’ve studied abroad around the world to give you helpful tips and information about studying abroad.

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