Why choose the USA as a possible study destination?

  • America is exciting!  Nowhere else in the world is quite as dynamic as the USA.
  • Everything seems big: from the highways to the airports, the shopping malls to the office blocks…
  • As the world’s richest and most powerful nation, the USA affects us all in some way.  Everyone who can should try to visit it and understand how it works on the ground.
  • The USA has a great tradition of personal independence.  You are free to live your life in your own way and make of it what you will.
  • America’s cities are very different from one another and provide fascinating contrasts.
  • The country is enormous and has great variety in its landscapes: these include huge forests, vast lakes, amazing deserts, towering mountain ranges, the world’s most impressive canyons…  And because so many different climate types are to be found in the USA, there is a climate somewhere to suit everyone!
  • The best universities in the USA are among the best in the world.  And there are a lot to choose between: from the famous Ivy League, through highly selective liberal arts colleges to the huge state universities, many of them judged to be in the world’s leading 100.
  • A remarkably high proportion of the world’s greatest scientists, business experts, writers and thinkers have been born in or attracted to the USA.  If you make the right choices, you will find it incredibly exciting intellectually.

Population: 315 million

Capital: Washington DC

Main cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Phoenix etc. etc…

Divided into: 50 states

We all have an impression of what the United States is like, but what is it really like?   Do the films tell the truth?  The reality is that daily life in America is not so remarkable.  And yet there is something special about the country, not exactly what the films show, perhaps, but it would be hard to visit San Francisco or New York, or even some of the smaller towns, and not notice that the place really does have a unique quality.

People go to the United States to see its great sights, and to take photos of the Statue of Liberty or the Golden Gate Bridge.  But they do also visit to experience its way of life and its culture.  And, in addition, the United States attracts more international students than any other English-speaking country.   Few other countries offer such a range of institutions and such a range of programmes.  At the top end, the universities are outstandingly good, though the competition for places is very tough.  However, there are also plenty of other universities which offer an excellent, rounded education.

At KE, we try to open our students’ eyes to the opportunities presented by the very best universities.  In the East, we visit many members of the Ivy League; in the West, we go to leading universities such as Stanford, UC Berkeley and UC Davis.  But we also point out the alternative options available at some of the high-ranking, but slightly less famous universities internationally.  The programmes we offer have been designed to help as many students as possible secure a place where they feel they deserve to be.

The East Coast

In the USA, we sometimes talk about the East Coast and the West Coast.  But this doesn’t actually mean that we’re talking about being right on the coastline!  The terms often refer to the states which have an Atlantic coastline on the East, or a Pacific coastline on the West.

The East Coast of the United States extends all the way from the Canadian border to Florida.  But we are only operating in one part of that large area!

The northernmost part of the East Coast is known as New England, which consists of six states.  It’s said to resemble England, and there are some similarities, but in other respects it’s quite different.   New England is an area of huge forests, rolling hills and pretty villages with white houses and churches: the classic American scene.  The coastline is rocky and varied.  The biggest city in New England is lively and attractive Boston, and this region contains half of the Ivy League universities: Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and Brown, as well as the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Just outside New England, but not too far for a day trip, is New York City. New York hardly needs an introduction: it’s simply one of the most exciting cities in the world!

The West Coast

Students who join us for one of programmes in the West stay in the state of California.  California is the third largest state in the USA, and the one with the highest population (almost 40 million): if California were an independent country, it would have the ninth largest economy in the world.

California is an incredibly varied state.   It includes high mountains and some spectacular scenery, as in Yosemite National Park.  It also includes deserts, and the amazing Death Valley, where the land is below sea level and the heat in summer is almost unbelievable.

Most of the people in California live in two huge urban areas based on Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The San Francisco Bay Area is in the north of the state and has around 8.5 million people.   The centrepiece of this wealthy and successful area is the peninsula on which the beautiful city of San Francisco is to be found.  But actually most of the people live outside San Francisco itself: for example, in the cities of Oakland and Berkeley, or in San Jose to the south, where you will also find the famous Silicon Valley, housing Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo! and others – not to mention KE’s study centre at Santa Clara.

Just inland from San Francisco is the historic city of Sacramento, the capital of the state.

When you think that the USA extends from Alaska to Florida, it’s not surprising that it has many different types of climate!  Certainly the West Coast and the East Coast are quite different.

The coastal areas of California on the West Coast have what is called a Mediterranean climate.  Summers are hot, dry and sunny; winters are a little cooler and see rain from time to time.  Summer temperatures vary a lot depending on how close you are to the Pacific Ocean.  The Pacific Ocean here is relatively cool, and keeps the coastline a lot cooler than inland areas.  San Francisco in particular remains unusually fresh in the summer, thanks to the cold waters offshore.  Bring summer clothes, but also a jumper and perhaps a light jacket, but don’t forget protection from the strong sunshine.  You probably won’t see any rain.

The East Coast has a more continental climate, with cold winters and hot summers.  During our summer season, you can expect temperatures close to 30 degrees most days.  The southern areas are a little warmer than the northern areas, which do have some cooler and fresher days.  There are sometimes thunderstorms, and humidity can be quite high.  Bring light summer clothes, also a jumper for the occasional cooler evening – and protection both from the sun and the rain.

Forget all the films: the USA is much safer than you imagine!  Even the big cities like New York are much safer than they used to be, and are no more dangerous than big cities anywhere else in the world.

During the daytime, you can walk around quite comfortably in all the places we visit, including the big cities.  After dark, a little more caution is sensible.  We suggest that students of all ages go around in pairs or small groups at all times.  Take care with possessions, and don’t leave wallets and purses in back pockets or other places where they can easily be seen.  Leave valuables at the centre for safekeeping, and only take small amounts of cash with you.

You should be aware that the San Francisco area is potentially at risk from earthquakes.

As with so many aspects of life in the USA, it’s difficult to generalise about education because the situation does vary quite a lot from state to state.  But we’ll try to give an introduction which covers most situations!

Children generally attend school for 12 years in the USA, and there are 12 grades.  The most common pattern is for children to spend 5 years at elementary school, 3 years at middle school, then 4 years at high school.  In some areas, they may spend an extra year at elementary school, then go to junior high school, followed by senior high school.  About 88% of children go to state schools; around 9% go to private schools; and around 3% are educated at home.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the American education system is the diversity of outcomes.  At the top end, the USA has some of the best universities in the world: according to one ranking system, 30 of the world’s 45 best universities are in the USA!  But at the other end of the scale, some of the schools in poorer areas are not very good at all.  And there are some ‘unaccredited’ universities which you really should avoid.  It’s really important to choose the right university!

Entrance to university

If students complete high school, they may choose to enter higher education.  As in other countries, universities in America look carefully at students’ high school grades.  These generally range from A to F, with F indicating a fail.  Some high schools also offer special courses which lead to something called Advanced Placement (AP).  These are more challenging courses, and good results in these will help to secure a place at one of the better universities.

Most high school students who have good grades will go straight to university after they complete high school.   The USA differs from other English-speaking countries in that there is no big examination at the end of students’ high school careers (like A Levels, or the Baccalaureate).   AP will be useful, but otherwise the universities ask for results in additional, standardised tests which have been designed for prospective university students.  The best-known of these is the SAT (Standard Assessment Test).  An alternative to the SAT is the ACT.  Both of these tests are now widely used and widely accepted, and KE offers introductory and practice courses in both of these tests.   Obviously, the better your results, the greater your chances of getting into one of the better universities.

International students as well as domestic students will normally have to take one of these tests.  If they are not native speakers of English, they will usually need to take an English language test as well.  The preferred examination in the USA is TOEFL.

For students who wish to study at postgraduate level, different types of standardised tests are required.  For business-related courses, it’s GMAT or GRE – most universities will accept both.  For medicine, it’s MCAT, while for law it’s LSAT.  For university students taking programmes with KE, an introduction to these tests is included in the schedule.

Types of institution for higher education

First of all, we should say something about the terms used.  The most general term is ‘college’.  Universities can also be called ‘college’ and some of them have ‘college’ in their name. But not all ‘colleges’ are universities!  For example, you will also find community colleges.  Community colleges offer a wide range of courses, sometimes full-time, sometimes part-time.  It’s possible to take a two-year course there and obtain an associate’s degree.  With this, it’s possible to go on to university.  But to conclude: if a place calls itself a ‘college’, you need to check whether it is in fact a university.

(Just to confuse things even more, Americans will sometimes talk about ‘where they went to school’.  By this they mean ‘university’!  And one of the highest steps in the educational system is called ‘graduate school’ – where postgraduate study is offered leading to a higher degree.)

Universities in the USA

The USA has around 9,000 institutions awarding degrees of one sort or another!  This figure includes the community colleges as well as the universities.  The actual universities can be divided into different categories.

First of all, there are state universities and private universities.  The difference between the two is not necessarily one of quality: there are some excellent state universities in the US, and some not-so-good private universities.  Both state and private universities accept international students.

The state universities are funded partly by the federal government, partly by the state government.  But students who attend the state universities still have to pay fees.  These fees are much lower for students who come from the particular state than for those who come from outside, whether they are Americans or international students.  The state universities are often very large, and offer a wide range of subjects at undergraduate and postgraduate level.  Many of the state universities have an excellent reputation and are among the best in the world.

The private universities are generally smaller and offer a more limited range of programmes; some are very specialised.  Many of them were originally associated with one particular religious group, though in most cases they are now open to all students, regardless of their religious beliefs.  Some of the most famous universities in the US are private.  Fees tend to be higher at private universities, but for international students this may not always be the case.

Undergraduate courses leading to first degrees (usually bachelor degrees) generally run for four years.  The first year, or even first two years, can often be quite general, giving students time to find out for themselves the subject which suits them best.   It’s a feature of education in the US that students tend to begin their university studies with a broader range of subjects than they would take in other English-speaking countries.  In fact, you wouldn’t go straight from school and immediately start to study for a degree in, say, law or medicine.  Instead, you would probably take first of all a degree in a related subject, and then go on to graduate school (grad school) to complete your studies.  The total period of study will then amount to rather more than four years.

One of the places which specialise in providing the broad range of subjects at undergraduate level is called a liberal arts college.  Instead of teaching vocational subjects such as business, law or medicine, liberal arts colleges concentrate more on ‘pure’ academic subjects, and offer a comprehensive, general education.  Very often, students move on from a liberal arts college to study at grad school elsewhere.

The bigger universities tend to offer both undergraduate programmes and grad school programmes.  The most famous universities in the US tend to take students at all levels, and they often have an excellent reputation for research.  Eight of the most famous universities are part of what is known as the Ivy League.

The Ivy League universities are all in the North-East of the USA:  Dartmouth (in Hanover, New Hampshire), Harvard (in Boston, Massachusetts), Brown (in Providence, Rhode Island), Yale (in New Haven, Connecticut), Cornell (in Ithaca, New York state), Columbia (in New York City), Princeton (in the town of Princeton, New Jersey) and the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in Philadelphia.  The league was originally just a group of universities which competed against one another in athletics, but the term is now used as a shorthand for these prestigious, and fairly traditional universities.  The Ivy League universities all have beautiful campuses in great locations.  They tend to be fairly small, wealthy and, of course, quite difficult to get into.  (Students taking programmes with KE on the East Coast will be introduced to a number of the Ivy League universities.)

In addition to the Ivy League, the North-East also has the Little Ivies.   As the name suggests, the Little Ivies are smaller than the Ivy League universities, and not quite as well known.  But they are still very prestigious, and anyone who obtains a place there is doing very well indeed!  Technically, there are just three Little Ivies: Amherst College (in Amherst, Massachusetts), Williams College (in Williamstown, Massachusetts) and Wesleyan University (in Middletown, Connecticut).  However, a number of other small, highly selective universities in New England are also regarded as Little Ivies.

It is important to remember, though, that many other universities in the USA have reputations just as good as those of the Ivies and Little Ivies, or even better in some cases.  Among these are MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Stanford (near San Francisco). Particularly for students interested in engineering or science-based subjects, these universities would be extremely desirable (although the competition to secure places is very strong).


The system of credits is very important in higher education in the USA.  Credits can be given by one institution for achievements in another.  So, if, for example, you start your higher education at a community college, and you move on to a university, you will be given a certain number of credits for the education you’ve already received, and won’t have to start from the beginning; you could also expect to get credits for AP.  In addition, you may get credits for short courses which you take during your holidays, or special projects which you undertake.

One very important, if perhaps surprising point: American universities do not look just at students’ academic abilities; achievements in other areas, including sports, societies and community service are also taken into account.