Ah, the American dream.
You know, the one where you get into Harvard, walk on campus the first day and become best friends with Malia Obama, crush your classes, party really hard all the time, attend crazy football games and ultimately land an extremely high paying job?
Sounds way too good to be true… or is it?
Is Studying in the US Worth It?
Most countries have very easy university application processes: simply hit the grade requirements, fill out a bit of basic info online and BAM, you’re accepted.
The US system, on the other hand, is so complicated it basically deters you from even thinking about applying.
First of all, the applications open about a year before you go to college (US lingo for “university”) but the process actually begins the second you get into high school, if not earlier.
Because the US application system is about MUCH more than just your final year grades.
You’ll not only need to do well throughout high school, you’ll also need to nail either the ACT or SAT, get involved in unique extracurricular activities AND write phenomenal application essays.
Plus, simply crushing one part of the application process, e.g. getting a perfect SAT score, won’t guarantee you anything.
With such difficult application requirements, you pretty much have to be a magician in order to get into a US university, especially a top one.
What the US Does Well: Because the US considers more than just your academics, you have many opportunities to shine even if you get a few less-than-stellar grades.
What the US Doesn’t Do Well: Since there’s no guaranteed way to get accepted, the entire process feels completely subjective. Plus, having to think about and plan for college applications so far in advance can be daunting and to be honest, it’s kind of ridiculous.
Is It Worth It?
In terms of applications, the US is only worth it if you are willing to start preparing early.
It can be really frustrating to not know exactly what you need to do to get into your dream university and to know that even if you get perfect grades and test scores there’s a chance you may not get in.
However if you work hard, the payoff could be huge (as you’ll learn later on).
With over 3,000 universities in the US it’s hard to say that all US unis offer a top-notch, world class education.
However, most of the world seems to think US colleges are the way to go.
Let’s take a look at how US universities really stack up.
Yet, the Times Higher Education 2018 rankings places Oxford and Cambridge in the top two spots and US unis in the next five spots.
In terms of rankings, then, US universities have no advantage compared to UK universities.
So, perhaps classes are more challenging in the US? Perhaps the overall academics are more intensive? Perhaps the professors are better?
Here’s the deal.
US universities are FANTASTIC if you don’t know exactly what you want to study or if you want to study a variety of subjects.
Unlike the UK, you don’t need to pick your major before you apply to a US uni, nor do you even need to know what you want to study because you'll spend your first two years of college completing "general education" courses.
Only after your first to years will you focus on your major.
The system allows you to dabble in many subjects in order to find our what you’re truly passionate about.
At US unis you also have a lot more flexibility when it comes to picking a major. For example, most colleges will let you double major in Spanish and Economics with a minor in Computer Science if you want!
On the flip side, the system sucks if you know what you want to do.
While your UK counterparts spend three years learning the ins and outs of their field, you’ll spend two barely scratching the surface of what you could learn.
Some say that taking courses outside of your desired field will help you broaden your perspective and do better in your field but that’s a load of bull.
Even if taking general education courses will help you in the long run, why would you subject yourself to that kind of torture?
I mean who wants to take maths and science if they want to be an English major?
Plus, the classes at most US universities are huge!
I’m talkin’ 150+ students per class!
Most of the time, your larger classes will have smaller “sections” where you can discuss the subjects taught in class with a group of 10-25 students but those sections are usually led by a teaching assistant, not the actual professor.
Speaking of professors, you’ll only have incredibly famous, industry-leading professors is if you go to a top 25 university.
Not that it matters.
The difference between most highly esteemed professors and those who aren’t leaders in their field is that the famous professors wrote the textbook they’ll force you to spend $500 on just so they can make some extra money.
Talk about capitalism.
P.S. I have to say that the system is great if you’re interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). There’s no better place to study any field in STEM than MIT and Caltech. Sorry, I have to give props where props are due!
Top 5 Universities (QS): Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Harvard University, California Institute of Technology, University of Chicago
What the US Does Well: The US gives you an opportunity to explore your interests before picking a major and diversify your education, and the study options are endless.
What the US Doesn’t Do Well: More breadth than depth. Large classes. Way to many universities that don’t live up to the hype.
Is It Worth It?
If you know exactly what you want to study and want to get started in that field ASAP, the US is not for you.
If you want to go into medicine or law right away (they are graduate courses only), the US is not for you.
If you don’t do well in large classes, the US is not for you.
If you’re not informed, the US is not for you.
If you don’t know what you’re passionate about or know you want to study STEM, the US is definitely for you!
US college life looks hella glamourous on TV and in movies.
Think frat parties, football games and tons of drinking.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on the type of person you are), what you see isn’t what you get.
College life in the States is littered with sororities and fraternities (gender-specific social clubs) that often feel suffocating.
Usually, these clubs are the centre of social life on campus and while some people thrive in sororities and frats, they can also be extremely alienating if you don’t like to party or simply don’t want to join.
Not to mention, you need to pay to join most of these organisations and they aren't cheap.
And if you aren't interested in joining one of these clubs for any number of reasons, it can be difficult to make friends.
Of course, you can try to talk to the students in your classes but more often than not they’ll turn into “coffee only” friends, i.e. you only meet them for coffee occasionally.
As depressing as that sounds, most US colleges also have over 100 student clubs ranging from happiness to canoeing to even skydiving!
Although these clubs can be a good (and cheaper) way to make friends, the social scene at US colleges can still be be hard to navigate and you can find yourself feeling awfully lonely, especially in your first year.
What the US Does Well: Parties, sports and activities.
What the US Doesn’t Do Well: The US places a lot of emphasis on social clubs that may not be the best fit for everyone, especially those who can't afford them.
Is It Worth It?
Yes and no.
If you're extremely social, frats and sororities offer endless opportunities for fun. On the other hand, if you're shy and/or aren't interested in joining one of these organisations, the US system can be extremely lonely.
As long as you go in with an open mind and aren't afraid to stick your hand out and say hello, you'll find your niche.
Remember, there are so many US unis that you're bound to find one that fits your desired lifestyle!
Cost and Financial Aid
I’m not going to sugarcoat this for you.
US universities are EXPENSIVE!
I probably don’t need to tell you that the tuition at top universities such as Harvard and NYU is over $60,000 USD… A YEAR.
Not including books!
That’s the price of a nice car. Or even a down payment on a house.
Doesn’t it just make more sense for your parents to give you the $240,000 USD they would otherwise spend on your tuition?
Hell, who are you kidding, your parents don’t have that kind of money!
How can US universities possibly be worth their tuition and how can your parents even begin to pay for your dream uni?
Financial aid, of course!
The US just gives out tons of money for free, right?
The truth is, most universities count your aid requirement against you.
Basically, if you need financial aid, you have a lower chance of getting into uni – especially as an international student.
There are a few colleges, including Yale, Harvard and Cornell, that don’t count your need for aid against you but these are also some of the most difficult universities to get into.
Now, there are also a lot of private scholarships available for everything from being left-handed to being Chinese; however, these scholarships often require essays, and who wants to write extra essays?
Since US unis are so expensive and financial aid isn't very easy to secure, it probably makes more sense to go to uni in your home country, especially if it's free or close to it.
Because, let’s be honest, nothing beats free… unless you get into Harvard.
What the US Does Well: The US is great at taking all of your money and giving out financial aid, sort of.
What the US Doesn’t Do Well: Think about how damn expensive their universities are.
Is It Worth It?
Ha. Honestly, the ridiculous cost of a US education is only really worth it if you go to a top 50 university and/or get a lot of financial aid.
Otherwise, you’ll find yourself forking over your parent's life savings and putting them (or you) in debt for the rest of their lives.
Return on Investment
Here’s where the US system really makes or breaks you.
First of all, not everyone who graduates from a US uni has a high starting salary, not even everyone who graduates from an Ivy League.
For example, if you go to Johnson University, your early career pay (according to Payscale will be around $33,300 USD a year.
On the other hand, if you go to Harvey Mudd College and major in STEM, your early career pay will be around $81,000 USD a year.
That’s just over a $47,000 a year difference!
The crazy thing is, even if you go to Johnson University, your starting salary is almost as good as someone who went to one of the Oxbridge universities.
Moral of the story: if you can attend a top US university without drowning yourself in debt, your education will pay off, big time.
Okay, now you know how much money you could make, but the real question is, do US universities actually improve your chances of landing a job?
To be honest, it all depends what you major in.
For instance, STEM majors are more likely to be employed and earn the big bucks, while majors such as Anthropology have very low employment rates and very low salaries.
So, in order to play the US system best, you need to choose your major wisely.
What the US Does Well: Pick the right major and the right college and the US will pay off, big time.
What the US Doesn’t Do Well: Help students manage their expectations and their debt. If you choose a $70,000 USD a year college without any financial aid and decide to major in something like Archaeology, you can said adios to your money and live sadly ever after in debt.
Is It Worth It?
Hell yeah, the US can be worth it if you pick the right major and the right college. You could be rolling around in cash the day you graduate and get hired by Google or Morgan Stanley.
Or, more likely, the US’ costs can knock you down and never pick you back up.
Are you willing to risk it?
Now comes the part you’ve been waiting for… is the US system actually worth it?
From all the hype the US receives you’d think the answer would be a clear-cut YES!
But if you’ve learned anything from this post, you’ve realised that the US is not everything it’s cut out to be.
Yeah, the social life is okay or great depending on your opinion of parties.
Yea, the ROI can be extremely high but that isn't always the case.
But, is it worth stressing about applications for years before applying only to get into to your dream university and realise that your favourite professor doesn’t teach any classes?
Not to seem like a Debbie Downer but if you look at the facts the US may not be so worth it after all.
At the end of the day you need to decide what your goals are and whether or not US universities can help you get there. It helps to be informed, though, and we’ve written plenty of other blogs to help you work out if the US education system is right for you, like this one about liberal arts degrees and this one about your chances of getting into an Ivy League.
It’s totally possible that you’d be better off studying locally, particularly if you’re a top student and have a good shot at getting into the most competitive courses, like law and medicine.
On the other hand, if you get into a top university with a lot of financial aid, going to a US university may be the best decision you’ll ever make!