Living Abroad

Things I’ve Learned Going to an American College – Part 1

By Magalí Zaslabsky

-It’s like in the movies

Yes, when you walk onto a college campus in the U.S. you feel like you just entered a movie set. I know a lot of people that have experience the same feeling when they walked through an American college the first time. Many countries consume American movies and TV shows daily, and people have gotten used to seeing how Americans live. But we never stop and think that what we see in a movie is the way other people live every day! The campus is huge, there are boys skateboarding, golf cars riding around, a huge stadium, big parking lots, there are sororities and fraternities, sports everywhere, and the classic red cups are part of every college party.

Well, maybe saying that colleges in the U.S. are like movies is a little bit much. But, the idea is more or less right. Just remember, they do study, too, not like in the movies.


Something that personally, I don’t like about American colleges is that it’s a very individualistic experience. Don’t get me wrong, there are ways around it, and people know them (I’ll mention it later), but if you are not familiar with the system, you are going to enter a very individualistic environment.

Every class has different people. That means, that you won’t have regular classmates that you see every day of the week. You’ll change classrooms, and classmates for every course you are taking. Walking around campus, people change classes, and they usually do it alone. Think about it, how many chances there are that in a general requirement math course with 200 students you’ll meet someone that is also attending your introductory biology class? Let me tell you, chances are low.

The good news is that you’ll meet people from all major and not just on your own. The bad news is that this could make it hard to create a network connection with your future colleagues (at least at first).  Keep in mind that this is a problem at big state schools, and maybe less true at small liberal arts colleges, as I’ll explain later.

-Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior

The faster you get used to these words, the easier it will be for you understand Americans. Freshman is the word to designate first year college students (it can also be used for first year high schoolers). Sophomore is for second-year students, Junior for the third year, and Senior for the fourth year. That simple!

So, if someone asks you what year are you in, they are expecting you to answer one of those four words.


– Campus is probably the only place you’ll be able to walk

Of course, this is not true for campus on cities like New York, but for most colleges, campus is the only place that you will be able to walk long distances without using a car. Although sometimes you will want to use one! Campuses are, in most cases, widespread and big.

-Community colleges, universities and private liberal arts colleges

Speaking broadly, there are three types of colleges in the U.S. :

The first type is the community college, and most of the times this is only a two-year institution where you can take all the “core requirements” to then transfer to a bigger school. These community colleges are the cheapest option for those who want to start school without paying the expensive tuition required. The community colleges usually aren’t as big as regular colleges, and you can either get a technical degree or transfer to complete your education at one of the other two types of colleges.

The second type are regular universities, those from the movies. When you are in your senior (or even junior) year of high school, you can tour around the country visiting colleges before deciding which one is going to be the one. Colleges in the U.S. are expensive, even state colleges. Most people have to save before going to college or have a debt once they get out of it.

Tuition varies greatly for both community colleges and universities from state to state, and also is cheaper for “in-state” than “out of state” for public universities. That means, it’s cheaper for people who live in the state and pay taxes towards that state than it is for those who come from a different state (and the difference can be huge!).

And finally, there are the private liberal arts colleges. If you think that colleges are expensive in this country, don’t even look at how much tuition is for liberal arts colleges. They are usually much smaller than regular state colleges, and because of it, there is more “personalized attention” and “flexibility” in terms of majors and classes you need to

– Cars

The United States has a car culture. Again, there are cities that are an exception, but roughly, it’s sure to say that America is designed for car owners. And many college students own a car. Universities are usually surrounded by big parking lots, but space is limited. This means that public transportation is, in many cases, pretty good around college areas.

-Sororities and Fraternities

Greek Alphabet

This is also a classic from the movies. And it is referred to as “Greek Life” (for the 3 Greek letters that stand for each sorority and fraternity). Some of them are just groups that anyone can join to have community. But some of them are also restricted to selected people, either for “honors” or for majors. If you want to know more details, you may want to read more here.

Sororities and fraternities are one of the main ways that American college students socialize with each other. They meet frequently and have this feeling of belonging that they might not get in their classroom experience. Depending on the university, Greek life is more or less important, but it is definitely a good way to socialize once in college.


I don’t think I can separate merchandising and fashion… or at least where I live, in the Southeast, where everyone wears (university) merchandise to school. Being part of a college is not only something that makes them proud (and something they are for life!), but also something that they don’t mind showing around all the time. And when I say all the time, I mean it. From going to bed with big college t-shirts, to the main sports games, merchandising is a big part of any college student wardrobe.

Auburn Tailgate Party

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